Instances of Discovery



A Response to Cardinal Kasper’s Challenge

Patrick Henry and Michael Sullivan

January 2024


In the Foreword of his book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Cardinal Walter Kasper urges readers “to think through anew the doctrine of God,” clearly suggesting change should be considered.

We welcomed that invitation. We believe there are many reasons for this change, but nothing gives a way forward more clearly than Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of God as he finds it revealed in the prodigal son’s father in Luke 15. We believe it’s both traditional and – as tradition often is – revolutionary.


Christian theologians, like people in general, develop and change through the decades of their lives. Also like other people, octogenarian theologians, who detect the need for change but realize their time is limited, pose challenges to those who are just getting started.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, in the foreword to his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, published in 2013 when he was eighty, says, “Thinking about and investigating this issue [mercy] led me to fundamental questions about the doctrine of God and God’s attributes as well as to fundamental questions about Christian existence.”[1]

We two, who are of Kasper’s generation, salute his thinking about and investigating these fundamental questions. We want to add our voices to his, with some specific pointers to places where the Christian doctrine of God could benefit from fresh tilling and pruning. Along the way we will call upon Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, herself eighty-two, to help us make our case, as also Richard Rohr, OFM, now eighty.

This essay’s initial setting is a group of a dozen people, most (though not all of them) Catholics, gathered in a Lenten study group as they have done for a decade or more.

In 2019 we put before the group no less a task than the one posed by Cardinal Kasper in words that immediately follow those about “fundamental questions” in his Foreword to Mercy:

I dare to hope … that what I say can stimulate a younger generation of theologians to pick up the thread in order to think through anew the Christian doctrine of God and the practical consequences that derive from it, thereby giving shape to the necessary theocentric turn in theology and in the life of the church.[2]

The group are mostly neither professional theologians nor “younger,” but they discovered in the year’s book selection, Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe[3], both an address to Kasper’s challenge and a prompt to their own fresh response to “thinking through anew the Christian doctrine of God.”

Rohr gets to the cosmic and the universal, but he starts locally: “Even a good theology will have a hard time making up for a bad anthropology.”[4] What sort of critters are we, made by God and whom God has become one with? What does it mean to speak, with Irenaeus of Lyon (2nd century), of “the only sure and true Teacher, the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who because of his immeasurable love became what we are in order to make us what he is,” or to affirm with Clement of Alexandria (3rd century), “If you know yourself, you will know God, and in knowing God will become like God”?[5]

This positive view of human potential is common in early Christian writers and is today characteristic of the Orthodox tradition. Rohr identifies it as “a forgotten reality” in the West, both because of developments in the West that can be traced mainly to Saint Augustine (4th-5th century) and because of the disastrous break between the Eastern and Western Christian traditions, long in the making and codified in the middle of the 11th century. It is significant that Rohr calls it a forgotten reality, not just a forgotten idea.

Original sin, whether understood in its technical theological sense or, more generally, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, quoting the London Times Literary Supplement, “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith,”[6] is deeply ingrained in the formation of both Catholic and Protestant Christians. When original sin is what fundamentally defines us, the theological implications are far-reaching and profound. “Thinking through anew the Christian doctrine of God and the practical consequences that derive from it” requires a head-on confrontation with original sin. Is it “a bad anthropology” that “a good theology will have a hard time making up for”?

“We find our Original Goodness,” Rohr writes, “when we can discover and own these three attitudes or virtues deeply planted within us: A trust in inner coherence itself; a trust that this coherence is positive and going somewhere good; a trust that this coherence includes me and even defines me.”[7] The keys: “deeply implanted” and “includes me and even defines me.” “Coherence” is what original sin says is lost.

Rohr is of course not alone in making a case for “original goodness” as the alternative to original sin, but he draws out a whole range of consequences that take him, and us along with him, to the universal Christ.

What stinginess on our side made us limit God's concern – even eternal concern – to just ourselves? And how can we imagine God as caring about us if God does not care about everything else too? If God chooses and doles out his care, we are always insecure and unsure whether we are among the lucky recipients. But once we become aware of the generous, creative Presence that exists in all things natural, we can receive it as the inner Source of all dignity and worthiness. Dignity is not doled out to the worthy. It grounds the inherent worthiness of things in their very nature and existence.[8]

“Presence” is another name for Christ, the Logos of the prologue to John’s Gospel, through whom all things were made. “A truly transformative God – for both the individual and history – needs to be experienced as both personal and universal.”[9] Note that such a God is to be “experienced as,” not “understood as” or “interpreted as.”


Chapter 12 of Rohr’s book, “Why did Jesus Die?” puts atonement to the test.

He takes issue specifically with the substitutionary theory of atonement classically stated by Saint Anselm in the 11th century: We dishonored God; the distance between God and us meant we couldn’t make amends; only the death of a perfect one could restore the balance.

Rohr traces the problem to what he calls “the Great Comma” of the Apostles’ Creed: “... born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate ... .” Much of the gospel is simply obliterated by that comma. (Our word processor, in what was perhaps a fit of Artificially Intelligent inspiration, AutoCorrected to "the Great Coma.")

At best, the theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At worst, it led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure, who demands acts of violence before God can love his own creation. … In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking.[10]

The move from “transactional” to “transformational” is Rohr’s basic contribution to “thinking through anew the Christian doctrine of God and the practical consequences that derive from it.” It signifies a rediscovery of “the deeper biblical theme of restorative justice, which focuses on rehabilitation and reconciliation and not punishment.”[11]


One member of the group called attention to a 2018 article in U.S. Catholic: “No one had to die for our sins. It’s time to rethink the crucifixion, says theologian Elizabeth Johnson.”[12] Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, Distinguished Professor Emerita of theology at Fordham University and a student of Kasper’s, is interviewed about her then-new book, Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril.[13]

The goal of the book: “to expand redemption in our prayer and in our faith to include all creatures, who will be with us transfigured in plenitude. We then act ethically toward the earth as a result of that and bring the earth into our narrative.”

Embedded in these words are three moves in the development of doctrine.

  • Prayer takes pride of place, as in the 5th-century maxim, “the rule of prayer is the rule of believing (lex orandi lex credendi).”
  • Focus shifts from where the Western Christian tradition directs it, the site of the Crucifixion, Mount Golgotha, to the site of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, which shapes Eastern Christian sensibility.
  • Narrative supersedes system, just as it does in the Bible.

Johnson’s argument is the mirror image of Rohr’s. He begins with the Universal Christ and concludes with the redemption of all things. She begins with the redemption of all things and concludes with the Universal Christ.

We haven’t made the animals and the natural world part of our narrative of salvation. We haven’t included them in what Christ has done. We know God created everything in the beginning, but then they disappear. Everything is all about us. So I started to write an ambitious book to get us to consider a whole new theology of redemption, starting from square one again and bringing in what’s crucial for the sake of the life of this planet.

Johnson is not out on some limb, alone and lonely. She cites Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’: “At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God … in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place.”[14]

She traces reactions she got when she gave lectures – “You’re really wrong about all this, because we’re saved by the cross, and Jesus died to save us from our sins” – to

very good catechism classes. … It’s in every liturgy and all of our Mass prayers. This idea that salvation takes place through the cross to save us and forgive us from sins has a real grip on our collective imagination. But this seriously reduces the meaning of redemption in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

This dissonance – between what everybody “knows” and what is actually found in the Bible – prompts Johnson to start “scratching around and what I discovered was that this idea really took hold in the West thanks to Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement in the 11th century.” She identifies the same culprit Rohr found.

When asked by the interviewer, “What is Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement?” Johnson replies, “It is the idea that Jesus had to die a bloody and horrible death on the cross in order to save us from our sins because God was offended by our sins and had to receive satisfaction, had to get a payback in order to forgive us. God’s honor was at stake.”

Then comes Johnson’s fundamental conviction about how doctrine develops. When asked, “How did Anselm come up with this idea?” she responds: “Very simply, the way all of us come up with our ideas: from his own experience and his own world.”

In the feudal system, “You had to make satisfaction when you broke a law in order to restore the honor of the lord, on which all civic peacefulness rested. Anselm took that political arrangement and made it cosmic. … Jesus died freely a violent death on the cross in order to pay back something to God that God was owed but that we couldn’t pay back” – we couldn’t pay it because God is infinite and we’re finite.

“What’s wrong with this theory?” the interviewer asks.

The satisfaction theory makes Jesus’ death necessary. But no one had to die for God to be merciful. It goes completely against the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. Look at the parable of the prodigal son, where a father welcomes back his son who dishonored him by spending half his fortune. When the son comes back, the father runs out, hugs him, and throws a party. Complete mercy. According to Anselm’s theory, that father should have said, “Now go out in the field and work for a number of years until you pay back what you owe me.”

The fundamental theological problem: Anselm’s “taking away God’s freedom to be merciful.”

All through the Christian Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures, once you start asking the question [about divine redemption], it strikes you clearly: God is the merciful redeemer of the whole world. The merciful God who frees the slaves, loves the animals, and walks with people in their troubles is the God of the Old Testament. In Exodus 34, when Moses is on Mount Sinai, he encounters God who says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” … That’s the God Jesus believed in.

“That’s the God Jesus believed in” is the rejoinder to the objection that Jesus didn’t explicitly preach redemption for all creation.

The New Testament doesn’t say very much and neither does Jesus about all of creation, because the early Christians just assumed the Jewish theology of creation and that all creation will be saved. In other words, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it’s your whole tradition already.

What Jesus did do whenever he spoke about creation was show that it was the recipient of God’s loving and merciful care.

It’s especially those texts about the sparrow, the little bird that falls to the ground dead. You could buy two of these little birds for a penny in Matthew’s gospel. Not even such a useless, worthless, little creature will fall to the ground without your heavenly Father knowing. Then in Luke’s gospel, not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.

In Jesus’ own approach, he’s very Jewish in seeing everything included in the Creator God who made everything. God is not going to abandon the creation he made and loved, but is going to see it through to the end, even beyond death. The prophets describe what the new creation will be like: The deserts will bloom and all of nature will flourish.

Jesus never preached about this; he just assumed it. He took it for granted. That was his faith.

Making this argument, Johnson revives an observation made half a century ago by Leander Keck in A Future for the Historical Jesus: The Place of Jesus in Preaching and Theology[15] – the difference between the distinctive Jesus, who can be differentiated from the Jewish milieu out of which he came, and the characteristic Jesus, thoroughly Jewish. If the distinctive Jesus is normative, the fact that he doesn’t preach redemption for all creation means he didn’t. If the characteristic Jesus is the norm, the silence is tacit assent.

What follows from this as what Jesus believed?

The good news is that God is a God of light and loves the flesh, and knows what it is to die, and is accompanying every creature through death, with the hope of more.

Paul uses a good metaphor in 1 Corinthians 15 where he says that when you plant a seed what you get in the end in terms of grain looks very different, and in order for that seed to produce that grain, it had to die. It has to disintegrate and break open and its interior has to put down roots and put up a shoot, and then you get this new thing. It’s the same creature, but it’s very transformed. When you plant the body when someone dies (that’s his analogy), it undergoes transformation and what God brings to life is transformed. 

Especially in death. That’s the point. And we are to care for every life, recognizing God’s love for all creation. That’s the point of my book. In the last chapter I say when we say us in our prayers, the “us” is not just Catholics and not just humans, but all living creatures. 

Instead of the satisfaction theory, let us see salvation in terms of accompaniment. By the end of the first century, people came to the realization that Jesus, as seen in John’s Gospel, was how the God of gracious, saving mercy had personally joined the flesh of the world, lived among us, and was put to death. He’s Emmanuel, “God with us,” or, as John put it, “the Word was made flesh.”

Therefore, what we go through by way of agony and suffering is not unknown to God. God, who created everything, chose to join the world’s suffering, undergo it, and know what it means from the inside.

The whole point of saying “the Word became flesh” is to expand it beyond just humans. Flesh goes all through the Old Testament to describe everything that’s alive, including animals and even vegetation. When the Psalms talk about all flesh, they mean all living creatures.

The Word became flesh. What we’re saying in theology today is “deep incarnation.” The incarnation doesn’t mean that the Word of God became a human being, but that the Word of God became flesh, which is a broader category identified with all of life that lives, is beautiful, and then suffers and dies. There’s a whole lot of theology going on in the idea that God is with every creature that suffers and dies.

Pope Francis puts this in Laudato Si’, too. Whether the creature only lives a few minutes or a long life, they belong to God, and God is with them.[16] That’s the accompaniment: the presence of God with all beings in their life and their death, with the hope that there is something more.

There’s nothing really radical in that idea. We just have to put it in this framework where all of creation is redeemed in Christ.

“Nothing really radical in this idea.” Johnson, who thinks a thousand years is about long enough for a theological conviction such as Anselm’s atonement theory to hold sway, has seen in a contemporary crisis, our depredation of the earth, occasion for retrieval of an ancient belief that Jesus must have held, a view that aids our “thinking through anew the Christian doctrine of God and the practical consequences that derive from it.”


But the New Testament has more than the gospels. There’s Paul.

Johnson certainly calls him to witness, from 1 Corinthians 15 and its image of the seed that dies and something that looks very different emerges. But that same Chapter 15 includes what Paul claims to have received, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Johnson wants to switch what has been traditionally at the center of Paul’s teaching to the periphery and bring what has been on the sideline into the heart.

One member of the group brought this inversion to the attention of a friend, New Testament scholar Vincent Smiles, and from that conversation came another instance of doctrinal development.

Thanks for getting me to think about this far more than I would have done without your challenging questions. I began thinking about what Paul might say regarding Jesus’ self-sacrificial death as being in some sense a necessary part of God’s plan.

For sure, Paul would never subscribe to the atonement-theory notion that Jesus’ death “appeased an angry God or paid some kind of debt” (Johnson, 224), but that is quite different from detaching God’s mercy from the death of Jesus as though the two had nothing to do with each other. I do not believe that Paul would accept that idea.

My thoughts do slightly challenge what Elizabeth says in Creation and the Cross, but not in any very radical way. I think it is more a matter of taking Paul and other texts of the New Testament into account rather more fully than she does. Her pages 132-41 deal with some of the texts, but there is more to be said.

Here is what Smiles wrote to Johnson.

February 21, 2020

Dear Elizabeth – Grace and Peace. Your book Creation and the Cross reverberates in many ways, both in my own thinking and teaching and among a number of my friends. One friend in particular is very grateful for your book, and on the basis of it has initiated a number of conversations with me.

He is highly sensitive to the problem of the atonement, as traditionally understood, so your book came as a great relief and refreshment for him. In our conversations, however, I have insisted on some measure of defense for the notion of self-sacrifice as being essential in the New Testament, and even for the idea that the cross was, in some sense, willed by God as an aspect of God’s revelation of love and mercy.

I wrote the thoughts below as an attempt to explain what I mean. We agreed that we would benefit a great deal from your guidance, so I am presuming to send you what I wrote. If you have time to read this, and to send us whatever thoughts you can, we would be most grateful.

Thoughts on the “necessity” of the death of Jesus in order to reveal the fullness of the love and mercy of God.

You properly say (p. 224), “the mercy of God is not dependent on the death of Jesus.” This, of course, is completely true and clear, once we read with sufficient care the teaching of Jesus himself (e.g., Luke 15), noting also his actions of care for “tax collectors and sinners,” and his command to “love enemies” on the basis of God’s love that sends “sun” and “rain” on the “just and unjust” alike (Matthew 5:45). God’s love and mercy precede the ministry of Jesus; it is God’s love and mercy that explain that ministry, and that were present from creation and extended not only to Israel, but also to Israel’s enemies (Jonah, Amos 9, Isaiah 49, etc.).

It is also the case, however, as you acknowledge (also 224), that Jesus’ “agonizing death on the cross is … part of the story of salvation Christians tell.” In fact, most especially in the letters of Paul (but not only Paul; note Luke’s focus on “the Christ must suffer” [24:26 etc.], where “must” [Greek word dei] signals divine necessity), there is sometimes an emphatic focus on “the cross,” such that Paul makes it clear that the cross was, in some sense, willed by God in order to bring about something that could not happen otherwise.

In 1 Corinthians 1, “the cross” (“Christ crucified”) is what Paul was sent to preach. It is their failure to understand “the word of the cross” that causes unbelievers to be on the path to “destruction,” whereas for believers the cross is the “weakness” and “foolishness” of God that guides them to salvation. Paul, therefore, says that in his preaching to the Corinthians he “determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2).

In this theology, the cross is seen as in some way essential to the revelation of God in Christ; it exposes the “power” and “wisdom” of humans as being nothing of the kind. The mercy of God, therefore, is indeed “not dependent on the death of Jesus,” but at the same time, perhaps there is some truth to the notion that we can never know the fullness of God’s love and mercy without a deep “knowing” of the cross as an aspect of what God intends in Jesus.

It is consistent with this focus on “Christ crucified” that Paul also images his apostolate as a “constant carrying about of the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10). There is something about sacrificial suffering “for” (Greek hyper) others that is of the very essence of the gospel (Mark 8:31-35, 10:42-45). 

Paul received from the tradition that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 1:4, etc.). He did not himself concoct this notion; similarly, Romans 3:25 is not an idea Paul develops elsewhere; it is not central to his own thinking. In fact, he uses the “for our sins” formula quite sparingly in his letters – preferring to focus on liberation, redemption, reconciliation, and adoption – but he knows and accepts the idea, which must have arisen in Christianity from its very birth.

This has to make us suspect that the idea of a sacrificial death “for others” might have come from Jesus himself (see Peter Stuhlmacher, Jesus of Nazareth, Christ of Faith), who could have had in mind the Maccabean martyrs of the 160s BCE, who had sacrificed themselves, whether in martyrdom or in battle, to preserve the heritage of Judaism in a time of violent persecution by foreigners. Perhaps words like, “it is not acceptable that a prophet should be killed outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33), “the son of man goes as it is written about him” (Mark 14:21), and “the son of man must suffer” (Mark 8:31) truly reflect Jesus’ own sense of his fate as being in accord with a divine plan. God’s mercy, in this theology, does require suffering and death to be known in its full depths.

Paul signals such a theology also in Galatians, where there is – as in 1 Corinthians 1 – something of a focus on the death of Jesus as central to the revelation God achieves in him. At the opening of the letter, it was by Jesus “giving himself for our sins” that he “rescued us from the present evil age” (1:4). This is explained later as a “dying to the Law … being crucified with Christ,” which means that “life now in the flesh is lived by faith in the Son of God who loved me and surrendered himself for me.”

Hence, “if righteousness comes through Law, then Christ died for nothing” (2:19-21). Here, as in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul’s focus is very much on the death of Jesus as a singular moment – resurrection being taken for granted, but not emphasized – that accomplished, and accomplishes now by faith, a “new creation” (6:15) in which Law no longer dominates and there is, therefore, “neither Jew nor Greek.” The transformation requires a dying – very much like what Romans 6:3-4 says about baptism.

So, while for sure “the mercy of God is not dependent on the death of Jesus,” we perhaps do also have to say that the death of Jesus, as portrayed in various parts of the New Testament – Paul as well as Jesus being leading lights – was “necessary” as an aspect of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. Without the self-sacrificial death of Jesus, which Jesus himself perhaps saw God as desiring from him (Mark 14:36), the full reality of God’s love and mercy cannot be known: “God established [the full revelation of] love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The death of Jesus was far more than a historical occurrence perpetrated by the injustice of Roman Empire. As experienced by the earliest believers, it was in some sense divinely ordained so that we could know the heart of God in a way that we could never know otherwise. In any full recounting of the theology of the death of Jesus in the New Testament, I do not think we can escape something like that last sentence. I will be interested to see if you dis/agree with this.


February 27, 2020

Dear Vincent,

Thank you very much for your email and follow-up reflections on Creation and the Cross. As an author yourself, you know that there is no higher honor than someone giving a close, critical reading to what you have proposed. So, I thank you for this. Obviously, there is no way I can respond to every point you raise without writing another book! But below are some of my own thoughts in response to what you propose.

Regarding your climactic statement, drawing together many Pauline texts, that the death of Jesus was “divinely ordained so that we could know the heart of God in a way that we could never know otherwise,” let me say at the outset that I would not agree with that.

I wrote the book as a systematic theologian, not as a biblical scholar or scholar of Paul, as you yourself are. This obviously brings a different framework and set of questions to the issue of atonement, a different method of approaching the question, one not primarily reliant on Paul.

One of the difficulties I have with Paul is that he shows very little interest in the life and ministry of Jesus. In truth, in those pre-gospel days, stories about Jesus were circulating in house churches; he no doubt knew many of them, and in that context wrote on the end of Jesus’ life. But subsequently some focused Paul in isolation, and the incarnation, life, and ministry dropped away as salvific, as did the resurrection. In broad strokes one could trace a line from Paul to Augustine to Anselm, and thence to the common theology of the whole western church in the second millennium, as my book described. I continue to think it is problematic.

You show yourself a true son of the Western church in the exposition you give of Paul’s writing on the cross. But my goal was to bring a different, more wholistic view of salvation into play, as one finds in the Eastern church where the incarnation and resurrection stay in view when the cross is considered (and Paul could be an ally here as well: “If Christ be not risen ... then your faith is in vain” [1 Corinthians 15:14]). The inclusion of Jesus’ earthly life and resurrection changes the focus of the meaning of the cross, as one sees in that old psychological drawing of duck to rabbit. It also offers a rich resource for a different theology of God.

The framework and method of my theological interests as seen in previous writings influence why I disagree with your final statement.

To begin with, I think not only as a theologian in a general sense but as a feminist theologian. Decades of women’s scholarship by now has shown the danger to women’s well-being that flows from the traditional teaching on self-sacrifice, configured into women’s self-giving and obedience to male authority figures in a patriarchal church and society.

Fathers and husbands, popes and priests, kings and other civil rulers have all assumed and promoted women’s role of self-sacrificing service. Once the lens of gender is introduced, self-sacrifice is not neutral; in fact, it often supports women’s subordination and violence against women. Like most feminist theologians, I have a strong hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to valorizing suffering, let alone making it part of God’s pre-ordained will.

That being said, I certainly do support the virtue of mature self-giving and self-sacrificing love when it is freely chosen and for the right reasons. In the first chapter I cite with agreement Jon Sobrino’s testimony of how important Óscar Romero’s life and death are to the poor, a bishop giving his life for his people. But here is the point: talk of self-sacrifice has to be specific, not generic.

I have also worked for many years in the theology-science dialogue. This is where the point of necessity becomes problematic. There is too much of chance, the unknown popping up, a future which is genuinely unknown, to have anything be said to be necessary. This holds for the development of the cosmos since the Big Bang, the evolution of life on earth, and human history with all its ambiguity. What happens cannot be locked in in advance. Saying something is necessary forces historical events into a pre-determined pattern, which is not tenable.

Furthermore, and in brief:

    1. Making the cross necessary robs Jesus of his human freedom.
    2. Making the cross necessary raises the theodicy problem in a severe way. You write: “the cross was, in some sense, willed by God as an aspect of God’s revelation of love and mercy.” The problem of suffering vexes theology no end in view of the suffering of the world. Especially since the holocaust of the Jews, theologians across the globe have written about the intensely problematic theology of God as willing evil that such a sentiment entails. It makes the infinite mystery of love into a horrific monster.
    3. Making the cross necessary ignores that the disciples experienced it as a disaster. It left his followers bereft of hope. He was one more murdered prophet: “but we had hoped ....” (Luke 24:21). Without the resurrection of the crucified there is no revelation of the heart of God.
    4. Necessity forces God into our pre-ordained expectation of how something had to be revealed and so compromises the freedom of God, who could reveal divine love and mercy in many different ways.

Other smaller points:

    • Did “for our sins” originate at the birth of Christianity? I point to the Servant hymns in Second Isaiah, which probably influenced how early Christians interpreted the cross this way, and also Maccabees (Chapters 2 and 4).
    • As a theologian attuned to historical method, I very much doubt whether the idea of a sacrificial death came from Jesus himself, or that Jesus’ three predictions of his passion in Mark are ipsissima verba, for reasons stated in chapter 3. Following some biblical exegetes (I know there is not unanimity about this), my approach is to exercise caution when interpretations are likely to have come from the early community or the evangelists. Jesus left his own death for others to interpret (I agree with Schillebeeckx here).
    • To the core point: I’m glad that my statement “… the mercy of God is not dependent on the death of Jesus” finds you in agreement. That was the point of the whole book! As to what the cross might mean, I proposed, as an alternative to the theology of atonement, a theology of accompaniment: Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us. In Christ who entered into suffering and death we discover (it is revealed) that God loves enough to be with us even in our own suffering and death, to bring us through to life. And not with us homo sapiens alone, but with all creatures who suffer and die. A theology of accompaniment sees the cross as God’s being present in the midst of the world’s agony with infinite love and the promise of life. This is a free gift, not something necessary.

To conclude: I think the way you wrote about the death of Jesus being revelatory of the heart of God reflects a fine way of meditating, of appropriating, of relating personally to Christ. But in my view those texts of Paul do not warrant being used as building blocks to construct a whole theological thesis about God and salvation and history and necessity. Too much in contemporary theology counts against that line of argument.


March 15, 2020

Dear Elizabeth.

Thank you for your very substantive and prompt reply to my thoughts on the death of Jesus. I hope it is clear that I completely agree with the fundamental thesis of your book, but I also think there is need for some further debate on how the suffering and death of Jesus relate with the incarnation, life (ministry), and resurrection as aspects of God’s revelation of love for humankind. I also think that a positive appreciation of the death of Jesus as revelatory of God’s love goes along well with a theology of presence, but for sure I should NOT have used the word “necessity.”

It seems to me that the passion, no less than the resurrection, must be seen as the climax of the incarnation, and therefore just as the incarnation is essential to the revelation of God’s love, so also is the passion. If we stress too much that the death of Jesus was a human injustice, and take away divine agency, then the death becomes somewhat detached (it seems to me) from the paschal mystery and the fullness of the Jesus-event. Somehow, surely, we have to integrate incarnation-ministry-death-resurrection as one revelation. John’s gospel does this to a large degree by subsuming the life, death and resurrection under the one term “glorification,” and the Philippians 2 hymn likewise sees incarnation (“took the form”), life, death (“even death on a cross”), and exaltation as one movement that Christ accomplished, “obedient to death.” And that hymn, we might recall, may well have preceded Paul as an early Christian hymn – something he quotes more than something he composes.

Certainly, Jesus was remembered by New Testament writers as foreseeing and freely embracing his death as something essential to his mission. Mark’s entire theology is based in Jesus as the suffering Messiah, which the disciples had no desire to accept, but which they finally had to understand. It was in “seeing how he died” that the centurion received the revelation that Jesus was “truly son of God.”

Similarly, the eucharistic words (in all versions) remember Jesus as symbolizing his death in the sharing of the bread and wine of the last supper (“given/shed for you”). I am not relying on any particular words from the gospels being ipsissima verba Jesu (whether passion predictions, eucharistic words or texts like Mark 10:45, Luke 13:33 or others), but I am saying that the cumulative memoria Jesu of pretty much the entire New Testament (Paul being only the earliest and most comprehensive writer on the topic) sees the death itself, and Jesus’ view of it, as an essential aspect of his mission.

To be sure, there is far more to the Jesus-event than the passion, and I certainly want, therefore, to remain balanced regarding its place along with everything else, but there is so much in the New Testament that sees the death of Jesus as central to his mission; Jesus himself was remembered as seeing his death that way, and the cross was seen as a model for disciples to follow (Mark 8:34 and parallels; Acts 14:22; 2 Corinthians 4:7 -12).

Having said all of that, I agree entirely when you point to the danger of a theology of self-sacrifice, given the long history of the oppression of women and marginalized groups in general. I also, of course, agree that we must at all costs avoid images of God as bloodthirsty, or in any way constrain the sovereignty of God and the freedom of Jesus by a theology of “necessity.”

In my last email I was focused on the language of the New Testament, but of course once one puts on a systematician’s hat and considers in what language we are to articulate the gospel for modern culture, then cautionary flags go up. I spent a fair amount of time wondering how (and how not) to express the notion that the death of Jesus was intrinsic to the revelation of God’s love. But I am convinced that we must do so. And, truth be told, your own writing in both Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God[17] and Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love[18] convinces me it is both necessary and possible.

But let me first quote something quite provocative from a James Cone article, “Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” which I think is very relevant to this discussion.

The cross stands at the center of the gospel. Take the cross away and the gospel is no longer the gospel of the God of Jesus. I know that such a theological claim would be fiercely rejected by many womanist and feminist theologians [he references Delores Williams et al.]. Indeed much of what I say in this essay represents my acceptance of and challenge to the devastating critiques of feminists and womanists on atonement theories in western theology. When I read [these theologians], I had to go back and re-think the theological meaning of the cross.  … Who can blame womanists and feminists for saying, “no more crosses for me.” Although I agree … that the orthodox theories of the atonement are an outrage to the moral decency of humanity, I cannot stop at their critique and turn away from the cross.[19]

In the body of the article he vindicates a focus on the cross because “the cross reveals God’s loving solidarity with the ‘unspeakable suffering of those who are tortured’ and ‘put to death by human cruelty …’ [ref. to Martin Hengel].” Cone even goes so far as to say, “Any genuine theology … must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree.”[20]

I feel sure that you have deep sympathy with what Cone says here, because in Quest for the Living God you say – referencing Moltmann, approvingly I believe –

While his Son is dying on the cross, God the Father suffers too, but not in the same way. The Father suffers the loss of his Son … they are lost to each other. At the same time, however, they have never been so close. They are united in a deep community of will, each willing to do this for love of the world” (61).

 [Humans] are overtaken by suffering as though by an alien force; … we bear it under constraint. By contrast, suffering does not come upon God by necessity or by chance. The crucified God freely chooses to suffer with us, and does so actively out of the fullness of love. … The cross reveals God’s inner nature to be the trinitarian event of self-giving love capable of suffering (62).

I think the New Testament also might want us to add “… suffer FOR us.” I acknowledge, of course, the somewhat contrasting view of Soelle, whom you also quote, but nothing in her analysis (as I see it) completely contradicts Moltmann or Cone.

In Ask the Beasts you say: “… the living God redeems the world not by the divine fiat of a kindly, distant onlooker but by freely participating in the groaning of the flesh. In Christ, the living God … enters the fray, personally drinking the cup of suffering and going down into the nothingness of death, to transform it from within” (192).

And finally, in Creation and the Cross, you say:

Jesus’ cross inscribes divine participation in pain and death into the historical human world. … Jesus’ anguished death places him among this company of creatures of the flesh. … Christ crucified brings divine life into closest contact with disaster, setting up a gleam of light for all other creatures who suffer in that same annihilating darkness (187-88).

 Again, I think it is clear in the New Testament that what God in Jesus suffers, they suffer both “with us” and “for us.”

All of this, and so much more, makes clear, as I see it, that we need to affirm (at least as one possible way of theologizing) that the death of Jesus is God’s way of deliberately entering into the suffering and death of the entire world (human and otherwise). “Deep incarnation” requires that we see the death of Jesus, no less than the resurrection, as the climax of Jesus’ willing self-giving for the sake of the world, and at the same time as Godself entering into the pain of the whole world.

At the end of the day, therefore, I do not think there is any massive disagreement between us. I agree that we should avoid the language – even though it is New Testament language – of the “necessity” of the death of Jesus, since that can appear to say that God and Jesus were somehow compelled into the cross (and then we would be back with Anselm and his interpreters at their worst). I do, however, think it is reasonable to say that “The death of Jesus was far more than a historical occurrence perpetrated by the injustice of Roman Empire – as experienced by the earliest believers, it was in some sense divinely ordained so that we could know the heart of God in a way that we could never know otherwise.” Perhaps “ordained” is not the best word – however, we do need language that makes clear God’s active agency in entering into solidarity with human suffering.

Today’s reading (March 15, 2020) from Romans 5:1-2, 5-8 is one of the texts that convinces me of the greatness of Paul as a theologian, who was able to integrate the cross into his theology that also focused properly on the resurrection.  (In general, I guess I have a more positive view of Paul than you do.)

Thank you again, Elizabeth, for your inspiring books and your kind and full response to my earlier email.


In the introduction to Creation and the Cross, Johnson declares a project similar in scope and content to what Kasper asks for in the foreword to Mercy: “Along with Anselm and many others I see it as one of theology’s responsibilities to venture new understandings of faith that can take root in the Christian community’s worship, preaching, teaching, spirituality, and practice for the good of the world.”[21]

In other words, theology’s task is to do as Anselm did—making the faith intelligible for contemporaries—not what he did—that is, repeating his position as if it were timeless.

The interchange between Johnson and Smiles demonstrates that neither has fully persuaded the other, but the territory they map out suggests that it’s not either atonement or accompaniment, but both/and (with, likely, many other options as well). Moreover, Smiles acknowledges that Anselm’s satisfaction theory obliterates nuances that are inherent in Paul’s treatment of the death of Christ, as well as in the gospels themselves.

And there is further grounding for this “thinking through anew” in the writings of Saint John Paul II.


In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Nov. 30, 1980, two years after his election), the pope interprets Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and says,

There is no doubt that in this simple yet penetrating analogy the figure of the father reveals to us God as Father. The conduct of the father in the parable and his whole behavior, which manifests his internal attitude, enables us to rediscover the individual threads of the Old Testament vision of mercy in a synthesis which is totally new, full of simplicity and depth. The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son. This fidelity is expressed in the parable not only by his immediate readiness to welcome him home when he returns after having squandered his inheritance; it is expressed even more fully by that joy, that merrymaking for the squanderer after his return, merrymaking which is so generous that it provokes the opposition and hatred of the elder brother, who had never gone far away from his father and had never abandoned the home.[22]

Notice: “the readiness to welcome him home” does not in any way depend on a prior “satisfaction” of a debt. Indeed, the father embraces his younger son before the young man has even had a chance to blurt out his repentance (the scene is actually pretty funny). Right here in Luke as the pope presents the story—he says it’s revelation, and “there is no doubt”: the “figure of the father reveals to us the Father”—we have the basis for a critique of Anselm’s theory. And it is not beside the point that the encyclical is about mercy, the theme Cardinal Kasper picks up in his book three and half decades later.

Further on in the same chapter of Dives in Misericordia, Saint John Paul II elaborates:

The parable of the prodigal son shows that … the relationship of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him. This common experience makes the prodigal son begin to see himself and his actions in their full truth (this vision in truth is a genuine form of humility); on the other hand, for this very reason he becomes a particular good for his father: the father sees so clearly the good which has been achieved thanks to a mysterious radiation of truth and love, that he seems to forget all the evil which the son had committed.

The father seems to forget. This is entirely different from keeping score.

Now, the pope’s encyclical doesn’t end with 4.6. There’s 5.7, “Mercy Revealed in the Cross and Resurrection,” where we read about

the depth of that love which does not recoil before the extraordinary sacrifice of the Son, in order to satisfy the fidelity of the Creator and Father towards human beings, created in His image and chosen from "the beginning," in this Son, for grace and glory.

There is talk here of “sacrifice,” and even of “satisfaction,” but the satisfaction is not for the Father’s offended honor. Rather, in an astonishing inversion, it is the fidelity of the Father toward human beings that is satisfied. The satisfaction is something the Father owes to us.

Then, however, atonement enters. “In the passion and death of Christ—in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but ‘for our sake made him sin’ (2 Cor 5:21)—absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a ‘superabundance’ of justice, for the sins of man are ‘compensated for’ by the sacrifice of the Man-God.”

Popes—especially such accomplished stylists as John Paul II—are very careful about what they write. It seems not by accident that the phrase “compensated for” is in quotation marks when linked to the sins of man, while because of the sins of humanity is not. “Because of” fits well with Johnson’s category of accompaniment, while “compensation” implies Anselmian atonement. The pope’s quotation marks (they are in the Latin original) suggest that atonement is more “as if” than “just like.”[23]

Dives in Misericordia provides special help for English speakers who instinctively gravitate toward juridical notions of mercy derived from God’s courtroom where for a thousand years Anselm has been presiding judge, determining what God needs to be really satisfied.

The pope, in footnote 52, unfolds the Hebrew understanding of two central words translated “mercy”: hesed and rahamim.

Hesed “indicates a profound attitude of ‘goodness.’ When this is established between two individuals, they do not just wish each other well; they are also faithful to each other by virtue of an interior commitment, and therefore also by virtue of a faithfulness to themselves.” Furthermore, hesed “revealed its deeper aspect [deeper than juridical]: it showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.”

Rahamim “in its very root, denotes the love of a mother (rehem = mother's womb). From the deep and original bond—indeed the unity—that links a mother to her child there springs a particular relationship to the child, a particular love. Of this love one can say that it is completely gratuitous, not merited, and that in this aspect it constitutes an interior necessity: an exigency of the heart. It is, as it were, a ‘feminine’ variation of the masculine fidelity to self expressed by hesed. Against this psychological background, rahamim generates a whole range of feelings, including goodness and tenderness, patience and understanding, that is, readiness to forgive.”

It seems to us (and to Elizabeth Johnson, as noted above) that in the parable of the prodigal son what the father exhibits in welcoming back the son is heavily tilted toward what the pope calls the feminine flavor of mercy, rahamim. And, we repeat, the pope has said: “There is no doubt [that] the figure of the father reveals God as Father.” We, as fathers and grandfathers, testify to this reputedly feminine character of our relationship to our descendants.


The development of doctrine—what it is, even if it is, how it happens, how it is evaluated—is of course a vast subject, but there is a relatively recent instance that suggests the sort of “thinking anew” that Cardinal Kasper has prompted in us may be faithful to tradition in the sense memorably put by Jaroslav Pelikan, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”[24]

In the First International Conference on the Liturgy held at Assisi on May 2, 1956, Pope Pius XII said that the liturgical movement in the church “seems to show the sign of God’s providence in the present time, a salvific action of the Holy Spirit in his Church.” He also stated that “this renewal has shown clearly that the formulas of the Roman Missal ought to be revised and enriched.”

This finding on the need for change was in reference to the existing Roman Missal promulgated in the Apostolic Constitution Quo Primum by Pope Pius V in 1570, after the Council of Trent. Pius V famously declared that all other missals

are to be discontinued entirely and absolutely; whereas, by this present Constitution, which will be valid henceforth, now, and forever, We order and enjoin that nothing must be added to Our recently published Missal, nothing omitted from it, nor anything whatsoever be changed within it under the penalty of Our displeasure. … Therefore, no one whosoever is permitted to alter this notice of Our permission, statute, ordinance, command, precept, grant, indult, declaration, will, decree, and prohibition. Would anyone, however, presume to commit such an act, he should know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.[25]

Pope Paul VI referred to Pius XII’s statement on Divine Providence when issuing, on April 3, 1969, the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum announcing the revision that was to become official on November 30. Deftly finessing the problem implicit in such a change, the pope concludes with this: “We wish that these Our decrees and prescriptions may be firm and effective now and in the future, notwithstanding, to the extent necessary, the apostolic constitutions and ordinances issued by Our predecessors, and other prescriptions, even those deserving particular mention and derogation.”[26]

In what is commonly referred to as the “Ottaviani Intervention,” Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and some others on September 25th addressed to the pope a challenge (with all the endnotes, more than 8,000 words in the original Italian) calling the plan for the new missal nothing short of heresy and an incalculable error.[27]

With further study after Ottaviani’s intervention, Pope Paul VI in 1970 published the New Roman Missal that we have today.

Both Pius XII and Paul VI believed that God’s providence was and still is alive in the Catholic Church. If it could be alive in the liturgical movement, can it not also be alive in “the doctrine of God” as we see in the writings of Pope Saint John Paul II? Could Pope Francis proclaim John Paul II’s theology, grounded in the parable of the prodigal son, as part of the providence of God alive and working in the church in the 21st century?


This paper is certainly not the only word or the last word. But as fathers and grandfathers, we have been profoundly moved by what we consider the prophetic wisdom of Pope Saint John Paul II. The prodigal’s father in Luke 15 is such an inspiration to us and such a revelation of a totally loving and merciful God.  This father needed nothing but the coming home of his son.

And just as the pope’s teaching about the sacrifice of the Mass is traditional, so is what he says about the father of the prodigal son not new—patristic and medieval commentators on Luke 15 frequently comment on the analogy between the parable’s father and God. In other words, Dives in misericordia, especially by its declaration that the parable is revelation about God, re-establishes an original balance that has been skewed by Anselm’s influence.

Our response to Cardinal Kasper’s challenge to start thinking through anew the Christian doctrine of God was initially prompted by the ponderings of laypersons who, having conversed with one another for more than a decade of Lents, took the initiative to invite reflections by two eminent theological scholars. Saint John Henry Newman wrote “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” Our paper starts with the faithful, and then goes the additional step of the faithful consulting faithful experts—not a bad paradigm for the development of doctrine.

The “aha” moment came for our group when we encountered Richard Rohr’s distinction between transformational and transactional, and his contention that the transformational understanding of the Incarnation is a forgotten reality, not some newfangled idea adopted in a frantic effort to be up-to-date.

Both Johnson and Rohr point to Anselm as one whose admittedly brilliant account of redemption is too intricately tied to the structure of the feudal system. Cur Deus Homo made sense in his time; for Christians today it is largely unintelligible, and it portrays a God very different from the one evoked by the parable of the prodigal son—a narrative about which Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that “There is no doubt that in this simple yet penetrating analogy the figure of the father reveals to us God as Father.”

Vincent Smiles carefully and comprehensively brings into the discussion the writings of Saint Paul, who would appear to present significant challenges to the sort of thinking anew that we are championing. But taking into account Sister Elizabeth’s proposal of interchanging center and periphery—a geometric move frequent in the history of the development of doctrine—and Smiles’s own acknowledgment that necessity is ruled out as a causal factor, the justification for diminishing Anselm’s influence is strong.

The fact that Sister Elizabeth can so readily and so appropriately cite Pope Francis in support of her theological positions gives us hope that the current occupant of the See of Peter will respond positively to our query.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of recommending to Pope Francis that he consider making the theology of Saint John Paul II, grounded in the parable of the prodigal son, part of the providence of God alive and working in the church in the 21st century.


[1] Cardinal Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, trans. William Madges (New York: Paulist Press, 2013; Eng. trans. 2014), xv.

[2] Kasper, xv.

[3] New York: Convergent Books, 2019.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] Against Heresies, 5.Preface, in Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyon, The Early Church Fathers, ed. Carol Harrison (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 123. Clement of Alexandria: Christ the Educator (Paidagogos), 3.1, trans. Simon P. Wood, CP, Fathers of the Church, vol. 23 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), 199 (altered to avoid masculine pronouns).

[6] Reinhold Niebuhr, Man’s Nature and His Communities: Essays on the Dynamics and Enigmas of Man’s Personal and Social Existence (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), 24.

[7] Rohr, 66.

[8] Ibid., 56-57.

[9] Ibid., 36.

[10] Ibid., 141; italics Rohr’s.

[11] Ibid., 42.

[12] U.S. Catholic 83/12 (December 2018), 28-32; also at This is the source of the additional quotations from Johnson in this section of our article.

[13] Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018.

[14] Laudato Si’, 9.243, at

[15] Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1971.

[16] Laudato Si’, 3.77.

[17] London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

[18] London and New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014.

[19] Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 148 (March 2014), 12-13.

[20] Ibid., 14. Hengel reference: Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 88.

[21] Johnson, Creation and the Cross, xvii.

[22], 4.6.

[23] For the distinction between “as if” and “just like,” see Roland Mushat Frye, “Metaphors, Equations, and the Faith,” Theology Today, 37/1 (April 1980), 66.

[24] The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), vol. 1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), 9.



[27] Breve esame critico del “Novus Ordo Missæ” Presentato al Pontefice Paolo VI dai Cardinali Ottaviani e Bacci,; English translation: