Sacrifice to end sacrifice

01 February 2007

This study sheds fresh light on the cross, says Edward Dowler

Saved from Sacrifice: A theology of the cross
S. Mark Heim

Mark Heim presents us with a fully orchestrated (perhaps slightly over-orchestrated: it is long) reading of Christ’s Passion, along principles suggested by René Girard. He argues that characteristics embedded in us urge us to develop sacrificial systems. Our extraordinary capacity for interaction, for openness to one another, for mimesis, creates in us the ability to come together in communities, and to progress. Yet this same capacity also fosters mutual aggression: “anger, suspicion, and fear ricochet quickly from one mind to another like light bouncing from mirror to mirror, and their power multiplies.”

So we find ourselves locked in destructive cycles of retributive violence, in which the only apparent way out of social crisis is to find a scapegoat on to whom the community’s violence can be channelled. This violent solution is ultimately no solution at all.

The biblical narratives are not strangers to this violent dynamic, but in the biblical narratives, unlike many myths, scapegoating violence does not go unquestioned. Old Testament books such as Job and the Psalms often present us with a victim’s-eye view: “on my right hand the rabble rise, they drive me forth, they cast up against me their ways of destruction” (Job 30.12).

This perspective is supremely embodied in the Passion narratives, in which the full reality of the violence inherent in sacrificial systems is “from the point of view of the victim, who was unmistakably visible as unjustly accused and wrongly killed”. In Jesus’s death, God does not, as Anselm and his later followers would argue, save us through the mechanics of the sacrificial system, but, rather, from them. God “is not the proprietor of redemptive violence”; he “has healed us of our dependence on that sad medicine”. The NT writers’ reflection on the Passion subverts the normal rules of sacrifice by highlighting the innocence of the victim and the injustice of the sacrificial process: it becomes a “sacrifice to end sacrifice”.


Just behind the arras of this subtle and scholarly book lurk some figures familiar from the American (and to a lesser extent the British) religious scene: the hard-headed fundamentalists, committed to a blood-and-guts theology of penal substitution; and the warm and woolly liberals, whose embarrassment about the bodily processes so visible in the Passion narratives verges on the Docetic. Heim quotes the words of one such: “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.”

As Heim convincingly argues, the biblical narratives undermine both these groups by presenting us with a “stereoscopic” view, in which scapegoating sacrifice is present in its full and horrifying physical reality — and is simultaneously subverted and undermined.

Catholic Christianity has never adopted an official theory of the cross: a single interpretation that excludes or dwarfs all others — a fact that many advocates of penal substitution seem slow to admit. At times, contrary to what appears to be his intention, it feels as though Heim is presenting us with such a totalising theory. The contention that we are “saved from (and not by) sacrifice” can seem to be a piece of special knowledge that, when we have it, will make other data click into place. The occasional sense that the book was claiming to expose a previously hidden truth about the “gods of the traditional sacred” made me catch, perhaps uncharitably, some fleeting flavour of Da Vinci Code baloney.

But, at his best, Heim persuasively re-reads the tradition, and this work will need to be reckoned with in time to come. As we approach Lent, it will shed fresh light on some of the scriptural texts that are central to the climax of the Church’s year.

The Revd Dr Dowler is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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