Crux probat omnia (The cross probes everything)

The Latin verb probare means to test, examine, evaluate, probe, prove, approve. Luther wrote, “crux probat omnia,” usually translated “the cross tests everything” or “the cross puts everything to the test.” I like to use the cognate verb “probe,” as in “scrutinize.”

On this blog and elsewhere, especially over at Daniel Kirk’s Sibboleth, people have been wondering how the so-called violence of God in Judges and elsewhere, including Revelation, squares with the kenotic, cruciform, restorative love and justice of God revealed in Christ, especially in his cross.

At root, this is at least as much a hermeneutical issue as it is a theo-logical (doctrine of God) one. That is, what will determine our reading of such difficult texts? The answer, it seems to me, is crux probat omnia.

Though we have no right to dispense with certain parts of the canon, we do have the right (and the obligation, as Christians) to read such texts through, and in light of, the cross. The cross does not delete them, but the cross provides the lens through which we consider them, the framework within which we understand them. That is, if we believe in the incarnation and if we believe Paul’s claim that the cross is the definitive theophany, the self-revelation of divine love, wisdom,power, justice, etc. (1 Cor 1-2, etc.)

In reference to Revelation, this problem of problematic images seems particularly acute. But some interesting things happen, especially an ordering of the images. That is, not all apocalyptic images in Revelation are created equal. As Christian readers of this ( I believe) Christian text, we have to order our images Christianly or, better, align our ordering of them with the ordering of the book of Revelation itself. That is to say, images of God as liberator, warrior, judge, etc. have all been re-imaged and reconstituted by the coming, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The slaughtered Lamb is the central and centering image of the book, and through it we see God’s liberation, warfaring, and judgment quite differently, to put it mildly, than we would without it. Similar controlling images appear elsewhere in the NT.

In Revelation, this means that the conquering Jesus is a warrior who sheds his own blood, not that of others. He conquers with words, not literal swords. And his disciples are expected to follow suit on both counts.

Thus as Christians we affirm God as liberator, warrior, and judge, but only as those images are scrutinized by the cross. That is because we believe with Paul that the cross is in fact the ultimate theophany and, with the early church, that crux est mundi medicina: the cross is the medicine of the world—and of the church. Which is why the church’s mission and its cruciform existence—or its misguided belligerent crusading—always go hand in hand.

19 Responses to “Crux probat omnia (The cross probes everything)”

  1. Angela says:

    Hi Michael,

    I agree we do not have the right to “dispense with certain parts of the canon” for I think when we remove the OT cultural context (the violence of the region-battling for trade routes, fighting for roads, competing for land, slaughtering identities, etc.), the purposes of God in history at that time (making Himself known as the monolithic God in the midst of variant forms of polytheistic worship), and the identity of the people of God (creating a particular group of people to glory Himself) it is easy for the text to become hermeneutically and theologically troubling.

    I believe God desired to be “liberator, warrior, and judge” to the Hebraic people as well (for example, as referenced throughout the OT narrative as “I will deliver you”). So, if I were reading through an incarnational lens, I’d see even more clearly the same character component of God displayed from the OT in the power and mystery of the cross. A cross that defeats, unites, delivers, and fulfills the identification of the new people of God (in order to glorify and be in union with God in Christ). Still, the mystery within the cross holds this tension, the fullness of God’s righteous wrath/violence albeit suspended for a time (even the theme of uncleanness from the OT is sustained –Revelation 21).

    Just some thoughts.

  2. MJG says:

    Angela,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I do wonder if “see even more clearly” is giving the incarnation/cross a sufficient critical role. They don’t just clarify in the sense of making the known sharper, they re-focus, they radically change the way we see things.

  3. Michael, thanks for this post. This is a good example of what it means to do theology sub specie crucis. I’m enjoying your blog.

  4. MJG says:

    Jason,

    Thanks for reading and posting. Your blog, which I’ve previously read on occasion, is now on my list here, an honor not accorded to many, especially not to many theologians! (PS: I really like your book list on your blog.)

  5. Angela says:

    That’s a good point, Michael!

    I will devote more time in exploring the incarnational/cross critical role.

    I’m excited to see how I “re-focus…radically change the way we (I) see things.”

    I’ll keep reading–thanks!

  6. MJG says:

    Blessings on you, Angela.

  7. T says:

    Good discussion. What I think is key to this issue, and many others frankly, is that we cannot look at God’s actions on one occasion and then God’s actions in and through Christ and take them as equal, as if Jesus was just one of many prophets. Christians, by definition, recognize the revelation in Jesus as supreme, and rightfully so.

  8. Zwingli 2.0 says:

    I wonder if the historical perspective opened up by Paul in his letter to the Galatians might be helpful in understanding why God’s “personality” seems to have “changed” with Christ’s advent:

    Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ (3:24).

    Here, Paul asserts that the law is provisional, which suggests that the enmity between Israel and the Gentiles was also provisional.

    So, with the abrogation of the law, God no longer picks sides, as it were.

    In Christ, the divisions between Israel and the Gentiles are erased, and so God’s “militant” character softens.

  9. MJG says:

    Z,

    As I asked when you posted this at the other entry, Do you mean that God changed or that our perception of God changed?

  10. Zwingli 2.0 says:

    Neither, really. I’d say that God’s purposes and promises are unchanging, though the way he elects to unfold them in history may lead us to think God himself is changing. In other words, God and his intentions are unchanging, though the story of those intentions unfolding is historical and therefore exhibits movement (change).

    That’s also how I read Paul when he writes about the law. It had a divinely ordained purpose, but it was ultimately part of bigger plan, namely, to reconcile humanity to God, and to lay the foundation for a unification of humanity beyond the divisions of the past (Israel/Gentiles, Greek/Barbarian, Male/Female).

    Before Christ, God was on the side of Israel, since it was through Israel that God was revealing himself and his purposes for all humanity. Being on the side of Israel in a world that would scoff at our notions of universal humanity (an idea introduced by Christianity), God had to involve himself in “violence”, but with an eye to leading all nations — Israel and the Gentiles — to a time and place where all the traditional divisions would lose their power.

    After Christ, the traditional friend/enemy distinction collapses, and so does the the most violent “warrior” aspects of Yahweh.

  11. Zwingli 2.0 says:

    In some ways, what I’m suggesting is similar to Robert Wright’s account in “The Evolution of God”, though I’m working from an explicitly Christian perspective.

    Here’s how a NYT reviewer described Wright’s thesis:

    In “The Evolution of God,” Wright tells a similar story from a religious standpoint, proposing that the increasing goodness of God reflects the increasing goodness of our species. “As the scope of social organization grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.” Wright argues that each of the major Abrahamic faiths has been forced toward moral growth as it found itself interacting with other faiths on a multinational level, and that this expansion of the moral imagination reflects “a higher purpose, a transcendent moral order.”

    I think from a historical and sociological point of view, Wright’s correct.

    It isn’ that God’s doing any catching up. Rather God, in his sovereignty, elected Israel as his people. God promised Abraham that he would use this people to, in Wright’s words, “draw a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.”

    How did God say he would this? After setting his people apart by the law, God led them to the “fulness of time” in which God reconciles us to himself, thereby erasing the cult/ic/ural distinctions of the past (including the law).

    The fruit of this, of course is the expanding “scope of social organization.”

    Or as Paul put it: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    God’s activity — including his militancy — reflects what God is doing with Israel vis-a-vis the nations. So, before Christ, when God is jealously on the side of Israel, his activity is reflected in such terrifying images as dashing gentile infants against rocks (Ps 136). But with the proclamation of God’s reign in Christ, we encounter more formal images of God, such as “he who makes his sun shine on the good and the wicked” (Matt).

  12. Zwingli 2.0 says:

    That said, it implies, in the words of Terence Fretheim, that

    “God chooses to become involved in violence so that evil will not have the last word. In everything, including violence, God seeks to accomplish loving purposes.”

  13. MJG says:

    Zwingli,

    I appreciate these reflections, but I cannot go along with a good chunk of them. The God you are portraying seems to me insufficiently Christian for a Christian account of God. And Fretheim’s quote, if I understand it (and I say “if,” since I have no context) goes against the correct (in my judgment) assessment of Willard Swartley that attributing violence to God is a category mistake. See his book Covenant of Peace.

  14. Zwingli 2.0 says:

    Thanks. I will try to check out that book.

    Here’s a link to Fretheim’s essay “God and Violence in the Old Testament”:

    http://www.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/24-1_Violence/24-1_Fretheim.pdf

    It’s for general readers, but Fretheim does a pretty good job steering between the extremes of explaining away divine violence in the OT (the practical Marcionism present in most mainline churches, including my own Episcopal Church) and an ahistorical, decontexualized reading of the OT that refuses to challenge divine violence in the texts at all.

    I am very sympathetic with your proposal above about the cross’s role in our reading of scripture, but I wonder what that means concretely when we’re confronted with divine violence in the Old Testament.

    In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges Christians face in dealing with divine violence is related to an even bigger problem of how God acts.

    We tend to think of God as one character in the Bible among many, so when we read that God destroyed one of Israel’s enemies we think of God wiping them out the same way I might kill a spider.

    But it seems to me that much of the OT involves interpreting history — events — in light of God’s promises. So, knowing that God has a special mission for Israel, the OT writers see military victories and defeats, for example, as God’s merciful (or judgmental) deeds.

    Does that make sense?

    To give an analogous contemporary example, we might say that the spike in type-2 diabetes is God’s judgment on America’s gluttony and selfishness. It would be wrong to think that God’s smiting people with a disease the same way I go around stepping on spiders. Rather it’s in keeping with the Israelites’ sense of God to recognize God’s sovereignty over all things as well as God’s saving and judging deeds vis-a-vis human beings.

  15. Zwingli 2.0 says:

    Gerhard Von Rad has pointed out that biblical Hebrew lacked an equivalent word-idea for the Greek “phusis” (nature). In “The Old Testament Worldview”, found in Von Rad’s The Problem of the Hexateuch, he reflects on the significance of this difference between Hebrew and Greek thought:

    ‘Since for the Hebrews the world was a created order, held and governed by God, it could never be regarded as self-existent, not could it for one moment be understood apart from God. If we allow our notion of Nature to intrude at this point, we run a serious risk of distorting the Israelite conception into the static one of a world which exists and functions only in and for itself. We must try to forget our own idea of Nature if we are to see the world as Psalm 104 sees it, a world continually dependent upon God to sustain and maintain it. If we were to ask ourselves what kind of a world it was which the author of Job 28 saw, we should think twice before applying to it the term “Nature”. His world was surely far more abysmal than the one which shelters under our term “Nature”, and only he who kept his eyes upon its Maker and Ruler could either comprehend it or endure it. It was only Israel’s faith which made it possible for her to understand the world as a world at all. It would be unthinkable to regard Israel’s world-view as a matter of indifference, theologically speaking.’

    I think hard attempts (and I’m not referring you) to deny the reality of divine violence in the Bible are working with a worldview (I hate that term but I’m using it) in which God and the world (nature and history) are utterly separated, thereby keeping God’s goodness intact.

    But the message of the OT is that you can’t separate God and his creation. There are no “neutral” areas of history or nature where God’s hand is not at work. If we take that seriously, then I think we need to take divine violence seriously, as well, even if a nonviolent world is how the story ends.

  16. Mike C. says:

    Z,

    It is commendable (I believe) to struggle with this…we want to know God, and we want to encourage those in our path. So, as Mike G. says in the original post, “we do have the right (and the obligation, as Christians) to read such texts through, and in light of, the cross. The cross does not delete them, but the cross provides the lens through which we consider them, the framework within which we understand them.”

    I am afraid much awaits us on the tracks though, if we change direction from the whole “crux probat omnia.” thing or avoid keeping Jesus as the filter or lens to look “back” with…you are rightly aware of an unhealthy Marcionism, and you may have thought of some of the other stuff you’ll have to work through as well…stuff like Sabellianism, pantheism, panentheism, Feuerbach’s theory, and outright contradiction of what we stake our claim on as Jesus followers—that “God has now been revealed in Christ” (Thanks, Mike G. and Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p 85).
    Concretely? It looks like we make some hellish messes without Jesus—even in our theocentricity! (ibid.) God knows(knew) we(would) need Jesus.

    Blessings, and let’s stay at it!
    Mike C.

    PS – I’ve somewhat hijacked and twisted Dr. G’s words with the brief citing…He was not necessarily saying these things I’m saying to you…other than “crux probat omnia.”. BTW, if you think looking back is tough, wait till you read this book and maybe re-think what lies ahead going forward! Let’s stay at that too.

  17. Brother Michael
    First, I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for quoting my article “Participation: Ecclesial Participation with a Crucified God for the World.” in your Inhabiting the Cruciform God. You are the first published author to do so. I also enjoyed very much your use of Bonhoeffer in support of your thesis. I’ve been wondering when someone else would relate B to theosis.
    Could I encourage you to further consider Bonhoeffer’s use of “participating with the sufferings of Christ for the world” in his published Letters and Papers from Prison as even more support for the exciting direction you are taking us in your equation of cruciformity with theoformity and theosis. While B never used the term theosis, I feel in those 1944 letters he laid the theological tracks the recent Finnish re-interpretation, while receiving little to no reference by that research. Might I also suggest including Colossians 1:24 as a text which supports your theosis thesis even though it, too, has been summarily avoided as a way to speak of the co-crucifixion of the church in the present as ongoing suffering of Christ in the world for others.
    As I completed the reading I wondered why Moltmann appears to have not been a conversation partner? You do say that you prefer “cruciform” to his “crucified”….Again thanks for finding this no-name Lutheran theologian at large and finding something I’m passionate about as useful in your book for what has the traction to significanlty alter how the church thinks and speaks of God and as a result how it thinks and speaks of itself taking up concrete, visible space on earth in missio Dei.

    Paul O Bischoff
    Adjunct Facuty-Theology, North Park Theological Seminary
    Transition Interim Pastor-Evangelical Covenant Church

  18. MJG says:

    Dear Paul,

    First, thanks for a great article. Second, thanks for your kind words. We are on the same page, esp. about the connection of all of this to mission.

    Third, a few brief responses:

    1. I will look at Letters and Papers with that in mind
    2. I think you are right about Col 1:24; thanks.
    3. I have never fully engaged Moltmann except on a few subjects, so he has not been a regular conversation partner; I must look at him again.

    I’d like to incorporate some of your comments here, with your permission, into a post that draws attention to your article. What do you think?

    Blessings,

    Mike

  19. Dear Michael

    I’d be most grateful.

    Pax et Gaudium,

    Paul

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