Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (31) Christus Victor

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 Chapter 9, ‘The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor’

In this post and the next one we are focusing on the victory of God in Christ at the cross.

This is perhaps the most important chapter in the book and this is therefore a longer than usual post. Hope you can bear with me!

How much does ‘battle’ and ‘conflict’ frame your understanding of the cross and the Christian life? Does this all sound a bit extreme? Why are we uncomfortable with these biblical themes today do you think?

Rutledge argues that the apocalyptic ‘war’ against God’s enemies is decisively won at the cross and this atonement theme embraces all others which represent, in different ways, aspects of that victory.

It was Gustav Aulén in 1931 who first coined the Latin phrase Christus Victor. His book is famous, although probably one of those people know about rather than have read.

Rutledge takes us on a quick recap of Aulén’s argument. She proposes that his definition is close to the apocalyptic perspective rearticulated recently by Beker and Martyn and Ziegler et al.

“The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory of Christ over the Powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death and the Devil … the victory of Christ creates a new situation bring their rule to an end and setting men free from their dominion.” (Aulén, quoted 361.)

Aulén’s argument was in part polemical; he saw victory rightly emphasised in the Fathers, eclipsed in the Middle Ages, partly recovered, particularly in Luther, and then effectively suppressed again.

Luther in WormsIn terms of Luther, it is his sharp awareness of the dramatic invasion of God’s power in and through the death and resurrection of Christ, that leads him to celebrate the decisive defeat of his enemies – sin, death and the curse. This is very close to apocalyptic in its focus on God’s supreme power, human inability, comprehensive victory and the incursion into human history of something decisively new.

Rutledge comments

This underscores the nature of the apocalyptic gospel as a drama encompassing all the other themes in various ways. (363)

Rutledge gives some examples of what we could call ‘battle scenes’ from the New Testament. These are everywhere.

A personal comment here

In the tradition I grew up in – middle of the road, softly Reformed, middle-class Irish Presbyterianism – generally has little place for drama. In this it probably echoes much evangelicalism. There are lots of strengths, I’m not ‘having a go’ here. But Aulén was right in how the mute button has been firmly pressed on the Bible’s apocalyptic framework.

There would be a book or two in this for someone I suspect – but Reformed theology’s main emphasis is on continuity, most obviously in covenant theology. The theology of infant baptism and its link to circumcision is another example. Its ‘heart’ is a reading of justification in forensic legal terms that tends to dominate understanding of ‘the gospel’ and interpret the cross primarily as effecting righteousness in the believer.

The work of the Spirit, within a new age that has broken into the ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4) tends to be subordinated and / or somewhat detached from the primary focus on justification.

And so it is perhaps other Christian movements like the Charismatic churches and Pentecostalism which are closer to the radical apocalyptic ‘feel’ of the spiritual conflict that pervades the New Testament.

Back to Rutledge and scenes from the apocalyptic battlefield

Romans 5-6

Paul’s thought is thoroughly eschatological. Try reading Romans afresh with an eye for just how much talk there is of ‘powers’ reigning – Sin, Death, the Law.

People are enslaved under them – they are almost personified in how they imprison people. Paul’s radical point is that BOTH Jews AND Gentiles alike are under their destructive power.  His shocking conclusion is that

The righteousness of God is made known apart from the law (Rom 3:21)

In Romans 5-6, the imagery is of the whole human race under the power of Sin and Death (in Adam). Sin reigns in death. Its ‘weapon’ is the Law – but the good news is that deliverance is possible.

‘Grace can reign through righteousness to eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5:20-21)

“Paul clearly envisions hostile, active Powers that must be dethroned to make room for the new Adam and the sphere of power that is ruled by the Spirit of righteousness and life.” (365)

This is a battle between two reigning powers. But they are unequal powers – look for how the gift of God in Christ is NOT like the trespass of Adam.

“… Death is a great power, but dikaiosyne (the righteousness of God) is an even greater Power – “all the more” so – and it is actively at work, in tandem with God’s grace, to overturn the rule of Sin and Death, recapturing the creation and inaugurating a new rule of righteousness and eternal life. This is what has happened in the cross and resurrection. (366)

Jesus is the risen Lord (kurios) – he rules over the new dominion of righteousness.

“To this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Kurios both of the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:9, quoted 367)

An Aside on N T Wright

In a footnote Rutledge strongly criticises N T Wright and his resistance to apocalyptic interpretations of Paul. First time I have heard Wright judged as lacking in imagination!

I do not wish to devalue Wright’s work and influence … However, he does not work in the dimension of imagination that has enabled apocalyptic theologians (whose work he greatly dislikes) to give us a vastly expanded understanding of the cosmic vision of Paul. (367, n. 43)

Other examples of the apocalyptic battlefield

This is a brief list

  • Slavery and Freedom – huge themes in Romans and Galatians
  • The Garden in Gethsemane – a classic example of an apocalyptic confrontation between Jesus and the forces of darkness. This is why it depicts such an intense struggle prior to the Messiah’s arrest, trial and execution.
  • Luke 21:12-19: “… some of you will be put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
  • 1 Peter 4:12-17: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you ..”
  • Col 2:13-15 “He disarmed the powers and principalities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in him.”
  • Heb 2:14-17: “… through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and deliver all those who through the fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage …”

The Powers

Whether modern rationalist and secularised Christians ‘see’ it or not, the New Testament is NOT simply a story about God and fallen humanity and how their broken relationship is restored. In the ‘middle’ of that relationship are the ‘Powers’

Ephesians 6:10-12: 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Romans 8:38: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[ neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Mark 5:9 – “Satan and his legions”

1 Cor 2:6-8: We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Paul names Satan ten times – usually in association with Sin, Death and the Law, or linked with principalities and powers – thrones, lords and other authorities.

Volf EandERutledge has sustained interaction here with one of the best theological books written in the last 50 years, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (1996).

[This book inspired me to pursue a PhD related to Christian identity and reconciliation in a context of violence and division (Northern Ireland). [You can buy the published version here for a mere snip of £160. Bargain !!]

Volf brilliantly saw how Jesus’ death was far more than a mere injustice of an innocent man being found guilty and experiencing horrible violence as a result. No, the cross is God’s invasion of enemy territory through non-violence.

It is, paradoxically, a powerful ‘weapon’ that leads to victory through suffering and self-giving death.

ALL of us are under the influence of the Powers, yet are loved by God. The powers are the real enemy to be overcome and destroyed so humans can be set free. This is why God’s wrath represents him beiing “actively engaged in warfare” (381).

Rutledge quotes Volf and with this we had better bring this post to an end.

Without an eschatological [apocalyptic] dimension, the talk of God’s wrath degenerates into a naïve and woefully inadequate ideology … Outside the world of wishful thinking, evildoers all too often thrive, and when they are overthrown, the victors are not much better than the defeated. God’s eschatological anger is the obverse of the impotence of God’s love … A ‘nice’ God is a figment of liberal imagination, a projection onto the sky of the inability to give up cherished illusions about goodness, freedom, and the rationality of social actors. (Volf, quoted 381)

It is because God is a God of judgement that we are to leave judgement to God and not engage in violent retribution ourselves. {For me this is one reason why support of the death penalty is not a Christian option]

In the next post we continue within chapter 9 and especially what it means to live today in light of the victory of God through Christ’s death on the cross.

3 thoughts on “Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (31) Christus Victor

  1. Another great post Patrick that unfolds the riches of Christ and His gospel. This power aspect of the work of Christ finds much traction in animistic cultures where demonic powers bring fear and a life subjected to appeasing those powers. Here is a 5-minute gospel presentation that highlights this facet of the gospel designed for Haitians: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A96Bwm2YrcY but could apply in any context where people are under power that brings fear and cruelty.

  2. Thanks Roy – and yes in other cultures there is perhaps a more explicit sense of spiritual conflict at work than in our modern technological and supposedly secularised West. I wonder though if the Powers are all the more dangerous and damaging when they are not taken seriously. Brings C S Lewis and Screwtape Letters to mind. But the more we look, just under the surface of our civilised West are powers of injustice, violence, exploitation of the weak – especially globally as they make our Western way of life possible …

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