The stripping of the cross: the cosmic cross of early Christianity and the naked cross of modern theology
The early third-century dialogue by Minucius Felix gives voice to the Roman revulsion towards anyone who would venerate “a criminal put to death for his crimes, and the wood of the death-dealing cross” (Octavius 9). The Christian speaker replies that Christ’s followers do not worship the cross; it is only pagans who worship bits of wood. Yet he adds that the cross is not only a symbol of death. The Roman military signa and victory trophies are also designed in the form of the cross. And one sees “the sign of the cross” inscribed on nature and culture: the mast of a ship, the spread oars, a worshipper with outstretched arms. “In this way the order of nature [ratio naturalis] leans on the sign of the cross” (Octavius 29).
Minucius Felix borrowed these examples from Justin Martyr, who around the middle of the second century had offered a fulsome account of the cosmic significance of the cross. The form (schēma) of the cross, Justin says, is written into the order of nature and of Roman culture alike:
For consider everything in the cosmos. Without this form they could not be governed or interrelated. The sea is not traversed unless this token of victory – a sail – remains safe in the ship. The land is not ploughed without it. Diggers and craftsmen do not do their work except from tools which have this form. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals only in the way it stands erect with hands stretched out – and also in the way the nose extends from the forehead, providing breath for the living creature, and showing no other form than that of the cross…. And the power of this form is shown by your own symbols on what are called standards and trophies…. Without realising it, you use these [crosses] as the signs of your rule and power. (First Apology 55)Not long afterwards, Tertullian used the same arguments to point out the irony of Roman contempt for the cross. “All those rows of images on the standards are ornaments hung on crosses. Those hangings on your standards and banners are robes upon crosses. I commend you for your thoughtfulness! You didn’t want to consecrate crosses naked and unadorned” (Apology 16).
By the fourth century, the instinctive revulsion for the cross had begun to recede in Greco-Roman culture, and Christian apologists took more freedom than ever in adorning the cross with symbolic meanings. When Athanasius wants to prove that death by crucifixion was “fitting” for God’s plan, he produces an impressive array of cross-symbols. The outstretched arms show that Christ has united Jews and Gentiles in himself. It shows that Christ has opened the way to heaven. It shows his triumph over the demonic powers of the air: “only the one who ends his life on the cross dies in the air” (On the Incarnation 26).
Gregory of Nyssa disregarded Athansius’ arguments and preferred the earlier cosmic reflections of Justin Martyr. The cross, Gregory says, is a symbol of the way the Logos unites the disparate elements of creation. Gregory suggests that St Paul was imagining a cosmic cross when he said that every knee would bow “in heaven” and “on earth” and “under the earth” (Phil 2.10), and when he prayed that the Ephesians would come to understand the “depth” and “height” and “breadth” and “length” (Eph 3.18). “In shape [the cross] is divided into four parts in which a way that the four arms converge in the middle. He who was extended on it at the time God’s plan was fulfilled in his death is the one who binds all things to himself and makes them one” (Catechetical Oration 32).
Though Gregory seems only half-persuaded by his own arguments – he notes that he is only repeating what he has heard from other Christians – he makes a clear statement of the reason for attaching such symbolic meanings to the cross. It is because of christology: “In the death we should see the human element; but from the manner of the death we should seek to penetrate its divine significance” (Catechetical Oration 32).
It is true that the cross was a brute fact in history. It was wood planted in the earth. But a merely wooden cross would be a half-truth. It would show the fact of Jesus’ death without conveying its meaning. Gregory’s references to St Paul are admittedly fanciful, but he is nevertheless quite right to assume that there was never a stage of early Christianity in which the cross was not already a theological symbol.
Neither St Paul nor the writers of the Gospels regard the cross as a brute fact. The cross could not at any rate have been a brute fact for anybody in the first century. Crucifixion was never just an unpleasant way to die. It was a symbol of Roman power. That symbol was every bit as public and as well-understood as the military standards borne by legions of soldiers. The first Christians had to think symbolically about the cross, since their Messiah had already been forcefully absorbed into the symbolic system of imperial power. One way or another the death of Jesus meant something, and what it meant was symbolised by a cross.
The tactics of the early Christian apologists are strange to us now. Nobody today would explain the significance of the cross by comparing it to a ship’s mast or the unity of the four cosmic elements or the shape of a person’s nose. But even at their most fanciful, these apologetic experiments contain an important half-truth: the cross is more than a brute fact in history; it is part of a system of meaning involving God and creation and everything.
If one strand of the history of early Christianity is the story of the transformation of the cross from a Roman symbol into a Christian symbol, then a strand of the history of modern theology is the story of a concerted effort to strip the cross of its accumulated layers of meaning. What modern theologians want is a naked cross, the brute fact of wood planted in earth and soaked with human blood. If it is to be a symbol at all, let it be a symbol not of life and religion and culture but of power and oppression.
The Romans invented the cross and the Christians stole it from them. Modern theologians have returned it to its original owners.
This stripping of the cross was a valid and necessary exercise in a world whose systems of power had been so thoroughly Christianised that the cross had come to resemble, more than ever, a standard raised before a marching army. The transformation of the cross into a Christian symbol had been a half-truth. But the stripping of the cross in modern theology is a half-truth too. If we see the cross only as a symbol of power and oppression, we should ask whether we have gone so far as to turn ourselves into Romans instead of Christians.
It is good that modern theology has taught us again to see the cross as “foolishness” (1 Cor 1.18). But we also need eyes to perceive “God’s might and God’s wisdom” (1 Cor 1.24) in the brute and foolish fact of the cross. To see the human element, as Gregory of Nyssa said, while also “penetrating its divine significance.”