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Christ Crucified in a Suffering World

Hieb, Nathan D. Christ Crucified in a Suffering World: The Unity of Atonement and Liberation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), ix + 257 pp. $59.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by J. Scott Jackson (September 11, 2015)



How does the cross of Jesus Christ heal the suffering of the world and empower concrete struggles against injustice? All too often contemporary theologians create a false binary between traditional atonement doctrines and theologies of liberation. Nathan Hieb seeks to bridge that gap by means of a fresh reading and retooling of Karl Barth’s doctrine of atonement. This constructive work, a revision of the author’s doctoral thesis at Princeton Theological Seminary, draws upon a conceptual schema from G.F.W. Hegel’s phenomenology to illustrate how Barth integrates the spiritual-eternal and material-temporal aspects of salvation within a Chalcedonian Christology; to that end, he places Barth in conversation with the Thomas F. Torrance and Jon Sobrino. In Hieb’s reading, Torrance focuses one-sidedly on eternal salvation to the detriment of concrete socio-political engagement, whereas Sobrino errs by reducing salvation to the here-and-now in imitation of Jesus’ liberating example. Hieb writes:

Karl Barth’s understanding of the cross as atonement for sin and as liberation from unjust suffering furthers the dialogue between these positions by encompassing the central concerns of each. In this way, Barth’s theology implicitly directs those in the classically orthodox and liberationist camps to learn from each other and to augment weak areas in their own theologies with the other’s strengths (p. 2).

The first chapter lays out Hieb’s methodology, which retrieves four Hegelian analytical categories – externality, internality, particularity and universality – and shows how Barth weaves these concepts together within an incarnational Christology. For Hegel the doctrine of the Incarnation objectifies ideal existence in one human life; yet the particularity and externality of the Christ symbol is transitional and yields ultimately, in the crucifixion, to the internality and universality by which the community recognizes its own essential divinity and responsibility for constructing its own norms. With orthodox thinkers, by contrast, Barth maintains Christological particularity and the distinction between God and humanity. Like his student Torrance, Barth reiterates divine aseity (externality) and the uniqueness of Jesus (particularity), while also stressing the scope of salvation (universality) and its utter penetration in all spheres of experience (internality). Torrance, in Hieb’s reading, falls short by neglecting the material implications of salvation for concrete praxis in the world. Sobrino, conversely, errs by collapsing Christ’s saving role into that of the community, occluding the uniqueness of the Savior’s person and work.

Chapter two explores the basis for the asymmetrical unity of atonement and liberation in the doctrine of God (CD II/1). In the perfection of mercy, God enters fully into human distress, without being subsumed by it, in order to share and ultimately eradicate it. God’s compassion finds expression in the righteous desire to judge and destroy the power of sin that afflicts humanity, the ultimate root of suffering, according to Barth. In its particularity, Christ’s passion is comprehensive, revealing the true character of all misery. Death is both the natural endpoint to creaturely life and a sign of God’s judgment against sin. The covenant of grace establishes the internality of Christ’s reconciliation within the full scope of human life – forging what Barth calls an “objective, inner connection” (p. 81) between Christ’s suffering and ours. The answer to the theodicy problem is that our agonies have become God’s own. Ethical and political imperatives flow from the divine righteousness that makes us righteous, foreshadowed in the abiding concern for the poor and oppressed in the Old Testament.

Chapters three through five deepen these themes through a close reading of Barth’s account of atonement in CD IV. As Hieb ably shows in chapter three, Barth constructs three distinctive accounts of atonement which cannot be harmonized in one schema: the forensic and priestly (in CD IV/1), and the Christus Victor models (CD IV/3.1). Atonement is rooted Jesus’ identity as the eternal Son who enters human history to transform it from within; thus, all suffering is subsumed into that of Christ and becomes an “echo” of his. Whereas Torrance fails to trace the social dimension of sin and Sobrino essentially reduces evil to social injustice, Barth unites the spiritual and material dimensions. Still, Sobrino’s incisive focus on concrete liberation struggles, in Latin America or elsewhere, might serve as a corrective to Barth, drawing out some heretofore unarticulated sociopolitical implications of his dogmatics.

Hieb masterfully exposits Barth’s discussion of Christ as victor of the forces of darkness; Christ is the true witness whose prophetic vocation elicits the opposition of the forces of darkness and distortion. The believer’s struggle against untruth is clearly subordinate to the God’s unique revelation in Christ. For Barth, Christ’s essential divinity guarantees an ultimate, eschatological victory over evil and suffering that remains out of reach for Sobrino, who stresses the ongoing, asymptotic struggle for justice in history. Torrance sees social suffering and injustice as defeated at its roots when Christ destroys the power of sin on the cross, but he fails to extend this account of atonement into the concrete material struggles of society.

Chapter four (focusing especially on CD IV/3.2) shifts the discussion to more concrete, practical concerns. The church’s militant vocation in proclaiming the Gospel and alleviating suffering is rooted in Christ’s prior kenotic act of self-giving love and service. Christians are obedient to their calling by bearing witness to the atonement Christ has accomplished personally and uniquely. The vocation of the church plays out in what Barth calls “world-occurrence,” which forms the context and environment for discipleship. Against this backdrop, the vocation of Christ and his followers elicits the opposition of human confusion, the absurd and rootless phenomenon that denies providence and eschews salvation. Hieb lifts up two dimensions of Christian vocation that participate in Christ’s prior victor: namely, the diaconate, which calls forth active service to the least of the world in their material suffering, and prophecy, which speaks truth to power under the authority of the gospel. As Barth perceives, the Gospels reveal Jesus’ profound concern to meet and alleviate human suffering, especially in the feeding and healing miracles, but Torrance’s “pessimism” about material life prompts him to spiritualize these accounts.

The fifth chapter explores the affliction and liberation intrinsic to Christian life. We learn from Barth’s discussion on “The Dignity of the Cross” (CD IV/2) and “The Christian in Affliction” (CD IV/3.2) the costly character of Christian witness in a world that opposes Christ’s reconciliation. Following their Savior, Christians too bear their own crosses, becoming immersed into deep solidarity with the plights of others. This process teaches humility, serves as a reminder of the gravity of the cross as judgment of sin, and issues in deeper trust in God. Christian praxis may elicit hatred and even persecution, as it did for Christ himself. In a mysterious way, believers participate in the sufferings of Christ. “Christian affliction attests to the true character of all human suffering as affliction in union and solidarity with Christ under the shadow of his cross” (p. 217). This is the basis for liberation, in Barth’s broad construal of the term. This emphasis in such thinkers as Sobrino and Gustavo Gutierrez, Hieb argues, can be incorporated in Barth’s own incarnational account. He writes:

The incarnation is fundamentally God’s act of solidarity with sinful, suffering humanity in order to set humanity free from its sin and suffering. In a similar way, those who enter poverty through their participation in Christian mission do not valorize conditions of unjust suffering but willingly suffer deprivation in order to end the unjust misery of the poor (p. 221).

In addition to his deft analytical and constructive reading of primary texts, Hieb shares illustrative personal anecdotes from his ministry experiences among the poor and marginal in Minneapolis and India. These reveal something of the existential implications of the project; for my part, I would have liked to read more of them and to see them more integrated in a work that trades in abstract categories and close exegesis of major theological texts. Nonetheless, this compelling volume makes a notable contribution to studies of Barth, Torrance and liberation theologies. Hieb’s study also should enrich, more broadly, constructive theologians and ethicists who are seeking a more integrative paradigm that unleashes the transformational possibilities of classic Christian doctrine.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.