Suffering, Poverty, and the Reformed Tradition – an Excerpt from The Suffering and Victorious Christ

The following is an excerpt from The Suffering and Victorious Christ, by Richard Mouw and Douglas Sweeney.

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Cover ArtWhat we see in the Westminster presentation of incarnational suffering is an acknowledgment that the final suffering of Christ was redemptively effective only because he had lived a life of perfect conformity to God’s creating designs for human flourishing. But what often gets emphasized—as is the case with the Westminster portrayal— is the way Christ’s suffering differs from ours: he endured horrible agonies, unlike us, in the context of a sinless humanness.

What we fail to see spelled out at any length in much traditional Reformed thought, though, is the affirmation that his suffering was also like ours—an identification with the deepest hurts and hopes of the human condition.

That this requirement of incarnational solidarity with shared human suffering is not foreign to Reformed thought can be seen in the many examples of genuine Christlike concern for the poor. We need look no further than John Calvin in this regard. Calvin was very concerned to restore the office of deacon to what he argued was the biblical linkage between the diaconate and service to the poor—a connection that he argued had been lost in Catholic practice. In making his case in the Institutes, he endorses some rather strong claims of Ambrose, such as, “The church has gold not to keep but to pay out, and to relieve distress”; “Whatever, then, the church had was for the support of the needy”; and “The bishop had nothing that did not belong to the poor.”

What is absent in these genuine expressions of concern for the needy, though, is that those concerns be grounded in Christ’s incarnational identification with human neediness. Calvin wants the church to conform to biblical teachings about serving the poor. Kuyper, as we shall see below, moves in a more explicitly christological direction by pointing out that Christ, like the ancient prophets, called for justice for the poor. But neither says anything about Christ actually experiencing the marginalization and pain of those who suffer.

©2013 by Richard Mouw and Douglas Sweeney. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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