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No. 43: A Postscript to the Meyers Thesis

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 43
Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons
January, 1995

Everyone here in Cambridge is talking about sacrifice. My supervisor, Dr. John Milbank, is working on a book on gift in which he is dealing with recent literature on sacrifice. The graduate seminar in Systematics during Michaelmas Term focused on the theme of sacrifice. The first presenter was Dr. Ian Bradley of the University of Aberdeen, who summarized his recent book, The Power of Sacrifice. Bradley, author also of God is Green, came to see the significance of sacrifice in his study of environmental theology. If we are to “save the planet,” he argued, humanity must learn to make sacrifices for the sake of the rest of creation. He suggested that God is sacrificial by nature, and hinted that creation involved self-limitation and even suffering on the part of God. Sacrifice is not only central to the Christian understanding of God’s character, Bradley continues, but also a thread that runs through the entire creation. The principle enunciated in John 12:24 ‘ if a seed is to bear fruit, it must die ‘ is woven into the fabric of biological life; biologists are finding that the health of an organism depends on the death of certain cells.

There is much that is theologically objectionable in Bradley’s view of sacrifice. The criticisms at the seminar were basically of two kinds, however. First, several participants expressed fears that the idea that “some cells must die for the organism to live,” the idea that sacrifice as dying to live is fundamental to life, would be used politically to justify the elimination of “cancerous” elements in the body politic (Jews, AIDS victims, etc.). This was one aspect of a larger objection that sacrifice is invariably associated with violence and oppression, and therefore, the implication seems to be, Christian theology must get along without sacrifice. The other objection was that, if God is sacrificial by nature, and if creation is understood as His primordial act of sacrifice, then creation is not an act of God’s will, but a necessity of His nature. Bradley seemed willing to accept this implication, despite the fact that it was labeled the “Origenist heresy” by one of the participants.

The best approach to answering these two objections, it seems to me, is to follow out the implications of what I’m calling the “Meyers thesis.” At the 1995 Biblical Horizons Summer Conference, Rev. Jeffrey Meyers suggested that the Reformed notion that “God does all things for His own glory” requires Trinitarian refinement. Referring to a number of passages in John’s Gospel, Meyers showed that each person of the Trinity, far from seeking His own glory, seeks the glory of the other two. The Father glorifies the Son (John 8:50, 54; 17:1), the Son glorifies the Father (7:18; 17:4), and the Spirit glorifies the Son who glorified the Father (16:14). The Church is caught up in the mutual exchange of glory: The Son shares the glory that He receives from the Father with the Church (17:22), even as the persons given to the Son glorify Him (17:10). Thus, while it is true from one perspective that the creation is to glorify the Creator, it is also true that the Creator glorifies the creation, even as each person of the Godhead glorifies the others. As Meyers put it, God doesn’t suck glory from everything else; on the contrary, God (and each of the three persons) overflows in bestowing glory on others.

In discussions that followed Meyers’s lecture, it was suggested that his thesis gives us a Trinitarian prototype of sacrifice. sacrifice is a universal category of culture, often taking a ritual form in animal sacrifice but in the modern world often taking a political form of individual sacrifice for the greater good of the nation or state. If sacrificial acts and language are so universal in human culture, it suggests that the phenomenon is central to the meaning of man made in the image of God. If man is a sacrificing creature, and if man is made in the image of God, God must be a sacrificing God. And this is what we find in the passages in John. Each of the persons of the Trinity effaces Himself before the others, seeking not His own glory but the glory of the other. If this is taken as the “primordial” and essential form of sacrifice, then sacrifice is not necessarily associated with death or violence at all. Death, pain, and violence is an aspect of sacrifice in a fallen world. In its original form, sacrifice takes the form of not seeking one’s own glory but the glory of another. sacrifice has to do not essentially and originally with atonement, but with glorification of the other, with self-giving love.

This immediately answers the objections to Bradley’s notion of sacrifice. Bradley takes the sacrifice on Calvary as the model of all sacrifice: Death leading to life is the meaning of sacrifice. But the self-offering of Christ is characterized by John as the Son glorifying the Father, and this is precisely what the Son has from all eternity done. Calvary is not the foundational sacrifice; it is built on the eternal relation of the Son to the Father. sacrifice is indeed associated with death and violence in Scripture, but this is not the ontologically ultimate form of sacrifice. Christianity posits that what is ontologically ultimate is not violence but the Trinity with its mutual love, communion, seeking of the glory of others. The Meyers thesis also avoids the problem of seeing creation as a necessary act for a self-giving God. God is self-giving in Himself. Each person of the Trinity gives glory to the others, and therefore God does not need to create in order to manifest His self-giving nature in giving glory to Another.