2007 Warfield Lectures: Lecture 5 – "Death and Sacrifice"

Lecture Notes

In this lecture, Tanner intended to develop the claims made in her Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity. Her intent is to show how incarnation helps us revise traditional explanations of the cross’ significance in ways that do justice to womanist and feminist citicism of traditional atonement theories.

The first third (or so) of the lecture was a sketch of traditional theories of the atonement (moral influence, Christus victor, penal substitution, vicarious satisfaction, and happy exchange), and the critiques leveled against them by womanist and feminist theology. Most readers of this blog are familiar enough with contemporary theology that I need not repeat all this. Tanner proposes an incarnational view of the atonement, such that the incarnation becomes the mechanism of the atonement, replacing the satisfaction and substitution mechanisms, and providing a mechanism for the victor and exchange models.

It is in virtue of the incarnation that humanity is saved, first Christ’s humanity and then those united to Christ. The life-giving powers of Christ’s own nature are brought to bear on humanity’s sin through the incarnation. It is easy to see a connection to the exchange model here, and thus its connection to penal substitution is broken. As a result of the incarnation the properties of human life become the alien properties of the Word, and the properties of the Word become the alien properties of human life in a way that saves humanity from sin and death.

Legal and contractual understandings of the mechanism of the atonement are removed. God’s saving act doesn’t follow Christ’s death the way release follows the payment of a debt. This is to make God active only after the important point. Instead, God is taking saving action from the very first. What happens on the cross does not evoke God’s acting to save, but those saving acts flow to the humanity of Christ by virtue of communion with God, and this communion is prior to the meeting of any conditions. What happens on the cross is a precondition for salvation in some sense, but not in legal or contractual means. If the powers of the Word are to reach humanity in the condition of sin and death, the Word must enter into those conditions.

This also undercuts the sense of vicariousness in the substitution and vicarious models. Jesus acts on our behalf but does not take our place. Christ is our substitute because of the kinship established in the incarnation. Jesus does not take on the condition of guilt before the law – this is not what ‘died for us’ means.

Feminist and womanist theological concerns are addressed because no value is placed on suffering, and no ultimate value on self-sacrifice. God’s gift-giving nature is emphasized. There is something saving about the cross, but not in death and suffering per se. Death and suffering is clearly recognized as what we are saved from, and we can give real attention to the political and religious circumstances of Jesus death as conditions which he came to heal. Nothing specific to the character of Christ’s going to the cross is a real condition for what is saving on the cross in any sense that the rest of Christ’s life is a condition.

What about images of sacrifice in particular? Sacrificial imagery in the NT is very complex and contains material based on OT and Jewish cult. This cultic connection with Jesus’ death is quite understandable, and Christ’s death can be understood as communion sacrifice. There is also reference to non-cultic but moral sacrifice. Many of the standard atonement models distort the notion of sacrifice. Contractual models are a case in point. There is no legal connotation of the sacrificial act – the point is not the change God’s wrath to mercy but to remove sin in a way that God who wants fellowship provides. The rite trades on God’s unbroken faithfulness to be with us. Propitiation is not the point – God simply wants to reinstate God’s people to full communion and this is what God tells them to do to that end. Sacrifice is about the establishment of communion and how community is to be organized.

Modern atonement theories read modern notions of sacrifice into the NT. Sacrifice for us is a primarily non-cultic act involving self-renunciation. Ancient sacrifices end in communion with God. The point is not giving up something (the ones sacrificing tend to eat the animals offered) but the return to God of a prior gift from God. Expiatory cult is concerned with the reinstatement of fellowship with God. Atonement theories tend to overemphasize the death part of sacrifice. Death is not the center of the rites. When sacrifices are viewed as establishing and maintaining community with God, killing an animal has the sense of killing an animal in order to be eaten, and when the animal is not eaten but burnt this is God’s portion of the food. What expiates in these rights is not death per se, but the blood poured out in the sacrifice. The blood is important for its life-giving power, which reinstates fellowship.

One must also be mindful of how the cross is not a sacrifice. It was a political execution of a subversive. When sacrificial language is applied here, it means something novel. We must pay attention to the differences in meaning between Christ’s sacrifice and normal sacrifice. Understood as an act of redemption following from God’s decision to be incarnate, which is understood in turn as a correlate of God’s wanting communion with us, God’s saving action takes center stage. God is sacrificing there for us and our salvation. It is not a work done by humans directed to God, but is an act from God directed to human existence. The whole activity is God’s. God’s substitution of himself undercuts human self-renunciation. We don’t have to sacrifice something of ourselves.

Of course, the one who is killed is the human being Jesus. The right is performed to and for the human in its circumstances of suffering and death. Any sacrifice addresses sin or impurity. God rather than human beings performs the rite of expiation for our sake. The humanity of Jesus is the sacrifice, but to sacrifice is to make sacred or holy. This is the point of the right, directed at humans in the ugliness of their sinful existence. This sanctification is not identified with death but with life. The ‘how’ of this sacrifice is the life-giving power of the Word, not death. This is the power that sanctifies Jesus’ humanity, raising him from the dead and establishing community with his disciples. Death / sin / rejection / conflict are all transferred to God in and through the incarnation.

Sacrifices are acts done in order to have human union with God. It gives us access to God. But here God in virtue of the incarnation cleaves to us before the performance of any expiatory sacrifice on the cross. The sacrifice is not a condition of communion with God.

Conclusion: Humans are not to offer sacrifices to God. Instead God makes gifts to us for use on our behalf to which we are thankful through sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Jesus’ life is such a sacrifice. By putting these gifts to use for ourselves and others, we become living sacrifices sanctified in the lives we live for life. Since God needs nothing but wants to give all, humans make a proper sacrifice by using what God gives us (life enhancing powers of the Word) for human benefit. Service to the neighbor becomes the reality of sacrifice to God.


Again, I will be brief, even though the criticism that I will offer here are very serious in my mind.

The first of my concern has to do with the themes of expiation and sin. Tanner at one point discusses expiation to some degree, but primarily in order to nudge it away from any notion of God’s wrath. While it is true that God acts lovingly toward us from the very first, this love takes the form of wrath when met with sin on our part. The expiatory work of Christ is, then, to bear this wrath and bear it away such that, in him, we no longer live under God’s wrathful judgment. What Tanner seems to lack is a strong sense of sin as human hostility toward God (as opposed to sin as lack of fellowship) and of Christ’s work as expiatory in the strong sense of bearing God’s wrath against sin and sinners.

Tanner’s lack of attention to the expiatory work of Christ in this strong sense leads me into my second concern, which has to do with the righteousness of Christ that secures salvation for us. For Tanner, it is God’s activity in Christ that is important. Christ’s human activity doesn’t seem to secure anything for us in the active sense. It seems to be present only for the sake of being acted upon. Traditionally, this is spoken of as Christ’s passive obedience. But, we have to remember Christ’s active obedience. This is key because, for Calvin and for the dominant strand of the Reformation, it is Christ’s active obedience that vicariously earns salvation on our behalf. This need not be understood in a contractual or legal sense (indeed, TF Torrance gives us this conception in an ontological sense), but it guards against a very specific problem that Tanner seems to be flirting with, namely, the notion that the righteousness that we gain from Christ is ‘essential righteousness’ in the Osiandrian sense of our being granted a part in the ontological righteousness that belongs to Christ’s divine nature. It is one thing to say that we have communion with Got through the Spirit’s uniting us to Christ’s human nature, which the Spirit has united with the divine nature, which naturally participates in the Trinity. It is quite another thing to argue that we in some sense come to possess, even through grace, some facet of divine essence. Tanner seems to get very close to this with all her talk of the divine life-giving powers becoming our own alien properties.


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