Evangelical Crucicentrism: A Post-Easter Reflection

David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (1989), 3, identifies biblicism (sola scriptura), conversionism (“born again”), activism (missions, historic social engagement such as abolition, temperance, abortion, etc.) and crucicentrism as marks of historic British Evangelicalism.

Each of these resonates with me as an important dimension of American Evangelicalism and, more particularly, as part of the story of Churches of Christ in the 20th century with the exception of activism. Our “conversionism” had a different definition than Evangelicalism as we stressed conversion through the “five steps of salvation.”

But tonight, on this Easter evening, crucicentrism–the focus on the cross as the atoning work of Christ as the redemptive act of God–is my concern. Bebbington’s identification is spot on, I think, and I see it in my own tradition.

For example, how many Evangelical songs focus on the cross but how few focus on the resurrection? I can count on one hand the repetorie of resurrection songs available to the church on Easter (and that is about the only time we sang them) but I would have to use my toes and several hundred people to count the number of “Cross” songs available and regularly sung throughout the year.

Another example is resurrection sermons within historic Evangelicalism and among Churches of Christ were mostly–if not wholly–apologetic in character. Oh, of course, there was the theological nod to our future resurrection and present hope, but the focus was usually upon the evidential value of the resurrection rather than its theological meaning. It was as if the ministry and life of Jesus proved he was the Son of God by miracles and sinless life and the resurrection was the capstone demonstration of such.

I recognize that the resurrection declares Jesus’ sonship (e.g., Romans 1:4), but it does this in more pregnant ways than simply validating or verifying a truth claim. For example, as Moltmann and Pannenberg have taught me, the resurrection is itself an eschatological event within history; it is an act of God that comes from the future. The resurrection participates in the future; it is the future present within history. Resurrection is theological promise and present hope.

Moreover, resurrection–as recent discussions of the new heaven and new earth reflect–is an affirmation of creation itself. The body has a future; creation has a future. Jesus, as a raised human, is the new humanity–embodied, material, and the inaugurator a renewed creation.  And much more could be said about the theological meaning of the resurrection, including ethics.

Resurrection is also a redemptive event; not just the Cross. Incarnation is a redemptive event, not just the cross. The Ministry of Jesus is a redemptive event, not just the Cross.

Crucicentrism, in my opinion, actually distorts the fullness of the gospel, the good news.  The good news of the kingdom, which Jesus himself preached, is broader and fuller than the Cross itself. Jesus preached the gospel before he ever said a word about his death. The Cross is redemptive, atoning and salvific–no doubt in my mind, but so is the Incarnation, Ministry, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus as well.

Crucicentrism, it seems to me, is a heavy-handed emphasis on and exaggeration of some Pauline language. Often Paul balances cross and resurrection (e.g., Romans 4:25), but sometimes he only mentions the cross (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:2-5). Paul’s boasting in the cross has been extracted as his central core rather than reading those texts in the context of the specific occasions of his preaching (e.g., the focus on “Christ crucified” in 1 Corinthians 2 stresses the weakeness in which God came just as Paul himself came in weakness to Corinth).

When we read the Gospels Jesus’ death as a theological event receives little emphasis except as it is narrated (which is huge, of course). When we read the preaching in Acts, the resurrection is stressed rather than the death and little theological meaning is attached to the death in those sermons (which contrasts with standard Evangelical preaching on the Cross).

My point is not that we should never talk about the Cross or explore its meaning.  God forbid!  My point is that crucicentrism does not give sufficient attention to the Christ Event as a whole. It does not recognize the equal importance of Incarnation, Ministry, Resurrection and Ascension. Crucicentrism tends to relegate Incarnation and Ministry to necessary conditions for the Cross and Resurrection and Ascension as rewards of Christ’s obedient death, and thus the Cross stays at the center (crucicentrism). But I think that underplays the theological meaning of Incarnation, Ministry, Resurrection and Ascension. It is not the Cross that is at the center, but Christ–the whole Christ.

The Gospel is Good Friday through Holy Saturday into Easter Sunday.  But the Gospel is also Christmas and Pentecost. The Gospel is also Epiphany (with the Eastern emphasis, not the reductionistic Western one). The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ come into the world to redeem the world through his Incarnation, Ministry, Death, Resurrection and Ascension.



21 Responses to “Evangelical Crucicentrism: A Post-Easter Reflection”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Philippians is a book where I find Paul having an equal balance between a cruciform and resurrection shaped life. For example, in chapter one you have Paul desiring to have Christ exalted in his body through life or death knowing that when he does die, he gains Christ (1.20-21). In the hymn that Paul quotes, we are reminded that Jesus is both crucified and exalted (2.6-11). In the third chapter we find Paul with the desire to know both the sufferings of Christ and his resurrection in order to become like him in death and obtain the resurrection of the dead (3.10-11).

    We certainly need the cross of Jesus but, as you remind us (along with many others), we EQUALLY need the resurrection.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  2.   rich constant Says:

    not to much time but amen to that…
    to the glory of the father…
    GOD IN THE FLESH OF ADAM BORNE UNDER THE LAW DIDED AND WAS RAISED A NEW CREATION TO THE GLORY OF GODS WORD

    BLESSINGS JOHN MARK

    RICH

  3. Profile photo of Tim Archer  cordobatim Says:

    It’s interesting to me to Paul preaching the resurrection in Athens, even though he had to know the Greeks would scoff at such a thing. He doesn’t mention the cross (as far as Luke records), but preaches the resurrection.

    As you point out so well, preachers today would take the opposite tack.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  4.   Gardner Says:

    The analysis of the hymns produced by a movement is indeed a telling indicator of its emphasis.

  5.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I once heard that a study of hymnology from a particular era will tell you more about the theology of that era than anything else. I don’t know is that is as true as it sounds but an era’s hymns is quite revealing.

    …Yesterday we sang an older hymn “I Know that My Redeemer Lives.” I always loved singing that hymn except for the second stanza. I cringe everytime I hear the words “I know that unto sinful men his saving grace is nigh.” We never stopped to think that none of us would be singing that song if it was not for the saving grace of God.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  6.   Jr Says:

    K. Rex – why would that line make you cringe? Is not the grace of God near(read: nigh) to sinful men?

    I agree that the whole counsel of God needs to be preached. In this case, the whole counsel of Christ (I use this phraseology so I wouldn’t have to repeat the elements you mentioned in your post). My wife mentioned to me during the drive home yesterday the same exact thing, John Mark; she was wondering why we seemed to focus on His death so much during services when it was the Resurrection we were supposedly celebrating. Interesting point and one needed to be addressed, for sure. “In Christ Alone,” which is probably one of the few recent songs that is worth any salt, does well to proclaim the entirety of Jesus (and, I might add, is very Reformed in lyric!)

    I do think in looking at this issue further, that without the Cross and subsequent Resurrection Jesus’ incarnation (should it have even happened) and ministry is meaningless. Without them the wrath of God is still upon us; without them reconciliation with the Father and with each other is impossible, without them saving grace is nonexistent; for we would all continue to demonstrate natural animosity toward God and have no hope of eternity. I mention this only to say that there does seem to be a reason for emphasis on some of the elements you referenced over others.

    It is interesting in Revelations 13 v.8 John writes of those who would worship the beast; and they are “everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” Before the creation of the world, there was a book with a title that specifically addresses the slaughter of Jesus and nothing else.

    Personally, I’m a lot more concerned with those in other circles who dismiss the Cross entirely and deceive people into focusing solely on the teachings of Jesus for some fantasy of kingdom come to be achieved regardless of belief.

    •   K. Rex Butts Says:

      Jr.,

      My bad…I thought the word “nigh” meant: the absense of.

      Perhap then the song is another example of how some of our hymns can actually be an unintelligble word to some (cf. 1 Cor 14).

      Any ways, thanks for pointing out my misunderstanding.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

  7.   Terrell Lee Says:

    The host of the table is the risen Lord! No wonder communion should be more of a celebration. The Lord lives and feeds his people. Yes, we should remember his death but even so it is the risen Lord more than the crucified Christ who hosts the meal and assures us that he is the prototype.

  8. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Jr

    The Lamb who was slain is also the Lion of Judah. The title of the book is not exclusive, is it? It is a contextual way of referring to a particular dimension of the story.

    I, too, would be concerned about those how reject the cross, but I find Evangelicalism’s problem (along with other conservatives, including among the Reformed) is the focus on the cross at the act of God in Christ. Saving grace is not crucicentric but Christocentric as a means by which God (theocentrism) redeems his creation (including humans).

  9. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    The Lord’s Supper, as Terrell notes, is another area of practice where crucicentrism shows up. The influence here is also historic–Catholicism’s “altar” theology. But it does not have to be so, it seems to me. The Orthodox church is much more wholistic–the resurrection and thanksgiving are quite visible in their experience of the Eucharist.

    Among Churches of Chirst, crucicentric Lord’s Supper has been our historic norm. See my paper on “Churches of Christ and the Lord’s Supper” on my Academic page.

  10.   eirenetheou Says:

    In John 11, Jesus tells the grieving Martha that her dead brother will rise again. Martha is a good Pharisee; she knows that Lazarus will rise “at the Last Day.”

    “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus says to Martha. “The one who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

    She doesn’t, of course. In John 11 Martha answers the question of Mark 8 and Matthew 16. “Yes, Lord, I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” She does not believe, or know what to believe, about “the Resurrection and the Life.” As the beloved William Butler once said to me, “If she had believed, the whole cemetery would have got up.” Brother Butler could neither read nor write, but he had much of the New Testament all mushed together in his head, and he understood the Gospel of John.

    Most members of the Churches of Christ are, like Martha of Bethany, good Pharisees. We understand death existentially. We know what it is to die. When Jesus dies on the Cross, we understand that. We comprehend its reality. Resurrection, on the other hand, is an abstraction. We do not know what it is to “rise again”; we cannot comprehend it. Our only immediate experience of “life after death” is “ghost stories.” It is more than a little frightening. This is why, in Mark 16, the women who have come to work on the dead body of Jesus flee in terror when they are told that “he is risen” — not because “they do not believe,” but because they do believe! If, when we assemble for the funeral of a beloved brother or sister, the coffin opens of its own accord, the room will empty. i guarantee it.

    We should never preach Resurrection without the Cross; we should never preach the Cross without Resurrection. The Cross makes Resurrection necessary; without Resurrection the Cross is meaningless — just another brutal execution of an Imperial subject. The Cross and Resurrection should never be separated, for they are meant to be repeated in the testimony — martyrion — of every disciple. These are the words of the Lord Jesus, at the center of the Gospel of Mark: “If anyone would follow after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life, for my sake and the gospel’s, will save it.”

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

    •   Jr Says:

      Interesting point on the women, though I don’t believe they believed in the resurrection immediately. I think you would have to read a bit extra into the story of Mark to come to that conclusion.

      John 20 opens with the following, “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.'”

      She thought somebody had stolen the body. And even in the Mark account, nobody believed at first. John 20:9 says as much.

      And though they each carry specific significances of their own; good point on the inseparability Cross and the Resurrection.

  11. Profile photo of Keith Brenton  Keith Brenton Says:

    I the sad thing that our crucicentrism says about us is that we might be thinking, deep down, “If we can just leave Jesus on that cross, we don’t have to deal with Him anymore.”

    But if we let ourselves realize that He has the power over sin and death, we can’t just let the subject drop and go on with our lives.

    Easier to let Him just hang there, looking all defeated and pathetic, feel a little guilty for our one-triilionth of the blame for it and then sing a happy dismissal tune and go out to lunch.

  12. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Don, my friend. Thanks for your interesting ancedotes on John 11. They are illuminating…..and I would be the first out the door of the funeral home! 🙂

    Blessings, my friend.

  13. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Keith, accepting the grace of the cross may be more comfortable than living the life of the resurrection. Just as Don quoted the middle of Mark on the point, going to the cross in order to live is much more about living than dying.

    Thanks, John Mark

  14.   rich constant Says:

    un fortunely john mark
    thIs sunday most all will still “GO TO, CHURCH”…
    and delagate the responsability of a week of work for the established kingdom of god and the proclamed good news of that proclamation of redemptshion.
    WHAT IF…

    THERE IS THIS NEW CHANNEL ON THE TUBE…
    AND GUESS WHAT I SPEND A LOT WATCHING THE JOHN MARK CHANNEL
    🙂
    BLESSINGS

  15. Profile photo of aussiepete  ozziepete Says:

    I recently introduced the thought that victory and resurrection should be a more dominant thought around the Lord’s Table. An elders wife mentioned that she thinks of the the Supper as a funeral, albeit with a happy ending.

    I suggested that our approach to the Lord’s Supper is too greatly influenced by limiting “do this in remembrance of me” to the cross. We remember death at a funeral, but also at the 4th of July… very different remembrances. Further, we come and “examine ourselves” focusing on sin, failure, inadequacy, and guilt in a futile attempt to be “worthy” to participate.

    I don’t say these things should be avoided, but we should also make an effort to include the “until he comes” of 1 Cor 11:26 in our remembrance. I believe it radically changes our perspective. The cross is not only a legal transaction, but also the decisive victory against the forces of evil (and probably several other things).

    However, it seems to me that statements like, “Jesus came to earth to die for our sins” are not going anywhere soon. The legal substitution seems to be one of the simpler images to grasp, and understanding incarnation or ministry as redemptive for us takes more thought and a larger perspective.

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Of course, there is something very biblical about “Jesus came to earth to die for our sins,” but it depends upon the construction we place on top of that and what we mean by it and whether it is an exclusive statement about the mission of Christ. I understand your point about the Lord’s Supper and I assume you know I share it.

  16. Profile photo of aussiepete  ozziepete Says:

    Yes, I meant to convey that for most people having identified that “Jesus came to earth to die for our sins” the inquiry stops. The answer has been found.
    I’m one of your numerous former students from back in the days when HUGSR was still HUGSR, so my view of the LS was no doubt influenced by those discussions. 🙂 I know the LS comments weren’t strictly on topic, but I mentioned them as a frequent example of crucicentrism.

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