The Body of the Cross
Holy Victims and the Invention of the Atonement
- ISBN: 9780823298006
- Published By: Fordham University Press
- Published: December 2021
Travis Ables’ The Body of the Cross: Holy Victims and the Invention of the Atonement offers a “reluctant genealogy” of soteriology in the Western Christian tradition (7). He asks how did penal substitutionary atonement, “the idea that Christ dies as a function of a legal transaction by which God punishes Christ to satisfy God’s own justice, enacting retribution in order to legitimately transfer legal innocence to humanity” (151), come to be common, even normative, among some Christians in the West? Ables looks not to atonement theologies as such but rather to the cross as a symbol throughout Christian history, noting how bodies participate in the cross, both voluntarily (martyrs and saints) and involuntarily (reprobates and heretics). Two themes emerge: how Christians have used the cross to draw boundaries between social bodies, and how these very divisions facilitate vicarious participation in the cross. These themes overlap and merge to varying degrees until they reach a terminus in the Reformation with the development of penal substitutionary atonement.
The renarration of atonement begins in chapter 1 with the second and third centuries, situating the symbolic function of the cross in Christ’s apocalyptic victory over the forces of evil and death. In marking out those whom the early church understood to be God’s chosen (participants in the Christian liturgical rites) from those whom it understood to be the reprobate (Jews and Gnostics), the cross during the early centuries of the church functioned as “a social signifier with cosmic implications” (17). As a symbol of Jesus’s triumphant victory over death, the cross was understood to draw and shore up otherwise messy divisions between Christian and Jew, orthodox and heretic.
Martyrdom and sacramental practices continue to use the cross to draw boundaries, but out of these practices begins to emerge a logic of vicarity: “the use of substitutes, holy and damned, to imagine participation in Christ and, by extension, participation in Christ’s righteousness” (7). Chapter 2 studies how the martyrs’ ironic defiance of imperial victory tropes made the martyrs’ suffering the sign of their victory, marking Christians as set apart from the idolatrous culture of the Roman empire. These martyrdom accounts understand the martyrs’ victory and merit to be a function of their suffering, yet they do not look to the cross to fund this redemptive, meritorious suffering. It is rather precisely the reverse: Christ’s suffering on the cross comes to accrue redemptive and meritorious meaning in light of the suffering of the martyrs. Chapter 3 moves to the other side of Constantine’s conversion and studies how the early martyrs were reinterpreted by Christian elites. This chapter covers how bishops received and incorporated the martyr cults—especially the relics’ healing and forgiving powers—into their own “sacramental and administrative authority” (57). By doing this, the suffering of the martyrs stored up on behalf of their communities a treasury of merit, from which community members could make withdrawals by participation in episcopally sanctioned liturgical activities.
In the Middle Ages the suffering of the cross comes to be internalized by affective devotion to Christ’s passion. Spiritual texts of the 11th and 12th centuries—Ables looks to Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, and Heloise in chapter 4—prodded that affective devotion by inviting their readers to the foot of the cross. Thus, vicarity is achieved by compassio: suffering—or feeling—with the onlookers to Christ’s passion. Likewise, chapter 5 explores affective devotion, identifying a more direct participation in the violence of the cross in Bonaventure’s mystical hagiography of Francis of Assisi and the beguine Mechthild of Madgeburg. Francis and Mechthild each take Christ’s sufferings into their own bodies, while simultaneously becoming surrogates themselves by whom the corpus christianum (the corporate Christian body) might receive the merits of Christ’s passion. The church continued to use the cross to draw lines, too; the merit earned by surrogates like Francis and Mechthild was denied to Jews and heretics (and, as Ables notes, to many mystics and beguines too).
Chapters 6 and 7 demonstrate how the 16th-century Reformations wove together these christological, ecclesial, and sacramental threads into a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Martin Luther introduces what Ables terms a “fragility of faith” (133): in contrast to the institutional stability of the medieval sacramental system, Reformation theories of justification are supported solely by the individual’s faith. The mediation of faith to the believer assumes fresh urgency, and the Reformers narrowed the significance of the cross to that transaction of faith from God to human. For magisterial Reformers like Luther, the Christian is only ever a passive recipient of faith. On the contrary, the radical Reformers see faith as earned by the Christian’s active participation in Christ’s suffering by enduring suffering themselves. This emphasis on enduring suffering anticipates a fully formed doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
Examining the “sociopolitical realities of the Reformation churches in the aftermath of the peasant revolts” (158), Ables sees the emergence of penal substitution out of the use of disciplinary action by political and ecclesial authorities attempting to save the social body by directing violence outward against radicals and heretics. But the individual body still needs saving; the individual’s faith remains fragile. Hence that same salvific violence comes to be directed, recursively, inward. If surrogates cannot mediate salvific violence to another’s body—if faith is solely individual—all the believer could do was internalize the cross’s violence, turning that logic of vicarity back upon themselves. “So the substitutionary effect became fixed in Christ, but it also becomes refracted in the only other human being available in the merit transaction, the believer himself” (174). Consequently we have arrived at penal substitutionary atonement. Ables’s conclusion draws upon the work of James Cone, Delores Williams, and M. Shawn Copeland to gesture ahead toward holy victims who are made, in a different context, to endure the violence of the cross for the “salvation” of a social body: Black Southerners living under the lynching regime of the American South.
The Body of the Cross contains more riches than a brief review can convey. Among the many themes running throughout this book, though one somewhat underdeveloped, is penalty and punishment. A project that seeks to renarrate the development of atonement theology, ultimately contextualizing the emergence of penal substitutionary atonement, might have benefited from a more direct discussion of how understandings of penalty have shifted over the course of Christian history. Modern notions of penalty—as a retributive punishment for crime or offense—do not neatly map onto, say, some medieval notions of poena, which is paid in the sorrow or contrition the sinner feels at their sinning. How do the shifting meanings of penalty and punishment affect our understanding of the emergence of atonement? That is one question I’m left with after reading The Body of the Cross.
For the renarration of atonement it offers and the questions it provokes, The Body of the Cross is an extraordinary achievement in historical theology and one well worth reading.
Andrew Gertner Belfield is an assistant professor of theology and Franciscan studies at St. Bonaventure University.Andrew BelfieldDate Of Review:March 27, 2023