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Participating (with Girard) in 2 Cor 5:21

September 20, 2009

Girard_lambIn my current writing on ‘participatory’ and ‘apocalyptic’ soteriology it occurred to me that Rene Girard offers a crucial link for understanding a key piece of Pauline writing

The majority reading of 2 Cor 5:21 at least in Western Christianity is something like the following paraphrase:

Christ never sinned! But God treated him as a sinner, so that Christ could make us acceptable to God. (2 Cor 5:21 CEV)

This is reinforced by I. Howard Marshall’s comment that: “It is hard to understand this [Christ’s becoming sin for us] in any other way than that in dying Christ exhausted the effects of divine wrath against sin”. However, as Stephen H. Travis (p. 187) argues this is clearly not the only reading of this difficult passage. And, to go beyond  Travis,  this (dominant) reading is also prima facie problematic. It suggests that God acts unjustly or immorally for our sake – namely either punishes or blames someone for something of which he is innocent. Even if that person is in an important sense, God’s self, and even if that person voluntarily undergoes this punishment/blame (and thus there is no rift between Father and Son) it is still counter-factual, and therefore a difficult reading of the text. To treat someone as what they are not, is to act contrary to the truth (whether justifiable or not).

Such problems however, have not stopped exegetes clinging to this reading. I would argue, however, that this reading should at least be compared with another possible way of reading the text (not often considered) to compare its plausibility. Since the passage clearly states (and translators seem to agree) that Jesus wasn’t a sinner (“he knew no sin”) a certain kind of literal reading is ruled out. It would be implausible to read this paradox as a pure contradiction. What then are the alternatives? Here is my presentation of the alternatives, both of which have the subjunctive ‘as if’ quality but in different ways

1. God treated him as a sinner (although he wasn’t) (see the CEV above and the problems associated)

2. God made him to be treated as a sinner (by us – our ‘sinner’ or scapegoat)

In respect of moving towards the subjunctive ‘as if’ sense, these interpretations are equivalent. They differ in the way that is achieved. The advantage of the second reading is that there is no problem understanding how human beings can act unjustly and counterfactually. Indeed that is precisely the point of the passion narrative and the proclamation of the early church. It is intrinsic to the vindication-forgiveness structure of the early preaching of Acts that our forgiveness arises in our meeting with our divine victim – the one we treated as a sinner. Those who encounter their victim discover that they are ‘unjust judges’ (see especially Paul’s resurrection experience). I contend then that over and against those who wish to make God the unjust judge, the latter reading has prima facie plausibility. Furthermore, if God is not the unjust judge, it is not even clear that the legal metaphor is the primary one here. As we noted earlier the second clause indicating consequence describes a transformative process (‘becoming the justice/righteousness of God’). Moreover, the verses immediately following do not suggest an imputed righteousness, often associated with the former reading, but suggest rather an emergent active (but grace-dependent) righteousness or justice

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain… (2Co 6:1 NRSV)

If I am right both of the possible interpretations are not straightforwardly literal readings, since the text itself does not appear amenable to such a reading, it seems then that the second is clearly the more plausible reading in spite of the fact that the dominant tradition has tended towards the former reading. Thus the best rendering of 2 Cor 5: 21 is:

It was for us that God made the one who knew no sin to be treated as a sinner, so that, in him, we as a community might become the justice of God (2 Cor 5: 21 my translation following Michael Gorman for the second half)

However, it is worth asking why this reading or something similar has been a minority one? It is possible that such a reading remains a minority one because of a failure to appreciate the causal link between the first and second half of the verses which it suggests but does not spell out? How does the scapegoating of the crucified bring about the righteousness/justice of those who participate in him? Once the question is put in this way it is clear, to anyone familiar with his thought, that Rene Girard has some crucial insights to offer a participatory reading of Paul. It may even be, that in spite of the overall context of a participatory framework in Paul’s thinking, our reading of 2 Corinthians 2:21 will continue to lack plausibility unless such a girardian account can be offered. Two things should be noted in passing however:

1. The price of reading this text as a kind of counterfactual judgement resulting in imputed unrighteousness for Jesus and imputed righteousness for us is an abstraction from the processes of transformation explicit in the verses preceding and following. It is a juridical insertion into a participatory argument.

2. Both readings are substitutional following the grammar of the text, but in different senses. In the majority reading Christ is substituted into the divine system of judgement. In our minority reading he is substituted (and self-substituted) into the human system of judgement. That this latter reading is a divine judgement on human sinfulness is revealed in the resurrection and vindication of Jesus, however it is first of all a judgement by the principalities and powers of human history.

Provided, then, a (girardian) account can be offered of the link between the apocalyptic event of the scapegoating of the lamb/son of God and human participation in the missio Dei, this classically juridical text looks like it might potentially turn out to be powerfully suggestive of the ways in which our socio-political operating systems ‘in Adam’ (the principalities and powers) are engaged by the salvific action of God in Christ, for the purpose of the creation of a new social expression of the justice of God – church. Thus this text points us in a direction which envisions a central role for the church in God’s mission to the world as an embodiment and enactment of the justice of God. However before we move too quickly, we need to notice that the participatory ‘becoming’ that is made possible by the first clause, presupposes that the substitution or exchange (however we conceive of it) has an objective effect independently of those who participate in it. Although no one is justified apart from participation, there is no justifying participation apart from the fact that this event constitutes the necessary condition of justifying participation. Stephen Travis (p. 199) rightly observes that:

… the formulation of those sentences in the form, ‘Christ gave himself for our sins so that…’ (1 Thes 5: 9-10 etc) implies that in his death Christ achieved something objectively before the fruits of it were available to the subjective experience of those who have faith in him. Our participation in Christ depends on his first ‘dying for us’.

Moreover, if the ‘for us’ is to imply an act of love, or, more precisely, to imply that the death is a necessary part of an act of love, it must be clear how it contributes to our benefit, prior to our participation in it. We love him because he first loved us and gave himself for us. It is hard to see how we can treat the suffering of Christ as an act of love (in and of itself) unless it contributes something necessary to the well-being of the beloved. Otherwise it is mere masochism. There is no intrinsic benefit in knowing that the Son of God suffers. Since Girard’s account of the objectivity of divine love is both apocalyptic in its logic and centred on a scapegoating of God in history according to the universal structures of human psycho-sociality its fit looks too good to be true.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Deane Galbraith permalink
    September 23, 2009 4:13 am

    Does your explanation just push back the divine responsibility for the treatment of Jesus? i.e. God does not cause his treatment, he causes the conditions of justice which demand this treatment?

    Perhaps not. But then, why the ‘as if’? Why not literal interchange, as in Morna Hooker’s account (e.g. ‘Interchange in Christ’, in From Adam to Christ, 13ff)? How does that explanation compare?

    In some passages the overcoming of death and hades appears ontological and automatic – a cancelling out by opposite principles meeting – on Christ the creative Logos becoming death – light shining in the darkness. Some good examples are Acts 2:24-43, 13:34-39 (cf. Ps 16:10/110:1); John 1.5; 12.46; Odes of Solomon 42.11-18; Melito, Homilies 66, 70; cf. Justin, Dial 95; Ignatius Smyr 7.1; Trall 9.2 – all of which possibly have a similar sound to 2 Cor 5:21.

    • September 23, 2009 6:40 am

      I don’t think the passage implies that the conditions under which he was ‘treated as if’ were God’s responsibility. God is just responsible for Jesus’ presence there. For me this is an important distinction which I think the text preserves.
      I haven’t read Morna Hooker but I would want to know how such an exchange effects that we become ‘the justice of God’. After all that is what is at stake in the passage. My reading of Paul is that he offers a much more historical and participatory account of justification (cf Michael Gorman – Inhabiting the Cruciform God) which is certainly not ‘automatic’ – ontological depends on what ontology you’re talking about.

      • Deane Galbraith permalink
        September 23, 2009 8:23 pm

        By ‘as if’ I meant, why does God treat him ‘as if’ a sinner/sin, and not literally as sinner or sin? As Morna Hooker asks, ‘Does Paul intend us to take his language literally, or has he used the terms ‘sin’ and ‘curse’ simply for effect?’

        The mechanism is apocalyptic: light overcomes darkness; the incarnation of Jesus makes Lucifer fall from the sky. Earthly events have cosmic effects. But ultimately the mechanism is unfathomable (there is no further explanation offered as to how Christ becomes evil itself to God and thereby changes evil into good?), because what is important is the change it effects in the righteous (which does include participation).

        I think Paul should be interpreted in accordance with Melito and the Odes of Solomon here. What do you think of those passages?

    • September 23, 2009 11:41 pm

      I don’t buy the reading ‘God treated him as if he were a sinner’ because in the passage it is counterfactual since he ‘knew no sin’ and to treat him as if he did, is to act untruthfully. If a literal interchange means God made him to be [literally] a sinner then this presumes that he no longer lived the truly divine life in which we must participate. I’m not sure how that helps in explaining the outcome – us becoming the justice of God. To say that God had him treated [by us] as if her were a sinner, is not to talk of sin metaphorically… However, I’m still not sure I understand your alternative

      • Deane Galbraith permalink
        September 24, 2009 6:15 am

        Christ is made sin, not sinner, in Morna’s interchange explanation. And sin is thereby made Christ’s) righteousness. This is all quite literal, although involving a quite different metaphysics that a modern one.

  2. September 23, 2009 11:43 pm

    My argument is that the rhetoric is not intended to be taken literally – it is paradoxical rhetoric whose resolution requires one of two possible ‘as if’ interpretations

  3. September 24, 2009 7:57 am

    Yeah very unmodern. I can’t see how it doesn’t reify sin and therefore is dualistic

  4. March 22, 2010 4:38 pm

    Following Marshall, as the Text. Christ “became” sin,(“on our behalf”) not a sinner. It is that place of God’s judical justice, that Christ takes this place of sanction, order and enforcement in the collective of God’s Law. And too as St. Peter can say: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that HE might bring us to God, having [both] been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit/spirit.” (1 Pet. 3:18)
    And yes indeed, we take this Pauline “rhetorical” very real, for here we see both the doctrine and “theology” of God! My thoughts at least.

  5. March 23, 2010 12:30 am

    Some thoughts.
    Thought 1: It seems to me that those who see a way of interpreting this passage ‘literally’ need to be able to distinguish between ‘sin’ and either ‘acts of sinning’ or ‘sinners’. Sin must have ontological status quite independent of the acts and persons who sin. This, it seems is what they have to say Paul intends by Christ ‘becoming sin’ (without sinning). I would be interested if anyone can explain the ontological status of ‘sin’
    Thought 2: It seems that this way of reading this text leads people to read other texts in juridical ways which, to my mind, seem entirely unnecessary. This text from 1 Pet 3:18 is a good case in point.
    Christ died for sin (ie for the salvation of people from sin, its elimination) once and for all, the just for the unjust (ie his fully covenantally human existence of faith and love was for the sake of those trapped in another form of life, ie the unjust), so that he might bring us to God (ie theosis, ie participation in Christ in the life of the triune God etc), having both been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit (ie thanks to the resurrection and the giving of his Spirit) this victory is complete and our participation is possible. This at least is my theotic non-penal reading of an objectively effective death and resurrection.

  6. March 23, 2010 12:57 am

    The problem with this interpretation, is the loss of the Jewish and OT sense of the “judical”, and Law. This is always part of St. Paul’s concern. And the ontology, is Christ’s not ours, thus “sin” (sins) is as the Text in 2 Cor. 5:17, “sin on our behalf”, etc. Yes, the literal sense, unless the Text allows other. And the covenant is always, the OT Covenantal. The Covenant of Grace is in both Testaments, as the doctrines of grace. And Jesus said, “for salvation is from/of the Jews”. (John 4:22) Yes, I am “Covenantal” and “Calvinist”, unashamedly so!

  7. March 23, 2010 1:29 am

    Firstly, Not sure what you’re getting at here. Christ fulfils the covenant (torah) by living fully both tables (faith towards God/Father and love of his neighbour). This covanantal life is God’s gift to us. So, yes I am talking of a covenant of Grace in which we are enabled to participae
    Secondly, my question is not exactly the ontology of Christ, but the ontology of sin presupposed in the juridical reading above. If sin is not a created ‘thing’ (reified somehow) what does Christ become? Why do you assume that the text allows no other reading.
    Thirdly, most of what you write seems good to me. Yes, salvation is of the Jews.
    Fourthly, I’m sure there is a place in God’s grace even for calvinists 😉

    • March 23, 2010 2:05 am

      Nice, lol I do have a sense of humor also (I’m Irish born). But I am also Anglo-Irish, and thus perhaps my serious side, since I was theologically educated in England. To me at least, Christian theology has somewhat jettisoned the Judeo Law of God! And this is certainly part of the centre of any Pauline understanding. This is my main point. And I am myself, an advocate closely for the historical-gramtical. And the ultimate authority in the Church Catholic is the Spirit speaking thru the scripture. The Spirit’s speaking thru Scripture, however, is always a contextual always comes to its hearers within a specific historical-cultural context. And BTW, my “Calvinism” (so-called) is closely classic Anglican. But in today’s (so-called) theology, close to G.C. Berkouwer, and my own vision of Calvin, etc. Perhaps Neo-Calvin somewhat.

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