Labor of God

The Agony of God as the Birth of the Church

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Thomas Andrew Bennett
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     2017.
     155 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481306492.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Thomas Andrew Bennett is confident that something is terribly wrong in the way that many Christians speak of the cross. For nearly two centuries theologians have devoted their energies to explaining and reducing past insights into the work of Christ under the category of “theories.” On the opening page of Labor of God, Bennett boldly asserts that most traditional atonement theories or models have become “toothless through long repetition” (1). At one point, he even says that traditional metaphors of sacrifice, victory, and substitution, because of overuse and commonality, are no longer dangerous (29). This failure of theological and homiletical imagination has resulted in a diminishment of the scandal of the cross. In response to this problem, and hoping to “reinvigorate” atonement theology, Bennett retrieves a marginal atonement metaphor. Inspired by a reading of certain biblical texts (e.g., Isaiah 42 and Psalm 90) and the Johannine literature, as well as medieval theologians like Anselm, Julian of Norwich, and Marguerite d’Oingt, and the contemporary theologian Murray Rae, Bennett offers an alternative image for the cross of Christ: the labor of childbirth. He believes that this provocative metaphor can “once again recover the brazen, dissonant, radically gracious self-giving love of God” as embodied in Christ crucified (5).

By creatively appropriating the cross as the labor of God, Bennett argues for a renewed understanding of the ultimate telos of the cross as shockingly generative. Imagining the cross as the labor of God is likely to induce cognitive dissonance. For Bennett, “the bizarre discordances between the image of a birthing mother and a blasphemous crucifixion” are so visceral and jarring as to be theologically fruitful (32). Thus, “Jesus is the divine mother who willingly and capably bears” the cost of human sin in order to transform pain and death into new life (40). Just as part of the joy of human childbirth is accompanied by the intense pain and bodily harm by which it comes, so too does the cross—as divine childbirth in travail—suggest that suffering is a necessary part of some good: “the ‘at-oneing’ of God and humanity in and through the cross” (66). Moreover, the suffering of the cross produces life, birthing spiritual children into a new family: God’s family, the church. Over against the ossified domains of salvation as forensic or juridical, and transactional models of atonement and salvation, argues Bennett, is the birth of a new Spirit-endowed community. Envisioning the cross of Christ as effecting such transformation and re-location points to a strength of Bennett’s argument. What God has done in Jesus Christ is not the offering of a substitutionary gift but rather the creation of a new community “remedied from the various disorders of sin, one that in its very nature has transcended exchange entirely” (86). Instead of pitting objective and subjective features of atonement discourse against one another, Bennett creatively synthesizes such features together—the result of turning to imaginative possibilities of the dissonant image of the cross as divine labor in travail: “The cross is an instrument through which God produces objective change, but not by exchange. Jesus does not mount the cross so that we do not have to . . . Rather, Mother Jesus births us into the family into which all humanity truly and most fully belongs” (86). Hence, the cross actually does something quite radical to human beings. This change is not merely a status change from “dirty” to “clean,” or an alteration from unjustified to justified. It is ontological change—a new nature, a new life, and an entirely new identity as spiritual children of God birthed through the divine labor of Christ’s cross by the vivification of the Spirit (cf. Titus 3:5 [in light of Ezekiel 36:26, 28 and Ezekiel 37:23] and 1 John 3).

Bennett does not avoid the troubling nature of the violence of the cross. He argues that imaging the cross as divine childbirth opens up a new way to engage arguments about violence and atonement (40-41). From his perspective, the metaphor of divine travail can be helpful: “Despite what is happening at a historical level, at the theological level God is transforming human violence into nonviolence. Crucifixion (an inherently violent, damaging, degrading practice) becomes childbirth—a sacred, generative, and transforming kind of suffering. God takes human violence and overcomes it by enduring it” (45). Thus, Bennett argues that in the cross God converts its violence into a generative act of birthing spiritual children.

A particular strength of the book is Bennett’s focused exploration of a single metaphor, intended to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. He opens doors to further study, rather than comprehensively presenting a new model or theory of Christ’s saving work. Another strength of the book is the coherence Bennett demonstrates between atonement and other doctrines. Too often atonement theologies divide redemption from creation or remain indifferent to the intimacy of creation and redemption. Bennett does not repeat these problems. He also illustrates rather effectively (although briefly) the intimacy between atonement theology and other doctrines, such as pneumatology, ecclesiology, election, and divine (im)passibility. I also found Bennett’s lively portrayal of his subject matter rather refreshing; he avoids engaging in polemics, which often characterizes books and articles on atonement theology. I do offer one critical response to Bennett’s argument. He does not sufficiently attend to possible issues with the metaphor of divine childbirth that arise from women’s experience of childbirth. What about childbirth that tragically ends in the death of the mother and/or the infant? What about women’s experience of miscarriage or stillbirth? What about women’s experience of postpartum depression? What about women who cannot naturally give birth to children? Only twice did I find where Bennett used the word “loss” in association with the labor of God metaphor (55, 92). In my estimation, Bennett has not necessarily accounted for how these aspects of women’s experiences of childbirth may not only complexify but also problematize his argument.

In the end, Bennett proffers a provocative argument. Its focus on a maternal metaphor definitely has possibilities to reinvigorate the stale arguments of much of contemporary atonement theologies. I hope this small book will join recent volumes on atonement offered by Michael Gorman (The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant, Cascade Books, 2014) and Fleming Rutledge (The Crucifixion, Eerdmans, 2015) as must-reads. I strongly recommend this book for upper-level undergraduate and graduate level theology courses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark S. Medley is Professor of Theology at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Andrew Bennett is affiliate assistant professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments