Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (16) Sin: where to begin?

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, and the next couple, we turn to chapter 4 and ‘The Gravity of Sin’

What is your response to the word ‘Sin’? Emotionally? Intellectually?

What is sin?

Would you agree with Rutledge’s argument in this chapter, that the church has largely lost a sense of the gravity of sin? Are God’s love and grace much talked about, but sin little mentioned? Is it just too ‘negative’ and depressing a topic to focus on?

What is the connection between sin and the gospel? In other words, what is the relationship between the ‘good news’ (of Jesus Christ) and the ‘bad news’ (of human sinfulness)?

So, how to talk about sin today? It is hardly a fashionable, attractive or exciting topic.

In a culture of optimistic self-affirmation, sin is simply not taken seriously as an idea. If mentioned, it is a bit of fun, used to sell some form of ‘sinful’ self-indulgence because ‘you are worth it’ – chocolate, cream, a spa, a holiday. The ‘sin’ of making space for ‘me time’.

The idea of ‘sin’ here is purely ironic, a marketing mechanism. The message underneath the ad being that ‘sin’ (of a bit of self-indulgence) is really a good thing. And the sub-text is that the idea of sin itself (that there is something fundamentally wrong with us and the world) is nonsense, to be smiled at as a primitive idea and dismissed.

The reason Rutledge had the chapter on Justice before this one on Sin – and Anselm in the middle – is that we need to understand God’s justice as his good intent to put things right – ‘liberating and restorative, not crippling and retributive’ (169). Then we are in a position to discuss Sin.

Rutledge uses a capital S – Sin singular, in terms of a general term describing human rebellion against God, a brokenness of relationship that impacts all other relationships.

To be in sin, biblically speaking, means something very much more consequential than wrongdoing; it means being catastrophically separated from the eternal love of God. It means to be on the other side of an impassable barrier of exclusion from God’s heavenly banquet. It means to be helplessly trapped inside one’s worst self, miserably aware of the chasm between the way we are and the way God intends us to be. It means the continuation of the reign of greed, cruelty, rapacity, and violence throughout the world. (174)

Plural ‘sins’ follow on from ‘Sin’ singular.

The point here, and throughout this chapter, is that we have an inbuilt tendency to downplay the gravity of Sin.

In the following quote – does what is said seem surprising or puzzling to you? Why?

The church has always been tempted to recast the Christian story in terms of individual fault and guilt that can be overcome by a decision to repent. This undermines the gospel at its heart. (171)

Hang on a minute – is not the Christian story all about overcoming guilt through repentance? How does it undermine the gospel?

What Rutledge is getting at here is the shift from utter dependence on God to confront and overcome sin, to a more optimistic and spiritually naïve anthropocentric emphasis on what we can do – as if Sin is overcome by our action (of repentance). For Rutledge

‘human repentance is not powerful enough, nor thorough enough or dependable enough to deliver the human race from wrong. (172)

This is why Rutledge is critical of evangelical revivalism – it focuses and actually depends on the human response as the overriding determining factor of salvation. The aim in such evangelism is to whip up emotion, primarily guilt, about ‘my’ sinfulness as a precursor to the resolution of ‘my sin problem’ through my repentance.

To be clear – Rutledge is not denying the importance of repentance. What is being criticised is where one ‘begins’ when talking about the gospel.

This takes us right into recent debates within contemporary evangelicalism, specifically for example, Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel which was discussed at length on this blog some time back.

To recap, McKnight’s criticism is that evangelical revivalism fostered an individualistic salvation narrative, namely, a ‘gospel’ ‘method of persuasion’ designed to evoke a crisis of guilt and a subsequent decision to repent. Ironically, this took the focus off the announcement of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and zoomed attention in on the resolution of the individual’s ‘sin problem’.

This not only reduces the breadth and scope of the good news, it makes ‘the gospel’ all about ‘my salvation’ (individualistic soteriology) rather than the good news of Jesus and what God has done in Christ (Christology and soteriology – with salvation being much broader than individuals ‘being saved’).

So rather than beginning with the bad news of sin, Rutledge is arguing this,

‘If a congregation is led to an understanding of salvation, the sense of sin will come as a consequence – and then the knowledge that the danger is already past will result in a profound and sincere repentance. That is the proper time to start talking about sin. (173)

In other words, coming at things from a very different angle to McKnight and others, Rutledge is agreeing with them by saying the announcement good news (gospel) of what God has done in Christ comes first. This puts focus where it should be – on the grace, love and saving action of God.

Human response follows – including a deepened awareness of sin and subsequent repentance.

Karl BarthRutledge retells a story of Karl Barth about a Swiss legend. A rider unknowingly crossed a frozen Lake Constance by night. When he realised what had happened he broke down horrified at his near death experience. This is like the impact of the announcement of the gospel. We hear retrospectively the news of what God has done. It is only then we understand the fate from which we have been rescued.

The words of Karl Barth

Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross … Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake – because of our sin – sharing our captivity – burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: “By grace you have been saved!” (Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, emphasis in the original in italics. Rutledge, 172-73)

So when it comes to Sin, there is a deep personal response – but it is to the gospel of good news of God’s love and saving action. Salvation does not depend on ‘me’, but on God.

Gospel first, then joy, gratitude, thanksgiving, repentance (a turning to God and from ourselves) and subsequent obedience.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (15) the cross as cosmic child abuse?

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).

This post is staying with Rutledge’s discussion of Anselm.

We come back to big questions

What happened at the cross?

What picture does the cross give us of God? Does the Son die on the cross to appease the wrath of a vindictive Father?

Anselm’s satisfaction ‘theory’ of the atonement has had many detractors. The term ‘child abuse’ for the Son’s suffering on the cross to appease the wrath of a vindictive Father did not originate with Steve Chalke, it has been around for some time.

Rutledge summarises how Anselm, and the view of the cross as a way of ‘satisfying’ God’s honour, has been seen as:

  • Legalistic
  • Depicting the ruthlessness of God
  • An overly mechanical view of the atonement
  • Where salvation is primarily a change in God’s attitude to humans not a transformation in believers themselves
  • A drama of an infinitely offended God against a humanity unable to satisfy the demands of his vindictive wrath

And to this we can add, what about the question of necessity – was God somehow ‘forced’ to atone for sin in order to restore his honour? And if so, does this reduce the cross to an act of almost legal obligation?

Yes, says Rutledge, Anselm’s language and reasoning is removed from the biblical narrative and thought world, but the content of his theology has often been unfairly dismissed as a result.

Rutledge defends Anselm, arguing that such objections are caricature. The ‘twist’ is that God is NOT under some external obligation which binds his actions. No, rather it is in his very nature to show grace.

The atonement, therefore, for Anselm is

…nothing mechanical; it means rather, that the story of our deliverance has an inner logic that brings joy to the believer. (156)

Similarly, in regards to ‘honour’, Anslem’s God is not some sort of feudal despot obsessed with his own honour and status. Rutledge has an interesting point here, if we use ‘righteousness’ instead of ‘honour’ we would do no violence to Anselm’s argument.

Again, rather than seeing static systems of honour and satisfaction in Anselm, he is much more concerned to communicate how God graciously acts to put right what is wrong. God does not need to defend his own honour.

‘God is not a tin-pot dictator obsessed with his privileges’ (157).

God’s honor is God’s righteousness, his holiness, his perfection – but it is also God’s love and freedom, which show themselves in the kenotic self-emptying of the Son. (157)

Since the weight of sin is so great, there is no possibility of atonement or satisfaction until that debt is paid – and there nothing in all universe that can do this besides God.

This is not somehow ‘Father against Son’, as Rutledge says the crucifixion ‘should never be interpreted as a deed done to an unsuspecting Son by his Father’ (161). Rather, the Son endures death freely and out of love for the salvation of all.

Who Gets Reconciled God or Us?

The last point on Anselm; a further critique is that he seems to make it sound as it if is God who is changed by the atonement and not us. God’s honour is satisfied and he is reconciled towards humanity.

But the Bible never talks of God being reconciled, it does talk of humanity being reconciled to God. So the key question is this

How can we talk about the wrath of God unless we conclude that somehow the sacrifice of Jesus caused the Father to change his mind? This indeed would cast the Father in a bad light. (163)

But Rutledge argues this is a caricature of Anselm. God’s attitude never alters. There is no change in God, he always wants salvation and reconciliation. It is fundamentally important that we grasp this – God is not capricious and needing to be appeased in order to behave in a nicer way. The cross reconciles us to God, not the other way around.

God’s judgement is enclosed in his love. (164)

This is the heart of Anselm, not caricatures that abound of him. Rutledge quotes David Bentley Hart on Anselm and then Anselm himself

“In the God-Man (Deus Homo), within human history, God’s justice and mercy are shown to be one thing, one action, life, and being … the righteousness that condemns is also the love that restores.” (Hart,  164)

“He freed us from our sins, and from his own wrath, and from hell, and from the power of the Devil, whom he came to vanquish for us, because we were unable to do it and he purchased for us the kingdom of heaven: and by doing all these things he manifested the greatness of his love for us.” (Anselm, 1.5, Rutledge, 164.)

Next, we begin chapter 4 on ‘The Gravity of Sin’

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (14) Anselm reconsidered

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 begin a non-numbered ‘bridge chapter’ on Anselm. The bridge is between chapter 3 ‘The Question of Justice’ and chapter 4, ‘The Gravity of Sin’.

Why Anselm? Well because no-one in the history of Christian theology has been more influential and controversial when it comes to the atonement and understanding God’s justice. See his Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man? c. 1095-98).

How do you understand the cross? How does God ‘deal’ with sin? What is the ‘satisfaction’ theory of the atonement and why do many people not like it?

Rutledge sets out to defend Anselm’s ‘theory’ of ‘satisfaction’ from criticism that it is

juridical, feudal, rigid, absolutist, vengeful, sadistic, immoral and violent. (146)

Her argument in this chapter is that such reaction are

overly literal, unimaginative, tendentious and unsympathetic readings of Anselm. (146)

Her aim is to show that aspects of Anselm’s teaching about the atonement are still of ‘pivotal importance’ for thinking about the cross and justice today.

So what are some of the central elements of Anselm’s atonement theology? To summarise Rutledge’s summary:

  • Humanity’s relationship with God is ‘wholly ruined’
  • We are unable to restore what is owed to God because of sin and are therefore needy
  • If we do not wish to restore the relationship we are unjust

Rutledge draws parallels to the human condition: both neediness and injustice runs through each one of us. Anselm speaks of the universal human condition. Anselm again:

  • Restoration and happiness will not take place save by the payment of the debt incurred by sin.
  • ALL people face this predicament

Rutledge suggests that negative reactions to Anselm here are more to do with the ‘offence’ of being told you are either needy or unjust and require a debt to be paid.

Anselm’s arguments, Rutledge argues, resonate with our modern world in other ways. The offender remains in ‘debt’, but given the offence caused, mere payment of the debt will not bring restoration, something more is needed to repair the relationship satisfactorily with the one dishonoured.

So, as we agree today, it is not enough to ‘let bygones be bygones’ and to overlook justice. As Rutledge argued in the previous chapter, it is intolerable that wrong can be done with impunity. All around us are individuals and groups pursuing justice that in some way will ‘right a wrong’

Just today as I write this, in Northern Ireland, over 46 years after the event, a British soldier has been charged with murder during the mass shootings of civilians in the 1972 Bloody Sunday demonstrations in Derry. The families have spent their lives seeking some sort of transparency, some sort of truth and some sort of justice.

The desire for justice runs deep in us all.

If sin is not exposed, named, and renounced, then there has been no justice and God is dishonoured. (152-53)

So Rutledge affirms Anselm in his statement that

‘compassion [without atonement or ‘satisfaction’] on the part of God is wholly contrary to the divine justice, which allows nothing but punishment as the recompense for sin. Therefore, as God cannot be inconsistent with himself, his compassion is not of this nature. (Anselm 1.24, Rutledge, 153)

So love or compassion or forgiveness on its own is not enough – justice is needed. Without justice (sin being atoned for) there is only punishment for sin.

Many today are deeply uncomfortable with this idea of punishment.

Rutledge defends Anselm. He is no hellfire preacher, he writes with a pastor’s heart and is saddened by the human predicament. His theology is more ‘we reap what we sow’ – punishment is exile from relationship with God, a loss of happiness. And it is only God himself who can rescue us from our predicament because that his character is one to restore and renew.

So Rutledge contends, it is a caricature to see Anselm as obsessed with legal and forensic language that depersonalises God and makes atonement like a business transaction. But neither is it denied that Anselm’s imagery, scholastic language and metaphors are rather alien to the narrative flow of the Bible.

We return to another couple of objections to Anselm in the next post – is God compelled by necessity to atone for sin in order to restore his honour?

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (13) Rectification

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 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

Rutledge moves on in the final section of this chapter to discuss justice / righteousness.

You may be aware that these two very different English words come from the same Greek word group. Justify, justification, righteousness, just, justice, righteous are all derived from the same root in Greek

So justice and righteousness are effectively, in the NT, the same thing. But we do not read them that way in English. We tend to think of the ‘righteousness of God’ as his holiness often in contrast to our unrighteousness / unholiness (pre-conversion Luther)

But the crucial thing to grasp here is that God’s righteousness is best understood as a VERB not a noun. It refers to the power of God to make things right. He acts ‘rightly’ to ‘rightify’ we may say.

This is why Rutledge prefers ‘rectification’ instead of ‘justification’ – it better captures this sense of God putting things right.

So, what difference does this make? Well, two aspects of God’s righteousness are brought out

  1. God’s Righteousness as loving pursuit

Rutledge gives the example of Hosea 11 – Yahweh pursuing his Bride in order to restore their relationship. So we can think of God’s righteousness in more relational and restorative terms than that of the law court.

The righteousness of God is not a static, remorseless attribute against which human beings fling themselves in vain. Nor is it like that of a judge who dispenses impersonal justice according to some legal norm. (136)

  1. God’s righteousness as ‘aggressive action’

But the other side of God’s loving pursuit is what Rutledge calls his ‘aggressive action’ to restore righteousness. The example of Isaiah 1:24-27 is given, but Rutledge could have stayed in Hosea. It perfectly captures the double-sided nature of God’s righteousness. It tells the story of God’s astonishing love for his unfaithful people, but also contains more warnings of awful judgement than practically any other prophetic book.

Rutledge contends that even God’s judgement is restorative – the overriding goal is renewal and justice – and that means ‘smelting away impurities and the removal of alloy’ (137)

God’s Righteousness as apocalyptic intervention

Rutledge goes to lengths to make the point that by the end of the OT, this longing for justice – of restoration and renewal – had effectively come to a dead end. Post-exile Israel could only hope for divine intervention. Righteousness could only come from God, not from within

Justice and righteousness are not human possibilities. And this brings us to Jesus, the arrival of the Kingdom of God and his death on the cross.

In the final analysis, the crucifixion of Christ for the sin of the world reveals that it is not only the victims of oppression of injustice who are in need of God’s deliverance, but also the victimizers. (141)

… all are under the Power of Sin. In the sight of God, everyone is need of deliverance .. (142)

This means that God’s action at the cross is the unique and shocking place where loving pursuit and aggressive action against Sin come together.

Nothing else, no other method of execution, no other death, could achieve such justice.

The wrath of God, which plays such a large role in both Old and New Testaments, can be embraced because it comes wrapped in God’s mercy.

The wrath of God falls upon God himself, by God’s own choice, out of God’s own love.

God, in Christ on the cross has become one with those who are despised and outcast in the world. No other method of execution that the world has ever known could have established this so conclusively. (143)

In the next post we start an extra chapter sandwiched in between chapters 3 and 4 – a ‘bridge chapter’ on Anselm.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (12) forgiveness is not enough

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 in chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’. The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

A couple of discussion questions:  If you have suffered a grave injustice, what reactions and emotions went with it? What place did anger and a desire for justice have? 

Christians are called to forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? How does it work? And how is it connected to justice?

How much should we expect or seek justice in this world? Or is justice to be left to the next?

We’re going to focus on where Rutledge returns to the connection between forgiveness and justice. In the light of the horrors that stalk our world,

Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too …. ‘The cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception’ [quoting Volf]. This setting right is called rectification. [also called justification]  (126)

When we speak of setting right, we are not talking of a little rearrangement here and a little improvement there … From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the fallen predicament of humanity is so serious, so grave, so irredeemable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it. (126)

When it comes to injustice, Rutledge argues that we humans have a deep sense that

  1. there should be some accountability
  2. a just resolution of the offence should have some sense of proportionality.

However, most of the time our outrage is directed at others who infringe our rights. We pursue justice for ourselves –  ‘The public is outraged all over cyberspace about the things that annoy us personally’ (129) but much less often about injustices that affect others.

Rutledge moves here to the ‘outrage of God’ or the wrath of God.  If ever there is a theological idea that is ‘out of step’ with the culture of the Western church it is this one (my comment).

Quick aside – in writing about love, I found myself talking much of the wrath of God. The two cannot be detached. The same is true with justice and forgiveness.

To try to have love without wrath, or forgiveness without justice, is to deny the cross.

If we think of Christian theology and ethics purely in terms of forgiveness, we will have neglected a central aspect of God’s own character and will be in no position to understand the cross in its fullest dimension. (131)

Rutledge tells several stories of terrible injustice and the victims’ desire for justice. See this link for the story of Sister Dianna Ortiz and the American Govt involvement in supporting Guatemalan security forces that kidnapped, raped and tortured her, their crimes aided by American stonewalling of the truth.

Outrage is sparked when perpetrators like this act with a sense of impunity – few things are worse that having no hope of justice and that the guilty, the powerful, the exploiters and oppressors will ‘get away with it’.

The consistent message of Scripture, OT and NT, is that those who act unjustly do not do so with impunity. Rutledge quotes Volf again,

A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception and violence. (131)

So if our blood does not boil at injustice, can we said to be serving the God of the Bible?

But here is where God’s wrath at justice takes a revolutionary turn. What Rutledge calls ‘a shockingly immoral and unreligious idea’ (132)

No one could have imagined, however, that he would ultimately intervene by interposing himself. By becoming one of the poor who was deprived of his rights, by dying as one of those robbed of justice, God’s Son submitted to the utmost extremity of humiliation, entering into total solidarity with those who are without help …

Even more astonishingly, however, he underwent helplessness and humiliation not only for the victimized but also for the perpetrators … Who would have thought the same God who passed judgement … would come under his own judgement and woe? … the crucifixion reveals God placing himself under his own sentence. The wrath of God has lodged in God’s own self.

In the next post, we will finish chapter 3 with further discussion of the justice and righteousness of God.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (11) forgiveness and justice

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 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

If the OT ends with hopes of a coming kingdom of justice (Jer. 23:5; Isa. 9:6-7), the NT begins with dramatic announcements that that kingdom of justice has arrived.

First Mary: Luke 1:46-48a, 51b-53

The Messiah himself: Luke 4:16-21

Rutledge’s observation

God’s justice will involve a dramatic reversal, however, which will not necessarily be received as good news by those presently on top of the heap (reader, that means us). (113)

So God’s justice is a deeply disturbing idea – it challenges the status quo, it up-ends the powerful, rich and well-connected, it liberates the poor and oppressed.

And this means that the idea of justice can often be side-lined – it is just too threatening and difficult to face.

Justice and Forgiveness

Rutledge explores this neglect of justice in relationship to forgiveness.

Let me give an Irish example – I grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A school friend’s father was shot dead. A university lecturer and politician was executed outside our lecture room at College, another student was murdered as he waited to go into an exam. No one in ‘the North’ was untouched by violence, either directly or indirectly.

Decades later, after a long ‘Peace Process’, deep wounds remain, mainly, I think, because there has been huge political effort to reach a compromise settlement (The Good Friday Agreement, 1998) but little progress in facing the much harder questions of justice and forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, a political settlement was reached largely at the expense of justice and forgiveness. A pragmatic political process intentionally left justice and forgiveness to one side in the hope that an absence of violence (not genuine peace) would ‘normalise’ society to such a degree that it would become unimaginable for violence to be ‘justified’ in the future.

To a large degree this political approach has ‘worked’ – but in these days of Brexit and political instability, the return of violence is a very real possibility. Divisions are perhaps as deep as ever.

The ‘hole’ at the heart of the Northern Ireland ‘Peace’ Process is the failure to make progress on justice and forgiveness. This is not to say that major efforts were not made – they were. But (and some who were involved on the ground may want to correct me) deep hurts have not been healed.

There has been a lack of forgiveness and subsequent reconciliation because there is little sense of justice.

Rutledge warns against ‘easy’ or automatic forgiveness where a victim is asked, while a loved one’s body is barely in the grave, ‘Do you forgive?’. Authentic forgiveness is hard work, it is costly and difficult. It does not exist in isolation from justice, as if deep wrongs can just be swept away under the carpet.

What do you think of this statement?

Forgiveness in and of itself is not the essence of Christianity, though many believe it to be so. Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to justice if the Christian gospel is to be allowed its full scope. (115)

But what does ‘justice’ look like? Is it simply that the offenders pay for their crimes and end up behind bars for a proportionate length of time?

Here’s the thing – while such legal punishment for crimes may help, no legal system of law will ever bring about reconciliation of enemies. In the North, each side pursuing ‘justice’ on its own for past wrongs just perpetuates conflict.

So justice is essential, but it can also be a weapon against the other. So some deeper understanding of justice is needed than mere punishment for wrong.

Rutledge offers a clear-eyed assessment of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While it had many flaws – not least that people who did horrific violence to others benefitted from an amnesty – the profound achievement of the TRC was that Truth was publically spoken. Indeed, such truth would not have emerged without the ‘injustice’ of the amnesty.

Rutledge’s argument is that, however imperfect, the public acknowledgement of truth, compassion and lament for victims and public affirmation of their suffering is a form of justice in and of itself.

Rutledge quotes Michael Ignatieff

We recognise the past can’t be remade through punishment. Instead – since we know that memories will persist for a long time – we aim to acknowledge those memories [that] … something seriously evil happened to you. And the nation believes you. (120)

This sort of justice recognises something true and important

‘the impossibility of administering human justice that is proportionate to the offense.’ (121)

A Christian form of justice recognises this. Relentless pursuit of human justice will disappoint. As someone wisely said to me, in court you get the law, not justice.

Christian justice is not primarily interested in punishment but in new creation. In transforming situations of horror, not by denying that evil, but by acknowledging it while not continuing in the cycle of violence and hatred.

So then, what is the relationship between justice and forgiveness in Christian understanding?

We’ll come back to this in the next post.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (10) justice and judgement

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 begin chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The issue in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

To anticipate a possible objection:

All this talk of judgement and righteousness sounds like a heavy-duty abstract theological discussion – let’s just focus on more spiritually important things like loving one another.

To which I would say at least four things:

i. What could be better than some important theology?! My tongue is not in my cheek here. God himself seems to see fit to give his people plenty to profound theology to wrestle over in the Bible. When it comes to understanding justice and judgement, he has given the book of Romans let alone the whole Old Testament to his people. Dare we say, actually, can we have something else please?

ii. The hypothetical objection above also assumes a disconnect between theology and ‘real life’. Few things are more disheartening to a Bible teacher than this false antithesis. Everything a Christian does and thinks and says is ‘theological’. To say ‘theology’ is optional or for professionals only is to say God’s Word and God’s truth does not matter, we can figure things out ourselves thanks. It’s a form of passive arrogance, not a sign of ‘spirituality’.

iii. Disinterest in theological issues like justice and judgement is actually symptomatic of a faith that is becoming irrelevant, not staying relevant. It will be so shaped by the world and its beliefs and values, that it will have noting distinct to say to ‘real life’. Understanding justice and judgement takes us to the heartbeat of Christianity because it takes us to the cross.

iv. Few things are less ‘abstract’ or ‘theoretical’ than thinking Christianly about issues of justice and judgement.

Are you concerned about injustice?

Do you ask at times ‘Where you are God?

Are you concerned about the mess the world is in?’

How do you respond when someone treats you unfairly?

What do you get angry about when you listen to the news?

These are the sort of everyday issues that a theology of justice addresses.

OK, that mini-rant come introduction over, let’s get back to Rutledge and see where the conversation goes.

It starts off with an important reminder – those that suffer most from injustice are the ones least likely to be reading Rutledge’s book (or a theological blog for that matter).

It is the poor, the marginalised and least educated who suffer most from injustice and have least resources to do something about it. Therefore,

Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian (107)

How would you describe God? With what adjectives?  What lies at the ‘essence’ of God’s character?

Rutledge suggests this is how the average churchgoing American might answer.

he or she will almost certainly call God “loving”. God is also commonly described as compassionate, merciful, welcoming, accepting, and inclusive. Very few white Americans will volunteer that God is just. (107)

Yet the justice of God dominates the Old Testament. Rutledge unpacks this story in detail and we can only touch on it here.

As God is just – and ‘holy’ and ‘righteous’ are virtually synonyms for just – so Israel is to be a community of justice. Injustice is the powerful or rich exploiting the poor – in Israel there were to be no poor. Where injustice exists, so God’s judgment follows.

Justice on earth is a foretaste of the future Day of the Lord which will usher in a realm of perfect justice.

Take Psalm 146 – look for how realism about the temporary nature of human justice leads to a future-orientated hope in the perfect justice of God.

1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
2 I will praise the  Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the  Lord their God.
6 He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them –
he remains faithful for ever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
10 The Lord reigns for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.

And so the OT leads to the Messianic hopes of a coming kingdom of justice – we return to this in the next post.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (9) the accursed death of Christ

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 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

We are into some serious theology here – serious both in terms of depth and also subject matter.

What is so refreshing about Rutledge is this seriousness – Christianity is a serious faith about big issues the answers to which will shape our lives.

Questions arising out of this post for me are these:

How seriously is a theology of the cross taught, talked about and understood in the church today do you think? Especially during Lent and climaxing at Easter? How seriously is theology taken in general do you think?

The final section of chapter 2 focuses on Galatians 3:10-14 along with two or three other texts which, take together, Rutledge argues represent ‘the accursed death of Christ’.

Galatians 3:10-14

  • Everyone is living under the power of God’s curse, because the Law (Torah) pronounces that curse on all lawbreakers
  • Rectification (which is Rutledge’s rendering of ‘justification’ – to be ‘set right’) by the Law is impossible since the Law does not give life, only faith can.
  • Only God can do the rectifying and has done so through his Son who took the full curse of the Law onto himself at the cross.
  • A Christian’s identity is not found in the observance of the Law but from the gift of the Spirit through faith in Christ. (99-100)

Rutledge comments on popular caricatures and misunderstandings here. To the objection that it would be a monstrous sort of Father who allows his Son to be abandoned and cursed on the cross, she rightly shapes a reply around the Trinity – Jesus takes the accursedness that is ours on himself by his own decree.

2 Corinthians 5:21

A second text Rutledge turns to is a famous one – probably the strongest text in the NT for some sort of imputation (exchange) of Christ’s righteousness to believers and our sin to him.

For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Much ink has been spilt over this verse. [N T Wright famously and controversially rejects imputation here and elsewhere in the NT, as if we are ‘given’ the righteousness of Christ].

Rutledge says no-one can say for sure what it means that Jesus is ‘made sin’. Wisely, things are framed around Sin with a capital ‘S’ – in Paul sin is a power that is in league with death, opposed to the good work of God. It is much more than merely ‘missing the mark’, but a hostile spiritual force that, in effect, uses the Law to condemn us to death.

Coming back to Galatians 3, Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 21:23 is in effect saying Jesus is condemned by the curse of the Law.

In his death, Paul declares, Jesus was giving himself over to the enemy – to Sin, to its ally the Law, and to its wage, Death (Rom. 6:23; 7:8-11). This was his warfare. That is one of the most important reasons – perhaps the most important – that Jesus was crucified, for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.  (102)

This is where Rutledge is so good, she gets beyond one-dimensional theologies of the cross to how, in Paul, it is a rich kaleidoscope of images and themes converging to form a complex, powerful and beautiful portrait of the love of God in Christ.

By one-dimensional, I mean reducing the cross down to a mere individual transaction – ‘my sin problem resolved’. Yes, the atonement includes this, but there is much more going on, particularly in terms of who the enemy is and the scope of the victory won.

Rutledge draws a creative and memorable parallel here: Jesus’ treatment under Rome is similar to humanity’s condition under Sin. Jesus is:

  • Condemned
  • Rendered helpless and powerless
  • Stripped of his humanity
  • Reduced to the status of a slave
  • Declared unfit to live and deserving of death

So, at one level Jesus takes the literal form of a slave on the cross, but ‘behind the scenes’ the cross is ‘an apocalyptic battlefield where the Lord of Hosts goes to war with the forces of the Enemy’. (103).  [Rutledge returns to the atonement as a battlefield in chapter 9 – Christus Victor].

This is what happened at the cross. The Son of God gave himself up to be enslaved by Sin, condemned by the Law, and subject to Death … Linking all these passages together then, we see that Jesus exchanged God for Godlessness …

… What we see happening on the cross is that Jesus, who dies the death of a slave, “was made to be sin”. Does this mean that Jesus become his own Enemy? It would seem so. Just as his own human body turned against him on the cross, smothering and killing him, so his human nature absorbed the curse of the Law, the sentence that deals death to the human being (Rom. 7:11). By making himself “to be sin”, he allied himself with us in our farthest extremity … Thus he entered our desperate condition. No wonder he cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (103)

In the next series of posts, we turn to chapter 3 and ‘The Question of Justice’.

 

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (8) the Father turns his face away?

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 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

A question for today:  how do you imagine what happens at Jesus’ death between the Father and the Son? Does the ‘Father turn his face away’ from the Son on the cross?

We left off yesterday on how a theology of the cross confronts spiritualities of ‘success’ and ‘triumph’ and ‘glory’.

Rutledge quotes Thomas Smail, an excellent Pentecostal scholar, on the relationship between the Spirit and the cross.

A Spirit who could derogate from the glory of Christ crucified in order to promote a more dazzling glory of his own, who passes by the sufferings of Christ in order to offer us a share in a painless and costless triumph, is certainly not the Holy Spirit of the New Testament [who] glorifies, not himself, but Christ, and therefore his mission is to reveal the full glory of Calvary, and to bring us into possession of all the blessings that by his death Christ has won for us. (88)

The point Rutledge is drawing is the parallel between spiritualities of triumph and glory that have no place for sacrifice or suffering in Corinth and the church today.

The paradox of the cross is that Christ is numbered among the ‘low and despised’ (1 Cor. 1:28) – it is the ‘ungodliness’ of the incarnate Son in whom the power of God is displayed.

If a paradox is an event or claim that seems confusing or incoherent but is nevertheless true, then the cross is the most paradoxical event of all.

Jesus’ death is apparently the visible proof of the limitless power of Empire. No ‘hero’ is deserted by all his closest followers (Moltmann) – they knew all too well that it was evidence that God had abandoned their hoped-for Messiah.

The disciples could not have seen his humiliating and inglorious death as obedience to God, a vindication of his mission, or a heroic martyrdom. On the contrary, precisely because it was a crucifixion, they could have seen it only as the utter discrediting of his claims before man and God (89-90).

Rutledge gives some time to describing the process and physical torment of the cross but then acknowledges, having done so, that such details are best left aside – the NT writers simply do not include them and presumably want their reader to focus on something else.

What they (Matthew and Mark) do include is Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

No account of the cross can omit reflection on this most famous of Jesus’ sayings from the cross. For Rutledge, Jesus’ cry is important in

demonstrating the complete identification of Jesus with our compromised, indeed absurd, human condition … Jesus, in the moment on the cross, embodies in his own tormented struggle all the fruitlessness of human attempts to befriend the indifferent mocking silence of space – especially religious attempts. (97)

There is a footnote discussion of the very popular line of interpretation that goes into speculation about a fracture in the Trinitarian relationship between Father and Son (e.g., ‘The Father turned his face away’).

The Father – Son relationship is said to be ruptured by Jesus bearing our sin. Jesus and the Father experience this rupture for the first time, we may say, in the ‘history of God’.

I’ve never been too persuaded by this view – especially given that it is clearly going well beyond what is explicitly in the texts (Matthew and Mark include the cry of dereliction).

Rutledge asks the question ‘Was Jesus forsaken by God?’ and concurs with a commentator who suggests that Jesus faithfully prays to his Father, but he could no longer perceive his presence.

In other words, it is not that Father and Son are somehow separated from each other in Trinitarian terms or that the Father has ‘abandoned’ his Son on the cross not bearing to ‘look’ upon his Son who has become the sin-bearer, but in his physical pain, torment and suffering it was Jesus’ own perception that his Father had withdrawn from him.

It was his first and most dreadful experience of the ‘silence’ of God.