Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

A good Friday to all of you.  I guess it's easy to call it a good day since we're not the ones being brutally executed.  This is the second post in our four-part Holy Week series.  Yesterday's Holy Thursday post is here.

Personally, I have a hard time with Good Friday services for some of the same reasons I struggle with some Advent services: I don't care for the way the prophetic texts are applied/interpreted.  One of my very favorite services is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast every Christmas Eve on BBC Radio from the Chapel of King's College.  It's absolutely beautiful.  But it grates on me that the prophetic texts are interpreted as being relevant to the birth of Christ.  I have the same qualms about certain elements of Good Friday services.

But the biggest difficulty Good Friday poses for me is how to find meaning in this holy day outside the context of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, which I don't believe in.  Most people, however, do believe in this idea.  Or at least they say they do.  And from that flows a whole system of what I consider unsatisfying theology.  Dissent from that idea and you'll quickly find yourself on the outside of almost any church or religious community.  One of the best books I've ever read on this subject is Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.  The author, Rev. Dr. S. Mark Heim, is a professor at Andover-Newton School of Theology, a joint American Baptist/UCC seminary.  I strongly encourage you to read it if you consider yourself a believing Christian but you have qualms about prevailing views of atonement.

A lot of church people point out that you'd have no Easter Sunday without Good Friday.  Yet, for a number of practical and emotional reasons, most people skip Good Friday observances.  Every year, millions of people crowd into churches on Easter having given no thought to Jesus' crucifixion a few days before.  This includes not just twice-a-year churchgoers, but also a significant number of people who think of themselves as very mature Christians.  Personally, I think they would do well to immerse themselves more fully in the liturgy, music, and ritual of Good Friday observances.

In Catholicism, it is a fast day, but not a holy day of obligation.  Still, Catholics fill churches and cathedrals around the world to observe Good Friday.  Here's an interesting (and I would assume unauthorized) clip from a papal service at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome two years ago.  I did not see His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, but you can see the cardinals processing in and kissing the feet of Jesus.  The music is Palestrina's setting of the Popule meus.

A lot of Protestant observances include the Seven Last Words of Christ (scriptural citations quoting Jesus' utterances during his crucifixion).  Even in relatively "high church" traditions, the starkness of the service is meant to be arresting: no colors, no paraments, little if any musical accompaniment to hymns and solos, etc.

Here's a moving rendition of the old spiritual "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord."

A lot of art and icons present Christ alone on the cross.  Of course, many of these are moving and beautiful.  I also like the images that depict the others present at the crucifixion.  Here is Raphael's Descent from the Cross.


  1. OK, so I gotta ask you, Jacob. If Jesus didn't die as a substitute for our sins, then why did He die? Which view of atonement do you hold to and what Scripture do you base it on? Not trying to sound like a fundy here, but I don't understand how any other view I'm aware of fits in with Scripture.

    Also, I wanted to mention that I went to my first Tenebrae service last year on Good Friday at my church, Christ's Church of Yukon. It was one of my first services there and it was so good and so cross-centered that I skipped my usual routine of watching Passion of the Christ during Passion Week. We're having a service tonight, but I understand it's going to be a little more casual this year.



  2. Cool, glad you found the Tenebrae service meaningful. I have actually never seen the Passion movie. I always figured once you see something, you can't "unsee" it, and I didn't want a movie to shape my view of the Crucifixion.

    You know my views are pretty unorthodox. I guess if I had to pick one of the classical atonement theories, I'd go with the moral influence view, which has ample scriptural and historical support, and was widely held in Christian antiquity. But everyone uses the Bible to justify their views. I really do recommend the Heim book I referenced above.

  3. In my opinion, it's good to get a visual image. Yes, it still wasn't as extreme as His death was, but it did the best job yet of portraying it.

    Moral influence? So, Jesus simply died as an example for how to live? Yes, He did say that true love is to lay down your life for your friends, but certainly His death accomplished more than that? Otherwise, we are still dead in sin and destined for hell. But I guess we'll at least be good moral citizens of hell...

    Hope you check out my Good Friday blog as well. I further addressed this issue.

  4. Jacob,

    I know this is like a year after you wrote this, but I don't think your views are all that unorthodox. I too, struggle with substitutionary atonement and I've also read a little Mark Heim along with lots of other theologians. Of course, I'm a PC USA seminary student who loves systematic theology and who took a whole semester course in Christology and atonement so I've heard a wide variety of opinions on this. There are at least two other views of atonement widely held: Christus Victor and Moral Exemplar. I am not sure that I completely reject substitutionary atonement, but I do wonder who demanded the substitution: was it God or was it us? The views of atonement aren't mutually exclusive either.

    I wrote a paper in which my main critique of Anselm (the theologian who came up with substitutionary atonement) was that he came up with the concept because he didn't want to impose external necessity upon the metaphysical nature of God. As a budding reformed theologian, how could I not agree with that premise? However, I would assert that a medieval concept of male honor is in fact an external necessity of a cultural variety. I've also read a bit on honor culture and feminism.

    I find this interesting because I almost became an atheist at OBU after an Introduction to Missions class of all things. It was a book by the Calvinist John Piper that we used as a text book that made me want to not be a Christian anymore. Eternal hell and substitutionary atonement are two of the things that a lot of non-Christians and mainline Christians seem to struggle. I would argue that maybe this has as much to do with a cultural change away from a male honor centered culture. Our modern struggles with sexuality have everything to do with this as well. When we look at theology, we have to ask ourselves if male honor is a cultural lens that adversely affects our reading? For an example, google "the Heliand" a Germanized gospel that depicts Jesus as a warrior.

    Yes, I'm kind of passionate about this topic and plan to write a book on it someday. To that end, I wish I could find Dr. Wester because he is the OBU professor who helped me the most when I started to doubt and question.

    And now back to my homework.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Holly. Of all the atonement views, I'd say Christus Victor has the best music (Thine Be the Glory, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Thine Be the Glory, etc). And Moral Exemplar definitely provides a way for those who are less enthusiastic about the doctrine of penal substitution to believe in the atonement honestly and with integrity.


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