Fleming Rutledge and the Crucifixion

*Rutledge’s book came out a couple years ago but it has won some major awards and recently been re-released in paperback so I wanted to post a review that I wrote which I never posted, which I thought especially apropos given that it’s Holy Week.

Fleming Rutledge- The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ Eerdmans, 2015 (669 pp.)

Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God.

–PBS special “The Christians” 1981.

51iB04IqXvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Why the cross? It seems an easily answered question for those familiar with the plot line of Christianity but on reflection the crucifixion does not easily explain itself and requires interpretation, Rutledge says. Ask even mature Christians what it was that Jesus accomplished on the cross and how it was accomplished and the answers will likely be short and fairly inarticulate — thus the need for this book. The Crucifixion is a gift to preachers and teachers alike in large part because there are surprisingly few books of this kind in publication. Her book fills a hole in the need for book-length overviews of the atonement.

There are two things that are particularly helpful about the way Rutledge has written her book:

First, she writers as a preacher for preachers. Rutledge is not interested in a theology book for theology sake but to give preachers and teachers a resource for better understanding and speaking about the death of Jesus Christ. “These pages attempt to be a bridge between academic scholarship, on the one hand, and local congregations, on the other,” she writes in the preface (xvii). Her book is littered with anecdotes, literature quotations and excerpts from the liturgy of the Church (particularly Episcopalian of which she is a part). It is clear that she has continually asked herself, ‘will it preach?’ in the composition of this lengthy book. Her section on Jesus wrestling with the forces of evil and death in the garden of Gesthemene (pp. 371-375) should be read by every preacher before they begin preparing their annual Easter sermon. It will undoubtedly bring the earth-shattering consequences of Jesus life, death and resurrection back into the heart of the gospel with the reminder that Jesus death is much more than the forgiveness of individual sin but also the victory of God over everything that opposes His reign.

Second, Rutledge is intentionally inclusionary of the Church’s wide-ranging and diverse interpretations of the atonement. The Crucifixion is not written to privilege the Christus Victor view over the substitutionary model or to defend the “legacy” of the Reformers interpretation of penal substitution, to note just two of the more prevalent current reasons for those writing on the atonement. Though Rutledge admits that it is a “challenge” to address such a profound topic in an understandable way while still engaging with the wide spectrum of the church’s teaching about the crucifixion of Christ, her decades of pastoral experience in the Church have made this “work of a lifetime” a comprehensive overview of the theories of the atonement. Though this inclusionary treatment has made the book a lengthy read, for the faithful and persistent reader, however, this inclusionary approach is invaluable. This reviewer, for instance, has come away with a deeper understanding of Anselm, apocalyptic and hell to name but just a few of the more prominent sub-themes that run throughout The Crucifixion.

From the outset, Rutledge notes that there are actually two questions connoted in the question of why the cross? The first and most obvious is, why was it necessary for Jesus to give his life away? But there is another that is seldom asked: why was the cross —crucifixion— the means by which that death was accomplished? Anslem in his treatise on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo, asks, why should God have to “stoop to such lowly things,” as the crucifixion or “do anything with such great labor” when he could simply flick the demons away? Though the first question guides the book as a whole, the second, Rutledge says, stands at its heart. Anselm’s answer to his interlocutor, and one that Rutledge returns to continually is a sobering one: “Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis peccatum sit—You have not yet considered the gravity of sin.”

In the first part of the book, “The Crucifixion.” Rutledge builds on Anselm’s answer for why the crucifixion specifically was the form of death chosen for Jesus. Her answer is that the cross and the crucifixion, “marks out the essential distinction between Christianity and ‘religion.’” That is, the crucifixion is such a horrendous death that it must dethrone any type of natural preconceptions that we may have of who God should be or what He should be like. The sheer “irreligiousness” of the cross subverts any anthropomorphic reductions of Christianity in the guise of a Feuerbach or a Freud. This really isn’t something that could be made up, is the essence of Rutledge’s claim. Paul said the same thing: “for we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” This notion of the “irreligiousness” of the cross is a powerful reminder and one that pastors need to reclaim time and time again in order to remind the Church that in the words of Moltmann, we worship a “crucified God.”

The sheer scandal of such a proclamation was brought home recently when a Muslim friend said to my wife, “that cannot be true. God cannot die.”

Having reminded the reader in part one of just how subversive and strange the central belief of Christianity really is, Rutledge turns to the more traditional question of what Jesus accomplished in the much longer part two, “The Biblical Motifs.” She gives a helpful two-fold categorical grouping of the various theories of the cross offered in Scripture ­— atonement and deliverance. The first, atonement, is God’s action in making vicarious reparation for sin that understands the cross as a sacrifice, sin offering, guilt offering, expiation, and substitution where related motifs are the scapegoat, the Lamb of God and the Suffering Servant. The second, deliverance, is God’s victory over the powers of sin and death that sees the cross as rescue from bondage, slavery, and oppression and interprets it as the new exodus, the harrowing of hell, and Christ the Victor. From there, she devotes eight chapters to expanding on each of the major theories that come out of these two main categories. I will not take up any more space diving into those chapters, but they deserve your time.

Reading Rutledge’s book is a commitment — it is long and extensive because it is concerned with eliminating the shrug and the “heard it before” understanding of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ death is the crux from which all of history turns and it demands our time and study. Rutledge has given believers and seekers alike a gift The Crucifixion. It invites us all to understand in order to love the greatest gift that has ever been given.

 

 

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Jesus the Faithful Israelite- Thursday Holy Week Meditations

Golgotha
Golgotha, the rock upon which history turns.  

Today we have come to Golgotha, a small and insignificant hill in Jerusalem where criminals of the state are executed. We come to it a day early so that tomorrow we might say little and simply pray and weep at the body of our Lord who hangs upon the tree.

Yesterday, Wednesday of Holy Week, we looked at how it was going to take someone that was more than flesh to overcome the curse of the law because Torah had proved that every person was trapped in his and her flesh and all of its bondages to sin.

“Adam’s sin established a regime of spreading death that led to sin….Israel herself was overtaken by flesh and came under a curse” (203). Because Israel is itself entrapped in flesh, Torah, the law that was given to her in order that she might bless the nations, has become her prosecutor that she too, is entrapped in the flesh and under the curse of sin. Leithart says, “The curse is not exclusively because Israel became proud of her possession of Torah or because individual Israelites were proud of their meritorious law-keeping, though both of those attitudes are examples of how flesh perverts Torah. Paul’s point [in Galatians] is far more straightforward: the curse rests on Israel because she has failed to obey the law (Gal 3:10) [199, original emphasis]. And so Paul says that the chosen people of God have been liberated through the work of the Jesus and his death on the cross:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14 NRSV).

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsThis is why Paul is so incredulous toward the Galatians. How could those who received the Spirit and been freed from the curse through their belief in the faithfulness of Christ, return to the old stoicheia, to the very law which pronounced the curse upon them? It is only through understanding Jesus as Son of David, as the faithful Israelite, that the mechanism of the atonement comes into full view. It is here that we come to the heart of the mystery of Easter week and are able to have a clue to answering the question that centers Leithart’s book: “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”

Hanging on the tree, he is a cursed one, and by bearing the curse he breaks through the curse….Jesus is condemned as a rebellious son, though he is not. He is condemned as a rebellious son by the rebellious son, Israel in the flesh. In that precise sense, Jesus suffers the curse of Israel. Because Jesus the faithful Israelite bears the curse, he delivers/redeems Israel from the curse. He takes the place of Israel that should be cursed in order to remove the cursing. And so the flow of blessing, the flow of the Spirit, begins (200).

By jumping straight to the universalizing of sin, that Jesus died for all, we miss precisely how redemption from the curse works. Paul is speaking to his fellow Israelites when he says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law….” Are the rest of us Gentiles rescued as well because of the death of Christ, well yes, but one misses the glory of the story of Scripture and the workings of the plan of God if one skips over why Jesus must have been from the line of David. That’s why Paul in his greatest letter describes the gospel as being “promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh…” (Romans 1:2-3).

As Leithart says, “God’s promise is universal, to ‘justify the Gentiles by faith,’ but that universal promise is realized only in the fulfillment of the particular promise that the blessing will come through Abraham’s seed” (201).

Through the faithfulness of Jesus the true Israelite, Israel has fulfilled its mission to bless the world. The same Spirit that hovered over the waters and moved to create, now descends upon the nations.

Thoughts on N.T. Wright’s work on the atonement

nt-wright-the-day-the-revolution-began

It’s classic Wright, a long and sprawling work that reads like a novel and manages to talk about (almost) everything from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22:21. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (2016) rediscovers many of the threads that have featured predominantly in Wright for the last several decades while also launching out into previously unexplored territory, even changing his mind from his previous work  on one significant question: namely, was God punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross? (See, for example, page 273.)

Before I get to the heart of the book, allow me a brief excursus on the author. I would bet a fair amount of money that Wright has been the greatest influence that you may have never heard of upon the pastors and friends that have influenced you and those that you listen to teach you every week. I know that’s certainly the case in the circles I run in. Wright has the almost superhuman ability to be a world-class scholar and a world-class pastor at the same time, which means that he has had an undue influence on both the academy and the pews. His written output and the amount of places he speaks through the year are remarkable. I had the privilege of beginning my theological discoveries at the 2010 Wheaton theological conference which was a celebration of Wright the man and his work. (All of the sessions can be found here.) Few scholars ever receive a festschrift in their lifetimes, let alone have the star power to be honored with an entire weekend of festivities that draws crowds in the thousands. At one lecture I sat next to the Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today and at another next to a resident of Chicago who had never heard of Tom but wanted to check out what all the fuss was about. Such is the gifting of Tom Wright, a man humble enough to bless the establishment and those outside and with the grace and civility to respond to emails, phone calls, and coffee requests from myself and my friends.

To the work itself.

After reading two rather ho-hum reviews, I wasn’t, to be honest, expecting all that much from this book. (If interested, Ex. 1 and Ex. 2 though I would point you to my good friend Ben’s review who did a fine job [better job?] with more limited space on Scot McKnight’s site.) I expected a slender volume that was written mainly to introduce new readers to the major and familiar themes that Wright has laid out in his previous dozens of books. (I once heard a friend of Tom’s say that he was so thankful for an afternoon walk with Tom when he was an undergraduate but apologized for taking up Tom’s time because he could have written a new book in those two hours. Wright is quite prodigious.)

Thus, I was surprised upon receiving the Amazon package that the book clocked in at over 400 pages and, as far as the reviews, upon turning the final page, I wondered if the reviewers and I had, in fact, read the same book. Surely excitement about the glories of the drama of death and redemption and the majestic vision of God’s faithful and righteous plan for the salvation of his creation and what that now means for the world should have at least peaked through the reviews a little bit like the sun through drawn curtains? Have we gotten to such a place that we are unable to be moved by the drama of the story of God, even if we disagree with some of the details? How could such a bombastic manifesto be treated with such temerity?

Though, admittedly, The Day the Revolution Began starts off a bit slowly, it finds its pace beginning in part II (around page 75) and sprints into part III. I was swept up into the great story the rest of the way. The story Wright tells throughout is that Christ has died and and set us free from the idols which have enslaved us and defeated death itself by the power of the resurrection which gives us, his image bearers, the power to live as God originally created us to live!

CHRIST HAS DIED AND SET US FREE FROM THE IDOLS WHICH HAVE ENSLAVED US. HE HAS DEFEATED DEATH THROUGH THE POWER OF GOD— ON DISPLAY IN THE RESURRECTION—AND GIVEN US THE POWER, THROUGH THE SPIRIT, TO EMBODY HIS VICTORY IN THE WORLD! 

At some point in the near future I want to try and do a more full-scale review but for now let me highlight a couple of the main questions followed by three fancy theological terms that more or less embody what the book wants us to see in Scripture and the story of Israel and Jesus. To say it briefly for those who are familiar with Wright’s work, read this book if you have been unsatisfied with Tom’s previous treatment of what sin, forgiveness, and the  are not about, rather than giving new, positive understandings. That to me, is the importance of this book in Tom’s overall catalog, (without saying anything about its importance to readers in general, which is much more significant.)

Summarizing the aim of the book before diving into an exposition of Galatians, Wright says: “our task is to rescue the ‘goal’ from Platonizing ‘going to heaven’ interpretations and the ‘means’ from paganizing ‘angry God punishing Jesus’ interpretations—and so to transform the normal perceptions of what ‘atonement theology’ might be from a dark and possibly unpleasant mystery to an energizing and highly relevant unveiling of truth” (234).

The three questions that stuck out to me that are raised in the beginning of this work and that set the tone might be stated this way:

1.From whence comes the power of the cross to capture imaginations still to this day and what does that power mean? 

2. Why did the cross of Jesus have the place it did in the life of Christianity even from the very beginning? As Tom writes, “Jesus’s first followers… saw it as the vital moment not just in human history, but in the entire story of God and the world. Indeed, they believed it had opened a new and shocking window onto the meaning of the world “God” itself” (4).

3. How was the cross considered part of the “gospel” and how does it relate with Jesus’ Kingdom announcement?

Overall, we might crudely summarize, in one paragraph, why Wright thought it was necessary to write this book: “For too long, we have thought that the goal of Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive our sins so that we could go to heaven. In fact, the biblical story tells us much richer and complex story. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, Israel has indeed been faithful to her covenant vocation and as a result, sins are forgiven and all nations can come to know and love the true God. Those who live out of this story are truly human, not waiting to die to be with God, but living with God now, as the first fruits of the new and redeemed creation, inaugurated by Jesus’ defeat of death in the resurrection.

Which leads us to the fancy theological terms that elucidate Wright’s major themes:

Hamartiology (sin)– At the heart of the book is the plea for Christians and the Christian declaration of the “gospel” to broaden the concept of “personal sin” from a moral lawbreaking to a more biblical notion of sin as a forfeiting of our power as image bearers of God to idols. Wright does much of his most important exegetical and thematically work out of this understanding and it does a lot of the heavy lifting in this book. Two brief quotes will do here:

“Worshipping things other than the one true God and distorting our human behavior in consequence is the very essence of ‘sin’: the Greek word for ‘sin’ in the N.T. means…not just ‘doing wrong things’ but ‘missing the target.’ The target is a wise, full human life of worship and stewardship. Idolatry and sin are, in the last analysis, a failure of responsibility. They are a way of declining the divine summons to reflect God’s image” (100.)

The change of definition of sin means that a forgiving of “sins” looks quite different than we might have seen it in the past:

“Within that new reality, [the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is on heaven] the ‘forgiveness of sins’ was neither simply a personal experience nor a moral command, though it was of course to be felt as the former and obeyed as the latter. It was the name for a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection, resurrection itself being the archetypal forgiveness-of-sins moment, the moment when the prison door is flung open, indicating that the jailor has already been overpowered” (157).

Soteriology (salvation)– The major thematic readjustment here is closely related to our understanding of sin and is what Wright labels the “works contract” vs. the “covenant of vocation.” The caricatured understanding of salvation in the works contract model of salvation is the “Romans Road” reading: “God gave us a moral standard to live up to, we broke that moral standard and thus deserve death, but God punished Jesus for our sins instead of us on the cross which means we are now able to get in to heaven if we believe in what Jesus did.” This reading, while it has some echoes in Scripture, Wright says, is really more of a pagan version of redemption. The biblical version of salvation is the “covenant of vocation”: in completely gracious love, God made a covenant with Israel meant to bring all people back to himself. Israel itself stumbled, and was thus unable to fulfill its job. Jesus, acting both Israel and God, fulfilled both sides of the covenant on the cross, highlighting not God’s wrath, but God’s self-giving love, freeing humans up not to go to heaven when they die, but to be the regents of God on earth.”

“‘Forgiveness of sins’ belongs…within a narrative different from the one most people imagine today. The purpose of forgiving sin, there as elsewhere, is to enable people to become fully functioning, fully image-bearing human beings within God’s world, already now, completely in the age to come [not to go to heaven when they die.]” (155).

Missiology (mission)– What’s the result of this more biblical understanding of sin and salvation? Nothing less than an entire reorientation of Christian mission. The message and mission of Christians should be quite dramatically changed from “you can go to heaven when you die” to implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross. That implementation of victory comes, however, not by the world’s understanding of victory. Jesus’ showed us that victory means feet washing and death. It is through suffering that the Kingdom message of the cross will be spread. “Suffering and dying is the way by which the world is changed” Wright says. And in perhaps the most striking sentence in the entire book: “Did we really imagine that, while Jesus would win his victory by suffering, self-giving love, we would implement that same victory by arrogant, self-aggrandizing force of arms?” (374).

What are your thoughts? How does redefining sin from a moral law code broken to a giving of our power to idols rather than God strike you as significant? How would our understanding of the cross change if we saw Jesus as dying on behalf of a fulfillment of the covenant of Israel in love rather than as appeasing an angry God that needs a blood sacrifice to atone for the breaking of a moral law code?

Fleming Rutledge- The Crucifixion

Fleming Rutledge and Justification

A discussion of justification through Fleming Rutledge's new book on the crucifixion.

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.

To Rutledge:

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!