Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (44) Condemned into Redemption: the Rectification of the Ungodly

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

Here, we join the concluding chapter. The title is designed to be arresting – we will explore what she means by it as we go.

She begins by reaffirming the uniqueness of the Christian faith – how extraordinarily radical and unlikely is the story it tells.

First;

“The Christian faith glorifies as Son of God a man who was degraded and dehumanized by his fellow human beings as much as it is possible to be, by the decree of church and state, and that he died in a way designed to subject him to utmost contempt and finally erase him from human memory.” (571)

Second – and the main theme of this chapter – the central message of Christianity is the justification of the ungodly;

“In this, the biblical story differs radically from any others religions, philosophical, or ethical system ever known. Every other system, including rabbinic Judaism and some varieties of gnostic teaching from within Christianity itself, assumes some sort of distinction between godly and ungodly, righteous and unrighteous, spiritual and unspiritual … This cuts against the grain of all religious or moral teaching.” (571-2)

If ‘religion’ is about spiritual development, or becoming more godly, or approaching the divine in some way – then Christianity is not religious. It is most emphatically not about moral self-improvement.

A Universal Gospel?

Rutledge comments that this discussion of the ‘problem of the “ungodly”’ has been partially discussed and touched on throughout the book (see chapter 8 on the ‘The Great Assize’), but here at the end, it will get full attention.

Rutledge suggests that the justification of the ungodly is actually the goal towards which God, who wishes to save everyone, is moving the universe.

My Comments

The opening section of this chapter is rightly facing head-on a big and relevant theological question that is related to the cross. The issue at stake here, is the extent or scope of the ‘righteousness of God’ – God acting to rectify, or put all things right.

And what is the role of human faith in this?  

If God ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Romans 4:5) who are the ungodly? How ‘far’ does the grace and generosity and love of God ‘reach’?  Who, ultimately, is the cross for?

My sense, and from the earlier chapter we discussed here, is that she is developing some variety of theology of universal reconciliation where God’s righteousness in some sense ‘overwhelms’ all human distinctions and sins. But this is not clear at this point. Earlier she did also talk of annihilation of all that opposes God in the final battle.

Rutledge again:

Rutledge mentions the parable of the workers in the vineyard as an example of divine generosity – such generosity leads to the cross.

If the gospel ‘is not about human potential’ (576), then Rutledge is suggesting (again not explicitly) that all such human distinctions are radically relativised by God’s generosity.

Take Abraham in Romans as an example. The whole point is that he is chosen by grace – he brought nothing to the table. This is true of ALL who are justified.

There is absolutely no distinction says Rutledge – there is “no-one who is not guilty of perpetrating something on someone at some point.” (577)

The gospel, she is arguing, “puts an end to all these religious categories that separate people from one another.” (577)

[The question hanging over this opening section is, again, how ‘far’ does God’s overcoming of all such distinctions ‘go’? Or to put it more bluntly, is there a final ‘separating’ and ‘distinction’ between those ‘in Christ’ and those not? Or, due to the generosity and power of God, are all such distinctions overcome?]

Rutledge has a nice aside on the inevitable failure of even the most ‘inclusive’ churches to be inclusive of everybody. It simply can’t be done. Her point is that only God can overcome all distinctions.

I quote this in full not only because it rings true, but because it is mischievously funny:

No self-identified inclusive and welcoming church can live up to this assessment of itself. Many a person has who has attended a church advertising radical hospitality has come and gone from church without being greeted by anyone … The congregation that makes a place for torchbearers with Down syndrome might fail to embrace an unwashed, unmedicated, disruptive man off the street. The parish that welcomes a transgendered person might give up on a woman with a narcissistic personality disorder. Members of a congregation who do not hold all the views currently designated as correct will find themselves marginalized, even insulted. Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves as diverse, welcoming and inclusive, the fact remains that no one and no group can be, in this live, all-embracing. There will always be someone for whom the sign ‘The Episcopal Church welcomes you’ will be a mockery. There will always be some who, despite the United Methodist Church’s claim to have ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors’, will find a less than open-hearted welcome … Therefore, new types of exclusions replace the old, more obvious race – or class-based types. It is part of sinful nature that this is so.’ (576-77)

The underlying question as I read Rutledge here is this: if God is the one alone who can overcome all these distinctions, how does this ‘work’ at the ‘great assize’ or last judgement?  

We will return to this in the final few posts. After all, we have to finish by Easter Sunday!

Advertisements

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (43) sub-Christian teaching on the Christian Life

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

In the last section of the chapter, Rutledge turns to the ethical implications of the motif of recapitulation.

She uses the idea of ‘takeover’ for recapitulation: believers are delivered from Sin, Death, the Law and have a truly new identity in Christ (incorporation).

There is power here too – not just a theology or an idea, power to live a new life. Rectification (her translation for justification) is powerful – a power to make right what was wrong, not only in believers but in the entire created order.

Being ‘incorporated’, means that believers die and are raised to new life. This is an objective reality, not a subjective feeling or experience.

Yet, she asks searching questions here.

If this is all true, what does such an ontological transformation look like? What does the powerful and victorious Christian life look like?

Her answer is, rightly, ‘cruciform’. This is the paradox of the cross and it is the paradox of the Christian life.

‘Power’ and ‘transformation’ are worked out in suffering,

“… not the ordinary suffering that comes to everyone, but the particular affliction that must come to those who bear witness to the Lord’s death … The suffering endured by Christian witnesses does not come from a place of weakness, but from a place of strength. That is the difference between Christian witness and masochism.” (566-67)

Christian suffering is radically reimagined in that Christ has already ‘paid the price’ and died our death in our place.

“He has lived out – recapitulated – the fate of condemned humanity to the last frontier of the demon-haunted kosmos, and in doing so has brought us over from eternal bondage and condemnation into the eternal realm of the righteousness of God.” (567)

The Gospel and the Christian Life – moving beyond moral exhortation

Linking back to the previous post here and my comments on ‘depressing androcentric preaching’ – Rutledge freely admits that in mainline US Churches there is no shortage of moral exhortation to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’ – to be more loving, more inclusive, work for peace, be tolerant, care for the sick, provide for the poor … etc.

All these are good and important, however, she argues that,

“What is often missing from such exhortations is the powerful proclamation of the One who is doing the calling, who has ratified our calling in his own blood, who has entered upon the life of ‘Adam’ in order to defeat from inside human nature the work of the Enemy. This is the resounding, foundational gospel message on which the life of the church is built …” (568)

I love this …

“We do not hear enough of the working of God nowadays, though we hear a good deal about our own working – especially our religious working. The message of the gospel, however, is not that of building the kingdom as though we were subcontractors or even free agents …. It is not our spiritual journey that lies at the center of our faith … it is the journey of the incarnate One to us that enables our participation in the redemptive working of God.” (569)

That paragraph takes some chewing.

A personal comment

This is where care and theological attention is needed in preaching and teaching. It is easy to slip into Jesus as a moral example and we essentially now face the task and challenge of living Jesus-shaped lives today – in love, in service, in prayer, in self-giving and so on.

Again, this is not obviously wrong – indeed it is obviously right at one level. In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul encourages Christians to follow the self-giving example of Jesus the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Lord.

Rutledge gives the similar example of 1 John 4:17 “because as [Christ] is so are we in this world.”

But, and this is a big “but”, the Christian life is NOT a moralistic effort to be like Jesus.

Returning to the discussion on depressing preaching in the last post, such moralism ends ‘beating people up’ with the perfect example of Jesus without giving proper attention to these vital things:

  • Our absolute inability to live a righteous life. [Rutledge says ‘incapacity’]
  • The fact that we are not Jesus!
  • Little or no awareness of the ‘apocalyptic war’ – that Christians are in a battle with enemies. And that the Christian life is empowered by the Spirit of God.

Such teaching is therefore theologically naïve and pastorally unhelpful. It is sub-Christian in that it fails to speak of the depths of the human problem and the heights of Christ’s recapitulation of human nature as the second Adam.

The last word to Rutledge on this, as ever she is wonderfully articulate and passionate;

“The apostolic message speaks of our having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), being “like him” (1 John 3:2), and “being changed into his likeness” (II Cor. 3:18), but this is true only insofar as he has entered the life of his utterly, irredeemably, lost creation and rewritten its wretched story in his own flesh and blood. Never is it more necessary to say sola gratia (by grace alone) than here.” (570)

In the next post, we move into the Conclusion of Rutledge’s magnum opus.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (42) Unevangelical Preaching vs Evangelical Preaching

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

I freely admit that a post or two cannot do justice to a long chapter, much of which traces the thought of Paul in Romans.

This post is breaking in to Rutledge’s discussion of how recapitulation is preached.

To summarise, recapitulation can be seen as “Christ reliving the story of Adam.” (558). As a real human being (incarnation)

“The Son of God secures our redemption, not over against us as a divine being, but restoring our human nature to the righteousness of God from within the depths of our unrighteousness.” (588)

None of this is dependent on us, but on Jesus’ own righteousness.

Rutledge quotes T. F Torrance’s work The Mediation of Christ here (he is the quote within this quote)

‘… we are not saved by any will or any decision of our own. Our rebellious, egocentric, and disloyal human wills have been established “on an entirely different basis by being replaced at the crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.”’ (558-59)

So, if you are a preacher and teacher, how do you preach the good news of the cross? And specifically the theme that ‘all that is Christ’s becomes ours’?

Unevangelical versus evangelical Preaching

Torrance talks about ‘unevangelical preaching’ “which emphasizes human acting and deciding, and true, ‘evangelical preaching’.” (559). Rutledge quotes Torrance at length and with approval. It is worth doing the same and asking some questions as we do so …

What is your response to what Torrance says here? Exciting? Liberating? Troubling?

How does this compare to preaching you hear regularly?

Does it ‘over-do’ divine action and minimise the role of human faith and repentance in salvation?

Torrance:

“From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God, but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your response to God’s love, and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted in him.

[I]t is not upon my faith, my believing, or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what he has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father.” (559, Rutledge’s added emphasis to highlight Torrance’s use of recapitulation, incorporation, substitution and participation).

In the first paragraph, the theological point being hammered home is that ‘my faith’ is NOT what ‘saves me’ – it is only and completely the work of the incarnate Christ on the cross.

A personal comment on depressing preaching

The gospel calls for a personal response of faith and repentance; this must not be lost. But I like where Torrance is going even if I am not sure I’d go all the way with him.

I have been around a while and there have been too many sermons I’ve heard in my life (and probably preached as well) by the end of which I have ended up feeling frankly depressed!

The thrust has been ‘it all depends on us’: ‘if only we can grasp this’; this experience or that advance ‘is within our reach’; I have discovered this and ‘you can too’ and so on.

Even though God’s grace is talked about, the actual sub-text is that for it to be effective, it is really all up to us / me.

It all adds up to rather exhausting moral exhortation – hence my depression.

The focus is switched from what Christ has done (theo-centric focus), to what I must do if I am to ‘get it’ (andro-centric focus). It almost becomes a form of Gnosticism that we talked about at the start of this series – a secret route to enlightenment for the few and a second-class Christianity for those further back down the path somewhere.

Whereas the preaching of the Christian life, it seems to me, is more like be who you already are in Christ’.

The focus is off ourselves and on Jesus’ completed cross-work:  this is the good news and it is theo-centric through and through.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (41) Recapitulation

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we get to the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

If you are wondering what this actually means, I think that this is wonderfully captured by this paragraph from Rutledge (maybe especially since I am over 50!).

How do her words this resonate with you?

This theme is deeply connected with Christian hope – the present victory of God in Christ has universal implications for the future.

Is this wishful thinking in a world overshadowed by death? Is it what Marx called the ‘opium of the people’ – future myths of a perfected world keeping people being contented with injustice in this one?

Quite simply, it all depends on the cross and resurrection …

Is there anyone alive over fifty who would not want to live his or her life over again in order to correct the mistakes, avoid the wrong turns, undo the damage, maximize the opportunities, recover the wasted time, repair the broken relationships, restore the lost future? More important still, would we not wish to see great wrongs wiped out, – all the mass murders, child abuse, destruction of cultures and populations, despoilation of nature, and all the other miseries and atrocities of history rectified and the memory of them obliterated? In Christ, Paul is telling us, not only will all this happen in the eschatological age, but also the power of what Christ has accomplished for us and the whole creation is active in our lives even now as we put our trust in his remade humanity. (537)

In other words, recapitulation means a ‘summing up’ or ‘regathering’. In Jesus, everything is restored, and all that is in Christ becomes those that belong to Christ.

A key text here is Romans 5:12-21

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

IrenaeusThe most famous, and early, figure connected with recapitulation is Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200).

All of the human race is implicated in Adam’s sin and disobedience and ‘in Adam all die’. But Irenaeus saw that, because of Jesus’ victory over the powers he

“overcomes through Adam what had stricken us through Adam.” (Irenaeus, quoted by Rutledge, 539).

“He [Christ] therefore completely renewed all things, both taking up the battle against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning had led us captive in Adam.” (Irenaeus, 5.21.1, 541)

Notice how his understanding of recapitulation is not simply Christ living the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ human life. It is also a victorious life, defeating Sin and Death.

This theme is all inclusive, it includes the apocalyptic war and Christus Victor. His victory becomes our victory. His life becomes our life.

Participation in Christ is therefore inseparable from recapitulation – as believers are joined ‘in Christ’ they share in his recapitulating of all things.

How does that hope transform your present?

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (40) Substitution the greatest act of love

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we finish chapter (11) on The Substitution.

For Rutledge, the theme of substitution is an “underlying motif” which supports other themes.

It is best understood, not as a rationalistic scheme (like Hodge’s we discussed earlier), but within the overall biblical narrative.

[My Comments] This very much ties in with issues discussed much on this blog over the years – the scope of the gospel (euangelion) as the great good news about God’s fulfilled promise in Jesus the Messiah and King of Israel, come to bring liberation, forgiveness of sin, the kingdom of God and the gift of the Spirit.

This Jesus-centric gospel narrative is not to be equated with a formula of atonement-for-sin like Hodge’s.  It abstracts substitution into something close to a transactional formula that is all too easily detached from the biblical narrative.

It also risks making substitution narrowly individualistic. While atonement for sin through Jesus paying the price and taking our place IS profoundly personal for every believer, penal substitution happens within the wider story of God’s victory over Sin, Death and the Powers (Christus Victor).

But, having said this, penal substitution is a vital aspect of the atonement. Rutledge argues that it

is more closely linked with the virtually ubiquitous biblical teaching about God’s judgement upon Sin than any other motif, however much our culture may wish to avoid this unpleasant truth about itself. (534)

The powerful emotive image of the Son of God willingly dying ‘in our place’ and ‘for our sins’ tells us at least two things – and please feel welcome to add comments of your own …

First, that there is something profoundly and desperately broken about each one of us. I have never watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But, I am told, there is a scene where the director filmed his own hands hammering in the nails into those of Jesus. Rutledge calls this “the inclusive nature of human depravity”.

Not a popular doctrine today for sure.

Second, substitution must be understood from the perspective of the Trinity, as God in three-persons

“acting together, with one will, for one purpose – to deliver all of humanity from the curse of Sin and its not-so-secret weapon, the Law. Jesus, the representative substitute, not only shows us how human will can align itself with the will of God, but also makes it happen, in his own incarnate person; and then, in the greatest act of love that has ever taken place, he gives his own person back to us, crucified and raised from the dead, the firstfruits of all who belong to him.” (534)

Beautiful.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (39) The Sweetest Exchange

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we continue within chapter (11) on The Substitution.

Who would you say is the ‘blame’ for the cross? Who is ultimately responsible?

Towards the end of the chapter Rutledge asks key questions about the cross:

“Who is acting in the world to reconcile humanity to God and human beings to one another, and who is the active agent in the crucifixion of Jesus? These two question are related. Here in the context of the substitution motif, the matter of agency is critical. Who is in charge at Golgotha? Perhaps even more to the point, who is in charge in the Garden of Gethsemane?” (524)

There are several possible ways to answer such questions?

The Romans?

The Jews?

All human beings?

“Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued?” (Charles Wesley)

The Demonic Powers? Rutledge says some Feminist and also Anabaptist theologians have removed agency from God altogether and see it lying with the Powers.

The Law?

Rutledge, however, argues this,

In the final analysis, however, the Gospels and the witness of Paul overwhelmingly testify to the primary action of God in the crucifixion of Christ. (525)

This is not to say the other actors do not have agency – but it is a secondary agency. God is the first cause

  • His love
  • His wrath (action against Sin, Death and the Powers)

Rutledge is insistent that, however many other influences,

God did this for us without our assistance or cooperation.” (528, emphasis original)

Coming back to Romans 5:6-8 Rutledge stresses our utter helplessness:

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

[And I would want to add, the motive for the cross is the love of God, vs 8]

Our involvement in Substitution

But if substitution is due to God’s prior agency, Rutledge makes a wonderfully important point – is involves us ‘personally, emotionally, at the gut level.’ (529)

“Since he clearly did not deserve what happened to him, why is it not right to conclude that we should have been there instead of him? Is that not the most basic sort of human reaction? … The plain sense of the New Testament taken as a whole gives the strong impression that Jesus gave himself up to shame, spitting, scourging, and a degrading public death before the eyes of the whole world, not only for our sake, but also in our place.” (529, emphasis original)

What is your response to these words?

Ultimately, the cross is not a theory, it creates relationship. And if faith is real and experienced at all, sure these sorts of words describe what it means to be a Christian:

Gratitude

Worship

Joy

Freedom

Love

Liberation

New Life

These are the consequences of the ‘sweetest exchange’ (Epistle to Diognetus, quoted by Rutledge, 530).

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (38) 14 objections to penal substitution

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we continue within chapter (11) on The Substitution and particularly Rutledge’s discussions and explanations of objections to the idea of penal substitution – that Jesus not only ‘took our place’ (substitution) at the cross, but also our punishment (penal) as well.

What thoughts or emotional reactions do you have to the cross as a place of penal substitution?

Objections to Penal Substitution

So, without further ado, here is a summary of objections that Rutledge identifies and discusses. An important point to note is that she has them in a a “more or less ascending order of importance” (489)

1) It Is ‘Crude’

This is a distaste for the ‘style’ of the doctrine as that which is rather ‘primitive’, probably believed by more the more credulous (and uneducated).

To which Rutledge simply says that, as argued in the chapter on ‘The Gravity of Sin’ and the ‘Godlessness’ of the cross, yes, the cross IS crude.

But is this objection also to the content of penal substitution? At times there is weight to this criticism if the cross is preached as a “crudely transactional idea of atonement” – as if God is weighing sin on the scales of justice, merits against demerits.

But ‘bad use does not take away right use’ (my comment)

2) It Keeps Bad Company

By this Rutledge means that the cross is often preached in unattractive and frankly unpleasant ways that appears to rejoice in the fate of the unredeemed. This is a particular form of ‘Calvinistic Temperament’ that is ‘overly focused’ on the penal aspect of the cross. (490)

3) It is Culturally Conditioned

Anselm is obsolete because of his context of feudalism; penal substitution is based in outdated notions of justice from the nineteenth century.

In other words, it may have once been a useful way to talk about the cross but we have ‘moved on’.

The subtext here is linked to 1) – it is crude and out of date. We are more sophisticated now and can leave behind ‘old’ ideas like penal substitution.

Another angle on this, is that penal substitution is a particularly Western idea – focused around ideas of sin, guilt, bondage, failure and judgement. Other cultures less familiar with these notions have little connections to penal substitution.

Or, now we live in a ‘sinless society’ in the West, the idea of penal substitution is of less and less relevance. [Rutledge does not reference Alan Mann’s book Atonement in a Sinless Society written in a UK context]

Yet, she argues, themes of sin and guilt are still all around us. She references Spiderman, Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness) … perhaps you can add your own examples here.

4) It views the Death as Detached from the Resurrection

Again, the cross can be preached this way, almost as an end in itself. But Christianity is an Easter faith, Christus Victor is never detached from crucifixion. The cross is a victory over the Powers of Sin and Death, the resurrection does not ‘cancel out’ the cross, it vindicates the victory of God won at the cross.

It was by ‘looking backwards’, in light of the resurrection, that the first disciples came to understand the cross, not as a terrible defeat, but a glorious act of God.

5) It is incoherent: an innocent person cannot take on the guilt of another

Rutledge is right to say that there is no logical way to understand the cross. It is beyond human comprehension. How does it ‘work’ that ‘God made him to be sin who knew no sin’? Or, as in Isaiah 53, that ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’

This is not to say that it is incoherent or nonsensical. The idea of substitution is simple to grasp, even if it inexplicable ‘how’ it ‘works’. There is mystery here and the work of Father, Son and Spirit that are beyond our grasp.

This same objection could be levelled at the OT sacrificial system. ‘How’ does sacrifice for sin ‘work’? It is not ‘logical’ and can’t be reduced to a purely rational transaction.

6) It glorifies suffering and encourages masochistic behaviour

Various feminist critiques of penal substitution argued that “glorifies passive suffering” and has had destructive impact on women over centuries. It was from these critiques that substitution interpretations of the cross were first called ‘divine child abuse’. (494)

Rutledge is unconvinced that substitutionary views of the cross can be blamed for maltreatment of women. She sees the main culprits as lying elsewhere that have been used to reinforce the idea that “the women’s lot is to endure without complaint” (494)

7) It is too ‘Theoretical’, Too Scholastic and Abstract

Does penal substitution (PS) give the impression that the cross was a logical necessity – as if God is ‘forced’ into the crucifixion by external logic rather than love?

Rutledge’s response is again, that poor presentations of substitution may give this impression but this does not invalidate the Bible’s narrative of substitution that has “unparalleled warmth” (496)

8) It depicts a vindictive God

Does the cross reveal a God unworthy of worship? One who demands the torturing of his own Son to death as satisfaction for his wrath?

In such a caricature, the rich theology of a Trinitarian act of salvation is erased. Rutledge again acknowledges that some presentations of PS can lead towards this unbiblical distortion.

Linking back to where we left off last time, Hodge and 19th Century Reformed scholasticism can all to easily end up in this territory.

9) It is essentially violent

Weaver nonviolent atonementMuch has been written about the cross and violence. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement is one significant example.

The key objection is that in some way the cross glorifies or supports violence. Rutledge lists some main sources of objections

  • Mennonite theologians
  • Feminist theologians
  • Those influence by René Girard
  1. The substitution motif gives a rationale, or encouragement for Christians to commit violence
  2. It links the very being of God with violence

Rutledge finds neither of these points convincing.

First Point: To use the violence of the cross somehow to justify violence has nothing to do with any atonement theory. It is a sacrilege – like the KKK using the cross to terrify or Constantine using it to sanctify war or Bosnian Serbs erecting crosses to mark their ‘victories’ over Muslim communities.

Such examples should make any true Christian weep for shame; but there is no rhyme or reason for assigning the blame to one or another model of the atonement. (500)

Second Point:  To repeat two central assertions of this book

  • The Son must never be detached from the Father or violation is done to the Trinitarian unity of God
  • The cross does not effect any change in God. The self-giving of the Son does not ‘change’ the Father’s mind from wrath to love.

God’s wrath is his action against all that stands against his good purposes.  The cross is his ultimate act of self-giving love. Thus

It seems perverse to argue that the theme of substitution assigns violence to the being of God. If the Son of God submits to a violent death by “the hands of sinners” (Matt. 26:45), how is that violence in the being of God? (500)

10) It is Morally Objectionable

To see the cross as morally objectionable depends on a prior assumption that the cross is punishment “inflicted by the Father as part of a transaction” (501).

It is not morally objectionable that there is penalty for sin within God’s economy.

11) It Does Not Develop Christian Character

Weaver (referenced earlier) argues that whereas Christus Victor calls believers to a battle against social injustice, penal substitution fosters passivity.

But this objection does not stand up to either historic or theological scrutiny. Historically, Reformed adherents of PS have been politically active. Theologically, there is no necessary impulse to social withdrawal.

Rather, the opposite can be argued

If one believes that the very essence of God is shown forth in the Son’s death on our behalf and in our place, then the logical outworking of this faith would be a style of living for others, even taking their place if necessary. (502)

12) It is Too Individualistic

Again, PS atonement can be preached and taught in narrowly individualistic ways. The corporate work of Christ can be turned into, what Johnny Cash called ‘My personal Jesus’ (my comment, not Rutledge’s!)

The manner in which the motif of substitution has been used to focus on the salvation of individuals one at a time, with a resulting neglect of the Christian community and its vocation, has been a major error. (503)

Again, Rutledge argues that individualism can hardly be pinned at the door of penal substitution – it has shaped much of Western culture in the last 100 years or so and is the lens by which many Americans view the world – and their redemption.

13) It is Controlled by an Emphasis on Punishment

The idea of a punitive God is often rejected out of hand today.

What does the word ‘punishment’ evoke in your imagination? An angry Father reaching for the rod or balling his fist?

Rutledge appeals for nuance: the theological concept of punishment needs to be detached from this emotive image of human anger. Divine punishment resists human evil; it does justice; it acts against those who destroy others with apparent impunity (literally meaning exemption from punishment).

Imagine a world where evil is done with impunity. Where victims have no redress.

We do not have to think too hard – examples abound. Rutledge again refers to American military action, this time the US Army’s Stryker Brigade in Afghanistan murdering civilians for fun (convictions were made in 2011).

If God is to exclude violence and injustice from his coming kingdom, something has to be done about violence and injustice and every other form of enmity that seek to thwart God’s purposes. These things are the manifestation of the reign of Sin and Death, and they cannot be overlooked or ignored – although many construals of salvation attempt to do so … It is the action of God to make right what is wrong, and that means some form of final rejection must take place. (505)

And so Rutledge concludes, that it is Jesus who

‘absorbs into himself the divine sentence against Sin and Death … in the tormented, crucified body of the Son, the entire universe of Sin and every kind of evil are concentrated and judged – not just forgiven, but definitively, finally, and permanently judged and separated from God and his creation.’ (505)

14) Forensic Imagery Excludes the New Testament Apocalyptic Viewpoint

Remember that the objections are in ascending order. For Rutledge, therefore, this is the principal objection to penal substitution.

Fair to say that this is very much her objection, unlike many of the others it does not find anything objectionable in penal substitution per se, but more in the way it has marginalised the apocalyptic ‘cosmic war’ with an active enemy.

The real problem is when PS becomes the dominant model for understanding the cross – as it has been within much evangelical history and theology and church life. In doing so, it has too easily lost touch with the narrative and imagery of the New Testament thought world.

What Rutledge says here challenges such a flattened-out and uni-dimensional understanding of the cross. It is also, I think, wonderfully written and is worth quoting at length – see what you think.

The problem arises when forensic imagery is given precedence over other imagery … When this happens, the single individual, with his solitary guilt looms over the conceptual landscape, leaving no space for the drama of the cosmic struggle in which the new, living organism called the body of Christ joins forces with the unseen heavenly host on the frontier where the doomed and dying old aeon meets God’s age to come. If the image of the law court is allowed to predominate … we can find ourselves mired in a world of “binary discourse” and “score-settling” that leads to many of the abuses cited above. (506)

And a pithily pointed comment with which she closes this discussion. If critics of penal substitution were friendly and constructive, they would be contending for reform of the way the doctrine is taught and preached.

But most represent wholesale rejection of the theme, therefore

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion: a good deal of the opposition to the substitution motif is rooted in an aversion to its fundamental recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgement on it. (506)

No punches pulled there.