Scorn and shame. Blood and pain. Such is the reality of death on a cross. So how did this executioner’s device and symbol of Roman torture become the locus of redemption and the power of God for salvation, a symbol that adorns churches, homes, and even necklaces?
By exploring St. Paul’s epistles, their surrounding context in early Jewish literature, and their reception and interpretation in the history of the church, Jonathan Linebaugh paints a rich vision of the cross and its theological and practical import for all of life. While “the cross is the site of weakness and shame, of degradation and death,” it is precisely where “God acts in and at the nothingness of ‘Christ crucified’ to contradict and overcome the conditions of the possible” (xv). Linebaugh reintroduces us to the impossible folly of the cross as “a wisdom beyond the world, a power beyond the possible, and a miracle whose name is Jesus Christ” (xvi).
In our day, when the arresting power and shocking force of the cross easily gets numbed and neutered, when crosses are printed on everything from t-shirts to napkins, when even Christians yawn at the cross and churches have emptied the cross of its bloodied Jesus, Linebaugh recaptures its original impact as a paradoxical and earth-shaking reality of the New Kingdom. Linebaugh combines prose and artistry, scholarly theology and literary reflection, which is rare for authors in this genre. Classic writers including Cervantes, Melville, Hugo, and Auden find their place next to Paul, Luther, Cranmer, and Barth, making for some interesting conversation partners and invigorating insights, too. As C.S Lewis once put it, imagination is the organ of meaning. Poetry and story resonate and communicate in ways that theological formulations and doctrinal statements don’t always do. Linebaugh’s bridging of the literary and the theological, the historical and the contemporary helps truth sink its roots into our minds and hearts. What results is a fresh, expansive view of the cross and its shape and significance—both now and in eternity.
Also worth noting is Linebaugh’s exegesis of Paul’s enigmatic phrase “it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.” He explains, “Galatians 2:20 confesses an I that no longer lives and an I that now lives. The relationship between these two lives is described as death: ‘I have been crucified with Christ.’ The exegetical challenge is both to identify each I and also to ask if and in what sense each I can be identified with the other: who no longer lives, who now lives, and are the two related despite being divided by death?” (57). Linebaugh answers, “the Pauline pattern of defining death and life in relation to Christ is thus a form of preaching the Pauline gospel: a person is not determined by what they have inherited or achieved—not by biology or biography, by pedigree or performance—but by God’s gift in Jesus Christ” (63). Christians “live both outside ourselves and in another: extra nos and in Christo. The life that is confessed as ‘not I, but Christ in me’ is grounded outside of the self and in relationship to Christ.” This blessed exchange “is not just an exchange of properties (i.e., our sin for Christ’s righteousness); it is also a communion of persons” (68). Here we are brought to the actual personal power of the gospel as pro nobis, for us. As Linebaugh puts it, “the power is the meeting of the christological past and a personal pronoun, a pairing that gives peace to ‘a trembling and troubled heart’ and ‘rest to your bones and mine’” (72). Here we find not only a rich answer to the perennial question of who I am, but more importantly a grounding in whose I am.
Reading Paul in Context and Conversation
In his chapter drawing together the Epistle of Enoch and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he traces points of commonality and divergence when it comes to the eschaton and God’s judgment. While Enoch offers a picture of eschatological justice meted out according to righteous deeds, that is, an apocalypse and re-creation that “overturns the apparent [present] justification of the ungodly,” the Epistle to the Romans puts forward the cross as apocalypse, that is, an eschatological demonstration of God’s justice and mercy. Here we find that the first act of re-creation, “is an act of de-creation: the judgment of the world in the cross…. In the eschatological judgment that is the cross, sinners are destroyed. But out of their post-judgment nothingness, the resurrecting God re-creates” (142).
Reading Paul with Readers of Paul
The chapter on the development of Luther’s view of law and gospel is evidence of what all Christians can glean from Luther, namely, the inherent tension between God’s word of Law and his word of Gospel. “God’s word of law condemns and seals the tomb of the old; God’s word of gospel redeems and rolls away the stone” (219). At the core of Paul’s gospel-grammar is this antithesis, which “names and negates the old as it identifies and announces the new….This is a grammar that both names a battle and proclaims the victor: the end of the old cosmos and from that nothingness, new creation” (177).
The most challenging parts of the book will likely be the background theological knowledge that is assumed, and the untranslated quotations in Greek, Latin and other languages common in theological discourse. This is par for the course in academic theology, but readers will find working through these challenges worth the effort.
For anyone desiring a deeper grasp of Paul’s theology and the centrality of the cross, Linebaugh’s work should be included. Not only is Linebaugh’s work on historical and contemporary sources on Paul and the New Testament strong, Linebaugh’s pastoral heart also shines through in his poetic, doxological reveling in the great mystery of the incarnation, and his focus on the for you of the gospel. Theology is no academic exercise for Linebaugh; it is about the comforting gift of the gospel for sin-wearied souls, which “is Jesus Christ, the gift who contradicts the old and creates the new” (175). And that is a message that never gets old.
Joshua Pauling taught high school history for thirteen years and is now a classical educator and furniture-maker. He is head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Modern Reformation, Public Discourse, Quillette, Salvo, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.