June 26, 2012

Re-Thinking the Cross as Christian Symbol

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The cross is a strange object for representing Christianity. It is common knowledge that it was the principal method of torture used by the ancient Romans—a means of controlling the peoples they conquered. Today it crowns the steeples of churches, features prominently inside the chancel in either crucifix form (Jesus on the cross) or Roman form (empty), worn as an item of jewelry to express piety or faith, used as logo on bumper stickers, and more. I suppose the cross more than anything has come to symbolize modern Christianity—even in Progressive Christian churches.

     The earliest Christians did not use the cross as a symbol. We have relics identifiable as Christian emerging from the fog of history in the late second century, but the cross first appears as a Christian symbol with Constantine in the fourth century. The earliest Christian symbols, etched in stone, were: a lamb, an anchor, a vase, a dove, a boat, an olive branch, the Orante (hands uplifted), a palm or tree, bread, a shepherd, fish, and a vine and grapes.

     The later use of the cross to symbolize Christianity is likely due (who can be sure about such things?) to the prominence of Paul’s writings in the fourth-century New Testament canon. In Paul’s view Jesus’ death on the cross was configured in God’s mind and foretold by the prophets in the (Hebrew) Scriptures: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). The reason he died, according to Paul, was to pay for human sins. This explanation of Jesus’ death is first attested in Paul’s letters, although it surely preceded him, and was shared by nearly all Christian writers. Nevertheless not even Paul in his earliest letter pushed a crucifixion theology. In First Thessalonians neither cross nor crucifixion is mentioned. Paul refers to Jesus’ death as a “killing by the Judeans” (not by the Romans, 1 Thess 2:15). He did, however, regard Christ as “dying for us” (1 Thess 5:10). Paul’s view of the death of Jesus was institutionalized in the Nicene Creed (middle 4th century), which reads “crucified for us.” This pro nobis (“for us”) statement is not in the other early creeds.

     Nevertheless, in spite of this pervasive understanding of Jesus’ death in the literature some writers experimented with understanding Jesus’ death in other ways. First Peter 2:18-24, for example, toyed with the idea that Christ’s death frees us to live as he lived: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). In the Secret Book of James (middle second century) the Lord’s death if remembered brings life: “Remember my cross and my death and you shall live (Secret Book of James 6:3-7). In Secret James there is no language of Jesus dying on behalf of others or of people being saved from God’s wrath. One view put on the lips of the Roman centurion by Mark sees Jesus’ death as simply the death of a righteous man: “Surely this man was a son of god” (Mark 15:39). The statement associates Jesus with the demi-gods of Greco-Roman tradition. In the Gospel of John Jesus’ death was his moment of glorification and exaltation (John 3:14-15; 12:23-33). In more speculative groups Christ was a spirit, a light being, who came from outside the natural world and took over the body of a human being named Jesus. Before the crucifixion, the spiritual light-being, Christ, left his human host (Apocalypse of Peter 81-82). While the man Jesus died, the heavenly Christ did not. The Didache does not mention the death of Jesus or understand the Lord’s Supper as the Synoptic Gospels do (“my body and blood given for you”). In Didache 10:2-3 Jesus, the Child of God, is not an instrument of salvation, but rather through him we are blessed with eternal light, and spiritual food and drink. In saying 55 of the Gospel of Thomas, which does not have a cross/crucifixion theology, the cross appears to symbolize single minded devotion.

     The sense on the part of some early writers that the traditional explanation for the death of Jesus was insufficient, and the fact that the earliest Christian art did not use a cross symbol call for rethinking the cross as Christianity’s primary symbol. The diversity of early Christian art forms suggests that the earliest Christians found values in their faith that could not be symbolized by a cross and a narrow focus on the death of Jesus. The mission of a contemporary community of faith is multi-dimensional, and includes cares, concerns, programs, and interests not adequately captured by a cross and a primary focus on Jesus’ death. Perhaps other symbols might better express the church’s multi-dimensional character. For example, consider a “lighthouse” (whether stylized or realistic depiction) as one possibility. It has obvious connections to the early ancient symbols (anchor, boat, and fish) and it has an obvious symbolical connection to learning, guidance, and prophetic warning. It evokes mental images of a safe home harbor, and it has already been used in hymns (“Let the Lower Lights be Burning,” Philip. P. Bliss, 1838-1876; “Lead, Kindly Light,” John B. Dykes, 1823-1876). Are there other suggestions, or do you regard the cross symbol as more utilitarian than I do?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:51am

Dear Dr. Hedrick: Thank you for your thoughtful, inquiring essay about the cross.

I believe the cross, absent the body of Jesus, is a symbol of transformation, akin to the Phoenix of ancient myth. The cross isn't just the place where Christ died, it is the launching pad from which He performend the redemptive act of Resurrection. Christ advised us to "take up your cross and follow me" (Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23), well-known passages. The transformation in question if our own personal transformation, the perfection of our character (self-crufixion if you like) on the path of purification leading to enlightenment.

Our personal cross can also be seen as our burden, our "sin", or or unresolved karma from our present and previous earth lives.
"Freed from that power which all men binds Is he who self-mastery finds". Goethe

I believe the Roman church has used the cross with the bloodied body of Jesus on it to manipulate its followers, whom they refer to as "sheep". As a former Irish Catholic I know full well the role that guilt plays in shaping the mind and worldview of devoted (or slavish) followers of the papacy.
Paul OLeary
Posted by Paul OLeary on 6/30/2012 at 10:06am

Hi Paul,
You have an interesting take on the cross and clearly you find it more utilitarian than I do. Are there others who share your views? In other words if you were to wear it on your lapel as a decorative symbol, how many people would instantly recognize that the cross symbolizes what you said it did for you. And if someone asked you what the cross symbolized, with which of the two symbolical contents of the cross that you described in your blog would you answer? My question for those who redefine the meaning of the cross and continue to use it as religious symbol is this: given the pervasiveness of the “sacrifice for us” idea of the cross in modern Christendom, isn’t it inevitable that new meanings of the cross don’t stand a chance at gaining a foothold in the common market of religious ideas?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 6/30/2012 at 2:05pm

Hello, Dr. Hedrick,
I just wanted to note that Justin Martyr, in the Dialogue with Trypho, made a big deal of the “mystery of the cross” around the middle of the second century.
Dennis Dean Carpenter (I was at the JSOR in Brevard last year.)
(Enjoy reading your blogs!)
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 6/29/2012 at 1:08pm

Like most progressive Christians, I do not believe in substitutionary death. We did, however, decide to place a cross in the worship space of our church when we acquired it from the Jehovah's Witnesses (who do not use any symbols in their churches) because it reflects a historical reality (whether Jesus was, in fact, stoned by his peers or nailed to a cross by the government). Though Buddha, Moses and Mohammed are believed to have lived out lengthy natural lives, Jesus' life was cut short because of the urgency and passion of his message. That seems to be something worth remembering in modern congregations. The message of this historical Jesus may be life enhancing in some dimensions but if it is not also transformational and prophetic for the community then we may be hitting a low mark. If there is no substantive risk in the church's message then it seems likely to have little to do with the historical Jesus.
Roger Ray, D.Min.
Posted by Roger Ray on 6/27/2012 at 12:47pm

Thank you Charlie for this most helpful and informative review of the evolution of the Cross as Christian symbol. I found it meaningful.
Edward R. Smith
Posted by Edward R. Smith on June 26, 2012 at 3:32pm

I do believe there was some use of a crucifix in early Christian art--representing Christ's death--but not the barren cross. Since the cross, as you pointed out, historically speaking, was a symbol of torture.
Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on June 26, 2012 at 2:48pm
Good Morning Cody!
If you can track down that bit of information (the earlier appearance of the cross as a Christian symbol) I would like to know about it. Here is my source for “Christian” art forms in the late second through the third centuries (with the cross conspicuous by its absence): Graydon F. Snyder,
Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine ([Macon, GA]: Mercer University Press, 1985), 26-29. The term “Christian” as applied to any symbols before the fourth and fifth centuries may be misleading, however. The roots of what later became (in the fourth and fifth centuries) Christian was rather different from the movement following Constantine.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 6/27/2012 at 10:34am