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Understanding the Cross: an Interview with Mary Vandenberg

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Understanding the Cross: an Interview with Mary Vandenberg
Mary Vandenberg, professor of Systematic Theology: Views of the atonement are like a multifaceted diamond. Each facet reveals one aspect of the beauty and mystery of God’s love.
Photo by Steven Herppich

How should we understand the work of Christ on the cross? Synod 2022 took up one way called “penal substitutionary atonement,” going as far to say denials of that teaching are a serious deviation of the teachings of the CRC. Mary Vandenberg, professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and faculty adviser for Synod 2022 (the general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church), says that in the tradition of the church and in the Bible itself there are many other ways to portray what the cross means. 

She used the analogy of a multifaceted diamond. Each facet reveals one aspect of the beauty and mystery of God’s love. No facet, she said, is larger than any other.

Penal substitutionary atonement—the preferred way of explaining the meaning of the cross in the Reformed confessions is one of those facets. Vandenberg said it is mostly a Reformation-era teaching.

Earlier theologians more often portrayed the atonement as the victory of Christ over sin, death, and the devil—a view that has become known as “Christus Victor.” Vandenberg noted that while the Reformed confessions portray the atonement in terms of penal substitutionary atonement, the hymns of the church are mostly Christus Victor. She pointed to the Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord Has Risen Today,” with its message of Christ’s victory over the forces that would keep him in the grave.

Along with Christus Victor, she mentioned medieval philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard’s idea that the death of Christ shows us what obedience looks like and 11th-century Catholic theologian Anselm of Canterbury’s idea that in the cross the honor of God is restored. She said she especially likes Anselm’s emphasis on the restoration of order and beauty in the universe.

Vandenberg said each of these ways of portraying the work of the cross is a picture. Each points to the truth but “is always couched in a certain mystery.” 

Vandenberg said in presenting the cross in the church she might do a six-part lenten series on all the ways to understand what the cross means.


Synod 2022 is meeting at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., from June 10-16. Find daily coverage from The Banner news team at thebanner.org/synod, download the Banner app on your mobile device, or follow The Banner Magazine on Facebook. On Twitter follow #crcsynod or twitter.com/crcna. Synod is the annual general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church (it did not gather in 2020 or 2021). Connect to the meeting’s livestream, read advisory committee reports, and find other resources at crcna.org/synod

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