Ecumenical News International

"He died for us" - EKD presents basic study on the theology of the cross

March 27, 2015

[epd-Logo] Frankfurt a.M./Hannover (epd). Christianity is inconceivable without the cross. It symbolizes the death and suffering of Jesus. It hangs in churches, stands at cemeteries or is found in Christian art. On Maundy Thursday, before Good Friday and Easter - the feast days on which Christians recall the death of Jesus and celebrate his resurrection - the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) issued a basic study of the theology of the cross.

How the Cross can be preached in the 21st century is still a matter of controversy sparking heated debates. Six years ago an argument flared up in Rhineland after a radio devotional about whether Jesus Christ died for people's sins. According to many modern theologians, understanding his death on the cross as atonement projects a cruel, sadistic image of God, which contradicts Jesus' teaching of God's unconditional love. By contrast, conservative Christians hold to the idea of sacrifice and argue that Jesus' death on the cross loses its special significance without the notion of him having sacrificed himself us.

"The EKD study draws a line down the middle between those who want to hold to the classical form of atonement at all costs and the others who want to drop it altogether," says Berlin church historian Christoph Markschies, who as chair of the EKD theology advisory commission was one of the main authors. The study therefore aims "to explain why it makes sense to preserve this Christian heritage and not subject it to over-hasty critique". And so the first intention was to present the findings "calmly and objectively", Marschies explains.

The EKD text spans the period from the Bible to the present. It refers to hymns, performances of Bach's passions and films about Jesus, and describes the theology of the cross that they communicate. "Asking about the significance of Christ's Passion has not died down until this day, and will not die down in future either. That is a good thing," the study states. "This question stops his cross becoming a matter of course, a mere symbol of devotional humbling or even an object of decoration, so that we look at it we no longer hear the crucified one's cries of pain."

The authors devote a lot of space to historical interpretations of the suffering and dying of Jesus. Medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury's doctrine of satisfaction, that interprets Jesus' death as a sacrifice of atonement, is juxtaposed with Martin Luther's idea of Christ's vicarious death on the cross as an expression of God's love and mercy. Enlightenment theologians are also represented, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, who interprets Christ's death in terms of inmost compassion with the sin of the world.

"As no other symbol, the cross of Jesus Christ makes clear that the love of God treads the path of deepest humiliation, so that we may live," the EKD document states. The study, framed with an eye to the Reformation anniversary of 2017, engages intensively with Biblical findings: "Contemplating the death on the cross in the context of Biblical texts can clear away any suspicion that Golgatha was about executing a divine need for punishment.  On the contrary, behind the suffering of Jesus is God's passionate pressing for reconciliation - between humanity and God, and among human beings.

"The cross is the Christian sign of God's love of people and reconciliation with the world," EKD Council chair Heinrich Bedford-Strohm writes in his Foreword. Arising from this engagement with the theology of the cross, he sums up the authors' view: "Christian theology faces the challenge of explaining and developing its understanding of God's love in the cross ever anew."

 Barbara Schneider (epd)

27 March 2015

Für uns gestorben. Die Bedeutung von Leiden und Sterben Jesu Christi. Ein Grundlagentext des Rates der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), 194 Seiten, Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2015

(He died for us. The significance of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. A basic study of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany)

The study is (so far) only available in German.



extended search