The Maltese Cross, or the Christian one?

Maltese CrossLatin CrossThis post is not really about the visual difference between the Maltese Cross (left) and the shape with a longer lower part, the Latin Cross (right), which is more standard at least in western churches. I could argue that equal-armed crosses like the Maltese Cross are originally pagan, and that only unequal ones like the Latin version are truly Christian. But that is not my point here. Nor is this at all about the modern country of Malta or its inhabitants. But I am using the difference in cross shape as a symbol of a difference between two fundamental theological outlooks which affects the theology of the cross and the atonement.

I don’t know much about Malta, so I looked at the infamous Wikipedia. Here I found such interesting points as

In January 2007, International Living chose Malta as the country with the best climate in the world.

But, while the article describes how the island was settled by Phoenicians and then conquered by Rome, it says nothing about the ancient religion of Malta; nor does this one; whereas this one and several others refer only to the prehistoric period. So, for the Roman period, I can argue by analogy on the basis of what is written in the Acts of the Apostles without too much interference from the facts!

It is in Acts 28 that we find a fascinating short account of the religious expectations of the common people of Malta, which comes just after Paul is shipwrecked on the island:

3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

Acts 28:3-7, TNIV

Blind Justice on the Old BaileyThe word translated “the goddess Justice” is simply the Greek word δίκη dikē “justice”, but this is also the name of the Greek goddess of justice. It was the Romans who imagined this goddess, their Iustitia, to be blind, or blindfolded, as in the famous statue on the Old Bailey Central Criminal Courts in London. It is not clear whether for the islanders this “justice” was a goddess or simply an impersonal force. But what is clear is that they believed that “justice” was inescapable. As they clearly believed in many gods and later wanted to accept Paul as one, very likely they would have attributed Paul surviving the shipwreck to the intervention of some divinity. But for them “justice” was more powerful than that divinity and could not be cheated.

It seems to me that Christians who insist on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, especially those who express it in terms like “the Father punished the Son”, are in fact presupposing the same kind of theology as the people of Malta held. Well, they don’t believe in many gods as the islanders did. But these Christians seem to believe that their one God is not sovereign over all but is subject to a greater force, an impersonal “justice” which cannot be cheated. So, for them, God cannot simply forgive sinners, because “justice” does not allow it, and would presumably find some other way to punish the sinners, just as on the Maltese world view she found another way to punish Paul. The only way for sins to be forgiven, in this supposedly Christian view, is for God to provide some other victim to satisfy the demands of “justice”. Apparently, perhaps because she is blind, “justice” is able prepared to accept the punishment being meted out on innocent Jesus rather than on the guilty parties, but she cannot accept it simply being overlooked.

In case anyone thinks I am portraying a straw man or a caricature here, consider the following quote:

The Cross is a satisfaction for sin in so far as the moral order of the universe makes it impossible that human souls should be redeemed from sin except at a cost.

What is this “moral order of the universe” if not some concept of “justice” supposed to be make something impossible for God? But this quote is not from a fundamentalist source, nor from a Puritan divine, but from the 1938 report Doctrine in the Church of England, as quoted by Bishop NT Wright.

Let us contrast the biblical picture of God. For him, according to the Bible, nothing is impossible, except that he should deny himself (Luke 1:37, 2 Timothy 2:13). There is nothing which he is obliged to do because there is no higher person or force to oblige him. He can do as he wills. He will not of course do anything contradicted by his character, but that character, as expressed definitively in Exodus 34:6-7, is to be compassionate, gracious and forgiving, as well as not leaving the guilty unpunished. “The LORD will vindicate his people”; he says “It is mine to avenge; I will repay”, and “There is no god besides me” (Deuteronomy 32:36,35,39, see also Hebrews 10:30, TNIV), no separate “justice” to whom he is answerable. These Old Testament quotations do not tell the whole story, but they underline that God is a free agent.

Dali, Christ of St John of the CrossBut what God wills is not to execute justice, as becomes clear in the New Testament, and especially on the cross. There is no sword in his hand, and no scales, but only nails which portray God not as the agent of punishment but as the victim. The Old Testament tension between God as merciful and forgiving and God as not leaving the guilty unpunished is resolved at the cross. We don’t know how God is able to forgive and not punish our sins, and why for this it was necessary for Jesus to die. For some reason we don’t understand, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22, TNIV), and for the forgiveness of our sins the blood which could avail was that of the Son of God. But we can rejoice that our fellowship with God, broken by our sin, has been restored, because Jesus has paid the price, not so much the penalty as the restitution or compensation, shedding his blood which was necessary to rebuild the way for us into God’s presence. We cannot explain this fully, but only gaze in wonder:

‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies:
Who can explore his strange design? …
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

18 thoughts on “The Maltese Cross, or the Christian one?

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  3. Hi Peter, thanks for blogging on this. This is my first post on your blog (been lurking for a quite a while). I am hoping you can help me understand what you are saying here. It seems as if you are suggesting that Justice has to be something extrinsic to God. I have always thought of Justice being something intrinsic to God, as something almost equivalent to his love.

    Also, are you saying that basically the best model for the atonement is one which is substitutionary but not a penal sub one?

    Doesn’t N T Wright see penal substitution in Isaiah 53? I am assuming you disagree on this score? I am preparing a blog posting on this topic and want to make sure I understand your POV…


  4. Alastair, thanks for commenting. But I think you have misunderstood me. I am accusing some Christians of making “justice” extrinsic to God. But I hold that it is part of his character, like his love.

    I certainly hold to a substitutionary model of the atonement. I’m not quite sure whether my model would be considered “penal”, that depends on definitions. See my comment today on Adrian’s post about such definitions, which I may work up into a post here if I find time. I don’t see any real disagreement between my position and Wright’s, as I don’t think he ever says that God punished Jesus, although I don’t like the point he took from the 1938 Doctrine Commission which I quote in this post.

    When you post on this, please send me a link or trackback.

  5. Peter, thanks for your response and clarification.

    I’ve now blogged on this issue at:
    or here. I’m not sure I can send a trackback from blogger…

    Can you read if and let me know if I’ve fairly represented your POV on the atonement? I’m happy to quickly amend the post if not. I still see a difference between Wright’s position, which seems to hold to a penal nature of the atonement (I think?) and yours, where the penal nature doesn’t seem to come into it. But maybe I am misunderstanding you (or Wright)!


  6. Thank you, Alastair. Your post is really helpful, and I can recommend anyone to read it. But I’m not sure the position you ascribe to me is really what I believe. I will comment further there.

    There is a way to send trackbacks from Blogger, but you need to install something extra. In fact I wrote about it in one of my very first posts, now irrelevant to me since I switched to WordPress. But I am by no means an expert on the details, and the instructions I gave in 2005 may no longer be valid.

  7. I like the distinction which Bono draws in the U2 song ‘Grace’ when he sings that grace ‘travels outside of karma’. What you’re describing here is karma isn’t it? And the whole point of Chrisitanity is that it jumps outside of that system…

  8. Thank you, Rev Sam. I guess what I am describing is one aspect of karma, but without the reincarnation part. From the little we know of Maltese theology from this Bible passage, they were thinking only of punishment in this world, with no concept of reincarnation, nor of heaven and hell. And historically I have no idea whether there could be any link between Indian ideas and those found in Malta at this period.

  9. Ah – I wasn’t being quite so strictly literal. I don’t think there is a link between Hindu doctrines and the Maltese in Paul’s time – although I suspect that you _can_ draw a strong parallel between various doctrines of natural law/ retributive justice and karma (ignoring the reincarnation for a second – reincarnation isn’t the only place where karma can work, I believe; it also applies _within_ a life).

    So – very roughly speaking – karma is ‘if you do something bad then punishment will follow’, whereas grace is ‘if you do something bad, then God may make all things new….’

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  11. Hello everyone:
    I find this site so interesting as to let everyone know that I feel somehow we are trying to define something that has been defined already.
    The retrieval of human hind by love through the blood of our Lord Christ Jesus Son of God has no other meaning in my mind but love.
    When Rev. Sam states “…if you do something bad” from his quote on karma, I say, “what else can I do?”, is this not the type of argument we use when it is difficult to understand and also accept our nature. Just as it is written in The book of Sirach 1:1 “All wisdom is from the Lord God, and hath been always with him, and is before all time”.
    What a difficult task to understand the atonement for when we are given the opportunity to forgive we rather punish and retrieve what it is believe our own.

  12. So, for them, God cannot simply forgive sinners, because “justice” does not allow it, and would presumably find some other way to punish the sinners, just as on the Maltese world view she found another way to punish Paul. The only way for sins to be forgiven, in this supposedly Christian view, is for God to provide some other victim to satisfy the demands of “justice”…. But what God wills is not to execute justice, as becomes clear … especially on the [Roman] cross. There is no sword in his hand, and no scales, but only nails which portray God not as the agent of punishment but as the victim.

    absolutely brilliant. Thank you, Peter, for pointing us your BBB readers to this post. You’ve made me intent now on reading everything Paul has written (especially to Rome) related to “the various Greek dikaio– words” in light of the Roman cross and nails, in light of their blind appropriation (of) Justice, in light of the victim.

  13. Pingback: The wrath of God, or the inevitable consequences of sin? - Gentle WisdomGentle Wisdom

  14. Pingback: UCCF Director: "God never forgives" - Gentle Wisdom

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