The State of New Testament Studies: eschatology

This arrived in the post yesterday.

Publication date is 05 November 2019.

Delighted and humbled to be part of such a project with such an array of scholars.

The book is a fantastic ‘go to’ resource to familarise yourself with pretty well any topic within contemporary New Testament studies.

My chapter surveys developments in the study of New Testament eschatology and how, over the last century or so, eschatology has (rightly) moved from the margins to the centre of New Testament theology.

Key figures discussed along the way include Johannes Weiss, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, C. H. Dodd, Werner Georg Kummel, Oscar Cullmann, Jurgen Moltmann, Norman Perrin, Margus Borg, N. T. Wright, Brant Pitre, Timo Eskola, James D. G. Dunn, J. Richard Middleton and Richard Bauckham.

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘eschatology’?

Perhaps it evokes some sort of end-times scheme. Or perhaps it raises questions likeWhat happens when I die?’; ‘What is heaven?’; ‘What about judgement?’ ‘What does it mean to have a resurrection body?’ ‘What will the new creation be like?’

While these are certaintly important and pastoral eschatological questions, they tend to relegate eschatology to the future rather than of relevance to the here and now.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to eschatology. My argument is that there is no area of Christian theology that is more relevant to Christian living in the present.

So the focus of the chapter is broader, looking at how, as Jurgen Moltmann famously said ‘Christianity is eschatology’. Here’s a snippet.

Particularly post-Moltmann, and reinforced by Bauckham, the renaissance of eschatology is characterised by a recognition that it represents the spine of early Christian faith, giving the rest of the skeleton support, shape and ability to function. Without it, the entire body collapses. Such eschatology is intrinsically particular; right across the New Testament it is relentlessly Christological, focused on the person, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus. (249-50)

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (46) the role of faith and God’s rectification of all

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddDay 46! And I always thought Lent was 40 days long.

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

It has been a challenge to read and post each day through Lent but personally a hugely beneficial one – and from comments by email, conversations and texts, others have found it helpful too which is a bonus.

In our church, a group of us met for four consecutive Sunday evenings discussing specific chapters of the book (the gravity of Sin; justification; apocalyptic war; and substitution).  They were really good evenings; wonderful to have space to talk and think together about the richness, power and wonder of the cross.

I have also just finished preaching a series of 4 sermons this Holy week (Monday – Thursday evenings) on the cross and love at a joint church event in south Dublin where 5 churches come together every year (Dun Laoghaire Evangelical Church, Crinken C of I, Kill O the Grange C of I, Dun Laoghaire Presbyterian, and Dun Laoghaire Methodist). It was an honour to be part of a wonderful event. Thanks to Dougie McCormack, David Nixon, Trevor Stevenson, Alan Breen and Chris Kennedy for the invitation, hospitality, good craic and commitment to prepare for Easter together.

Reading this book alongside the sermon prep was profoundly helpful. Rutledge’s chapter on the ‘Gravity of Sin’ was important – again and again it was apparent in thinking and preaching about the cross that we need a robust theology of Sin and evil if we are to make sense of the cross of Christ and how it demonstrates the love and justice of God.

After this spurt of (for me) intense blogging (totalling c. 39,000 words I think, admittedly a chunk of that a mixture of descriptions and quotes) the pace may go back to a more leisurely one!

OK, back to Rutledge’s concluding pages and the questions we left off yesterday …

“What does it mean to believe in Christ as the Saviour of the world, the One whose birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection inaugurated the age to come? What of those who reject him?” (601)

While Rutledge has been moving towards some form of universal reconciliation, she candidly acknowledges that,

“There is ample evidence in the New Testament that Jesus himself requires personal commitment from all who would be saved by him … and that salvation is from Christ alone. The most obvious extrapolation from this is to declare that human beings must come to faith in Christ if they are to be saved. If the wonder and miracle of faith in Christ is dismissed as unnecessary and unimportant, then the dynamic, outgoing, evangelistic pulse of the gospel is negated and Christianity becomes a feeble shadow of itself.” (601)

This is precisely why universalism has been a marginal voice in the church history and theology – it sits uneasily (at least) with the testimony of the Bible itself, and raises all sorts of questions about mission and the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus the crucified and risen Lord.

So how does Rutledge navigate these seemingly insurmountable problems to a theology of universal acceptance?

Her overall theological framework here, is that God’s judgement is always in service of his salvation. She gives numerous examples from the OT of how God’s judgement on his people is consistently tempered or shaped around is absolute covenant commitment to Israel. God does not simply ‘forgive and forget’ Israel’s sin.

Taking this forward to the day of final judgement, Rutledge ‘applies’ this principle to all of humanity. God’s judgement is in service to salvation.

[My comment]: It is this ‘shift’ from focus on God’s covenant people (OT and NT) to humanity in general that will be seen as the most contentious part of her argument

“God in his righteousness will make right all that has been wrong. This is the very promise of God that the ‘former things’ will be obliterated and no memory of them will remain. And here is the staggering irony: all this is accomplished in the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion, the method that was especially designed to erase the memory of its victims as though they had never existed.” (603)

This victory includes the eradication of Sin and evil.

And she includes mention of specific ‘unrepentant monsters of history’ like Pol Pot. They will

“… be either utterly transfigured or annihilated altogether, for no one is beyond the reach of God’s power.” (603)

[My Comment] Despite Rutledge’s extensive treatment (which is much broader than I have had space to summarise) I struggle here to see how the argument coheres here. On what basis are some ‘unrepentant’ sinners transfigured (presumably a huge chunk of humanity?) and some others annihilated (the really bad ones like Pol Pot?). How does this square with her paragraph above about the necessity of personal faith in Christ? Is it ‘necessary’ or not?

It seems to me that her assent to the requirement of personal faith and her parallel argument for God’s rectification of all sit in unresolved tension in this closing chapter.

She comes at these issues again in a final few important pages on Romans 9-11.

In sum, Paul is wrestling with the grievous fact of Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. But Paul has a radical perspective on their unbelief. In God’s wisdom, through Israel’s unbelief the Gentiles have been brought in, but this does not mean Israel is rejected…

11 I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.  (Romans 9:1-2)

Somehow Israel’s unbelief plays a part in God’s bigger purposes.

“Strange and contradictory as it may seem, unbelief apparently plays a part in the plan of redemption.” (606)

This sheds, she argues, much needed light on the fate of the ungodly. The ‘godly’ would have originally the Jews as God’s people and the Gentiles the ‘ungodly’. Now, she sees Paul’s train of thought unfolding to a point where “the term ‘ungodly’ comes to embrace all humanity.” (607, my emphasis).

The whole ethos of Romans 9-11 is one of God’s glory and human limitation. (Read Romans 9:6 and following for example).

Rutledge argues with passion that these chapters be restored as a climax of the apostle’s theological argument in Romans. The key idea is God’s sovereign plan of redemption that embraces all and to which the apostle anticipates objections and even outrage at God’s ways of acting in history, that are far beyond human comprehension.

“Salvation (soteria) in Paul’s letters is not to be understood simply in the way that we so often hear it used in American Christianity, as the rescue of first one person, then another, individual by individual, as those persons put their faith in Christ. When the individual is exclusively emphasized, serious theological, ecclesiological, and – not least – geopolitical errors ensue. As Paul develops his message in Romans, the individual Christian does not lose his individual preciousness, but is taken up into the new family of believers and ultimately into the cosmic plan of God. Verse 11:32 is as radically ‘inclusive’ a statement as the Bible contains: ‘For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.’

Yet, magnificent and ‘broad’ as this vision is, Rutledge closes reiterating the necessity for the faith and confidence of the individual believer – in which she includes herself within this closing poem by Christopher Smart:

Awake, arise, lift up your voice,

Let Easter music swell;

Rejoice in Christ, again rejoice

And on his praises dwell.

 

Oh, with what gladness and surprise

the saints their Savior greet;

nor will they trust their ears and eyes

but by his hands and feet,

those hands of liberal love indeed

in infinite degree,

those fee still free to move and bleed

for millions

and for me

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (45) universal justification?

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 continuing in the concluding chapter. The title is designed to be arresting – we will explore what she means by it as we go.

Rutledge is leaning towards all distinctions that separate people from one another, in the very end, being overcome through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. (577)

But how is such a universalist impulse compatible with how

“the Old Testament is packed with references to the woeful destiny of the ungodly”? (577)

Rutledge does not so much answer this as argue our understanding of the ungodly has changed. We tend to think of really ‘evil monsters’ like Hitler and Pol Pot and Mao and Stalin. But far more difficult are

“‘ordinary’ people who become involved in a network of sin and evil” (578)

She says when we look closer it becomes much harder to draw neat lines between the godly and ungodly

“How do we know which side of the that line, if there is one, we ourselves are on? How do we judge others?” (579)

She sees a move in the OT itself towards the erasure of all distinctions (Is. 64:5-7). She sees it in the NT as well – even in Romans 3:9-12, quoting the OT (Ps 14:1-3).

9 What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

[I have to say this is difficult to be persuaded by. Paul’s diagnosis that all alike are under the power of Sin / are sinners, is hardly the basis for saying all distinctions will be erased. The story in Romans is towards the unique salvific work of God in Jesus Christ, universally available to all.]

She also goes to Ephesians and its talk of the reconciliation of all things:

“Only God can execute regime change in which the tyrannical Powers are displaced and overthrown. This is the story of the purpose of God, ‘which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1:9-10).’” (580)

Where Rutledge is becoming more defined. The ‘righteousness of God’, translated as ‘rectification’ is the putting right of all things. Even the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology, whatever their strengths, are inadequate, says Rutledge, in not being inclusive enough. They still draw lines between the guilty and the innocent.

As, does, argues Rutledge, the Christian Right in America, if on different issues. (582)

The argument is that all of us will try to justify and vindicate ourselves. We are all caught in a web of sin – and it exactly this sense of being trapped, that the righteousness of God addresses.

“This faith in the righteousness of God calls for a new view of human nature, one that refuses to make hard-and-fast judgments about who is godly and who is not.” (586)

All of us need ‘mending’, not just forgiveness.

So, as I read her here:

On the one hand

She is resolute in her defence of the need for justification / rectification – all of us need ‘put right’ and are under the power of Sin and act in sinful ways. We need justice and judgement rather than some watered down idea of ‘tolerance’. (587)

All of us, Jews (she gives two examples of contemporary sin/evil done by Jews), and Gentiles alike are in captivity to Sin and Death. Quoting Flannery O’Connor, “the biggest threat to your soul is you.”

Which is all very different indeed to “God accepts you just as you are!” (591)

On the other hand

She ties this to the

“promise of a complete transformation of human nature by Christ’s victory over the Power of Sin.” (593).

It seems to be all of humanity that is included in the redemptive actions of God:

“The righteousness of God, the dikaiosyne theou, burst from the tomb on the day of the resurrection of the Redeemer. ‘As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ The human race is redeemed, not by “acceptance,” but by death and resurrection. This is the fullness of the message of Easter Day.” (594)

How hold these tensions together? Penultimate judgment, Ultimate Rectification?

So, Rutledge is arguing for the utter incapability of humanity to redeem itself, alongside the dramatic intervention of God at the cross of Christ to effect righteousness and justice.

So, while, as in the OT, there is in the NT “a strong thread of condemnation for the ungodly” which should be “taken with the utmost seriousness”, Rutledge sees a ‘counter-thread’ that points to “seems to push the margins out toward some sort of universal vision.” (596)

She suggests this points to ‘Penultimate Judgement, and Ultimate Rectification’. There is judgement, seen at the cross. It is God alone who can put all things right:

“Therefore, we may extrapolate as follows: the God who is able to create out of nothing is able to create faith where there is no faith, righteousness where there is no righteousness, life where there is only the finality of death.” (599)

Rutledge comes at this argument with different illustrations and texts, but her overall thesis is clear at this stage. There will be a last judgement. All cases will be settled. All wrongs will be put right. And all this can only be done by God himself.

“Only the Word of God, incarnate in Christ, is able to ‘right all wrongs’ in a new creation. Only through God’s final judgment upon Sin and Death can they be annihilated as though they had never existed.” (600)

How persuaded are you by Rutledge’s argument, as summarised here? Does it ‘undermine’ her passionate defence of judgement and God’s justice against sin and evil if all, ultimately, are reconciled?

Universalism is, of course, is very much a ‘minority report’ for how the righteousness of God and final judgment has been understood in Christian theology.

Salvation, traditionally understood, is much more closely and explicitly tied to union with Christ through faith. It is ‘in Christ’ that forgiveness, new life, judgement on, and victory over, sin is effected.

Rutledge’s broadening of the scope of God’s rectification of all things to include everyone, presumably apart from their connection to Jesus Christ, raises the question of ‘What then is the role of faith? What of those who reject Christ?’

She is well aware of this and addresses these questions. It is to her replies that we will return tomorrow.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (44) Condemned into Redemption: the Rectification of the Ungodly

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).

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.

First;

“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.

My Comments

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 again:

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!

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (32) Living in the victory of the cross

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’ and in this post we are looking at the Christian life lived in light of the victory of God in Christ.

The question Rutledge turns to is how does apocalyptic battle imagery ‘work’ as a guide to Christian living? Several points can be distilled from the conversation – and these are my headings.

Non-Violence

There is a profound paradox at the heart of Christianity. God’s decisive victory is won through the suffering and self-giving of his Son at the cross.

So, while an apocalyptic battle is being waged, the ‘method’ of warfare is non-violence (of God).

The most fully apocalyptic book in the New Testament is of course Revelation. As apocalyptic literature it is packed full of violent, bloody and graphic images of battle. Yet. At the heart of the story is “the lamb who was slain”.

Rutledge quotes Volf again from Exclusion and Embrace,

At the very heart of the “one who sits on the throne” is the cross. The world to come is ruled by the one who on the cross took violence upon himself in order to conquer and embrace the enemy. The Lamb’s rule is legitimized not by the “sword” but by its “wounds” (Volf 300-01, quoted 383)

What I call this “powerful powerlessness” is so deeply woven into the ‘essence’ of Christianity that I struggle to understand how Christians manage to evade both the biblical witness and the testimony of the early Church – to follow Jesus is to be non-violent.

You don’t have to use physical weapons to be in a battle.

The language of struggle and combat is not incompatible with a commitment to nonviolence. The nonviolent combatants are sustained by their trust in God, who has promised that “vengeance is mine, I will repay.” (384)

Rutledge returns to stories of the Civil Rights movement and the path of nonviolent resistance being uniquely inspiring and powerful, as well as a path of suffering.

No-where else will you find this story – no religion, no philosophy …

In the unique event that is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, it is revealed that God is acting. In the divine invasion of this world, the Powers that have been allowed to rule in “the present evil age” are disarmed by the Powers of the world to come, that is by the weapons of the Spirit. Christ the Lord is Victor even in the midst of the suffering of his followers. (386)

Realism

Rutledge wisely observes that, despite the fact that we are more aware than ever today of the broken state of our world, we are awash with sentimentality. Christmas is a good example:

Despite the terror and suffering all around us, we demand soft-focus peace-and-joy images for our Christmas cards. By contrast, the apocalyptic gospel dramatizes a cosmic struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, day and night in a symbolic world that grants evil its due and girds itself ahead of time for the irruption of such events as terrorist attacks. (388)

An apocalyptic perspective, Rutledge argues, will be fiercely realistic

Reality is about evil, and suffering, and ultimately victory over suffering. (389)

My comments: Christians should be aware, more than anyone, that life is a battlefield. Therapeutic soft-pedalling of the gospel as that which brings me happiness and fulfilment just do not cut it in the real world. It trivialises the gospel and sends Christian ‘soldiers’ out to battle utterly ill-equipped for the conflict ahead. Its false promises lead to immaturity, disillusionment and cynicism.

Hope

If the gospel is a message of deliverance from the forces of evil, it is therefore a message of hope.

The cross is God’s initiative from start to finish, it also ensures that God’s victory won there will, one future day, come to completion. The Powers continue to exist, Christians remain in a cosmic battle in the in-between times of cross and final victory. This is a hope

“beyond any human hope (Rom. 4:18) because it is grounded in the promise of the future of Jesus Christ.”  (390)

Christians are therefore not prisoners of the Powers but are ‘prisoners of hope’.

Final Comments on Christus Victor

One thing so likeable about Rutledge is her integrity – there is no sleight of hand or subtle twisting of truth to make it ‘fit’ her own preferences. At the close of this chapter she acknowledges weighty criticisms of an apocalyptic perspective.

  1. It seems to locate the battle at a cosmic remove, detached from humanity. (Rutledge argues this need not be the case if understood rightly – believers participate in the battle).
  2. It seems to locate blame on evil Powers and attributing too much goodness and innocence to us.
  3. Linked to this, it can “give Christians a pass” from responsibility for our own actions.

These criticisms have weight, which is why Rutledge welcomes the necessity of Christus Victor to interact with other New Testament motifs. While the overarching apocalyptic framework of the New Testament provides the overall context to understand the cosmic scope of God’s victory at the cross, this is never divorced from atonement for sin and rectification (justification) of sinners.

We need all the motifs to begin to appreciate the cross in all its complex glory.

Next we begin chapter 10 dedicated to a surprising theme for a book on the cross – ‘The Descent into Hell’.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (30) The Apocalyptic War

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 begin here Chapter 9, ‘The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor.

There are two big ideas present here: apocalyptic and the victory of God in Christ.

Both are important to get a grasp of. This post will concentrate on Rutledge’s discussion of apocalyptic and the next couple will then unpack the nature and scope of Christus Victor.

Apocalyptic

Rutledge’s discussion of apocalyptic is excellent. She is well aware that a title ‘Apocalyptic War’ raises problems:

‘Apocalyptic’ is not a well understood term. How would you say the term ‘apocalyptic’ is understood in popular culture today? Maybe images of cataclysmic end of the world events come to mind? We use the term ‘post-apocalyptic’ to talk of a post-nuclear war global wasteland scenario.

‘War’ raises echoes of Christian militarism that is at odds with the way of Jesus. The world may glorify military action, but Christianity does not.

There is a paradox in the battle imagery between God and his enemies (Satan, powers and principalities) – the battle is in an unseen realm. The ‘concrete’ military images are metaphors for a real spiritual conflict, they do not justify physical war.

The Greek word apokalypsis means “disclosure” or “unveiling” or “revelation” – behind the scenes is a battle, “waged not with worldly weapons but with the spiritual armour of God.” (349) (Eph. 6:11-17).

The key to getting a grip on apocalyptic is the idea of disruption, ‘newness’, or discontinuity. God is acting from another sphere of reality to do a new thing – this ‘invasion’ is a ‘revelation’ or apocalypse.

This is God’s work – it owes nothing to human action. And so the cross is very much an apocalyptic event. It is radically discontinuous, it is unexpected, shocking and creates a new reality.

My comments – Yes, the New Testament writers later interpret the cross, in light of the resurrection, through the lens of the OT, as fulfilling God’s plan of redemption and his promise to Abraham in particular. There is a grand biblical narrative that unfolds – ‘The Drama of Scripture’ as Bartholomew and Goheen put it. Unpacking this great narrative is N. T. Wright’s greatest contribution to NT studies.

But the cross is still an apocalyptic event. There is continuity, but this continuity is only ‘revealed’ afterwards.

The cross also reveals things previously unknown about God himself – he is ‘God crucified’ to use Moltmann’s term. It is in the cross that God himself is revealed more deeply and more ‘nakedly’ than ever before – in love, judgement and profound self-sacrificial love.

Back to Rutledge –

Here is the vital center of the Christian gospel, and it is accessible to anyone seeking to know Christ. The purpose of this chapter is to set forth the New Testament picture of the crucified and risen Lord at the head of his heavenly host, and thereby to hint at the confidence and hope that this perspective affords. (353)

Rutledge takes us on a quick tour of recent developments in NT studies and particularly the ‘rediscovery’ of apocalyptic as a way of understanding the radical newness of the New Testament.

Another aside – I have recently written a chapter related to this on ‘Eschatology’ for the second edition of The Face of New Testament Studies, to be published this year, so am interested in Rutledge’s take on things here. There is a big debate going on about the place of apocalyptic in understanding the NT.

9780802875457See for example this book just published by McKnight and Modica, Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives. They include Lutheran, New Perspective, Apocalyptic and Participationist.

As so often in academic debates (!) where people mark out distinctive theologies there can be needless dichotomies created between different ‘perspectives’. No ‘all or nothing’ approach works – there is much overlap between each.

There is a distinction between ‘apocalyptic’ and eschatology.

Eschatology (eschaton, ‘end’) is not just the study of ‘last things’ (as too often it has been relegated to be) but is a theological way of thinking about the way God’s kingdom inter-relates to the created order. The two overlap and one day will be unified

‘May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

‘Apocalyptic’ is more focused on the ‘invasion’ of God’s action in the world – a pervasive discontinuity with what has gone before. This is why N T Wright is cautious about apocalyptic being overstated – he sees it as over-emphasising the disconnections between OT and NT, whereas he has spent his career arguing for those narrative connections and against Christians reading the NT as it the OT was irrelevant!

Rutledge summarises the approaches of two scholars, J. C. Beker and J. Louis Martyn.

Beker is (rightly in my view) arguing against an individualising of Paul (much debate around apocalyptic revolves around Paul) that tends to domesticate the gospel to therapeutic healing of one person at a time. The ‘battlefield’ includes this but is on a much bigger cosmic scale.

Martyn’s themes are drawn together by Rutledge this way:

  • The cross/resurrection is new thing (apocalypse), which calls into being a new reality
  • There is discontinuity between OT and NT – law, Israel, Messiah etc are reinterpreted. The key idea here is there was NOT a nice tidy progressive narrative

    “it was a dramatic rescue bid into which God has flung his entire self’ (Martyn, 355 Rutledge)

  • God acts in the world from ‘outside’ –

‘The Christ event is … the invasion of this world by Another’ (356)

  • The cross confronts hostile forces – is it God, humanity and the Powers. There is a war, there are enemies to be defeated.
  • The scope of apocalyptic is ‘bifocal’ – it holds the tension between the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) and the age to come – of New Creation.

9780801098536Other voices in this discussion include Philip Ziegler who since Rutledge’s book has published Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology.

The big theme of this focus on apocalyptic is how the cross/resurrection and gospel itself is no human philosophy or religious scheme of thought – it is, at heart, almighty God’s revelation of himself within his creation.

This is why, I argue, Paul so often talks of the gospel as a ‘mystery’ that has now been revealed. A mystery that absolutely no-one saw coming.

What are some pastoral implications do you think if God is absolutely ‘other’ and has chosen to reveal himself and win his victory over sin, death and the Devil in an utterly unexpected way?

 

 

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!