Elizabeth A. Johnson

Elizabeth A. Johnson

A Review of the Writings of Elizabeth A. Johnson

Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril

Elizabeth A. Johnson, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018. xvii +238 pp. ISBN: 9781608337323.

Reviewed by Robin Ryan, CP
Catholic Theological Union, Chicago



In this work, Elizabeth Johnson, a distinguished Catholic theologian who recently retired from Fordham University, offers another valuable contribution to the work of faith seeking understanding. Her topic is soteriology – the exploration and articulation of the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. This book builds on her earlier books on the mystery of God (She Who Is) and the theology of creation (Ask the Beasts).

In Creation and the Cross, Johnson engages in a sustained, critical dialogue with Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4–1109). Though the Church has never defined as official doctrine any particular theory of the saving work of Christ, Anselm’s theory of satisfaction has sometimes been treated in theology and preaching as if it were official doctrine. Johnson has two principal aims in this book: to illumine the deficiencies in Anselm’s theory, particularly its view of Jesus’ death as required by God to make recompense for sin; and to broaden the Christian theology of salvation in a way that will embrace other creatures and the entire cosmos. In pursuing both of these aims, she endeavors to construct a theology of accompaniment. Emulating Anselm’s dialogue with the monk Boso in Cur Deus Homo, Johnson converses with an imaginary interlocutor (“Clara”) in Creation and the Cross.

Briefly stated, in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human), Anselm developed his theory of satisfaction against the backdrop of a feudal culture. In feudal societies, the interpersonal bond between the lord and the vassal guaranteed the order of society. If the honor of a superior was impugned in some way, there was the threat of social chaos. The restoration of honor occurred through the punishment of the guilty or by the guilty party making satisfaction to the one offended. The degree of injustice and thus the requisite level of satisfaction was measured according the social status of the injured party. This restoration needed to exceed what had been taken away.

Anselm draws on this socio-cultural framework to construct a theory of salvation from God in and through Christ. He engages in what we would call a work of contextual theology. His argument is based upon two key premises: without the incarnation the salvation of the human race would be impossible; salvation is God’s intention. So the redemptive work of Christ is grounded in the divine intention to effect salvation for humanity. Anselm argues that by sinning human beings failed to render to God what is God’s due; we offended the honor of God. In so doing, we disturbed the order and beauty of the universe. If humanity is to avoid God’s punishment, satisfaction to God must be made. Since in this case the One who is offended is infinite, the offense is infinite. Humanity must offer to God something that is greater than everything that is not God. Humanity is in no position to make this satisfaction because: (1) we are finite beings; and (2) we already owe God perfect obedience anyway. Thus, humanity has fallen into a pit from which it cannot extricate itself.

If God were simply to remit sin without either punishment or the requisite satisfaction, it would mean that there would be no difference between the guilty and the nonguilty. Satisfaction must be made, then, to restore the order of creation. The debt must be paid from “our side” since we were those who offended God, yet it is a debt that can only be paid by someone who is divine. Thus the necessity of the “God-Man” – the incarnate Son/Word of God. Anselm followed the tradition of his day which held that death is a consequence of sin. As one who was truly human Jesus owed perfect obedience to God; but as one who was sinless, he was not obliged to die. Nonetheless, in order to make satisfaction to God on behalf of the human race, Jesus freely underwent death. Anselm stresses that Christ died not by any compulsion from God (the Father) but by his own free choice. At the same time Anselm admits that it can be said that the Father willed the death of his Son “because the Father was unwilling for the restoration of the human race to be brought about by other means than that a man should perform an action of the magnitude of his death” (I, 9).

For such a great deed, Christ deserves a reward. But as the Son of God, who shares everything with the Father, he is in need of nothing. So Christ assigns the reward to humanity. The self-gift of Jesus in his death is of infinite value; it outweighs the evil of all sins past, present and future.
Humanity receives the gift of salvation from God.

While Anselm’s theory did not make an immediate impact in the 12th century, it did influence 13th century theologians and many thinkers thereafter. This soteriology also influenced Christian preaching on the redemptive death of Christ, though it was sometimes distorted in such a way as to depict Christ as a sacrificial victim whose death appeased an angry God. Writing not long after Anselm, Peter Abelard accused Anselm of depicting a bloodthirsty God. A century later, Thomas Aquinas incorporated the notion of satisfaction as one among several soteriological metaphors, though he did not accept the idea that either the incarnation or the death of Jesus was absolutely “necessary” in order for God to save humanity. God could have saved us in other ways.

Johnson identifies some positive elements in Anselm’s theology of salvation – aspects of enduring value. Anselm exemplifies the effort to engage in the work of theology in dialogue with culture. His goal was to demonstrate the mercy of God, which Anselm claims is “found to be so great, and so consonant with justice, that a greater and juster mercy cannot be imagined” (II, 20). Johnson also commends Anselm for never losing sight of “the heavy reality of sin” (14).

Overall, however, Johnson concludes that the theory of satisfaction is deficient, even erroneous. It does not reflect the biblical portrait of God and of God’s saving work in Christ. For one thing, it says nothing about the salvific significance of Jesus’ public ministry or his resurrection. Moreover, Anselm’s soteriology presents “a disastrous image of God” (15). Portraying a Creator who would require someone to die in order to make recompense for sin “makes God morally repulsive” (16).

Johnson endeavors to construct an alternative depiction of God. She begins this work by turning to Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55 of Isaiah). Writing at a time when exiles from Israel were languishing in Babylon, an anonymous prophet proclaimed a new saving work of God – a new exodus. The people would be brought back home. In this proclamation the prophet emphasizes that the Creator is also the Redeemer. The One who had created them and formed them into a people was the very same One who would redeem them. Deutero-Isaiah shows the very character of God to be “extravagant with love” (46). This portrait of the merciful and gracious God, grounded in the experience of the exodus, serves as a counterweight to Anselm’s thesis that an offended God is in need of satisfaction in order to redeem.

How, then, to interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus? Johnson argues that Jesus was put to death for reasons that had nothing to do with making satisfaction for sin. Jesus died as a result of the mission to which he stayed faithful – the mission of proclaiming and making present the Reign of God. Crucified under the title “the King of the Jews,” he met the fate of an enemy of the empire (93). But this does not mean that God either needed or wanted the cross in order to save the world from sin. “He suffered for the way he loved God and neighbor, not because he needed to pay a debt to divine honor” (19). It is the resurrection of Jesus that reveals God at work to save. The resurrection affirms the new life of the whole enfleshed person of Jesus; it is God’s endorsement of Jesus.

What, then, is saving about all of this? Johnson moves to the model of accompaniment, which is linked with the idea of solidarity. God’s presence to and solidarity with others, especially those who are suffering, is a powerful force. Johnson asserts that rather than a necessary gift to placate divine honor, “Jesus’ brutal death enacts the solidarity of the gracious and merciful God with all who die, especially victims of injustice, opening hope for resurrection amid the horror” (50). A theology of accompaniment envisions salvation as “the divine gift of ‘I am with you,’ even in the throes of suffering and death” (106). This theology affirms a double solidarity: God was with Jesus in his suffering, and the crucified and risen Jesus is with us, especially in our suffering.

Johnson’s next step is to deepen and broaden this notion of accompaniment by exploring the Christian belief in the incarnation. In Jesus, God joined earthly life as a participant; this entailed a divine relationship to the world that had not previously existed. As she puts it, “the tribe of those who loved Jesus came to see him as the embodied presence of God” (162). And when the Prologue to the Gospel of John affirms that “the Word became flesh” (sarx in Greek), this links the divine not only with human existence but evokes a connection with all creatures, with all that is vulnerable, perishable and transitory. Building on the work of Danish theologian Niels Gregersen, Johnson speaks of “deep incarnation.” In Christ, God enters into the “biological tissue of creation in order to share the fate of biological existence” (185; Johnson, quoting Gregersen). This means that in Christ God accompanies not only human beings but every creature. “Theologically speaking, the cross signals that God is present in the midst of anguish, bearing every creature and all creation forward with an unimaginable promise” (189). Thus, the Christian notion of salvation is not salvation from the world, but the salvation of the world. The evolving world of life will be transfigured in a way that transcends our imagination, and every creature will share in an unending plenitude. Such a theology envisions the human person as part of the community of creation, and it summons us to care for our common home, as Pope Francis has expressed it in his encyclical Laudato Si’ (quoted often by Johnson).

In Creation and the Cross, Elizabeth Johnson has given us another informative, creative and timely work of theology. Her prose is poetic in places, and the arguments she makes are cogent. Occasionally, the literary technique of dialogue with “Clara” seems a bit forced and gets in the way, but for the most part her explanations are limpidly clear and expressed in a way that engages the reader. Johnson theologizes as someone who is steeped in the Catholic Christian tradition but who also takes the risk of placing that tradition in dialogue with contemporary questions and challenges. In doing so, she is emulating the creative work of classical theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

In my work on soteriology, Jesus and Salvation (2015), I tried to sketch the outlines of a soteriology of communion. It bears some resemblance to Johnson’s theology of accompaniment. It is interesting to note that for both approaches the death of Jesus is integral to his saving work, even if it is not a death required as recompense for sin or a death directly willed by God. But as the culmination of his life of self-disposal before God (as Karl Rahner saw it), it is essential that Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, shared in the experience that terminates the earthly life of every human being, indeed of every creature. The incarnation means that Jesus lived our life and he died our death. Even if most of us do not have to endure the unjust, violent death that Jesus suffered, his walking into the valley of the shadow of death means that our death can be a dying with Christ (accompaniment), a dying in communion with Christ.