Q&A with Rick Barry

We are delighted to have Richard J. Barry IV on our blog to discuss his book Jewish Temple Theology and the Mystery of the Cross: Atonement and the Two Goats of Yom Kippur. Rick Barry is assistant professor of theology at Providence College.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the significance of the “two goats”? How do they offer a window into the arguments and points you are trying to make in your book?

A: At the heart of the book is the claim that the mystery of the cross is most deeply appreciated when it is seen from the perspective of the two goats of Leviticus. For centuries Christians have advanced various models of atonement, and these models effectively capture different facets of Christ’s saving work. But the Christian tradition has not always adequately emphasized that the word “atonement” has its original home in the Old Testament, especially in the texts that emerge from the ancient priestly theological tradition. This is a word that is thoroughly shaped by the world of tabernacle and temple, of priests and sacrifices, of cult and cosmos. It comes from the experience of those sons of Aaron who were called to stand on the front lines of the battle between life and death, order and chaos, peace and violence. This is a world that is little understood by most modern people, including most Christians, who have been led to believe that priestly theology is arcane and boring. A major goal of this book is to counter this misguided understanding and to invite the reader to enter the world of the ancient Israelite priests, where we discover a vision that is beautiful, challenging, and profoundly relevant for contemporary Christians. What’s more, when we fully immerse ourselves in ancient Jewish temple theology, our appreciation for Christ’s saving work is also dramatically enhanced.

And that brings us back to the two goats. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the liturgy described at the midpoint of the book of Leviticus, which is itself the midpoint of the Torah. This central location has long been recognized as theologically significant: the Day of Atonement is the highest holy day on the Jewish calendar, the day when Israel enters into the Lord’s most intimate presence and her sins are cast away. At the center of this liturgy, we find two goats who stand before the high priest and receive their missions through the casting of lots. One will be the pure and holy sacrifice, whose blood will be brought into the Holy of Holies, a sacrament of life that destroys all impurity and releases all sin. The offering of this goat recapitulates what is most beautiful, good, and true, the self-giving peace that undergirds all creation. The other goat, poor creature, receives the mission of sin-bearing. He is a vehicle for removing sin, and he bears his dreadful burden into the wilderness, into the godforsaken abyss, so that the people may be free. This book argues that somehow, in his single act of atonement, Jesus Christ fulfills the work of both goats—without confusion, without separation—thus bringing into focus the paradox at the heart of Christian soteriology. That this paradox has been obscured for so long has led to distortions in the theology of the cross at various moments. Thus, clarifying the paradox is necessary to orient ourselves in the sometimes jumbled and contentious field of Christian soteriology, and it is necessary if we are to advance in our understanding of the cross.   

Q: Your book is a work of biblical exegesis as well as a work of systematic theology, do you agree? How do you see these disciplines as being related to each other and the importance of making these connections in your work?

I would say that the book features a theological interpretation of Scripture that is informed by the best modern biblical scholarship, and that, on this foundation, it develops a contemporary systematic theology of the cross. I myself am a systematic theologian, not a biblical scholar in the contemporary sense, but I have done my best to closely read and learn from the best biblical scholarship to better understand the world of the ancient priestly theologians, which in turn helps us to better understand the mystery of Jesus Christ. The fact is that biblical scholarship into priestly theology is currently enjoying a renaissance, and this is a wonderful opportunity for Catholic systematic theologians. For various reasons—including anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic prejudices—the early generations of critical biblical scholars, starting with Wellhausen, tended to downplay and marginalize priestly theology and temple theology, seeing it as a late corruption of an earlier, authentic, ethical Judaism. In other words, early historical critics were often unsympathetic to the priestly tradition, and this tendency in biblical scholarship has had negative ramifications for systematic theology, perhaps especially in the area of soteriology.

In the mid-20th century, however, an alternative approach to the Torah appeared with the rise of a new generation of biblical scholars, many of whom were Jewish, who approached the priestly material with respect and appreciation. Through this scholarship, we find that the priestly writers were nuanced theologians who grappled with the mystery of God in a way that was analogical, cosmic, mythopoetic, and symbolic. As I have read this scholarship, I have become convinced that the priestly theological tradition is a treasure trove for theologians. In that sense, this book is a work of ressourcement, recovering neglected biblical traditions to enrich and enliven contemporary theology.

There is no doubt that theologians have a lot to learn from biblical scholars, who enrich our understanding of the sacred page in innumerable ways. Nevertheless, as a systematic theologian, I have often wrestled with this question: do systematic theologians have anything to offer biblical scholars? Or is the relationship a one-way street? I have written this book with the assumption that theologians can make real contributions to our understanding of the biblical text, including a deeper appreciation for the intentions of the original author(s). For example, a theologian whose theological imagination is shaped by the work of figures like Balthasar or Przywara or David Bentley Hart has an appreciation for an aesthetic, analogical, sacramental understanding of the world. Someone approaching the text from that perspective is in many ways closer to the priestly worldview than someone whose scholarly imagination is primarily shaped by modern historiography. Thus, throughout the book I engage in a dialogue between the ancient priestly theologians, modern critical scholarship, and the works of theologians like Balthasar. I am convinced that this approach helps to unlock the mysteries contained in these texts in an especially profound way.

Q: You mention both Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart in this work. Can you talk a little bit about how they influenced the book, what you took from each of their arguments? 

In many ways, the book is a celebration of the theological visions of Balthasar and Hart, especially in the realm of soteriology. Throughout the first two-thirds of the book—which includes a theological pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple and a focused meditation on the meaning of the Day of Atonement—Hart and Balthasar are present as aids to our understanding of the priestly worldview (as I explained above). But in the third part of the book, Hart and Balthasar take center stage as two contemporary theologians who capture, with admirable clarity, the central features of a Christian Yom Kippur soteriology. But they do this in two very different ways. Hart, I argue, offers a powerful rendition of the soteriology that I associate with the “goat for the Lord,” the pure and holy offering that recapitulates the peace and joy in which and for which the whole world was made. Balthasar, on the other hand, prominently includes a place for the soteriology that I associate with the “goat for Azazel,” the one who is led into the far wilderness, bearing our sins so that we would be burdened no more. In this way, I show that Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday has unassailable biblical support and that his contribution to Christian soteriology is not only licit, but necessary.

In other words, I show how Hart and Balthasar’s theologies of the cross, so different from each other, are both essential and true. But if we truly follow the theo-logic that we receive from the two goats, we can also see how each of these theological masters risks becoming imbalanced when they forget the importance of the other goat. I believe that this theological imbalance is seen more and more clearly in Hart’s muscular universalism, and I believe a certain imbalance can also be found in the extreme elements of Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s descent, especially with respect to the unnecessary insistence that Christ is “made sin.” My ultimate goal is to show how, somehow, both of these visions can be true, how Christ can fulfill the work of both goats, who together establish a single atonement so as to fully and finally release us from our sins. Contemplating how this is possible, how this paradoxical work can be accomplished without falling into contradiction or folly, is the work of the final chapter of the book

4. What was the most surprising aspect of working on this book, either intellectually or personally?

I am shocked by the argument I ultimately made in this book. I was profoundly disturbed by Balthasar’s view when I first heard about it (the famous Pickstock/Oakes debate in First Things many years ago), and when I first read David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite, I thought it contained a flawless soteriology that made Balthasar’s approach completely superfluous. While my appreciation for Hart’s Beauty remains high, my encounter with the biblical priestly theologians has transformed my perspective in many areas.

The story of this book began when I was an undergraduate in college. I went through a period where I attended evangelical churches and, of course, a hallmark of American evangelical Christianity is a strong emphasis on Jesus’s atoning work on the cross. In the churches I attended, penal substitution was simply assumed, and I remember being impressed with the way that this understanding of the cross gave me a personal sense of gratitude and awe when I reflected on the “wonderous cross” of our Savior. Jesus took the punishment for me, and thus I am free. But at the same time, when I stopped to think about it more deeply, the idea that the Father had a store of wrath that needed to be discharged on someone—in this case, the innocent Jesus—to satisfy the demands of his justice and mercy, was ultimately incoherent to me. I was disturbed but, at the time, I didn’t think about it too deeply.

After college, I returned to the Catholic faith, and one day I was at a coffee shop with a close friend who had also recently become Catholic. He asked, “Now that we are Catholic, how do we understand the theology of the cross?” I remember having an immediate sense of relief that I no longer had to believe in “penal substitution,” but at the same time, the Catholic alternative wasn’t very clear to me. I understood that Catholics emphasized the centrality of the cross; this was obvious by looking toward the altar at every Catholic church I entered. But exactly how Christ saved us through the cross was harder for me to grasp. While the various theological “models” that try to explain the theology of the cross made sense to me, they didn’t always have the clarity and personal resonance of the evangelical approach to the doctrine.

With this book, I have tried to answer the question that my friend presented to me those many years ago, and to do so in a thoroughly biblical way, and in a way that fully embraces and advances the great tradition. Learning about atonement from the priestly theologians, I have come to a more nuanced understanding of where penal substitution goes wrong (like many modern soteriologies, it “conflates the goats,” failing to distinguish the two distinct movements required by Yom Kippur soteriology), and I have been shocked to discover that Balthasar was not only correct, but that he almost single-handedly rediscovers the missing piece needed for a deeply satisfying theology of the cross. I have been amazed by what I have learned and discovered through my journey into temple theology, and I’m excited to share this experience with others.

Filter by Month