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

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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 (36) Who Deserves What? Hell and final judgement

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

This is the final post within Chapter 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’

A reminder where the last post finished – we are moving to Rutledge’s fourth goal of this chapter, how the descent to the dead links to the scope of what the cross achieves.

In other words, the disturbing and challenging idea that the cross is for all, including the perpetrators of evil.

This is a difficult discussion but important. It raises pastoral and theological questions like:

What ultimately happens to those who are unrepentant and face divine judgement?

How does God’s just judgement bring solace and hope to victims?

What does hell say about the character and love of God? Are the two compatible?

Does the victory of God at the cross have implications for those are have already died unreconciled to God? If we are ALL alike “undeserving”, then does this mean all will be ultimately reconciled to God by God’s own saving actions?

Who Deserves What?

Rutledge tells the story of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the US Govt secret network of detention centres where suspects were detained without charge and tortured. Dick Cheney is quoted as saying of the plan

‘We think it guarantees that we’ll have [available and ready] the kind of treatment that we believe they deserve.’ (451, my emphasis)

A more chilling statement is hard to imagine. It also draws back a veil on the myth of American [and the West’s] moral superiority to the rest of the world, but I’d better not get side-tracked!

This is where Christians need to be, and should be, realistic rather than naively trusting of their government or nation. A terrific and important comment by Rutledge,

There is nothing more characteristic humanity than the universal tendency of one portion of that humanity to justify itself as deserving and some other portion as undeserving. Nothing is more foundation in Christian faith than the recognition that we can never be justified in that way. (451, my emphasis)

There is no division into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people in Christianity – all alike are undeserving.

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)

A robust theology of human sinfulness, and a passing acquaintance with history, knows that all of us are potential perpetrators of horrors. We have little reason to be naïve or to trust ourselves.

Returning to post 9/11 American behaviour, Rutledge talks of one CIA operative who tortured, with official sanction, victims. Prolonged sessions ate into his soul, he had nightmares, he lost something of his humanity.

[Harry Potter again: J K Rowling depicted this brilliantly with how Voldemort lost a piece of his soul every time he killed someone, eventually becoming virtually a non-being, snake-like not human].

Rutledge tells several stories of how brutality elicits more brutality; hatred multiplies hatred; dehumanising the Other leads to genocide and war crimes. Few were worse than the Allied forces dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So how can the gospel be good news “be good news not only for victims but also for perpetrators?” (453).

And how can this question be held alongside a sense of justice so that perpetrators and victims are NOT to be conflated as if both are victims?

My Comments: This is a favourite ploy of perpetrators of evil – “we are all victims” they say.

In Ireland we have had plenty of such conflations or ‘whataboutery’. When confronted with an indefensible act of violence that caused great suffering, the actor in that violence justifies the evil by replying ‘But what about action x of the ‘other side’?’. No repentance, no taking of responsibility and no apology means no ownership of evil and no reconciliation with the Other.

The Descent of the Righteous for the Unrighteous

This is difficult exegetical and theological terrain. Rutledge focuses on 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:3-6

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago …. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:3-6)

To simplify, her argument is that ‘the righteous for the unrighteous’ suggests some form of exchange. These are hard texts to understand but ‘this much seems clear’ …

Christ is the righteous one who “brings us to God” by dying “for sins once for all” on behalf of and in place of the unrighteous. (455, emphasis original)

The power of God is over the dominions of Sin and death – Christ descends for those who were disobedient.

In 1 Peter 4, she sees the disobedient dead being given resurrection by the life-giving Word. They are imprisoned and helpless, but the coming of Christ ‘makes them live “in the spirit like God”’ (456)

Thus, God brings light and life where there was darkness and death.

These are not the faithful, these are unregenerate who failed to repent “in the days of Noah” (457 emphasis original)

God can therefore create resurrection life from death even for the perpetrators of evil after their deaths.

My comments: many will have difficulty with how Rutledge seems to be arguing for a form of universalism here. It seems as if ‘hell’ will be emptied due the saving power of God? She does not discuss this, but gives the impression that this will happen regardless of the attitudes or actions of the perpetrators?

However, having said this, she later comments that “we cannot say” whether the Hitlers and the Pol Pots will be either redeemed or annihilated. The coherence of this discussion in uncharacteristically difficult to follow.

So what about hell?

This is the final question of this chapter. In brief, Rutledge has argued all along that we must take judgement and hell seriously.

Without a concept of hell, Christian faith is sentimental and evasive, unable to stand up to reality in this world. Without an unflinching grasp of the radical nature of evil, Christian faith would be little more than wishful thinking. (458)

Linked to the point above about the ‘harrowing of hell’ (emptying of hell by the saving action of God) I read Rutledge here as saying hell is a temporary dominion of death for its occupants.

She is ambivalent about calling hell a ‘place’ – she argues that

It is necessary to posit the existence of a metaphorical hell in order to acknowledge the reality and power of radical evil” (458)

So hell is not a ‘place’, it is a ‘concept’ or a ‘metaphor’. If so, it is difficult to see how this does not rather empty the force of her passionate rhetoric about justice, consequences for actions, and leaving judgement to God in this life? Is hell a ‘real’ experience for real people or not?

She asks

“What then is the final destiny of this realm?” (459)

Rutledge sees annihilation of evil as the final consequence of God’s complete victory over evil. Evil cannot continue to co-exist alongside the kingdom of God

It must be finally and completely obliterated and pass out of memory. (459)

This is close to what John Stott provisionally and hesitatingly suggested many years ago. In that day there will be only one Ruler, one King, One God – all that opposes him will be no more. Those opposed to God – the Powers, the Devil, and all in hell will cease to be in the final climatic victory of God.

In a footnote, like Stott, she discusses the imagery of Revelation concluding that 19:3 about the “smoke [from Babylon] goes up for ever and ever” could picture its annihilation not continuing existence. She acknowledges that Rev. 20:20 about the torment of the beast and false prophet going on “for ever and ever” is difficult, but could be rhetorical, making the point that evil will meet an appropriate fate “commensurate with all the horrors of human history.” (460, n. 188)

The ultimate victory of God, she concludes, will look like this,

“Death will have no more dominion” (cf Rom. 6:9). If evil is the absence of good, then the victory of our Lord and of his Christ will be the absence of evil, “for ever and ever.” (460)

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (31) Christus Victor

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’

In this post and the next one we are focusing on the victory of God in Christ at the cross.

This is perhaps the most important chapter in the book and this is therefore a longer than usual post. Hope you can bear with me!

How much does ‘battle’ and ‘conflict’ frame your understanding of the cross and the Christian life? Does this all sound a bit extreme? Why are we uncomfortable with these biblical themes today do you think?

Rutledge argues that the apocalyptic ‘war’ against God’s enemies is decisively won at the cross and this atonement theme embraces all others which represent, in different ways, aspects of that victory.

It was Gustav Aulén in 1931 who first coined the Latin phrase Christus Victor. His book is famous, although probably one of those people know about rather than have read.

Rutledge takes us on a quick recap of Aulén’s argument. She proposes that his definition is close to the apocalyptic perspective rearticulated recently by Beker and Martyn and Ziegler et al.

“The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory of Christ over the Powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death and the Devil … the victory of Christ creates a new situation bring their rule to an end and setting men free from their dominion.” (Aulén, quoted 361.)

Aulén’s argument was in part polemical; he saw victory rightly emphasised in the Fathers, eclipsed in the Middle Ages, partly recovered, particularly in Luther, and then effectively suppressed again.

Luther in WormsIn terms of Luther, it is his sharp awareness of the dramatic invasion of God’s power in and through the death and resurrection of Christ, that leads him to celebrate the decisive defeat of his enemies – sin, death and the curse. This is very close to apocalyptic in its focus on God’s supreme power, human inability, comprehensive victory and the incursion into human history of something decisively new.

Rutledge comments

This underscores the nature of the apocalyptic gospel as a drama encompassing all the other themes in various ways. (363)

Rutledge gives some examples of what we could call ‘battle scenes’ from the New Testament. These are everywhere.

A personal comment here

In the tradition I grew up in – middle of the road, softly Reformed, middle-class Irish Presbyterianism – generally has little place for drama. In this it probably echoes much evangelicalism. There are lots of strengths, I’m not ‘having a go’ here. But Aulén was right in how the mute button has been firmly pressed on the Bible’s apocalyptic framework.

There would be a book or two in this for someone I suspect – but Reformed theology’s main emphasis is on continuity, most obviously in covenant theology. The theology of infant baptism and its link to circumcision is another example. Its ‘heart’ is a reading of justification in forensic legal terms that tends to dominate understanding of ‘the gospel’ and interpret the cross primarily as effecting righteousness in the believer.

The work of the Spirit, within a new age that has broken into the ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4) tends to be subordinated and / or somewhat detached from the primary focus on justification.

And so it is perhaps other Christian movements like the Charismatic churches and Pentecostalism which are closer to the radical apocalyptic ‘feel’ of the spiritual conflict that pervades the New Testament.

Back to Rutledge and scenes from the apocalyptic battlefield

Romans 5-6

Paul’s thought is thoroughly eschatological. Try reading Romans afresh with an eye for just how much talk there is of ‘powers’ reigning – Sin, Death, the Law.

People are enslaved under them – they are almost personified in how they imprison people. Paul’s radical point is that BOTH Jews AND Gentiles alike are under their destructive power.  His shocking conclusion is that

The righteousness of God is made known apart from the law (Rom 3:21)

In Romans 5-6, the imagery is of the whole human race under the power of Sin and Death (in Adam). Sin reigns in death. Its ‘weapon’ is the Law – but the good news is that deliverance is possible.

‘Grace can reign through righteousness to eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5:20-21)

“Paul clearly envisions hostile, active Powers that must be dethroned to make room for the new Adam and the sphere of power that is ruled by the Spirit of righteousness and life.” (365)

This is a battle between two reigning powers. But they are unequal powers – look for how the gift of God in Christ is NOT like the trespass of Adam.

“… Death is a great power, but dikaiosyne (the righteousness of God) is an even greater Power – “all the more” so – and it is actively at work, in tandem with God’s grace, to overturn the rule of Sin and Death, recapturing the creation and inaugurating a new rule of righteousness and eternal life. This is what has happened in the cross and resurrection. (366)

Jesus is the risen Lord (kurios) – he rules over the new dominion of righteousness.

“To this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Kurios both of the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:9, quoted 367)

An Aside on N T Wright

In a footnote Rutledge strongly criticises N T Wright and his resistance to apocalyptic interpretations of Paul. First time I have heard Wright judged as lacking in imagination!

I do not wish to devalue Wright’s work and influence … However, he does not work in the dimension of imagination that has enabled apocalyptic theologians (whose work he greatly dislikes) to give us a vastly expanded understanding of the cosmic vision of Paul. (367, n. 43)

Other examples of the apocalyptic battlefield

This is a brief list

  • Slavery and Freedom – huge themes in Romans and Galatians
  • The Garden in Gethsemane – a classic example of an apocalyptic confrontation between Jesus and the forces of darkness. This is why it depicts such an intense struggle prior to the Messiah’s arrest, trial and execution.
  • Luke 21:12-19: “… some of you will be put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
  • 1 Peter 4:12-17: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you ..”
  • Col 2:13-15 “He disarmed the powers and principalities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in him.”
  • Heb 2:14-17: “… through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and deliver all those who through the fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage …”

The Powers

Whether modern rationalist and secularised Christians ‘see’ it or not, the New Testament is NOT simply a story about God and fallen humanity and how their broken relationship is restored. In the ‘middle’ of that relationship are the ‘Powers’

Ephesians 6:10-12: 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Romans 8:38: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[ neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Mark 5:9 – “Satan and his legions”

1 Cor 2:6-8: We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Paul names Satan ten times – usually in association with Sin, Death and the Law, or linked with principalities and powers – thrones, lords and other authorities.

Volf EandERutledge has sustained interaction here with one of the best theological books written in the last 50 years, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (1996).

[This book inspired me to pursue a PhD related to Christian identity and reconciliation in a context of violence and division (Northern Ireland). [You can buy the published version here for a mere snip of £160. Bargain !!]

Volf brilliantly saw how Jesus’ death was far more than a mere injustice of an innocent man being found guilty and experiencing horrible violence as a result. No, the cross is God’s invasion of enemy territory through non-violence.

It is, paradoxically, a powerful ‘weapon’ that leads to victory through suffering and self-giving death.

ALL of us are under the influence of the Powers, yet are loved by God. The powers are the real enemy to be overcome and destroyed so humans can be set free. This is why God’s wrath represents him beiing “actively engaged in warfare” (381).

Rutledge quotes Volf and with this we had better bring this post to an end.

Without an eschatological [apocalyptic] dimension, the talk of God’s wrath degenerates into a naïve and woefully inadequate ideology … Outside the world of wishful thinking, evildoers all too often thrive, and when they are overthrown, the victors are not much better than the defeated. God’s eschatological anger is the obverse of the impotence of God’s love … A ‘nice’ God is a figment of liberal imagination, a projection onto the sky of the inability to give up cherished illusions about goodness, freedom, and the rationality of social actors. (Volf, quoted 381)

It is because God is a God of judgement that we are to leave judgement to God and not engage in violent retribution ourselves. {For me this is one reason why support of the death penalty is not a Christian option]

In the next post we continue within chapter 9 and especially what it means to live today in light of the victory of God through Christ’s death on the cross.

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!

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (27) The Great Assize

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 sees us begin Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’. Or, in other words, the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

A question up front – what do you see broken in the world? In yourself? In human nature? How ‘fixable’ is the brokenness? And how can it be fixed?

This is a long, complex chapter which I found the hardest to read in the book. Rutledge weaves in multiple themes, but, in my opinion, the argument feels like they don’t quite form a coherent whole. A lot of disparate themes ideas are packed in.

The framework is something like this – and this is my take.

  1. Individuals are under a weight of judgement
  2. Human society is also under judgment
  3. ‘For all that is wrong in the world, a cosmic reckoning is required’ (312)
    1. This reaches its climax at the great and final judgement of God
    2. The death of Christ is inextricably connected to the law court and judgement.

      ‘In the judgement upon Christ, all judgements converge.’ (315)

  4. The Bible talks about this judgement in different ways
    1. Forensic (legal) judgement
    2. Apocalyptic judgement of the powers – Sin, death, the Devil
  5. Human unease with judgement – to get rid of judgement
  6. Pastoral implications of how judgement is understood
    1. The problems with a dominant forensic, legal understanding of judgement
    2. The good news of the wrath of God
  7. Justification / rectification – how God deals with sin
    1. The relationship of faith and justification
    2. The power of God to speak transforming words to the believer
  8. Reconciliation – where does it fit in?
    1. Reconciliation as struggle
    2. Reconciliation as eschatological gift
    3. Are we active or passive in reconciliation?

So you can see what I mean by complicated and long! There is overlap in this chapter with earlier themes (chapter 3 on judgement and chapter 4 on ‘Gravity of Sin’ especially). In a big book I think this chapter could have been edited down more.

Having said that, as throughout, there are gems on virtually every page.

In this post, we’re going to go back to points 1 and 2 – Rutledge’s argument that human individuals and human societies are under God’s judgement.

This is not a popular position to hold – especially outside the church but also within it.

Do we live in a ‘post-guilt’ culture? And, if we do, ‘images of Christ’s death addressed to this concern are of little use to us today’ (303). But Rutledge argues that

‘Sin and guilt are real whether we acknowledge it or not, because God is real.’ (304).

In an ‘age of anxiety’ people are

‘afraid that that they “won’t make the cut” or – here it gets more complicated – they worry that they will not be sufficiently inclusive of others … we are driven and riven by anxieties of various sorts.’ (305)

This is the human condition. Rutledge goes to Philip Roth, novelist and secular Jew, who says of his male characters that they are

“bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic engagements, consequential misjudgement, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying … men stunned by the life one is defenceless against.”

Cheerful fellow that Roth – wonder what he says about women!?

And if we reject that we are guilty or anxious, Rutledge proposes another trait of humanity that brings under judgement, we are obsessed with condemning others – regardless how much liberal societies educate populations about tolerance, society is riven by tribalism and groups protecting their own power.

And so Rutledge argues that such is the pervasive reach of sin in societies as well as in individuals, that

‘… it will help us to understand that the Great Assize is not just an event that transpires on the level of the individual. For the most part the Bible is thinking collectively, communally and, ultimately … cosmologically.’ The Powers that will be unmasked and sentenced by the Judge who is to come are the powers and principalities of this world, and finally Satan himself. (312)

In the next couple of posts on this chapter we will come back to some pastoral and practical implications of judgement and how it is understood today.