Eschatology and Advent (7) Fleming Rutledge ‘Advent Begins in Darkness’

The vast hoards of readers of this blog will know that during Lent earlier this year, we read our way, one day at a time, through Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

I don’t do end of year lists, but I can say that it is easily the best book I read this year – in fact in quite a few years.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading her Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (2018). Of disappointment there has been none.

The introduction to thinking theologically about Advent is excellent. Most of the rest of the book consists of sermons preached over the last 30 or so years organised loosely into various themes. The next few posts in this series are going to give just a flavour.

So let’s get going.

What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

Rutledge quotes the Swiss pipe-smoker early on because his words encapsulate her overall argument – all Christians live in eschatological times between the ages. The kingdom of God has arrived, but we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

The world in which we live is riven by innumerable horrors – war, famine, disease, abuse, injustice, environmental destruction, ethnic cleansing, violence against women, industrial levels of abortion …

This is, in Joseph Conrad’s words, the heart of darkness. And Advent looks unflinchingly into that darkness and names it for what it is.

It does not do so nihilistically. Advent awaits a transformed world; it looks forward in hope to a future consummation of the kingdom because of the victory of God in Jesus Christ over Sin, Death and the Powers.

In this sense, the Christian faith has a threefold dynamic that Rutledge puts this way (p.7):

The past: God’s initiative towards the world in Christ (Christmas)

The future: God’s coming victory in Christ (second coming or Parousia, made present in the power of the Spirit at Pentecost)

The Present: a cruciform (cross-shaped) life of love for the world in the present time (Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week)

The surprising twist that she traces is that historically Advent is NOT orientated primarily towards preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Rather, it is primarily a time of reflection on, and preparation for, the second coming of Christ.

If you’ve followed this series, you can appreciate why focus on the second coming has been neglected in the church. In the modern period it was either dismissed as mistaken, mythological, symbolic or scientifically untenable. Rutledge tells the story of, as a young woman, being told we don’t believe that sort of thing nowadays.

If you are in a church community, how much is the second coming talked about? Is it preached on? If so, how? Or is it quietly ignored – with such silence speaking a thousand words?

Another way of putting this is, how honest is our theology in facing up to the darkness? What has Christianity to say to those suffering, to the sick, to the trafficked, the abused, the poor and those without hope?

What has our theology to say to those who use others for their own ends, who exploit, abuse, hate, kill and bully? To systemic evil? What do we say about final judgement and the reality of hell?

As we have seen in this series, Christianity is eschatology – is future hope. So what Barth means is that Advent describes living within the tension of the now and not yet while patiently awaiting a transformed future.

Rutledge puts it this way

… the Christian disciple finds his or her vocation precisely here: in the collision of the ages where the struggle of the Enemy against God continues, making space for the conquering love of God for the world. (16)

Advent requires the courage to name the darkness of the now and that judgement is something to be hoped for. (She’s good here noting how ‘justice’ is a popular word but ‘judgement’ is equated with ‘judgemental’ which is ‘bad’).  Yet God’s judgement is a putting all things right.

Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgement of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world. (22)

 Honesty requires that this truth is acknowledged and faced. Christianity is not sentimental or trivial – God in Christ has confronted the darkness of evil and death at the cross.

Faith and hope means trusting in God amidst the confusion, pain and transitoriness of life in the now. Much that happens in this world now is not God’s good intent. In fact he is waging a war against powers and principalities opposed to his good will.

All this has the flavour of apocalyptic theology – we’ll summarise how Rutledge defines this in the next post.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (4) towards a kingdom-centred approach to politics

If you have been reading these posts on an Anabaptist view of Brexit and might be thinking – cut to the chase, you’ve spent time pointing to shortcomings of other views, what is an Anabaptist kingdom-centred view?

So, in brief, here goes. And I am going to use John Nugent’s nuanced and well-made argument but not nearly do it justice …. I’d warmly recommend reading his book in full.

  • Christians are given no mandate in Scripture to make this world a better place
  • There is no ‘cultural commission’ for the church to reform fallen cultures and create new ones.
  • Within the biblical narrative, God’s people are never commissioned or given power and authority to manage or rule the world.
  • Within the OT and NT, human powers are given delegated authority by God to govern in a way that facilitates human flourishing. The great temptation and trap for the people of God is to become like the powers – to seek political power for themselves.
  • It is God alone who will, one day, step in and make this world a better place.
  • He does this in and through the incarnation, ministry and mission of his Son. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God, which is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, “the reign of God over his people on behalf of all creation.” (p.67)
  • The kingdom is God’s new world order. It is not entirely future, it has begun now. It is not ‘other-worldly’, it is this-worldly.
  • The kingdom has come, it is God’s gift. Citizens of the kingdom are followers of the King and Lord Jesus Christ. Members of kingdom have:
    • Entered in a new era in world history
    • Entered a new world / new creation within the old world
    • Entered new life
    • Entered a new social reality, a new community / new set of relationships
    • Entered a new way of life
    • Entered a new status / identity
    • Entered God’s abundant blessings
  • The people of God have a unique missional task – to be God’s better place in the world.
  • And a core way they are to do this is through LOVE.

Nugent is spot on the money here. As was highlighted for me in writing The Message of Love, there is just not very much at all in the Bible about love for the world or love for others outside the community of the people of God. We may find this surprising or awkward, but it is a fact. Nugent quotes Gerhard Lohfink

“In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament – it we abstract from Jesus’ saying about love of enemy – interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one’s brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else about the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.” (90)

In similar vein, after a survey of biblical material on poor and oppressed, widows and orphans etc, Nugent concludes this

“The disturbing bottom line is that, in the New Testament, love and service are reserved especially for fellow believers. This is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s not what I want my Bible to say. If God cares so much about this world, why doesn’t he give his people an important role in fixing it? Why teach us how to live properly in this world if God doesn’t want us to infiltrate its structures and wield our superior knowledge to get them on the right track? Why not help all people everywhere? Isn’t it selfish to dedicate our time, energy, and resources primarily to the church family?” (101)

The twist here, is that the mission and calling of the church is to be the church – to be a light to the nations, to be a community of love and justice for the world’s sake.

It is a calling to reflect the love and beauty of God

“Since loving one another is God’s plan, it must become our highest priority. No more embarrassment. No more second guessing. No more imitating worldly strategies for making this world a better place.” (102).

And this embodying of God’s kingdom – the better place – is to be accompanied by proclamation of the gospel. Words and deeds. Not via political power. Not by political lobbying. Not by imagining that we can change the world through access to the levers of power.

[An aside – a lot of American evangelical Christianity today desperately needs to hear and respond to this message. The word ‘evangelical’ has become debased because of its links to political power.]

The mission of the church is not to partner with the powers in order to make this world a better place. Lessons of church history (and Irish experience is a sobering reminder) show that the church not only loses focus on its God-given mission, but also becomes corrupted by power when it achieves it.    

Nugent wisely comments that all this likely is making readers feel uncomfortable and uneasy. What does all this mean in practice?

Should Christians have nothing to do with organisations which seek to help those in need?

Is it back to the old caricature of saving ‘souls’ and having little or no concern for people’s physical and social needs?

Is this retreat from society into a sectarian holy huddle? [I know some friends who have lived in Christian communities cut-off from the outside world and they have not tended to end well].

You may have guessed that the answer to these questions is ‘No’.

Since we started these reflections talking about Brexit, what then does a kingdom-centred view of political engagement look like? Since this post is long enough already, you’re welcome back to the next post for more discussion on this.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (3) problems with the world-centred view

Problems with the World-Centred View

In the last post we left off with John Nugent’s description of a ‘world-centred’ approach to Christian action and witness. It should sound familiar – it encompasses people like N T Wright (Surprised by Hope) and Richard Middleton (A New Heaven and a New Earth).

Jesus has inaugurated a new creation in which God’s people are called to participate as image bearers, acting to bring God’s future world into this present one wherever and whenever possible (Nugent, p. 13). We cannot redeem the world, but our action in the present will point to and be ‘folded into God’s ultimate global redemption.’ (p. 13).

And the church itself is to be a foretaste of that new creation.

This all sounds good and right does it not? What’s not to like?

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have unhesitatingly affirmed this world-centred framework. It avoids the undue optimism of the human-centred view (that humans can transform the world along the lines of God’s kingdom) or the anti-worldly and often dualistic theology of a heaven-centred theology.

However, researching and writing The Message of Love reinforced something that I had felt but not fully worked out – that there is remarkably little in the Bible about God’s people loving the world. And there is next to nothing about God’s people being called to transform the world.

But there is an overwhelming emphasis on the people of God living up to their calling to be a community of love and justice in the world.

It is this unique ecclesiological calling that tends to be blurred within the world-centred view. I use the word ‘blurred’ deliberately, because ‘loss of focus’ describes well what is going on.

The specific task and calling of the church to be the church is subtly widened to include making the world a place that better aligns with the kingdom of God. This happens when biblical commands aimed at the people of God are misinterpreted to become general endorsements to transform the world.

Nugent gives some examples:

  • OT prophetic denouncements of Israelite social injustices such as the rich exploiting the poor (Amos) is broadened into a mandate to denounce and fight against all injustices everywhere.
  • Mary’s Magnificat celebrating God’s rejection of the proud and powerful and choice of a humble peasant girl becomes an endorsement for political action to liberate the marginalised and oppressed in general.
  • Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community shifts to become a basis for political action to end global poverty (and we could add in Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ in Galatians 2:10 here).

Many more could be given but you see the pattern: the mission of the church, and Christians within it, becomes heavily invested in political activism. ‘Kingdom-work’ gets broadened to include all sorts of activity that loosely connects to themes of justice or social improvement.

Focus is lost on how, in both the OT and the NT, attention is on the integrity and communal life of the people of God. In the NT, it is the Spirit-formed body of Christ that is now being renewed and which represents God’s new-creation in the world.

Nugent puts it this way;

“… the world centered approach risks putting the cart before the horse. Even though the New Testament presumes and proclaims God’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of all things, it gives primacy to the new thing that has already begun among God’s people. What Christ has begun to do in the church is the core of what will be folded into his ultimate renovation of all things. The order of priority is first Christ, then his renewed people, and finally the redemption of our bodies and then of non-human creation.” (p. 18)

His conclusion is that

“God’s people are not responsible for making this world a better place. They are called to be the better place that Christ has already made and that the wider world will not be until Christ returns.” (p.20)

Quite radical implications follow

If political and social activism to make the world a better place becomes primary, then Nugent argues that this oversteps the church’s mission, eclipses part of the gospel and leads to neglect of believers’ true calling.

This challenges disciples to ask where are our energies, time and resources focused? Are they detached from the church into community and political activism?

Are all our energies and time and money invested in seeking to make the world a better place – whether in political lobbying, environmental protection, business development, social justice activism and so on?

Do we see ‘kingdom-work’ being engaged in any activity that is somehow making the world a better place?

And, returning to Brexit, are our emotions, worries, time and energies focused on the political drama unfolding in Westminster? If they are – what does this say about where we see real powers in the world at work? Are we obsessed with Brexit because we believe that human political power is where things are really at?

Rather than understanding that the future of the world lies elsewhere and that the nations are but a drop in the bucket to the one true God (Isaiah 40:15)

Again, this is not a call for pietistic retreat. It is not a heaven-centred ‘washing of hands’ concerning desperate needs within this broken world and a dualistic desire to ‘get out of here’.

What a kingdom-centred approach to life within the world is where we will go in the next post(s).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (2) Defining some terms

Picking up the discussion from the first post, if Brexit itself has meant all sorts of things to all sorts of people then what does Anabaptist mean?

For brevity, I’m going to refer to how some contemporary Anabaptists define themselves. The principles below are from the Anabaptist Network, a loose coalition of Anabaptist-minded Christians.

Anabaptist Mennonite Network Core Convictions


“Among the core convictions and commitments important to many of us are:

1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.

2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.

3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.

4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.

5. Churches are called to be committed communities for discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender, and baptism is for believers.

6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation and working for justice.

7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society and between nations.”

If you have read this blog over the years, you will see why I say I’m an Anabaptist at heart. It seems to me that these convictions are deeply, biblically right: Jesus-directed discipleship, kingdom-centred life, church as an alternative body politic to the state, a kingdom community that is wary of power, money and hierarchy, roles related to giftedness not gender, and a commitment to non-violence.

But how do such values work out in terms of engaging faith and politics? With Brexit as our case study.

Let’s drill down into kingdom / church and state a bit more in terms of answering our main question.

A way in to this is to using a recent book by John Nugent, Endangered Gospel: how fixing the world is killing the church. Nugent is an OT scholar (Politics of Yahweh) and also editor of the Yoder for Everyone series (although now personally discredited, Yoder was a giant of 20th century Anabaptism).

Nugent’s argument takes up central Anabaptist themes arguing for a kingdom-centred framework as opposed to what he calls heaven-centred, human-centred, or world-centred approaches to Christian life within the world.

These latter three need brief definition because what framework we use will profoundly shape our approach to faith and politics.  

It’s worth asking yourself which one most closely fits where you are at – whether you have worked that theological framework out consciously or whether it is more a case of instinctive feelings and gut assumptions. 

Heaven-centred

The main ethos here is rescuing people from the world. The church is a recruiting organisation, mission is about deliverance from the world and the Christian life is mainly about preparation for the future better-place of heaven. There is, consequently, little theological motive to get too involved in the world, and certainly not the fallen world of politics.

[Side comment here – this is what Anabaptism is often accused of, namely a pietistic spiritual withdrawal from the corrupt world into a community of holy pilgrims on the way to a better heavenly place. But such a charge is little more than caricature. I would argue that Anabaptism at its best is precisely the opposite – it is deeply engaged with the world, often at great cost (but we’ll come back to this in a moment).]

Human-Centered

Various political and religious views fit in here.

For example, atheists are often deeply concerned for world-betterment – after all this world is all there is so we’d better do our best to look after it. Since God is an illusion, we are the only hope of the world.

Climate change activism is obviously passionate about world-betterment – time is running out and humanity is its own (and the entire global ecosystem’s) worst enemy. Radical action is urgently required to save the world. Obviously there are many Christians involved in climate justice – as well as about protecting the natural world, it is an issue of justice for the poor. But the point I’m making is that within this view, the key to making the world a better place is human political action. 

Christians within this framework tend towards the view that the church’s job is to advance God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus has shown what radical social and economic justice looks like in practice, and the task of disciples today is to is to enact and apply Jesus’ kingdom-vision to contemporary social and political structures.

A critical theological move here is how Jesus’ focus on discipleship within the kingdom-community is widened out to become a blueprint for life within the world in general. This can lead, I suggest, to the elevation of the political – everything is political and the political is everything.

World-Centered:

There is a lot going for the world-centred view.

  • It rightly affirms God’s care for the world and his plan to redeem and renew it (not destroy it);
  • it sees how the trajectory of the Bible story is about the union of heaven and earth, not humanity’s escape from the world;
  • it is realistic to acknowledge that humans cannot bring about God’s kingdom come – only God can; it is shaped by a ‘now and not yet’ inaugurated kingdom theology where, since the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, God is now actively at work in the world making this world a better place in the present;
  • it emphasises that our role in the world is to work for justice – to be active in seeking to make this world a little bit more in line with the kingdom of God. God’s people are called to participate with him in kingdom work, as a foretaste of the future consummated kingdom to come.

All of this is persuasive and makes the world-centred view increasingly popular as a more compelling framework that the human or heaven-centred views.

But, Nugent argues, and I agree with him, that the world centred approach has a fatal weakness. And this is critically important in shaping a theology of faith and politics.

So in the next post, we will consider his criticisms of the world-centred approach and what his articulation of what a kingdom-centred theology of faith and political action looks like.

In a further post or two, we will discuss what a kingdom-centred Anabaptist theological framework looks like when it comes to Brexit.

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!