Fleming Rutledge and Justification
Fleming Rutledge – The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Eerdmans, 2015.
This is a good time for the church – there are many women doing great work in theology at the moment. I think of Sarah Coakley’s first volume in her systematics God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity (2013), Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology Vol 1: The Doctrine of God (2015), and Fleming Rutledge’s new book on the crucifixion to name just a few. I’ve read Coakley and return to her often. Her notion of desire has had an impact on my thinking. Desire is that constant pull at the heart that recalls us to our source of existence, the source of goodness, truth, and beauty, God in three persons. This seems to me to be the best apologetic that I have as a Christian. Everyone experiences that pull of desire that hints at a fullness that is missing here in this life and points toward another life. That is not to diminish this one, but to put it in its proper place. We were meant for more. I have not yet read Sonderegger but she has a blurb for Rutledge’s new book where she calls Rutledge one of “America’s premier pastors” and that this book is a must for “every student of the Scriptures.” I picked Rutledge’s book up at the Eerdman’s table at the Center for Pastoral Theologians first conference held in Chicago a couple weeks back.
Rutledge is an Episcopalian priest and while I was initially skeptical of that designation given the sad state of that denomination, the list of those endorsing the book is a veritable who’s-who. Flipping through the three or four pages of endorsements was impressive and I turned to my friend and said anyone who can get both Stephen Westerholm and David Bentley Hart to blurb a book is doing something right! What follows is not a book review in the traditional sense, though that will hopefully follow at some point, but some reflections on Rutledge’s discussion of justification in the eighth chapter of the book, “The Great Assize.” Wrestling with her understanding of it has been fun and deepened my love of the Scriptures.
An “assize” I have learned, is a judicial inquest, and the “great” assize is an allusion to the Day of the Lord, the Final Judgment. For those not enamored by theological happenings, the doctrine of justification has probably been the issue of the last five years for Biblical scholars and theologians alike. This is not the place to engage in a comprehensive overview of that debate but here is a helpful summary of one of the highlights of that debate http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/a-justification-debate-long-overdue. (I was actually privileged to be a part of that discussion, I swiped a lanyard from a table because the conference was sold out and preceded to nervously make my way to the conference room only to find out no one was checking registrations. I do not regret my deception! Haha!)
But to make quick of the matter before getting to Rutledge, I am convinced that when the scriptures talk about “justification by faith” they do not mean how one becomes a member of the family of God. Justification is not the initial moment of salvation but the declaration of God after one has proclaimed that Jesus is Lord. This is widely disputed but, I think, is the correct interpretation of the biblical doctrine of justification, even though I have a great deal of sympathy for those who miss it because Paul often does seem to conflate “salvation” with justification.
In “The Great Assize”, Rutledge contrasts a forensic interpretation of justification with an apocalyptic interpretation, clearly rooting and arguing for the latter. (One of the things that is most helpful about N.T. Wright’s massive volume on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is that his understanding of God’s “righteousness” as covenant faithfulness seems to do away with having to choose between one or the other and a host of other issues besides. I will come back to that in a later post.) Rutledge’s understanding is guided by the great scholar Ernest Kasaemann and his notion of “apocalyptic.” The fundamental premise of this view is that the righteousness of God is “not a gift so much as it is a power.” What does that mean without going in to the minutiae of New Testament interpretation?
For Rutledge, God’s justification—his declaration that those who are in the family of God are no longer sinners but saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8)—is a performative action “it has the power to create what it requires. When God regards one as righteous, a true metamorphosis is occurring” (334). Justification, for Rutledge, is God’s logizomai (the creative power that spoke the entire cosmos into being in Genesis 1) “brings transformed persons into being. This is called dikaiosis, (justification)” (333). This is how Rutledge, I presume, would respond to Wright’s dismissal of the Reformer’s notion imputation of righteousness as some type of “gaseous substance” (makes me chuckle every time) in his response to Piper in Justification (IVP, 2009).
The question that naturally followed for me is so then we are justified on who weare, because we are actually made righteous? But Rutledge affirms Hays subjective genitive interpretation of the phrase “the faith of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ” in places like Galatians 3 so is clearly placing the impetus on Jesus action rather than ours. I think this is spot on. So I was a little confused reading her conception of logizomai and her affirmation of the subjective genitive reading of dikaiosune theou. In my understanding of the forensic notion of justification, per Wright, is not that God is able to declare “justified” because we actually are righteous, but because we are in a sense “hidden” in Christ and so in a sense, God does not look on us at all, only the crucified and risen Lord, declaring him justified and so us as well, us who “no longer live but only Christ in us” (Galatians 2:19-20). I still think that she is also a little confused on this point, clearly believing in the “imputation of righteousness” of the Reformers through which we are declared “justified!” but also holding on the subjective genitive reading. These two things seem to stand in a bit of tension to me but I would welcome insight there.
N. 68 on pg. 333 is an important part of the discussion but seems to further muddy the matter. She brings up the term “alien righteousness” of Luther, a righteousness, in other words, that “never becomes our own possession but is always received gratefully from God as a gift” (n.68, 333). As I alluded to earlier, on the next page she quotes Kaesemann and says that God’s righteousness is not a gift so much as it is a power; here, again, she seems to want to have her cake and eat it too. Is justification primarily to be seen as an “alien righteousness” i.e. a gift, or is it a transformative speaking, i.e. a power? She seems to argue for both. She says that
‘[I]mputed righetoussness’ and ‘alien righteousness’ are still concepts of tremendous importance because they protect the central theme of Paul in the Corinthian letters, panta ek tou theou, and they guard against works-righteousness – provided that the phrases are understood to refer to something that is truly happening, not just theoretically ‘counted as’. The righteousness of God is a gift that is received anew daily from the Giver, but it really is a gift, whereby, the receiver participates in righteousness through Christ (n.68, 333).
So God’s declaration of “justified!” is truly a performative utterance making us actually righteous, and yet it is an “alien righteousness” which isn’t really ours but is a pure gift. Isn’t she, like the Reformers, misunderstanding the imagery of the lawcourt which is central to justification? Much more to say but it will have to wait, given the length of this already!