Eschatology and Advent (6) the inaugurated eschatology of N T Wright

This post finishes our sketch of the recovery of eschatology within contemporary New Testament studies. To bring the story up to date I’m going to look at one of the main voices in NT studies and in eschatology – that of N T Wright.  

From this foundation, some follow on posts will dip into Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous preached eschatology within her book of sermons on Advent.

Doing things this way will highlight how eschatology is no Cinderella doctrine tacked on to the end of Christian thought and life. It is key to understanding and interpreting the gospels, Paul and all the other writers of the NT

Switching focus from eschatology in modern theology to Rutledge on Advent, is deliberate. Not only is eschatology central to Christian theology, it preaches! We’ll look at examples of how.

N. T. Wright

Wright’s eschatology is central to most of his work. And it is most certainly not a fluffy, sentimental, vague hope. Indeed, Wright has spent a lifetime battling against what he sees as popular Christianity’s platonized eschatology – a form of dualism that wants to escape the world and get to heaven.

At times, so much has his emphasis been on realised eschatology along with a historically realist interpretation of the gospels, that when Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) came out in 1996 some reviewers wondered if Wright had abandoned the ‘not yet’ altogether.

An example is Wright’s reading of Mark 13 and the Olivet Discourse. This is a clip – see the whole chapter.

20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Rather than read this as futurist end of age language, Wright’s reads it as Jewish apocalyptic language, referencing Daniel 7:13, referring to the vindication of the Son of Man within history (namely the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and not as a literal description of Jesus’ second coming in the clouds with power and glory.

Wright self-consciously travels the Schweitzerstrasse in his reconstruction of Jesus within history coming to understand himself, through reading of Israel’s scriptures, as the embodiment of an Israel in exile awaiting YHWH’s return to his elect people.

Acting in faith, Jesus the Messiah acts courageously in himself to confront evil in and through his sin-atoning and representative death. His coming simultaneously enacts divine judgement on Israel’s rejection of her true king and his gospel of the kingdom come.

But Wright departs from Weiss and Schweitzer in seeing Jesus’ death not as a failure of mistaken hopes, but God’s paradoxical victory over sin and death, witnessed in the vindication of the resurrection Christ.

Since JVG, his inaugurated “already and not yet” eschatology has become clearer and more fully worked out.

Jesus is an eschatological and apocalyptic prophet in and through whom the kingdom comes. This world has been changed as a result and, because of Jesus’ resurrection, will be fully transformed in the future.

Thus, Wright says for Paul

“this hope both had been fulfilled through Jesus, in his kingdom-establishing death and resurrection, and the life-transforming spirit, and would yet be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus and in the work of the same spirit to raise all of the Messiah’s people from the dead.”[1]

And from my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies

The nature of that transformation is holistic; it embraces the spiritual, political and social within a renewed creation. A consistent Wrightian theme is that the emphatically “earthy” nature of that future hope has social implications for the praxis of Christian ethics in the “here and now”.

Wright loves the big picture. Some say he pushes this too far in ways that the evidence does not support. But the story he tells is that Paul, the Synoptics, John and other New Testament authors all, in distinct ways, articulate a recognisably consistent eschatological hope in light of the story of Jesus Christ.

Wright summarises Paul this way

“The belief in a now and not yet inaugurated kingdom through the exaltation of the human being Jesus, Israel’s messiah, was not then a piece of clever apologetic invented in the late first century let alone the mid-twentieth century. It was part of the earliest apostolic gospel itself.”[2]

And for the Gospels

“John has his own ways of saying the same thing, but it is the same thing [as the Synoptics]. The gospels do not contain apocalyptic; in the first century sense they are apocalyptic. They are describing how the revelation, the unveiling, the visible coming of God took place.”[3]

God has disrupted the world in Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension to become reigning Lord.

A new revelation (apokalypsis) has unfolded. Reality will never be the same again.

The victory of God has been won, the long promised Spirit has been poured out, we live now in the overlap of the ages, the present evil age is passing away, the new age has dawned, flesh against Spirit, Spirit against the powers, God versus his enemies – all until the final consummation of the Kingdom when God will be all in all.  

This is how the NT sees things.

And it means that the Christian life within the community of the people of God, is eschatological through and through.

We live in an age of sin and death that is under the power of spiritual powers opposed to God and his kingdom. Unless Christians grasp this, and face the darkness head on, they will be ill-equipped for the battle.

Christmassy sentimental religious feel-goodism just does not cut it. The world is too broken. Injustice is too brutal. Sickness and suffering is too painful.

And this is where Fleming Rutledge comes in.

Few preachers have seen the challenge more clearly and how Advent is NOT primarily a time for preparing to celebrate the incarnation and birth of baby Jesus.

Rather it is a time to look into the heart of darkness with hope in the future coming of Jesus Christ as Lord and judge to overthrow Sin, Death and the Devil and establish his kingdom of light.

The next few posts this Advent will be in her company. You are welcome to join us.                                                                                                                                                   


[1] Wright, PFG, 1258-59. Emphasis original.

[2] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

[3] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

Eschatology and Advent (1)

Due to a couple of writing assignments I’ve been thinking and researching quite a bit about eschatology. The word comes from the Greek eschatos (‘last’) hence eschatology = theology of the last things.

This is the first of a few posts on the intersection of future hope and the Christian life in the present.

One reason for this series is as a form of preparation for Advent, so it will take us up to Christmas.

While concentration in most churches during Advent tends to be on the first coming of Jesus, Advent, like many OT prophecies, has a double focus on the present as well as the indeterminate future.

So Advent celebrates the First Coming as told in the Gospel narratives of the incarnation and birth of the Messiah AND the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the judge, king and risen Lord. As we will get to later, within church tradition going back centuries it is the second coming that is a major focus of Advent, not primarily the baby Jesus lying in a crib in Bethlehem.

So, let’s get going and see where we get to.

These aren’t going to be devotional posts. It is going to be a mixture of theological discussion of eschatology within New Testament studies along with exposition of some key Advent themes.

At the beginning we’ll engage a bit with my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies (SNTS) as well, later on, with Fleming Rutledge’s book of collected sermons Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

In the first few posts, we are going to sketch of the recent ‘fortune’ of eschatology within New Testaments studies and theology.

It’s fair to say that eschatology has made a major come-back since the mid-twentieth century, and this was in no small part due to the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann who famously said that ‘Christianity is eschatology’.

Eschatology’s Come Back

It’s worth putting that famous saying in fuller context. It comes from his Theology of Hope (1964), a revolutionary book within theology if ever there was one.

“From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.” (Theology of Hope (16)

Back when I was in theological college we did an entire term on Moltmann. Like a lot of things in life as you get older, looking back now I think I would get a lot more out of those classes now than I did at the time! Youth wasted on the young and all that …

He isn’t an easy writer to pin down, he talks in big picture abstractions and imagery that is often not clearly rooted exegetically, but he is often inspiring and here on eschatology he was dead right – take eschatology out of Christianity and there is virtually nothing recognisably Christian left in terms of NT belief.

The revolutionary impact of Moltmann is hard to imagine now over 50 years later. It needs to be set in context of social unrest of the time and in reaction against the long marginalisation of eschatology in New Testament study.

This relegation of eschatology was evident in classic liberalism, but also, I argue, was also present, if in a very different way, in critical responses to liberalism’s discomfort with Jesus the apocalyptic prophet of God’s kingdom come.

Classic Liberalism – the Wredestrasse

The trajectory of classic liberalism (eg Wilhelm Wrede, Albrecht Ritschl) was to marginalise eschatology – or perhaps more accurately, to reinterpret it only within the horizon of the present.

This has been called the Wredestrasse (a metaphor first used by T W Manson, taken up by Norman Perrin and then later by N T Wright) – a road directed into a very ‘this-worldly’ future. Christianity is reduced to being only about the present.

Albrecht Ritschl was the classic voice of a nineteenth-century German Lutheran liberalism in which the kingdom of God was typically an inward, spiritual, and already present reality, largely detached from contemporary Judaism and its apocalyptic eschatological hopes. Its motive was to demonstrate that the essential nature of Christian thought is focused on this world and current religious experience rather than some vague future realm. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.228)

Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer – the Schweitzerstrasse

Two men threw grenades and basically blew up the Wredestrasse – or at least left a crater in it the size of a truck. In probably the most famous book ever published in Jesus studies, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), Albert Schweitzer, closely following Johannes Weiss, called the bluff of liberalism.

Weiss followed an exegetical path that led him to believe in “the completely apocalyptic and eschatological character of Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom.” Similarly Schweitzer said that we may think we have Jesus neatly defined as “one of us”

“But He does not stay; He passes by our time and returns to his own.”[1]

For Schweitzer, Jesus’s entire life and thought are shaped by eschatological thought. But for both Weiss and Schweitzer, Jesus the apocalyptic prophet died a mistaken failure.

For Weiss:

Jesus’s task was to proclaim the imminent kingdom, not establish it. When the mission of the twelve failed to persuade many of the impending arrival of kingdom, Jesus decided to atone for the people’s guilt by his own death. He hoped to return, after death, in messianic glory, revealed at last to be the Danielic Son of Man at the coming of the kingdom. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.228)

Schweitzer saw it this way – Jesus’ apocalyptic mission led to

his heroic, yet doomed, attempt to force the hand of history through his own human agency. Schweitzer’s Jesus journeys to Jerusalem to die, giving his life as an atonement to facilitate the kingdom’s coming. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.229)

The irony was that for both Weiss and Schweitzer, their version of Jesus the failed apocalyptic prophet also marginalises eschatology: the eschaton did not arrive with the death of the Messiah. 

This meant that, despite Weiss and Schweitzer’s emphasis, eschatology was, in effect, “buried” with Jesus. For both men it was only a human Jesus who died on the cross. His actions are only significant in how they model courageous world-renouncing faith. Their view of Jesus resulted in a ‘present’ orientated ethical version of Christianity not very far from the liberalism they were criticising.

In the next post we will sketch how the Wredestrasse and Schweitzerstrasse continue to be followed right up to today. There are plenty of people travelling on both roads still … (Moltmann is solidly a Schweitzer guy in his reclaiming of the central place of eschatology in Christian theology – as N. T. Wright if in a very different way).

So, how about you? What place does eschatology have in your theology of hope? How does the future shape your life and priorities in the present? Which Strasse are you walking down?


[1] Schweitzer, Quest for the Historical Jesus, 397.

Musings on Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ – a modern day gnostic?

The new edition of VOX is out, with all sorts of news and stories from around Ireland.

In my musings column are some thoughts on Richard Rohr’s latest book The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See Hope and Believe.

A good way into Rohr’s thinking in his own words is through the accompanying website ‘The Universal Christ’

Someone asked me did I get up on the wrong side of the bed and deIcide to have a go at Rohr. Actually no, I started reading Rohr with an open mind. I hadn’t read him before although many people I know had. Several people had asked me what I thought of him given his huge popularity.

After reading him I think it is fair to say that he is a modern-day gnostic.

Rohr claims privledged knowledge. He does not say where it comes from, he just asserts all sorts of things without even attempting to defend or explain them.

Just read again the full title of the book – it takes some chutzpah to publish a title like that. Just ‘everything’ will be changed by the unique insight that Rohr along has access to and writes to tell us what he alone knows.

Sorry I just don’t buy such hubris. His claims about Jesus are quite fantastic and dualistic.

But scepticism towards Rohr’s claims is only a partial response. And so in the column there are some musings on what challenges his popularity raises for churches today. Here’s the content of the musings column:

Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ

Richard Rohr is a best-selling author and teacher. His latest book is The Universal Christ: how a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe (SPCK, 2019). This piece is not so much a book review as a flavour of Rohr’s beliefs[1] followed by some musings on his popularity.

Rohr says he represents an ‘alternative orthodoxy’ and his understanding of Jesus sure is alternative. The ‘forgotten reality’ – that Rohr uniquely seems to have access to – is that Jesus and Christ are not the same.

‘Christ’ is, for Rohr, not a ‘him’ at all, but a ‘universal principle of truth’. This means that everyone can experience Christ, who is a ‘cosmic, but deeply personal energy field, available to all – Jews, Greeks, and pagans’. So, according to Rohr, since it is Christ, not Jesus, who says ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6) this verse is not a call to belief in one person but ‘a mystery of Incarnation that can be experienced by all, and in a million different ways.’

Who, then, is Jesus? For Rohr he is the historical person from Galilee in whom God is seen to be personal and individual. Jesus is the ‘grounding wire that holds this huge force field of Christ onto the earth.’ We need Jesus to show us what love and forgiveness looks like, otherwise the Christian message is distorted to be ‘violent, exclusionary, segregationist, imperial and punitive.’

‘If Christ is like the kite, Jesus is the little boy flying the kite and keeping it from escaping away into invisibility … If Jesus is the little boy holding the kite string, Christ is the great banner in the sky, from whom all can draw life – even if they do not recognize the boy.’

That’s a taste of Rohr’s Universal Christ. If you are struggling to pin down what he means you are not alone. His arguments are little more than assertions and personal opinion. No serious biblical scholar would recognise his views of the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament. If a theology student was submitting The Universal Christ as a piece of academic research any reputable college would (or should) give it a fail. Ironically, for someone who champions inclusion, those that do not agree with his views are caricatured as being ‘primitive, exclusionary and fear-based’. In The Universal Christ sin is reduced to recognising that ‘I have never been separate from God nor can I be, except in my mind.’ The cross is reinterpreted as our ‘negative experiences’ and the gospel is psychologised as self-acceptance. There is little or no sense of the cost of discipleship. In other words, it is hard to read Rohr as a Christian author at all.

However, it would, I think, be too easy to dismiss Rohr as a false teacher telling people what their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). His massive popularity should make us ask what challenges does he pose to orthodox Christianity?

Rohr typifies the search to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ since organised religion is unspiritual and bad for your health. A challenge here is for churches to live up to their God-given calling to be Spirit-filled communities of love and justice.

Rohr effectively rejects themes like sin, repentance and forgiveness as negative and judgemental. A challenge here is for Christians joyfully to show that the gospel is good news that leads to a life of human flourishing – what we are for rather than what we are against.

In person and in word, Rohr displays a kindness, welcome, compassion and inclusion for everyone – yet at the cost of ignoring the power of sin within ourselves and our broken world. A challenge for the church today is to hold these two things together.

Rohr wants to make the Bible story simple, beautiful and attractive, yet at the cost of rewriting the script altogether. The challenge here is for Christians to know and communicate the Bible faithfully yet in ways that speak to people’s everyday lives.

And if Rohr’s success lies, at least in part, in how he taps into our culture’s obsession with self-acceptance and inclusion, a challenge for the church today is not to lose its nerve and continue to preach Jesus Christ crucified – however foolish that message may seem.

PS. An addendum. See this earlier post on Fleming Rutledge and gnosticism for her mention of Richard Rohr as a modern example.


[1] Sources used are from the book and material from the Universal Christ website http://universalchrist.cac.org/

The Message of Love (3)

This is the last of a couple of posts about The Message of Love, which was published this week.

A flavour of the chapters

Each chapter was a challenge and joy to research and write and gave a distinct contribution to an overall theology of love in the Bible.

Introduction

What is love? Contemporary beliefs about love. Reasons for the book.

Part I: Love in the Old Testament

Much of Part 1 explores divine love – God’s covenant love for his people. How does he respond to human failure? Divine love and judgement. Chapters 4 and 5 shift to human love: love for God (ch 4) and the Bible’s unrestrained poetic celebration of the joy of sexual love (ch 5).

1. Abounding in love, punishing the guilty               Exodus 34:6-7
2. God’s love for the outsider                                        Deut. 10:12-22
3. God, the betrayed, yet persistent lover                  Hosea 1-3
4. Love the Lord Your God                                             Deut.6:4-25
5. Erotic love                                                                     Song of Songs 4-5

Interlude

This sets the scene for interpreting love in the New Testament including the shift to agapē language.

Part 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ

Given that the sending of the Son is the climax of the triune God’s redemptive action in the world, Part 2 focuses on how the NT talks about Jesus’ mission, and particularly the cross as God’s supreme demonstration of love.

6. ‘You are my Son, whom I love’                                 Mark 1:1-15
7. God is love                                                                   1 John 4:7-10
8. Love and justification by faith                                Romans 5:1-11
9. God’s great love                                                          Ephesians 2:1-10

Part 3: Love in the Life and Teaching of Jesus

Jesus does not talk that much about love, but when he does his words carry enormous weight and profound challenge. Part 3 examines the searching demands of ‘discipleship love’ – utter commitment to Jesus; the command to love enemies; a beautiful story illustrating what wholehearted love for Jesus looks like; and how remaining in God’s love is linked to obedience.

10. The cost of love                                              Matthew 10:34-39
11. Enemy love                                                     Luke 6:27-36; 10:25-37
12. A woman’s great love                                   Luke 7:36-50
13. Remain in my love                                        John 15:9-17

Part 4: The Church as a Community of Love

Love only exists in relationship with others. The majority of love language in the Bible is about the church and its calling to be a community of radical, counter-cultural love. Part 4 unpacks the searching character and supreme importance of love; the connections between humility, faith, love and the Spirit; how love is God’s weapon in a spiritual war; and how Christian love within marriage subverts the world’s assumptions about status and power. A major theme in the Bible is idolatry – where God’s people love the wrong things. A final chapter looks at a modern example – the love of money and the relentless persuasive power of consumerism.  

14. The searing searchlight of love                          1 Cor. 12:31-13:13
15. The liberating power of love                             Galatians 5:1-23
16. Subversive love: Christian marriage               Ephesians 5:21-33
17. Love gone wrong: money                                   1 Timothy 6:2b-10

Conclusion

The conclusion is a synthesis of themes that emerged within the chapters, outlining a biblical theology of love and the central role of the church as a community of love within his overall redemptive purposes.

Theological, pastoral and missiological questions

Three strands of love and associated questions emerged during writing.

Divine love:

Is God really loving and utterly good? How can God love if he allows such suffering in the world? How is divine love compatible with divine judgement? Is God’s love unconditional? How does God show his love for the poor and marginalised? How is God’s love revealed at the cross?

Human love for God:

Can love be love if it is commanded? How do faith, love and the Spirit connect together? How can the love of money be ‘de-idolised’ within the church today? If love for God requires humility and submission, is Christian love a denial of life and our full humanity (Nietzsche)? How is love for God costly?

Human love for one another:

Why does the Bible overwhelmingly concentrate on love within the community of the people of God? Is loving enemies an impossible ideal? What does the Bible have to say about erotic sexual love? What is the relationship between knowing God and loving one another? What does a loving Christian marriage look like? How is love God’s most powerful ‘weapon’ in a conflict with powers opposed to his will? What is the relationship between love and future hope? Where are you being called to walk in the difficult yet life-transforming path of love?

My prayer is that this book will help to put love where it belongs – at the centre of Christian teaching, preaching, worship, ministry and individual experience.

On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight

As a teacher who also loves to write, now and then you come across a book that makes you wish you’d written it. It captures what you have been thinking and teaching about for a long time, only in a much better way than you could ever have hoped to articulate!

Mark Clavier’s On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight is such a book. It’s a gem. He is Residentiary Dean of Brecon Cathedral.

I got a copy out of curiosity since the description overlapped so much with themes covered in a course I teach called ‘Faith and Contemporary Culture’.

In the course we spend most of the time exploring the story, appeal (‘Rhetoric’) and pervasive power of consumerism to shape our identities and capture our hearts.

We consider how consumerism shapes contemporary Christianity at an individual and corporate level, and how, despite its ubiquity, it is rarely preached and talked about – almost like an invisible force shaping every aspect of our lives that we remain blind to.

The core of the course is the idea that consumerism is an issue not of the ‘head’ but of the heart, and it is the heart that truly shapes our ‘loves’ and our choices – how we live our lives day by day.

We spend time particularly with Augustine, the great Christian theologian of the heart, who saw more clearly than most, how it is the heart that is the seat of our identity.

We look at the teaching of Jesus on money and how Augustine’s focus on the heart is faithful to Jesus’ radical challenge around discipleship.

We bring in J K A Smith and his modern re-appropriation of Augustine and his argument that so much Christianity is rationalistic. Human beings are not ‘brains on a stick’ but lovers – we ‘believe’ through passionate commitments to stories that capture our hearts and imaginations.

An aside: It is my conviction that Christian discipleship should ultimately be framed around love. The baseline issue in being a Christian is what or who we love the most. And so any discussion or ‘programme’ of discipleship that does not focus on the heart is missing the point …

So, it has been a joy to read Clavier: he captures the dynamics of modern consumerism; he engages in depth with Augustine (the book series he is writing for is ‘Reading Augustine’); he links to J K A Smith; he brings in Stanley Hauerwas and he resists any easy ‘step by step guide’ to ‘how to beat consumerism’…

Another aside: In The Message of Love, published next month, I have a chapter on ‘Love Gone Wrong: Money’ – in which all of the above themes appear so you can see why I have found this book both helpful and significant.

So, after a rather long break from blogging – due in part to some globe trotting over the summer – this post is the first of a series on Clavier’s excellent book. More to come.

Christ is Risen!

Greetings this Easter Sunday, a day to celebrate the victory of God in Christ, the Risen Lord.

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddAfter our Lenten series, what could be more appropriate than some words from the marvellous writer and theologian, Fleming Rutledge on the theme of Christus Victor.

The Christus Victor theme in the New Testament … speaks with new force and relevance for today because it grants evil its due. The theme emphasizes the infernal intelligence, the annihilating force, the lethal fury of the demonic Powers. In the contemporary world we know too much of this kind of evil. Anyone following the news as the twenty-first century continues to unfold must know the feeling that our globe is inhabited by truly unbearable wickedness, and that this wickedness is out of control. (392)

It is in to this reality that Easter speaks – of the crucifixion and apparent defeat of good by evil, and of the Risen Lord, triumphant over Sin, death and the powers of evil.

Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus

… the Christian life does not go on as if the world had remained unchanged. The church is not a redeemed boat floating in an unredeemed sea. It is not as if the only thing that has changed is that our sins are forgiven and we, person by person, come to believe in Jesus. Rather, there has been a transfer of aeons, an exchange of one kosmos for another. The Powers and the principalities may not know it but their foundations have been undermined and cannot last. The creation itself has been and is being invaded by the new world, the age to come. (393, my emphasis)

Romans 8:20-21

20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (29) The wrath of God understood pastorally

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.

And, in a very big chapter, we are going to focus in on one issue that Rutledge discusses along the way – that of the wrath of God.

The wrath of God is linked to both the law court (we are guilty) and to the larger apocalyptic framework of his war against Sin and evil Powers.

It is impossible, I think, to take the Bible seriously and not face head-on the way that God’s wrath is integral to both Old and New Testaments.

Hundreds of texts could be referenced. Rutledge refers to Isaiah 13:11-13. One I find particularly sobering is Isaiah 63 – which reappears in revelation 19:13, this time referring to Jesus as the divine warrior whose robe is dipped in blood.

Why are your garments red,
like those of one treading the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone;
from the nations no one was with me.
I trampled them in my anger
and trod them down in my wrath;
their blood spattered my garments,
and I stained all my clothing.
It was for me the day of vengeance;
the year for me to redeem had come.
I looked, but there was no one to help,
I was appalled that no one gave support;
so my own arm achieved salvation for me,
and my own wrath sustained me.
I trampled the nations in my anger;
in my wrath I made them drunk
and poured their blood on the ground.”

Revelation 19:11-16

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

king of kings and lord of lords.

This is a long way from ‘Jesus meek and mild’.

Rutledge acknowledges that such texts have all but disappeared from mainline USA churches but argues that

“It takes effort and risk to sit with these verses in order to study or teach them, but if we do not, we are left with sentimentality instead of transformation.” (322)

If creation is to be set to rights this means there must be a day of reckoning,

“a conclusive judgment upon and rejection of all that threatens God’s eternal plan.’ (322)

This poses a challenge for preachers and teachers today not to give a distorted picture of the nature of God. His wrath

“is always exercised in the service of God’s good purposes. It is the unconditional love of God manifested against anything that would frustrate or destroy the designs of his love.” (323)

Consider Romans 5:8-10 – how do you read this text?

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Is it to be read chronologically? Namely:

  1. We were God’s enemies
  2. We needed to be saved from his wrath
  3. Now ‘justified by his blood’ we were reconciled
  4. God’s wrath has now been lifted.

Rutledge argues that this chronological view is a “misleading reading of the passage” (323). What do you make of her interpretation here?

“God did not change his mind about us on account of the cross or on any other account. He did not need to have his mind changed. He was never opposed to us. It is not his opposition to us but our opposition to him that had to be overcome, and the only way it could be overcome was from God’s side, by God’s initiative, from inside human flesh – the human flesh of his Son.” (323)

Rutledge is keen to avoid here any sense of ‘schizophrenia’ in God (if I may be so bold to use such an image). She does not say this, but close to the surface here is a concern with creating an impression that God has to overcome his wrath in himself by taking out that wrath on his Son.

Rather,

“The divine hostility, or wrath of God, has always been an aspect of his love. It is not separate from God’s love, it is not opposite to God’s love, it is not something in God that has to be overcome.” (323)

To which I say, Amen.