Jesus Christ died for the sins of all men, to offer them eternal life, if each man would accept it. Throughout the history of the Church, various groups have tried to claim the death of Christ for their own ideological ends.* As we look forward to Good Friday this week, let’s take a look at a verse from St. Paul that gives us insight into three of those heresies the Church has faced which sought to hijack the Passion.
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.” -Galatians 3:27-29
- Neither Jew nor Greek- The Judaizers in the 1st century tried to claim that Christ died to be the the Savior only of those followed the Law of Moses. They got shot down at the Council of Jersualem (see Acts 15). Jesus is not the Savior of Jews only. Baptism, not circumcision, became the new standard.
- What was so appealing about the Judaizers’ claim? It seemed to be preserving tradition, until one considered that Christ’s teachings went back to God’s intentions “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).
- What led to its downfall? Ultimately, it taught that Christ Himself wasn’t enough. Instead, it posited that Christians would need to belong to all the covenants.
- Neither slave nor free person – The mid- to late-20th century saw the rise, especially in South America, of liberation theology, which tries to claim the death of Christ as the execution of a proto-Marxist class-struggle social rebel overturning oppressive regimes. (A distinctly North American twist made headlines in 2008 with news that Obama’s long-time pastor was the famous black liberation theologian Jeremiah Wright. Update: Fr. Z just posted on Facebook a link to this very informative article on the subject.)
- What has been so appealing about liberation theology’s claim? It’s all too tempting to make Jesus the Savior of “me and mine.” Although initially intended as an inspiration to the poor and oppressed, liberation theology with its Marxist language quickly became in the hands of radicals a justification for the overthrow of unjust economic and political systems motivated by violence. Claiming Christ as a victim of oppression gives a martyr to the cause. It also emphasized the community of believers rather than God Himself, set the laity against the clergy (via class-warfare), and diluted personal guilt for sin into sin as an effect of social conditions, making sinners into victims. (That’s a short summary.) Lastly, it neglected orthodoxy in favor of encouraging its own version of orthopraxis (not a far cry from “I don’t really believe in the Church’s teachings, but I’m basically a good person and I help the poor”).
- What will lead to its downfall? Jesus came to bring justice on a societal level, but more to the point, on an individual level. Where liberation theology tends to claim that I am a victim of sin because society drove me to my crimes, the reality is that society is made up of individuals. Those individuals need to be converted if society is to become a Christian culture of justice and peace. (Yet, even then, the virtue of society is to serve the virtue and salvation of all its members). Lastly, Christ died to put us into communion with God because we drastically need Him and His Truth, not simply to give us an example of how to be a good humanitarian. In fact, the charity of being in a relationship with God includes helping the poor (part of orthopraxis), and the doctrine of the Church encourages it, but orthodoxy rises far beyond it. Serving the poor, great as it is, can never be as good as contemplating the truth of God (just ask Martha and Mary). As to the radical extensions of liberation theology, while at first glance, it might even seem consistent with the somewhat violent gospel image of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple (Matthew 21:12-17), we must remember that Jesus was peaceful and deliberately put a stop to violence (Matthew 26:51-52), even when it meant being crucified among revolutionaries who mocked Him (Matthew 27:38, Luke 23:39). While He did prefer the poor, He never advocated uprisings. None of this is to say that there aren’t oppressed peoples in the world today, nor that Christ would disapprove of their legitimate attempts to seek freedom, but reducing the Gospel to the message of hope for the poor, or using Christ to legitimize illegitimate attempts at gaining equality is another thing entirely.
Neither male nor female - Feminist theologians, also in the mid- to late-20th century, tried to claim Christ for themselves, some even going so far as to give Him gender reassignment and a new name, Christa. They often went further, stating that God Himself is feminine in nature, citing the Old Testament concept of Sophia (Wisdom).
- What has been so appealing about the feminist Christology claim about Christ’s death? In our era of equality for women, some have tried to make men and women the same. If men stand apart from women, unique with traits of their own, they are perceived as a threat. The feminization of Christ, or of God altogether, is an attempt to eliminate this threat. Much like the liberation theologians, these radical feminists see a crucified Christa as a victim of a patriarchal society which can be exploited for the feminist cause. They often treat the “reality” of His female gender as a gnostic detail, thereby engaging the pride of holding “secret knowledge” while simultaneously keeping such controversial views out of the public eye where they would be soundly defeated.
- What will lead to its downfall? To change even such basic facts as the Messiah’s gender from the historical account in the gospels is to call into question the integrity of the entire Christian message, which relies on the same Divine Revelation they alter. The attempt to make Christ relevant to women has the opposite effect – it makes Christianity irrelevant to all by claiming it as ideology rather than reality. It was a man who died on the cross, and a woman, a mother, whose heart was pierced at the foot of that cross. As for Sophia (Wisdom) in the Old Testament, she is an allegorical character meant to reveal one attribute of God, a fact Catholics have no trouble with, as we have never claimed that God had a literal gender – He is pure spirit – but we have claimed that the work of God reflects Him. God is neither male nor female, but male and female both exist in His image, and so either sex can be utilized in allegory to help us understand Him (Isaiah 49:15 and Luke 13:34 come to mind), but the masculine is preferred by Scripture and Tradition, and by God Himself, who chose to come as a man, and who, as a man, made numerous references to God as “Father.”
The sacrifice of Christ was sufficient for all humanity and efficacious for all the elect, those who would follow Him in faith, hope, and charity. The attempts of these
alternative Christologies heresies to hijack the Passion and Death of Christ all ultimately fail because they would remake the sacrifice of Christ into an event to be used for the self-advancement of some portion of humanity – they sacrifice the truth of Christ at the altar of tradition or social action. This Friday, remember: Jesus Christ died to offer each of us eternal life – let’s not limit it to ourselves and our causes. Go spread the Good News!
*See Jimmy Akin’s work on the Calvinist doctrine of “Limited Atonement,” which similarly tries to limit the salvific work of Christ.