Jesus and the Cross: Necessity, meaning and atonement


Laughlin, Peter Rod. (2008). Jesus and the Cross: Necessity, meaning and atonement [Thesis].
AuthorsLaughlin, Peter Rod
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The proliferation of alternative models of atonement in recent academic literature, many of which stand in complete contrast to the traditional teachings of the Church, raises the question of how to determine faithfulness to the Christian doctrine of redemption. This thesis contends that such determination can be made when the alternative model proposed is able to demonstrate sufficient continuity with the meaning that Jesus of Nazareth constituted for his death. To argue this point requires a five stage investigation. Firstly the recent rejection, both academic and popular, of the so-called 'myth' of redemptive suffering, insists that it be demonstrated that God can create meaning out of the contingent - and evil - event of the cross without becoming responsible for, or the transcendent cause of, Jesus' death. Taking a firm classical theistic stance it is argued that God can in no way will the death of Jesus because, as an evil contingent event, the cross falls outside the intelligibility of the divine providential order. Therefore, God is freely able to create meaning (ex nihilo) out of the event without validating and justifying the violence of the event itself. In addition, the upholding of a Chalcedonian Christology requires that the meaning which Jesus of Nazareth constituted for his death be understood to have divine significance, and thus should be investigated for what it reveals to a theological understanding of the cross. This leads to the second stage of the investigation which is to defend the theological right to engage in matters of history. Arguing for the value of critical realism, the point is made that a faith perspective does not negate the possibility of objective historical knowledge since, contrary to postmodernism, such knowledge does arise out of a spiralling dialogue between the knower and the object known.;The third stage then follows, which is to argue how historical investigation into the Jesus of history might be done. Building upon James Dunn's conception of impact, this study appropriates Bernard Lonergan's understanding of constitutive meaning in order to highlight how the world of meaning that Jesus constituted for his death might actually function to impact the world of meaning of his followers. It is argued that what takes place is the constitution of a new world of meaning in which authentic existence is redefined. This redefinition challenges the disciples' existing world of meaning and requires that they make an existential judgement of their own. But if such an impact is to occur then the challenge to the existing world of meaning must also be carried and it is here that historical investigation has its place. Drawing once more on the work of Bernard Lonergan, five carriers of meaning are identified, three of which (incarnate, linguistic and symbolic) are highlighted as the most relevant. The fourth stage of the investigation ensues, which is an engagement with recent historical Jesus research particularly that associated with N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Scot McKnight and Ben Meyer. The purpose here is not to develop a portrait of the historical Jesus for ourselves but to engage with existing research in a theologically fruitful way. Here then, we ask what can be known about Jesus' intention for the cross by means of the incarnate, linguistic and symbolic carriers of meaning. Completing the examination yields the conclusion that Jesus intended his death to have redemptive significance but such significance must be understood within the framework of Jesus' mission to inaugurate the kingdom of God. The fifth and final stage is to address how a contemporary understanding of that redemptive judgement should be appropriated for a modern atonement motif.;Primarily this is a movement from judgement to understanding, the contention being that a 'faithful' motif will be one that takes due consideration of the judgement of faith, which seeks fuller understanding.

PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupSchool of Theology
Final version
Publication dates20 Jun 2008
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