We 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.
“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.
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 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!