Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (37) The 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 begin another major chapter (11) – this one entitled The Substitution

Again, as with the previous chapter, this one starts with a table of contents that could be for a book.

Section 1: a theological history of the motif of substitution

Section 2: Objections to the penal substitution model

Section 3: Karl Barth on Substitution

Sections 4 and 5: on the matter of agency – we may reword this as ‘Who is ‘responsible’ for the crucifixion?’

Section 6: Conclusions

We are going to zone in mostly on section 2 – objections to penal substitution. This is where much historic and contemporary debate is focused and it raises significant theological and ethical questions for us today.

In this post we begin with Rutledge’s definition and summary of penal substitution and description of how controversial this idea has become in the church and outside it.

She dislikes the term ‘substitutionary atonement’ as too academic, theoretical and unattractive, preferring ‘the motif of substitution’ or ‘the theme of exchange’.

Purpose of the Chapter

In the face of major critique, Rutledge sets out to

“This chapter, in conversation with both the attackers and the retreaters, is a defense of the central importance of the motif of substitution … as it appears in numerous scriptural contexts and in the tradition. (465)

This defense is not of all expressions of penal substitution, but it is a robust case for the idea that Jesus dies, not only on our behalf, but in our place.

There is something deep in the human psyche that responds to the idea of substitution – someone who dies in my place so that I may live – and the loss of it from the preaching and teaching of the church would be grievous. (466)

A historical sketch

I’m not going to tarry with Rutledge’s extended discussion of the history of the doctrine, beginning in the NT and moving through the early Church Fathers up to Anselm and eventually to the Reformers. What follows is hardly even a bare outline.

Save to say that she rejects the oft-repeated charge that substitution only appeared with Anselm, nor that Christus Victor in some way makes the idea of substitution unnecessary –the two motifs are complementary.

Luther – held together Christus Victor and substitution (and other themes) in a dynamic and remarkable way.

Calvin – Rutledge appeals for an informed and not caricatured reading of Calvin. In sum, it if fair to say that she wishes his later interpreters were as nuanced, informed and careful a theologian as he was.

A key passage is where Rutledge draws attention to Calvin’s use of Augustine. The issue is did the death of the Son somehow ‘change the Father’s attitude’ towards sinners? Was the cross that which ‘appeased’ his wrath and turned it to love and acceptance?

As said in an earlier post, this would be a real problem. Both Augustine and Calvin say ‘NO’ to this. Both affirm Romans 5:8

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’

We were enemies yes, but beloved enemies. God always loves – he does not begin to love once his wrath is ‘appeased’. The cross is God’s means of redeeming and reconciling humanity by dealing decisively with what alienates and separates us from him.

Rutledge quotes Calvin’s summary of Galatians 3:13-14

“The cross was accursed, not only in human opinion but in God’s law (Deuteronomy 21:23). Hence, when Christ is hanged upon the cross, he makes himself subject to the curse, It had to happen in this way in order that the whole curse – which on account of our sins … lay upon us – might be lifted from us, while it was transferred to him” (Calvin Institutes 2.16.6, quotes 487).

 Calvin as developed by 19th century Reformed evangelicalism

So it is not Calvin or Luther or Anselm that Rutledge has a problem with. It is how Calvin in particular was developed in later Reformed theology. She takes the example of Charles Hodge (1797-1878) of Princeton Theological Seminary and his formulation of penal substitution.

Rutledge summarises it like this (quoted below).

And as you read this some questions:

How familiar is this to you? Is this perhaps the [only?] or main way the cross was explained to you?

What is the relationship of this theological scheme with ‘the gospel’? In many evangelical circles, are the two virtually synonmyous do you think?

What is your gut response to this summary?

What picture does it give of God and of Jesus?

How does it relate to the New Testament?  What is in it and what is not?

  • “As a result of the original sin of Adam, the entire human race has been mired in sin and incurred the wrath of God.

  • God cannot overlook sin as though it had not occurred. Sin must be punished.

  • Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, entered into the place of sinners and took the punishment on himself.

  • On the cross, particularly as shown in the cry of dereliction, Jesus submitted to the curse upon sin and underwent God’s judgment.

  • Be deflecting the wrath of God onto himself, Jesus took it away from humanity.”

For Rutledge, the issue is how this represents a tightly defined, rationalistic and individualised scheme unlike in Calvin or in the New Testament.

It also took on an overly dominant role in the interpretation of the cross within the Reformed world and is still extremely powerful.

In the next post we consider the main objections to penal substitution.

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