Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (28) Therapeutic Christianity

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 zones in on one issue raised within Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’ – the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

Rutledge addresses our propensity to want to downplay or get rid of judgement.

Is this your sense of things today? Is judgement rarely talked of? Is God’s love rejoiced in but rarely his righteousness (putting things right through the atonement)? Is God pictured more like a powerful friend than King and Lord of all? Is sin and atonement marginalised – and if so why?

In particular Rutledge explores modern discomfort with images of God as judge associated with the law court and forensic understandings of justice.

Why has there been so much resistance to the law-court motif in interpreting the atonement? … reaction against [judgemental preaching] coincided with the emerging sentimentality of popular late-nineteenth century American culture, with interesting theological results: God was no longer expressing judgement upon sin the sacrifice of his Son, but only love for sinners; no longer was God’s activity portrayed as onslaught, but rather as infiltration. Instead of an apocalyptic invasion, we got “gentle persuasion”. (317)

This is “therapeutic preaching” (317) that minimises God acting against Sin as well as for redemption.

The motive Rutledge identifies is that we don’t want to be judged by other people or by God, we want to be judged by ourselves. We want to be in charge of our own destinies, and, in line with various self-help philosophies, paper over the deep anxieties and conflicts that rage within us in the illusion that we can sort ourselves out.

Yet the good news is that we can’t! It is that God in Jesus Christ has ‘cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands … set [it] aside, nailing it to the cross.’ (318)

Other reactions against an over-emphasis on forensic imagery

Another related reason Rutledge explores is an over-emphasis on the atonement in forensic (legal) terms. This, she argues, sidelines the bigger picture of the cross as God’s apocalyptic ‘in-breaking’ of God into human history to effect a dramatic victory over Sin and Death and the Powers.

An overly legal / courtroom view of the cross tends to reduce its scope to that of judgement and often in individualistic terms. It will also, she argues, tend to focus on legal standing before God – of who is ‘in’ and ‘out’, of guilt and innocence, or moral standards. Yet those lines run through every person.

We need a bigger perspective that the cross is about

‘deliverance from hostile, enslaving powers that are waging war against God’s purposes.’ (320)

The apocalyptic way of seeing transcends an individualistic, pietistic, inward-looking ‘spirituality’ and opens up a horizon of political, social and cosmic implications that has everything to do with the state of our world today and our role as Christians in that world.

If we begin by talking about being acquitted in the courtroom, we are working from a diminished perspective. (319-20).

These are important and controversial proposals. If the gospel is only framed in legal terms there are unforeseen consequences.

If the preacher / pastor is stuck in the realm of the law court, the presentation of the gospel is likely to drift into a moralistic frame of reference. (320)

Forensic imagery if taken in isolation is inimical to the gospel – but not for the reasons that many critics think. The problem is not that we should get rid of the concept of judgment, which is a major theme of both Old and New Testaments. The problem is understanding judgement exclusively in terms of the metaphor of trial, verdict, and sentencing in a court of law. (320)

Rather, Rutledge concludes, the atonement as a courtroom verdict, must be located within the wider and broader apocalyptic framework of God’s deliverance.

My comments – within evangelical Protestantism it is the forensic image of the law court that has for centuries dominated thinking about the atonement. There are links here with what Rutledge is saying to criticisms of how justification by faith become virtually synonymous with ‘the gospel’, yet the two concepts are quite distinct, the former a consequence of the latter.

And how justification by faith, improperly understood, does result in a narrow, individualistic, ‘ledger balance’ understanding of Christ’s work on the cross. It can give the mistaken impression that the Christian faith is a ‘done deal’. ‘My sin problem’ is sorted out and so the Christian life and all that follows – a life in community, service, doing justice, prayer, and spiritual transformation is somewhat detached from ‘salvation’.

This misses the kingdom of God which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, and tends to marginalise the bigger purpose of God for his people to be a kingdom community in the world. It downplays the work of the Spirit and that a response to the gospel is only the beginning of a transformed life lived within the ‘now and the not yet’ of the kingdom come and yet to be fulfilled.

Comments on this welcome!

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