What is the meaning of the atonement? A proposal

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Harrowing of Hell by Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1255 – 1319 (source)

At basic, the atonement is the doctrine of what God did to unite man with himself. Assumed in this doctrine is of course a foundational doctrine of original sin: mankind is not one with God, and thus needs to be made one.

Among the differing opinions of just what God has done to reconcile with mankind are two options.

One option is what we might call the legal doctrine of atonement. This legal atonement is posited in one of two ways: the Anselmian type and the penal substitution type. Both of these versions posit that the principal thing that separates man from God is the legal offense of sin. And thus, the thing to be removed is this offense.

Anselm posited an atonement theory which essentially proposed that God is offended by our sin, and Christ offers himself up to the Father as a satisfaction for sin. It is his self-gift which “covers our offense” and thus God forgives us. A more modern theory is commonly called penal substitution: in order for God to unite with man, he in fact must punish sin. Christ is punished by the Father in our place, and thus our sins are removed.

Without wholesale rejecting truths in these construals, I have issues. The struggle I have with these theories is that the problem the atonement means to solve is found in God: God is offended, and that is the thing that keeps us from reconciliation. Of course, our sin is offensive. But I wonder: why would that offense demand the death of the Son? Why couldn’t something else be done to rid the offense of sin? Is God unable to forgive without some sort of satisfaction? To be sure, it is said in scripture that Christ is a sacrifice for sin. Like the sacrifices of the Old Testament, Christ becomes a holy offering, a gift given over to the Father. And yet, I have yet to find it stated as such that without it God could not forgive us. To be sure, as well, we are said to be received into fellowship “for the sake of Christ”, something that the Reformation rightly recognized: we are not the cause of our salvation. Christ himself is the cause. He is our advocate before the Father. But again, this does not follow that Christ had to bear God’s wrath for our forgiveness. God receives us rather for the sake of who Christ himself is: he is the righteous servant, the obedient Son.

Patrick Henry Reardon rightly mentions that in Jesus’ parables, there is an assumption that forgiveness is something that, if it is to be forgiveness (!!), must be given freely without payment. Reardon says this:

The image of man’s “debt” owed to God is, of course, perfectly biblical. Jesus spoke of God as “a certain creditor who had two debtors” (Luke 7: 41). He also described the judgment of God as the summoning of the master’s debtors (16: 1– 12). But with regard to this debitum of the Lord’s parables, we encounter an immense irony: It is the whole point in these parables that the debt is not paid; it is simply forgiven. As the Church Fathers understood these parables, they refer not specifically to the work of Christ, but to the mercy of God and to man’s obligation to imitate that mercy.  (Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 816-821)

By God’s mercy he releases us of our debt. Our justification is through Christ, “for the sake of Christ” yes, but that is not the same as saying that God forgives us because he punished Christ.

With all that said, I do accept some legal aspects of the cross. However I do not think that the primary purpose of the cross was to remove a legal barrier of God’s offense to our sin. He does hate our sin, to be sure. But in my estimation we must locate the reason for the cross elsewhere. The atonement makes us at one with God for yet another reason.

I would like to propose a second type of atonement which I would like to call participatory atonement:

Gerhard Forde once wrote that God is only “satisfied” when he recreates sinners who are no longer under wrath. “Christ’s work, therefore, ‘satisfies’ the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer ‘under’ wrath” (A More Radical Gospel, 97). In this sense God is doesn’t need payment so much as he desires to remove the barrier of sin from his people.

Of course, this still doesn’t help us understand the atonement, but it does help us to understand the real barrier: the problem isn’t God but rather us. We are the sinners who have been so corrupted and lost, that it will not suffice for God to simply forgive us. We must be radically recreated. But how does this recreation happen, and even more, how does this relate to the atonement? What I want to propose is that the atonement is nothing less than God’s radical solidarity with us in our sin, a traveling down into the depths of our fallenness in order to recreate us and raise us up.

Robert Jenson, in his Systematic Theology volume 2, says that the atonement is what it costs God to remain our loving Father; or, to remain in union with his people, to be in fellowship with humanity. What did it cost? How could he remain our Father even in the midst of our sin? Very simply, it cost him death. In order for him to remain what he wanted to be for us, he had to die.

But why death? Why the gruesome reality of the crucifixion?

Well, because that was our reality. We were in sin and death and corruption and fallenness. We were a broken mess. God could have in his sovereign legal power simply acquitted us of our wrongs, but that would not have been enough. It would not have changed our fundamentally fallen situation. And so, he had to do something about it. And what he did, was he stepped into our fallen situation. This is the fundamental point of the incarnation: God steps into our situation to redeem it.

Reardon explains it this way:

[T]he Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” (Reclaiming the Atonement, kin loc, 93-94)…

[I]f the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it. (231-33)

Reardon goes on to say that Christology is soteriology. God became man. God took on the fullness of our experience; and why did he do that? To redeem it; to transform it; to renew it; to glorify it. The early fathers of the church were fond of reversing their Christology in order to explain salvation: God became man; why? So that man might become God. By that they meant that God came down to raise us up. Christology is soteriology.

David Fagerberg explains it this way: “Our deification (sanctification) is twinned to Christ’s Incarnation. Mankind enters into the life of God because of his hypostatic union” (Consecrating the World, p 60). Fagerberg quotes John Chrysostom who says this about the incarnation and resurrection: “Two things He has done, the greatest things. He has both Himself descended to the lowest depth of humiliation, and has raised up man to the height of exaltation.” (ibid, 61)

Thus God condescended into our midst, into the brokenness of our situation, to redeem and raise us up. We may call this a model of participation or solidarity. God becomes what we are — sinful, broken, fallen — in order to make us what he is.

Thus the incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, must be seen as a whole. The cross is very simply the deepest depth of our fallen condition. Christ travels into the realm of death and defeats that reality, what the Eastern fathers called the harrowing of hell (icon above). God the Father vindicates (justifies) Christ from the dead, and enthrones our human nature at his right hand.

Mark A. McIntosh says this of the cross:

What we see happening in Christ on the cross is the stretching out of God to us in our affliction and separation from hope. There, in Jesus’ cry of dereliction, we see the Word of God finding us, sharing our plight, crying out to the Father. Our lostness and distance from each other and from God has been embraced within the “distance” of God’s eternal life of love, embraced within the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father, that one love — the bond of supreme union… — whom we know as God the Holy Spirit… Our suffering is forever embraced and suffered within this eternal loving which is God’s life. (Mysteries of Faith, 38-39)

In love, in forgiveness, God comes into our death, enters into our darkness, and embraces us so as to transform us. Salvation then is the reception of this embrace. We are acquitted of our wrongs “for the sake of Christ” and raised up and seated with Christ on high, removed from our fallen situation.

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Prayer as Heavenly Sight

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Heavenly worship from John’s Revelation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his magnificent work Prayer, introduces several theological tensions in the act of prayer. One of these tensions is the contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Balthasar explains

Creation evinces a mysterious tension which is identified in the very first words of scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. As the subsequent course of salvation history shows, this opposition is not simply cosmological but also theological, contrasting God’s being and place with man’s being and place. What is absolutely clear is that earth is not heaven, even before man puts a spiritual distance between himself and heaven as a result of the fall.  Even before the fall there are times in paradise where God makes himself present, walking “in the cool of the day”. And afterward we often read of Yahweh’s “coming down” (Gen 11:5, 7, 18:21, etc), we read of Jacob’s ladder linking earth and heaven, of God’s “looking down” on the earth… (p 277)

So there is a contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Heaven, where God dwells is not earth where man dwells. “But”, as Balthasar says,

this is not the way God desires to reveal his heavenly mystery to earthly men. The Son “comes down”, and in him heaven becomes tangible on earth… Mankind’s yearning to look into God’s dwelling place is satisfied, beyond all imagining, through God’s arrival in the house of man “to come and eat with him” (Rev 3:20)… In Jesus, heaven is no longer an image but a Person. (p 278)

What did God do through the incarnation of the Son? Paul says in Ephesians 1 that he united heaven and earth. God and man were brought together in a vital union. This is why so many of the theological masters along with Balthasar explain the very person of Christ as the kingdom, or as heaven and earth united. Man and God are no longer in separation, but are in a cooperative synergistic union. This is the point of the hypostatic union: God and man are united in the person of the divine Son.

But it is not simply that in Christ, heaven and earth are united; because Christ died, rose, and ascended. He was not simply united to our human nature: human nature was resurrected and ascended in him! Balthasar explains:

To contemplate Holy Saturday is to contemplate the collapse of heaven into the horrors of the nether world. But the Son of heaven rises from the dead, and the forty days he spends with us establish the fundamental sense of Christian existence: our beloved God, who became man, who became “heaven on earth”, who thus wooed our love on earth, and whose love we only reciprocate when he had died for our sake — he is now “earth in heaven” (p 278)

By “earth in heaven”, not “heaven in earth”, Balthasar means to say that in the person of Christ, earth is raised with Christ. The cosmos which had fallen was raised up to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Put another way, in his resurrection, Christ accomplished not simply the defeat of death, he accomplished the final union of heaven and earth in his person. But it is not simply that Christ rose; he ascended into heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand. Balthasar explains further that “by the ascension to heaven the Man Christ… has taken our humanity to heaven with him, authentically, although hidden” (p 284).

What all of this means is that Christ’s descent and ascent — theologically divided into four parts: incarnation, descent into hades, resurrection and ascension — is the movement of heaven to earth and earth into heaven. Or to put it more relationally: the Father sends the Son so that fallen man might be brought back to the Father. This is a movement of heaven down and earth up.

Paul explains this movement in Philippians 2:5-11 as Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. But it is not simply that Christ was humiliated and exalted. Heaven and earth were brought into a union that, as Balthasar says, is hidden but real. And believers are, as Paul aptly says, “raised with Christ” and “seated with him in the heavenly places” in Ephesians 3. This is again a hidden reality that cannot be seen with the eyes. And yet it is true: humanity (indeed the entire cosmos!) has been joined in a union with the Father in Christ.

It cannot be seen with eyes. However, there is a way to see it — and finally we get to the title of this article: prayer is the means of locating, finding ourselves in Christ before the Father. Christ has been raised and has ascended to the Father; and so have baptized believers! We have been raised and seated with Christ in heavenly places. The principle means of seeing this reality is in prayer.

Balthasar explains:

This irreducible tension, [that Christ has united heaven and earth], is part of our whole Christian life, and thus it belongs particularly to Christian contemplation.

The view of the Fathers, and of Augustine in particular, follows from this. Contemplation makes present the heavenly dimension and truth of the Christian life; action is the working-out of this truth in the transient conditions of this world (p 284)

Prayer is the sight of the reality that “we already have a share, concretely and authentically, in this union” of heaven and earth (p 287).

I have for about a year now understood prayer in terms of finding my place in the Son before the Father. This the tension: we do not see it, but we are in Christ seated in heavenly places. The world in fact has been risen in him. The universe itself is raised and included in God’s triune life. This reality is located by contemplative prayer. It is seen, as Paul says, with the “eyes of the heart” and not by physical sight!

 

 

The Trinity in the Old Testament

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In the fourth chapter in Can These Bones Live?, Robert W Jenson has an excellent biblical theological overview of the Trinity.

Jenson begins by tracing the historic development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity was solidified through the Nicene Creed; it was further grounded by the Cappadocian fathers. Jenson summarizes the historical articulation of the Trinity by explaining the difference between being and person or hypostases: “There is in God… just one being, which is why there is just one God. The is-ness of God is single, but there are three hypostases [or persons]” (p 48). So then, Christians worship one God who eternally exists in three persons. Jenson concludes that this is “the most biblical view” (p 48).

But of course, in order for it to be the most biblical view, it must be found in the Bible. The question then becomes, can the Trinity be found in the Bible? Or is the Trinity a novel doctrine created by the early Christians? Jenson explains:

It is often supposed that Christian trinitarianism is a total break from Judaism’s understanding of God. The Jews are said to have the doctrine that there is only one God and the Christians are said to have introduced a modification. This is historically false, and two of the most profound contemporary Jewish theologians, Michael Wyschogrod and Peter Ochs, both recognize that. Neither Judaism nor Christianity is an abstract monotheist religion. Neither insists that there is just one God and that this is all that can be said about him. Both are rather instances of what I would like to call “dramatic monotheism.” For both Judaism and Christianity, the oneness of God is the oneness of the story that he lives with his people. (p 48-49)

Jenson then goes on to explain that the OT presents a dramatic God who not only exists outside of history as “its author, who in some sense stands outside of the play or drama as the author of the drama” (p 49), but also…

as a figure in the drama, a figure in the history of Israel. Consider, for example, “the angel of the Lord.” Throughout the Pentateuch when something really decisive happens, the “malach yhwh”— that is, the angel or messenger of the Lord— appears to speak on the Lord’s behalf. As the tale goes on, however, this angel or messenger of the Lord speaks as God in the first person. It turns out that he is the Lord. So the malach of the Lord is simultaneously a messenger for the Lord or of the Lord but also the Lord himself. (p 49)

Jenson also points out the glory cloud of the Lord that is understood to be the presence of the Lord himself:

In the temple of Jerusalem we find simultaneously a manifestation of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a sort of shining of the Lord which just is the Lord…

The old rabbis of somewhere between 150 bc to ad 300 regarded such phenomena as different forms of the same thing which they called the “shekinah,” which means “the settlement one” or “the resident one.” The shekinah of God, then, is God as resident within the life of Israel as distinguished from God as author and transcendent to the life of Israel. (p 49-50)

Jenson notices “there are three” persons who are generally equated as YHWH in the OT, each in some way participating within the drama of Israel. This leads to the conclusion that the YHWH of Israel is more dynamic than simply one God as one person.

When this drama turns to the NT, Jenson observes that for the writers of the NT letters, the resurrection of Christ came to mean that the Shekinah glory of the temple had come to illumine and dwell within one man, a single Israelite (p 50). No longer was the glory outside of the people, but it had come to make its home within mankind. Even more then that, it is said in the NT that it was the Father who raised Jesus by the power of the Shekinah. Thus, the NT continues the threeness of the OT: the Son was raised by the Father in the power of the Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Christological Heresies: Arianism

Continuing in my examination of the early church heresies concerning Christ, in this post I want to consider the Arian heresy.

That Christ was human was, to the earliest church father, fairly self-evident. But, was Christ just human? Was he also divine? And if he was divine, how divine was he? And how did this square with the Jewish concept of monotheism? This was the question of the earliest theologians of the church.

During the first century, the church dealt with different heresies concerning this question: on the one side, an early Jewish sect of Christianity, Ebionitism, posited that Jesus was not divine at all; He was simply an Old Testament prophet. On the other side, Docetism (akin to Gnosticism) taught that Christ was only divine, and that his human nature was only apparent, but not real.

The earliest fathers knew to reject these extreme positions. But their Christology was still being developed. We can see this by looking at Justin Martyr. An early church apologist, Justin was the first to write on Christ’s divine nature. He taught that Jesus Christ was the incarnation, or revelation, of the eternal Logos (knowledge) known from Platonism.  

Alister McGrath explains:

Justin developed… the idea of the “Logos”, current in both Stoicism and Middle Platonism of the period. The Logos (logos is a Greek term usually translated as “word” — eg, as it is found at John 1:14) is to be thought of as the ultimate source of all human knowledge. The one and same Logos is known by both Christian believers and pagan philosophers; the latter, however only have partial access to it, whereas Christians have full access to it, on account of the manifestation in Christ. Justin allows that pre-Christian secular philosophers, such as Heraclitus and Socrates, thus had partial access to the truth, on account of the manner in which the Logos is present in the world.

An idea of especial importance in this context is that of the logos spermatikos (seeds of the Word), which appears to derive from Middle Platonism. The divine Logos sowed seeds throughout human history; it is therefore to be expected that this “seed-bearing Logos” will be known, even if only in part, by non-Christians. Justin is therefore able to argue that Christianity builds upon and fulfills the hints and anticipations of God’s revelation which is to be had through pagan philosophers. The Logos was known temporarily through the theophonies (appearances of God) in the Old Testament; Christ brings the Logos to its fullest revelation… (Historical Theology, 42)

After this, another church father, Origen, borrowed and completed Justin’s thoughts:

It is in the writings of Origen that the Logos-Christianity appears to find its fullest development. In the Incarnation, the human soul of Christ is united to the Logos. On account of the closeness of this union, Christ’s human soul comes to share in the properties of the Logos. Nevertheless, Origen insists that, although both the Logos and the Father are coeternal, the Logos is subordinate to the Father. (ibid, 42)

The Logos-Christology is insufficient: it fails to answer questions concerning the unity of God, and the nature of how the Logos relates to God the Father. However, this helps give context to the Arian controversy. We can observe that the church fathers were wrestling with how exactly to call Christ divine. Justin and Origen opted to use Platonistic categories, explaining Christ as this eternal “Logos” which was only partially known until his full revelation in Christ.

During this time of wrestling, Arius emerged with a view of his own that would proved very controversial. It must be noted that historians know very little about Arius and his life. Even more, we have access to his views only through his opponents.

Generally, however, we know that Arius regarded Christ as being a created being. He is known for saying “there was when he was not” of Christ. God is the only uncreated being. Christ, the Son, is a created being who, while being pre-existent and higher than other beings, is still below the Father.

Alister McGrath explains:

The Father is regarded as existing before the Son…This decisive affirmation places the Father and Son on different levels, and is consistent with Arius’ rigorous insistence that the Son is a creature… There is a distinction of rank between the Son and other creatures, including human beings. [However], Arius has some difficulty in identifying the precise nature of this distinction. The Son, he argues, is “a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings”… (ibid, 44)

So while the Son does pre-exist other creatures, and is perfect above them, he is still created and thus below the Father. For Arius, this explained the balance of scripture: Christ was above all other creation, but distinct from the Father.

How did the early church respond to this position? And what was wrong with Arius’ position?

Saint Athanasius wrote a critique of the Arian position called Against the Arians. McGrath explains Athanasius’ critique:

For Athanasius, the affirmation of the creaturehood of the Son had two decisive consequences, each of which had uniformly negative implications for Arianism. First, Athanasius makes the point that it is only God who can save. God, and God alone, can break the power of sin, and bring us to eternal life. An essential feature of being a creature is that one requires to be redeemed. No creature can save another creature. Only the creator can redeem the creation. Having emphasized that it is God who can save, Athanasius then makes the logical move which the Arians found difficult to counter. The New Testament and the Christian liturgical tradition alike regard Jesus Christ as Savior. Yet, as Athanasius emphasized, only God can save…

The second point that Athanasius makes is that Christians worship and pray to Jesus Christ. This represents an excellent case study of the importance of Christian practices of worship and prayer for Christian theology. By the fourth century, prayer to and adoration of Christ were standard features of the way in which public worship took place. Athanasius argues that if Jesus Christ is a creature, then Christians are guilty of worshipping a creature instead of God (ibid, 44-45)

God is the only Savior — if Christ is Savior, then he is God. Only God deserves worship — if Christians are called to worship Christ, then he is God!

The debate over the Arian controversy came to a close with the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which declared that Christ was “homoousios” of the Father. This is a Greek term which means that Christ is “of the same substance” of the Father. Or, put another way, Christ is the same nature, equal to the Father. This of course logically leads to an affirmation of one divine being with distinct persons — the Trinity!

The Paradox of the Christian Faith

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Paul says that a servant of God’s church must be able to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:9). Clearly within the Christian faith, there are mysteries. More than that, within our own limited understanding, there are apparent paradoxes.

Michael Horton, in his excellent defense of Calvinism, For Calvinism, writes on this mysterious tension.

He says:

[We must recognize] the paradox that lies at the heart of every great doctrine of the [Christian] faith. It affirms simultaneously God’s unity and trinity, Christ’s divinity and humanity, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Believers are urged with all  seriousness to work out their salvation, and yet this salvation is already assured as a gift from the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit. The kingdom of Christ is present now, inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection, and yet not fully consummated until he returns. Ignoring these tensions (the irrationalist temptation) or resolving these tensions (the rationalistic  temptation) are always easy options. Living in the tension is more difficult: listening where God has spoken, but restraining our curiosity beyond his Word.

 

Why I’m a Complementarian Part 2: The Trinity

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I’m doing a series of posts on why I’m a complementarian. If you don’t know what that is, please read my first post, and I give you a definition of that and also the opposing egalitarian view. In my first post, I considered the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, and concluded that the narrative itself presents a complementarian view of marriage.

In this post, I want to consider the Trinity. Now this may seem strange to apply the theology of the Trinity to a subject about manhood and womanhood within marriage. But because egalitarians consider it oppressive to define roles within marriage in terms of headship and submission, I think it is completely pertinent to consider how the Trinity functions and operates.

First, I want to affirm that each person within the Trinity — Father, Son and Spirit — is fully and equally God. There are several texts to consider. John 1 for instance says that in the beginning (eternity past) Jesus was with God (the Father), and he is God (John 1:1). Acts 5:3-4 tells an episode in which Peter equates the Holy Spirit with God himself. And also, there are plenty of texts referring to the Father as God (Eph 4:6, 1 Cor 8:6). Besides this, there are numerous texts in which each person of the Trinity is referred: Jesus tells the disciples to baptize disciples in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:18-20). Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:14, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”. They are all there: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. 

All this is mentioned to say that each member of the Trinity is equally God. And, the one God of the Bible would not exist apart from each person of the Trinity.

But what this does not mean is that each equal member of the Trinity has the same function. Equality does not preclude uniformity. In fact, each person in the Trinity has a separate function and responsibility. Ephesians 1:3-14 tells us that the Father’s role in salvation is that of choosing. He chooses us in Christ and predestines that in Christ we will be presented holy and blameless before him (vv. 3-6). However, Christ’s role in this salvation is different. His role is to spill his blood that we might have that redemption and forgiveness chosen by the Father (vv. 7-10). But then, the Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s death, and seals us for the day of redemption. From this text, we find that each member of the Trinity has a differing role in our salvation!

And quite remarkably, Christ’s role is subservient to the Father’s, and the Spirit’s role is submissive to the Son’s. Though each member of the Trinity is equal, they have roles which submit to one another. Christ said that he came not to do his own will, but the will of his Father (Jn 6:38). And the Spirit was given to magnify the work of Christ (Jn 16:14)!

If complementarianism is oppressive to women, then we must also agree that Christ’s willing submission to the Father is oppressive. Since we cannot say that, than we also cannot say that headship and submission within marriage is wrong. In fact, as you delve deeper into the Trinitarian mission and mind, you find that the unity and diversity found in marriage models the unity and diversity found in the Godhead!

In marriage, two people become one flesh (Gen 2:24), and yet each person has a different role in that oneness. The male is the head, and the female is the helper. The male leads, the female supports. And, just as it is impossible to have redemption without each member of the Trinity, it is impossible to have a marriage without one man, and one woman.

Equality in worth, diversity in function.