LENT 2021. The Crucifixion. Fleming Rutledge. Justice and Judgement (4)

We 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)

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge. The accursed death of Christ

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post relates to 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)

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

What would Paul think? (Douglas Campbell)

From Douglas Campbell in his big new book, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love.

Not a quote you expect to come across in a heavy-weight academic treatment of the apostle Paul’s thought and its implications for the mission of the church in the contemporary world.

I sometimes wonder what Paul would make of the conferences at which scores of highly learned people sit around and debate for hours tiny semantic nuances in his preserved writings. I expect he might be patient with this exercise for a while, but then at some point I’m pretty sure he would jump up – possibly wielding a whip – and shout: “For goodness sake! Haven’t you read what my writings actually say? You’re not meant to be sitting around debating them. You are meant to be out there doing what they tell you to do – meeting people and fostering Christian communities in service to your Lord. Get off your backsides and get moving!” Doubtless this challenge would be accompanied by the sounds of tables being overturned and piles of pristine books crashing to the floor. (p. 4)

Eschatology and Advent (11): is Christianity a delusion?

As Advent comes to a close, this is the final post in our series. Here’s a fundamental question that we are left with:

Is history moving towards an ‘end’? And to be more specifically Christian, is that end a good one in which God renews and restores this broken world?

OR

Are such hopes human delusions? History just keeps grinding away. There have been and are any number of utopian dreams, both religious and secular, that imagine history is about to end and a dramatic transformation is about to occur.

The political philosopher John Gray was on BBC Radio 4 ‘Point of View’ this week arguing the second option. The title of his talk was ‘The Recurrent Dream of an End Time’.

‘Human beings dread the prospect that the world they know is coming to an end, while at the same time they long for a world different from any that has ever existed.’

He gives various examples of a ‘millennarian mindset’ – particulaly political ones – in which hopes of a dramatic and imminent transformation of the world is about to dawn.

Failed Dreams

CHRISTIAN MILLENNARIAN MOVEMENTS – there have been many throughout history

FRENCH REVOLUTION – a new world order of reason – that descended into chaos and bloodshed

COMMUNISM: Russian and Chinese (Mao). Gray could have included Pol Pot in Cambodia setting the clock back to year zero. They also ended in bloodshed, genocide and disillusion.

LIBERAL OPTIMISM: the dream that ‘history had ended’ with the spread of liberal values (Francis Fukayama in the 1990s. It wasn’t convincing then, its seems even more foolish now).

ALIENS: (no, not the movies). Think H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds’ and movements since that imagine imminent catastrophe or new beginnings.

EXTINCTION REBELLION. The world as we know it is about to ‘end’

SILICON VALLEY. The dreams of tech executives that an ‘Omega Point’ in human history is about to arrive where we can develop a new sort of humanity, coupled with AI, to create a new age of transhuman immortality.

“The belief that the end of history is imminent is always near”

Can We Face the Truth?

The reason, Gray suggests, is that if history is linear it is going somewhere. There is a story to the world, to our lives, and the fact that we can have a part to play in participating in that future gives hope.

The human animal, cannot bear to think that its existence has no wider story. It denies the reality that our lives, and our civilisation, will start and end, to be succeeded in time by others.

It is this delusion that Gray rejects. All dreams of a golden new age will perish. There is no escape from everlasting recurrence. History is not going anywhere.

The question is, he asks, is whether we can overcome our obsession with hope of a better age to come, or will we be like the hapless characters in Samuel Beckett’s piece ‘For to end, yet again’ who are always waiting for an ending that never arrives?

If Christ is not raised

Gray is always refreshing to listen to. He sees how much politics, technology and religion overlap in how they represent ways to think about our place in the world. Nothing is ‘value free’ or ‘story free’. He’s especially astute in describing the optimism of so much secular liberalism – that it is somehow ‘beyond’ the outdated and regressive beliefs of religion(s).

So I’m with him. Human dreams of a new age about to dawn are just those – dreams. We do not hold the future of the world in our hands. In fact, we are horribly brilliant at making a violent and unjust mess of this world.

And this brings us right back to advent and apocalyptic theology. The Christian faith is either true or it isn’t.

Either God has been active in and through human history (the story of Israel) or he hasn’t.

Either God has apocalyptically invaded that human history in the ‘once and future coming of Jesus Christ’ (to quote the strapline of Fleming Rutledge’s book) or he hasn’t.

Either history is pitiless endless recurrence (Gray) or it is unfolding in God’s eschatogical time towards the parousia of Jesus, final judgment, resurrection of the dead and new creation in which all things will be finally be put right.

In the Bible, Paul sees this ‘either / or’ of God’s eschatological future or human delusion just as clearly as Gray does.

While he was not writing apologetically trying to ‘defend’ the truth of the gospel (his main concern is to affirm the resurrection to come), in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 he imagines the world if Jesus Christ was just another man who lived and died.

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So am I – and you if you are a Christian – a ‘hapless’ figure waiting for an ending that will never come? Well, it all depends if the new age has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or not.

Eschatology and Advent (10) Fleming Rutledge on the good news of judgment

If you are a Christian, what are you waiting for?

Or, in other words, what is the content of Christian hope?

This is an advent question since the Christian faith is lived out in the overlap of the ages, awaiting the return of the King.

To make the question more specific, how is God’s judgment hopeful?

In her book of (mostly) sermons related to Advent preached over decades, Fleming Rutledge addresses this question from various angles.

One angle is how divine judgment is good news.

I’m referring mostly here to material from two sermons within a section of the book on ‘Justice and Final Judgment’. The sermons are ‘Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment‘ and ‘The Great But

Some key points she makes include (and this sort of summary does not attempt to capture the flow of a sermon which is dialogical, the text of a spoken address)

1. The judgment of God as good and necessary

‘Judgmental’ is a relatively new word, not appearing in the OED until the 20th century. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and a perjorative description of an intolerant person.

Rutledge comments that in the past judgment was a process of discernment leading to wisdom in assessing the value or truth of something.

The real theological problem here is that we have lost sight of the fact that an act of judgment may very well be an act of liberation (180)

… The coming of the Lord will be accompanied by the final judgment over all things – over the waste we have made of God’s creation by wars and greed and rapacity and cruelty and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the poor and needy whom God loves (180-81)

(My comments) We don’t have to look far back into 2019 to know what she is talking about.

If we struggle with the idea of judgment, we need to look into the heart of darkness – not to ignore those raped, abused, trafficked, used and discarded; not to close our eyes to injustice and exploitation, to those that deal in arms at the expense of millions globally. God will judge the destruction of his good creation and those he loves.

And as we look upon this broken world – our hearts should cry out for the justice of God to be done.

  1. Syria: 13.1 million people needing humanitarian aid. 6.7 displaced. 350,000 or so dead.
  2. Yemen Civil War. 22 million displaced. 230,000 dead. 380,000 cholera. 1.8 million children suffering malnutrition
  3. Royhinga ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military: 750,000 fled. Rape and murder, systematic destruction of a people with no place to call home.

It is these sorts of evils we need to look at in the face, especially if

we are unable to live with the thought of the judgment of God because we don’t want to allow it into our tidy concept of God as loving, forgiving, and accepting (175)

… in such circumstance, we can understand that the judgment of God upon all evil is good, right, and necessary, A culture of impunity is nothing less than hell. (175)

2. God will save us from judgment but he will not save us without judgment

But, if we are honest with ourselves for a minute, we know that we cannot stand before God’s judgment either. It’s too easy to see the manifest wrong others do and either naively or self-righteously exempt ourselves.

This is the ‘BUT’ Rutledge refers to. How are we going to survive such judgment? She refers to this Advent text from Isaiah 57:15-19

For this is what the high and exalted One says –
he who lives for ever, whose name is holy …

I will not accuse them for ever,
nor will I always be angry …
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their wilful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort ..

‘But I will heal them’ is the only source of hope for God’s people.

Hear also this advent text from 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5

for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

Judgement will come – but those in Christ are children not of darkness but of light. They have no fear of God’s final judgment because judgment has already been passed in Christ.

This is the reason for Christian hope – the saving love and compassion of God.

GOD WILL SAVE US FROM JUDGMENT, BUT HE WILL NOT SAVE US WITHOUT JUDGMENT (182)

3. Personal Judgment

And such judgment is more than a ‘not-guilty’ verdict. It is transformative. The Christian gospel is anything but naive about human nature. It is not as if Christians are somehow morally superior people who have ‘done good things and will therefore be rewarded’ (181)

Even our best efforts are like dirty rags (Isaiah 64:6). We need the judgment of God.

Rutledge is refreshingly honest here. There are not many leaders / preachers who speak as she does of a growing weariness of personality traits with which she (and therefore others) have struggled, even though she has worked hard at overcoming them. She looks forward to God’s refining and purifying judgment when all that is sinful and twisted will be ‘judged and gone forever’.

We rejoice to know that it is the Lord himself who will come to be our Judge. (184)

This reminds me of Eugene Peterson who said something along the lines that the gospel brings us to the end of ourselves. Self-obsession is a dead-end, it is in losing our lives that we find them; it is in repentance and humility that we come into the presence of God.

These themes are not popular today which is why Rutledge’s writing on Advent, and her book on the cross, are so important.

Do you think of the judgment of God as ‘good and necessary’? What causes you to cry out for justice to be done?

Do we have space in our ‘tidy’ theology of a loving God for a God who is also a fearsome judge?

What is it about your own life and character that you look forward to having purified and transformed by the judgment of God?

Eschatology and Advent (8): Fleming Rutledge and Apocalyptic Theology

Advent is a time of waiting, in hope, for a transformed future. The season of Advent makes dedicated space in the church calendar to reflect on the nature of the Christian faith as life lived in the eschatological tension between two ages – the old age that is passing away, the new age of the Spirit that has dawned with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

This eschatological framing of Christianity is a very long way away from the liberalism of Ritschl and Wrede, or the demythologised existential faith of Bultmann.

It sees the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God, the victory of cross and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit as apocalyptic events.

Apocalypse (apokalypsis) means ‘revelation’. Technically it refers to a particular type of literature (like the book of Revelation), full of dramatic symbolism, revealing divine realities in order to help readers (often facing persecution or suffering of some sort) to interpret their present circumstances and live accordingly.

But a broader understanding is used by many today, including Fleming Rutledge. When she uses ‘apocalyptic’ she is referring to a divine invasion into the present world order, a catalyst for something dramatically new that has happened in the here and now, so much so that nothing will ever be the same again.

[An aside: the ‘apocalyptic turn’ in NT theology is not uncontroversial. Building on work by J C Beker (1980) and J L Martyn, others like Beverly Gaventa, Philip Ziegler, Douglas Campbell, Martinus de Boer and others, have stressed themes of divine invasion, discontinuity with previous revelation, and a cosmic war with almost personified forces of Sin, Death, Flesh and the Powers. This emphasis on a great spiritual conflict behind the scenes has a very different feel to emphasis in much traditional Christianity on individual faith, divine grace and forgiveness of sin. It does not have to be a case of ‘either / or’ – though some theologians push in that direction].

In her Introduction Rutledge summarises the main components of apocalyptic theology (pp.18-21). All of them resonate with the fully eschatological character of the Christian faith that we have been talking about in this series.

These themes continually appear in her Advent sermons and are thus essential for the book as a whole. We will summarise them here and after this post we will simply look at a selection of her sermons in the lead up to Christmas.

A question first – do you think of Christianity as an ‘apocalyptic’ faith? Do you see your life, and the vocation of the people of God in the world, as being lived out within a cosmic battle behind the scenes between God and forces opposed to his good purposes?

Does this sort of language and imagery feel a bit ‘extreme’? Or do you find it truthful, making sense of the ‘heart of darkness’ which describes our world?

The Components of Apocalytpic Theology

1. God is the acting subject

The action of God is revealed in Jesus Christ (‘When the time had fully come’ Gal. 4:4). It is God who inaugurates his kingdom and takes on the forces of evil. It is God’s prophet John the Baptist who announces judgement. The active agent in history is God.

2. The Three Agencies

Liberal theology tends to elevate human experience and reason. God may or may not be an actual person. Apocalyptic theology begins with God, his enemy who has invaded the world, and human beings who are under his power.

3. Two Ages Overlapping with one another

The NT world is one of two ages, two powers in conflict with each other: Spirit versus Flesh; God versus the Devil; two kingdoms in battle; darkness versus light. (Rutledge has a passing swipe at language of ‘spiritual journey’ as if we face no opposition, just a journey towards maturity and wisdom).

4. Struggle and Conflict at the turn of the ages

The ages are in battle; believers are called to participate – to be non-violent soldiers in a spiritual conflict against this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and the Enemy and his powers.

5. The Apocalyptic Role of the Church

Christians do not fight alone. Called into community, the battle is corporate not isolated soldiers on their own. The task of the church is to be a bridgehead of the kingdom of God in the world (kosmos).

6. The Armour of Light

The ‘weapons’ of the Church are different to those of the world. Patience, love, kindness, forgiveness, prayer (see Eph 6)

7. The Stance toward the Enemy

Rutledge calls the Great Enemy “the personified power of Sin and Death” to whom all humans are in bondage. All of us are God’s enemies until the Gospel brings us over to his side (not by our own wisdom or efforts but by grace).

8. The Justification of the Ungodly

Everyone is ungodly – this is the great argument of Romans 1-4. Pagan Gentiles but also Jews are alike unrighteous. “None of us deserves God’s favor” (p.20). Hope depends utterly on God’s redeeming action.

9. The Future of God

The Christ-event has inaugurated the reign of God but it remains unfulfilled. “God’s future determines the present, rather than the other way round.” The present evil age is temporary.

10. Suffering and Hope

In the inbetween times Christians are to expect suffering, trials and tribulations. Apocalyptic literature is written to encourage believers in desperate circumstances. But the promises of God will have the last say at the return of Christ.

11. Apocalyptic Transvision

Christians need discernment to understand the battle they are in. The Spirit is given to the church as a sign of the age of come, empowering and equipping the church for life in the inbetween times.

12. Continuity and Discontinuity

Rutledge rightly acknowledges that this is the issue where most controversy exists around apocalyptic theology. Some so stress ‘invasion’ and newness that it seems to cut off the NT from the story of Israel (N T Wright is especially critical of some apocalyptic theology at this point). She argues discontinuity does NOT mean severance from the OT.

What it does mean is a rereading of the Old Testament in light of the first and second comings of Christ. It means that the hope of redemption and the advent of the age to come no longer seeks evidence of the promise of God from present circumstances, but only in terms of the promised future of God … This is the truly radical nature of the Advent promise, which sweeps away cheap comforts and superficial reassurances and, in the midst of the most world-overturning circumstances, still testifies that “Behold, I am coming soon! … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end! (Rev. 22:12, 13) (p.21).

What, I wonder are your present circumstances this Advent? Perhaps they are, humanly speaking, practically devoid of hope. Perhaps you find little to rejoice about this Christmas. Or perhaps you feel overwhelmed by the scale of bad news and prophecies of doom in your newsfeed.

It is precisely into such darkness that Advent speaks hope.