As we celebrate Holy Week and Easter, I have been thinking about the numerous sets of images the Bible employs to describe the work of Christ on the Cross. There is sacrificial language. There is judicial language. There is military language. There is ransom language. For some reason, the Bible does not make it easy for us by simply employing one image set. Rather, we get this collection of images that do not immediately gel together.
The question I have been asking is what to do with all these sets of images. How should we make use of Biblical imagery when presenting the significance of Christ? It seems like we have a few options:
(1) Lowest Common Denominator. One option is to try to ascertain the basic structure of the atonement at the heart of each of these images. Then we can simply present this idea logically without the garnish of images. The potential advantage here is the clarity of presentation. The potential hazard is that something of the richness of Biblical imagery could be lost in the process of boiling down.
(2) Mix-and-Match. Another option is to juggle all the Biblical images. A little ransom here, a little sacrifice there, etc. On the one hand, this method has the strength of sticking closer to the text. It respects the mystery of the cross and the multiplicity of images that it requires. On the other hand, it tends to leave hearers with more questions than answers with regard to their salvation. How do all these images point us to the one work of Christ?
(3) Primary and Secondary. A more bold option is to make a decision to favor one set of images over another. This could be based on the frequency of use, or via a canon-within-a-canon approach, or on the basis of which set of images is the most comprehensive. Some Christian traditions have taken this option, making one set of images dominant, rendering the others as secondary images that cast additional light on the primary image set. The advantage of this approach is that it achieves clarity of presentation without sacrificing Bibilical imagery. The disadvantage is the necessarily problematic move of favoring one set over another, begging the question of justification: why this one and not the other? Also, one might be tempted to interpret the other sets through the lens of the primary set, and therefore run the risk of silencing the unique contribution of these other themes.
(4) Construct New Images. An even more bold option is to take inspiration from these many images and come up with new ones that work better in our context. Judicial and sacrificial language made sense to them. What images make sense to us? The obvious advantage to this approach is that it is more culturally relevant and encourages the creativity of contemporary witness to Jesus Christ. The danger is that the Biblical anchor will be lost, and we may end up talking about something other than the work of Christ.
My jury is still out. I would love to hear your thoughts on these options.
Are there any other options I am missing?
Did I describe these options adequately?
Would you lean toward one option over another? Why?