The Body of the Cross: Holy Victims and the Invention of the Atonement

The Body of the Cross: Holy Victims and the Invention of the Atonement, Travis E. Ables, Dec. 7, 2021, Fordham University Press, 260 pages, including notes, extensive bibliography, and index.

It was the title, well actually the subtitle, of the book that caught my eye: “Holy Victims and the Invention of the Atonement.” Being a Christian Universalist with my own questions about the validity of traditional Western Christian atonement constructs, I was naturally intrigued.

I realize not all Christian Universalist question the idea of a penal, substitutionary atonement. Nevertheless, The Body of the Cross needs to be read. In it, Travis E. Ables rather than addressing the traditional atonement theologies of the church, explores the historical narrative that led to systematized atonement theologies, and in particular the prevalent Western Christian concept of Christ’s death being a penal, substitutionary act on behalf of those who have faith in Christ.

To be honest, I had expected Ables to tackle atonement theology head-on. I was wrong. The author leads us in an entirely different direction, on a path rarely taken when it comes to a discussion of the atonement.

Ables in The Body of the Cross explores the symbolism of the cross as found in popular spirituality and religious dissent, using devotional writings, non-canonical sources, and martyrdom literature, while eschewing the atonement typologies and theories of Western Christianity.

This is not to say that he does not touch upon them, he does, particularly so in chapter 6, “The Bitter Christ and the Sweet Christ: The Cross and the German Reformations.” Even here though, Ables approaches Reformation thinking from the mindset of the symbolism of the cross.

It is from the Apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24 that the title of book is taken:

I am now rejoicing in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the Church.

This verse provides not only the title, but also the premise of the book. Paul saw, according to Ables, his suffering to be the completion of Christ’s death. To Paul, his suffering was the same suffering that Christ bore in his body on the cross. Paul further believes, that his own suffering was on behalf of Christ’s body, the Church—the Eucharistic Body of Christ.

This complex set of ideas has never sat well within the thinking of the Western Church. Paul’s words make us ask uncomfortable questions: Just who hears their flesh suffering of Christ in his flesh? How do I participate in Christ’s sufferings? How does my suffering complete the work of Christ on behalf of the Church?

These are questions that I don’t remember struggling with in seminary. I wonder if it is because the questioning was shoved away by the absoluteness of atonement theory?

Western Christianity grapples with these questions through typologies and theologies that invariably lead to the theory of a penal, substitutionary atonement. Yet, as Ables demonstrates in The Body of the Cross, the road to this theory is not as direct or as orthodox as one might think.

Drawing upon symbolism rather than theological theory, Ables argues that although the belief that one can in their flesh absorb the wrath of God is ancient, the idea of penal, substitutionary atonement –that the death of Christ appeased the wrath of God – is relatively recent

It is the of evolution of the symbolism of the cross, beginning with the early church that brings us to the “invention of the atonement.” Along the way Able touches upon church history, ecclesiastical debates, and devotional, often mystical, writings. Of this latter category, Ables spends considerable time with the devotional writings of women.

In the first and second centuries, the idea of the Holy Victim began to take shape. Heretics were punished to preserve the purity of the church, while the martyrdom of saints allowed the church to participate in their holiness. Through suffering, even to death, it was imagined that the one suffering participated in a mystically literal sense in the suffering and death of Christ, and thus saw themselves as Christ, the ultimate holy victim. The deaths were understood to be vicarious for the church, an economically spiritual trade for those not suffering. Ables calls this thinking, the logic of vicarity.

By the fourth century the logic of vicarity had given rise to the Cult of Martyrdom. By the time of the German Reformers the symbolism of the cross had become political, as well as devotional. In both were to be found abuses. In the Reformation, it is the reaction to eucharistic piety and practice of the Middle Ages that gives rise to the theology of a penal, substitutionary atonement. A model that twist’s Paul thinking of vicarity into a thinking that postulates a holy, but rejected body, a body that absorbs divine punishment on our behalf. The idea that Christ died on the cross to take upon himself our divine punishment.

Yet, in spite of rise of the belief that Christ’s death became substitutionary for us in that it appeased God’s wrath, Ables suggests that the logic of vicarity still exists in popular Christian thinking. To make his point Ables takes us to the American South and how the vicarity of the cross is used to rationalize the death of Black Americans. He draws too, upon the lives of Christian women who have taken a stand for justice and have been marginalized by the church.

Drawing upon his narrative, Ables asks in conclusion, what would happen if we moved beyond the atonement theology and simply let suffering of Christ and those who participate in it stand as a memorial? What would happen if the church became a memorial that functions as a eucharistic community of memory and solidarity, a community that would refuse to rationalize the deaths of the unjustly murdered, but rather commemorated their death?

This question challenges my thinking about my suffering? How does my own personal suffering incorporate me into the Body, as well as become a memorial to all of those who have suffered for righteousness’ sake before me?

It also I think should raise questions about so-called Christian persecution in the Age of Trump.

In this review of The Body on the Cross, I have just lightly touched upon the wealth of material that Ables covers. And much more could be said about Ables’ concluding thoughts.

While The Body of the Cross did not address the theological issues of atonement theory that I at first assumed it would, it does something better. In the Body of the Cross Ables offers an alternate way of thinking about Christ’s death. The alternative is in his question, what if we reject the atonement and its inherent justification and negation of death, and just let death stand as death? That we accept the reality of suffering? That somehow, we learn to move beyond typologies and theologies and learn to fully incorporate death and suffering into the Eucharistic Body of Christ, the Church.

Would not this be life-giving?

Travis E. Ables is currently affiliate faculty at Regis University. Previously he has taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Eden Theological Seminary, and has served as the managing editor of the “Anglican Theological Review.” He also authored, Incarnational Realism: Trinity and the Spirit in Augustine and Barth.

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