Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (17) The gravity of Sin

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 within chapter 4 on ‘The Gravity of Sin’ and, in particular, Rutledge’s discussion of what Sin actually is.

That ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15:3) is the core of the gospel.

But what is Sin? And why did Jesus have to die to somehow ‘deal’ with Sin?

This is a big chapter. Again, it’s worth repeating that these blogs only give a flavour of the book and do not do justice to Rutledge’s prose and argument. For that you need to go to the book itself – you could do a lot worse, it’s excellent.

Rutledge goes even higher in my estimation by bringing in Calvin and Hobbes:

Calvin and Hobbes Christmas

Rutledge sees 4 issues here: (180)

1) What’s Santa’s definition of good and bad (What’s God’s definition?)

2) How good to you have to be to qualify as good? (And who makes the determination?)

3) Maybe good is more than the absence of bad (which raises the issue of evil as the absence of good)

4) Such philosophical questions lead to worry which only a theological answer can resolve.

Sin is much more than failing to be as good as we might have been. Nor is Sin a comparison game – ‘at least I am not as bad as x’.

Sin is a power under which all of us are enslaved (Rom. 3:9; John 8:34). Only a greater power can liberate us. The Cross is that which liberates from Sin and Death.

Sin is responsible guilt for which atonement must be made. The Cross is sacrifice for sin.

Human solidarity in bondage to the power of Sin is one of the most important concepts for Christians to grasp. But it is not enough to say that we are in bondage to Sin. A result of that bondage is that we have become active, conscripted agents of Sin. (178-79)

So, Rutledge argues,

Unless we are to abandon the New Testament witness altogether, we much acknowledge that the overcoming of sin lies at the very heart of the meaning of the crucifixion’ (185)

A Cosmic Struggle

The story of the Bible then can be seen as

‘a cosmic struggle between the forces of Sin, evil, and Death … and the unconquerable purpose of God. (184-85)

This battle is seen in every book of the New Testament (see examples pp 186-90, with Paul in particular seeing Sin as a power that enslaves). It is framed in light of the story of Sin in the Genesis: the Fall as the story of how all humans are in a vast rebellion against God.

And, just when you think Rutledge can’t get any better, she brings in Bob Dylan – ‘You Gotta Serve Somebody’ – we all live under one dominion or another, the dominion of Sin or the dominion of Christ. (191)

Sin-Lite: Sin as bad deeds

We come back here to how a watery theology that attempts to speak of the gospel only in terms of God’s love or grace, without a robust account of Sin is, biblically and theologically speaking, incoherent.

It arises from a discomfort that to talk of Sin is somehow a ‘negative’ or ‘downbeat’ message. It cuts across American optimism but is far from confined to America.

But the Bible, and the OT in particular, gives serious attention to the ‘great weight’ of Sin. Rutledge comments that

‘Christian attempts to moderate or minimize it are anti-Hebraic.’ (191)

Another way the seriousness of Sin is minimised is by seeing it as some sort of catalogue of ‘bad deeds’. Rutledge comments on a humourous People magazine survey in which various actions were rated on a scale of badness – a ‘Sindex’.

Really bad Sins: murder, rape, child abuse.

Pretty bad: parking in a handicapped space; cutting someone off;

Not so bad: smoking, swearing, masturbation, copyright infringement, unmarried and living together.

Corporate sin was not mentioned.

Most telling for our purposes here, “Overall, readers said they committed about 4.64 sins per month.” We may laugh at this, but clearly, our sense of sin as specific actions is deeply ingrained. (194)

The Good PlaceWhich all brings to mind The Good Place – which is all about Sin and how to get a score good enough to get into heaven. I’ve watched and enjoyed all three series.

But while amusing – and The Good Place is very amusing – this trivializes the Bible’s realistic and weighty diagnosis of Sin.

Here’s scoring of ‘good deeds’ in The Good Place  just so you know what to focus on!

the-good-place-scoring

We will come back in the next post to how the Bible’s view of Sin confronts and contrasts to that of American sentimentality and superficial optimism about human nature.

 

Advertisements

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (14) Anselm reconsidered

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 begin a non-numbered ‘bridge chapter’ on Anselm. The bridge is between chapter 3 ‘The Question of Justice’ and chapter 4, ‘The Gravity of Sin’.

Why Anselm? Well because no-one in the history of Christian theology has been more influential and controversial when it comes to the atonement and understanding God’s justice. See his Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man? c. 1095-98).

How do you understand the cross? How does God ‘deal’ with sin? What is the ‘satisfaction’ theory of the atonement and why do many people not like it?

Rutledge sets out to defend Anselm’s ‘theory’ of ‘satisfaction’ from criticism that it is

juridical, feudal, rigid, absolutist, vengeful, sadistic, immoral and violent. (146)

Her argument in this chapter is that such reaction are

overly literal, unimaginative, tendentious and unsympathetic readings of Anselm. (146)

Her aim is to show that aspects of Anselm’s teaching about the atonement are still of ‘pivotal importance’ for thinking about the cross and justice today.

So what are some of the central elements of Anselm’s atonement theology? To summarise Rutledge’s summary:

  • Humanity’s relationship with God is ‘wholly ruined’
  • We are unable to restore what is owed to God because of sin and are therefore needy
  • If we do not wish to restore the relationship we are unjust

Rutledge draws parallels to the human condition: both neediness and injustice runs through each one of us. Anselm speaks of the universal human condition. Anselm again:

  • Restoration and happiness will not take place save by the payment of the debt incurred by sin.
  • ALL people face this predicament

Rutledge suggests that negative reactions to Anselm here are more to do with the ‘offence’ of being told you are either needy or unjust and require a debt to be paid.

Anselm’s arguments, Rutledge argues, resonate with our modern world in other ways. The offender remains in ‘debt’, but given the offence caused, mere payment of the debt will not bring restoration, something more is needed to repair the relationship satisfactorily with the one dishonoured.

So, as we agree today, it is not enough to ‘let bygones be bygones’ and to overlook justice. As Rutledge argued in the previous chapter, it is intolerable that wrong can be done with impunity. All around us are individuals and groups pursuing justice that in some way will ‘right a wrong’

Just today as I write this, in Northern Ireland, over 46 years after the event, a British soldier has been charged with murder during the mass shootings of civilians in the 1972 Bloody Sunday demonstrations in Derry. The families have spent their lives seeking some sort of transparency, some sort of truth and some sort of justice.

The desire for justice runs deep in us all.

If sin is not exposed, named, and renounced, then there has been no justice and God is dishonoured. (152-53)

So Rutledge affirms Anselm in his statement that

‘compassion [without atonement or ‘satisfaction’] on the part of God is wholly contrary to the divine justice, which allows nothing but punishment as the recompense for sin. Therefore, as God cannot be inconsistent with himself, his compassion is not of this nature. (Anselm 1.24, Rutledge, 153)

So love or compassion or forgiveness on its own is not enough – justice is needed. Without justice (sin being atoned for) there is only punishment for sin.

Many today are deeply uncomfortable with this idea of punishment.

Rutledge defends Anselm. He is no hellfire preacher, he writes with a pastor’s heart and is saddened by the human predicament. His theology is more ‘we reap what we sow’ – punishment is exile from relationship with God, a loss of happiness. And it is only God himself who can rescue us from our predicament because that his character is one to restore and renew.

So Rutledge contends, it is a caricature to see Anselm as obsessed with legal and forensic language that depersonalises God and makes atonement like a business transaction. But neither is it denied that Anselm’s imagery, scholastic language and metaphors are rather alien to the narrative flow of the Bible.

We return to another couple of objections to Anselm in the next post – is God compelled by necessity to atone for sin in order to restore his honour?

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (13) Rectification

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).

In this post we finish chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

Rutledge moves on in the final section of this chapter to discuss justice / righteousness.

You may be aware that these two very different English words come from the same Greek word group. Justify, justification, righteousness, just, justice, righteous are all derived from the same root in Greek

So justice and righteousness are effectively, in the NT, the same thing. But we do not read them that way in English. We tend to think of the ‘righteousness of God’ as his holiness often in contrast to our unrighteousness / unholiness (pre-conversion Luther)

But the crucial thing to grasp here is that God’s righteousness is best understood as a VERB not a noun. It refers to the power of God to make things right. He acts ‘rightly’ to ‘rightify’ we may say.

This is why Rutledge prefers ‘rectification’ instead of ‘justification’ – it better captures this sense of God putting things right.

So, what difference does this make? Well, two aspects of God’s righteousness are brought out

  1. God’s Righteousness as loving pursuit

Rutledge gives the example of Hosea 11 – Yahweh pursuing his Bride in order to restore their relationship. So we can think of God’s righteousness in more relational and restorative terms than that of the law court.

The righteousness of God is not a static, remorseless attribute against which human beings fling themselves in vain. Nor is it like that of a judge who dispenses impersonal justice according to some legal norm. (136)

  1. God’s righteousness as ‘aggressive action’

But the other side of God’s loving pursuit is what Rutledge calls his ‘aggressive action’ to restore righteousness. The example of Isaiah 1:24-27 is given, but Rutledge could have stayed in Hosea. It perfectly captures the double-sided nature of God’s righteousness. It tells the story of God’s astonishing love for his unfaithful people, but also contains more warnings of awful judgement than practically any other prophetic book.

Rutledge contends that even God’s judgement is restorative – the overriding goal is renewal and justice – and that means ‘smelting away impurities and the removal of alloy’ (137)

God’s Righteousness as apocalyptic intervention

Rutledge goes to lengths to make the point that by the end of the OT, this longing for justice – of restoration and renewal – had effectively come to a dead end. Post-exile Israel could only hope for divine intervention. Righteousness could only come from God, not from within

Justice and righteousness are not human possibilities. And this brings us to Jesus, the arrival of the Kingdom of God and his death on the cross.

In the final analysis, the crucifixion of Christ for the sin of the world reveals that it is not only the victims of oppression of injustice who are in need of God’s deliverance, but also the victimizers. (141)

… all are under the Power of Sin. In the sight of God, everyone is need of deliverance .. (142)

This means that God’s action at the cross is the unique and shocking place where loving pursuit and aggressive action against Sin come together.

Nothing else, no other method of execution, no other death, could achieve such justice.

The wrath of God, which plays such a large role in both Old and New Testaments, can be embraced because it comes wrapped in God’s mercy.

The wrath of God falls upon God himself, by God’s own choice, out of God’s own love.

God, in Christ on the cross has become one with those who are despised and outcast in the world. No other method of execution that the world has ever known could have established this so conclusively. (143)

In the next post we start an extra chapter sandwiched in between chapters 3 and 4 – a ‘bridge chapter’ on Anselm.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (10) justice and judgement

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).

In this post we begin chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The issue in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

To anticipate a possible objection:

All this talk of judgement and righteousness sounds like a heavy-duty abstract theological discussion – let’s just focus on more spiritually important things like loving one another.

To which I would say at least four things:

i. What could be better than some important theology?! My tongue is not in my cheek here. God himself seems to see fit to give his people plenty to profound theology to wrestle over in the Bible. When it comes to understanding justice and judgement, he has given the book of Romans let alone the whole Old Testament to his people. Dare we say, actually, can we have something else please?

ii. The hypothetical objection above also assumes a disconnect between theology and ‘real life’. Few things are more disheartening to a Bible teacher than this false antithesis. Everything a Christian does and thinks and says is ‘theological’. To say ‘theology’ is optional or for professionals only is to say God’s Word and God’s truth does not matter, we can figure things out ourselves thanks. It’s a form of passive arrogance, not a sign of ‘spirituality’.

iii. Disinterest in theological issues like justice and judgement is actually symptomatic of a faith that is becoming irrelevant, not staying relevant. It will be so shaped by the world and its beliefs and values, that it will have noting distinct to say to ‘real life’. Understanding justice and judgement takes us to the heartbeat of Christianity because it takes us to the cross.

iv. Few things are less ‘abstract’ or ‘theoretical’ than thinking Christianly about issues of justice and judgement.

Are you concerned about injustice?

Do you ask at times ‘Where you are God?

Are you concerned about the mess the world is in?’

How do you respond when someone treats you unfairly?

What do you get angry about when you listen to the news?

These are the sort of everyday issues that a theology of justice addresses.

OK, that mini-rant come introduction over, let’s get back to Rutledge and see where the conversation goes.

It starts off with an important reminder – those that suffer most from injustice are the ones least likely to be reading Rutledge’s book (or a theological blog for that matter).

It is the poor, the marginalised and least educated who suffer most from injustice and have least resources to do something about it. Therefore,

Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian (107)

How would you describe God? With what adjectives?  What lies at the ‘essence’ of God’s character?

Rutledge suggests this is how the average churchgoing American might answer.

he or she will almost certainly call God “loving”. God is also commonly described as compassionate, merciful, welcoming, accepting, and inclusive. Very few white Americans will volunteer that God is just. (107)

Yet the justice of God dominates the Old Testament. Rutledge unpacks this story in detail and we can only touch on it here.

As God is just – and ‘holy’ and ‘righteous’ are virtually synonyms for just – so Israel is to be a community of justice. Injustice is the powerful or rich exploiting the poor – in Israel there were to be no poor. Where injustice exists, so God’s judgment follows.

Justice on earth is a foretaste of the future Day of the Lord which will usher in a realm of perfect justice.

Take Psalm 146 – look for how realism about the temporary nature of human justice leads to a future-orientated hope in the perfect justice of God.

1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
2 I will praise the  Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the  Lord their God.
6 He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them –
he remains faithful for ever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
10 The Lord reigns for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.

And so the OT leads to the Messianic hopes of a coming kingdom of justice – we return to this in the next post.

Missional Justice (Reflection 5) Missionary

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

FRIDAY: The missionary and missional justice
READ – Galatians 2:9-10

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

Remembering the poor was a key strand of agreement between Paul and the other apostles. It was a defining mark of early Christianity. In an important book on Paul, New Testament scholar Bruce Longenecker has argued that that

“economic assistance of the poor was not sufficient in and of itself, nor was it exhaustive of the good news of Jesus; but neither was it supplemental or peripheral to that good news. Instead, falling within the essentials of the good news, care for the poor was thought by Paul to be a necessary hallmark of the corporate life of Jesus-followers …” (Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World. My emphasis).

Gal. 2:10 fits alongside Gal, 5:13-14 “serve one another in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

Paul ‘put his money where his mouth was’ by committing several years to organising the collection from among the Gentile churches for the poor in Jerusalem. We could even say that this task eventually cost him his life for it was in Jerusalem that he was arrested and sent to Rome.

RESPOND

Read Romans 15:23-33 about Paul’s desire to go to Rome with the contribution to the poor and his prayer request that he might be kept safe from unbelievers there. What does this tell you about his commitment to the poor within his ministry?

Read 2 Corinthians 8:1-15. Paul’s appeal for the giving to the poor is patterned on Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” How does this challenge you to ‘do justice’ with what God has blessed you with?

Missional Justice (Reflection 4) Messiah

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

THURSDAY: The Messiah and missional justice
READ – Luke 4:16-21

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

REFLECT
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

This is one of the most dramatic texts in the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of healing and authoritative teaching was fermenting ‘messianic mania’ – could this Galilean Rabbi actually be God’s promised Messiah, come at last to liberate Israel after hundreds of years of waiting? Standing in his home synagogue, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 and unambiguously claims to be the one they were waiting for. Like King David, the Messiah would be anointed and empowered by God for his task. What’s fascinating in this text is what form that task takes. It is the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed that he comes to liberate and restore. The king is inaugurating a kingdom of justice, open to all. Missional justice is central to the mission of the Messiah.

Yet, today it often seems that those who do pour out their lives in service to the poor are seen as admirable but exceptional. It is a fact that that within most churches in the West direct engagement with the poor and marginalised is itself a marginal activity. Why is this? Is it because we tend to individualise the gospel in terms of personal salvation and see missional justice as an ‘add on’ to the ‘core business’ of the Christian life?

RESPOND

The gospel (good news) in Luke 4 revolves around two things: (1) the identity of Jesus as God’s Spirit-anointed Messiah; (2) who will ‘proclaim good news to the poor.’

What God has joined together, let us not separate. We need to proclaim and demonstrate a holistic gospel, one which tells the good news of the Messiah and pursues justice in his name.

Missional Justice (Reflection 3) Means

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

WEDNESDAY: The means of missional justice – generous sharing

READ – Isaiah 58:6-7
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

This hard-hitting text is emphasising, in Old Testament imagery, that ‘faith without works is dead’. A religious practice like fasting is a waste of time if not accompanied by a life of justice. Doing justice in the Bible is treating people fairly; injustice is treating people unfairly, either exploiting them in some way or neglecting to help those powerless to help themselves. Here in Isaiah, injustice takes two forms: that which oppresses and imprisons people (probably something like unpayable debt that enslaves the debtor); or failing to meet basic physical needs of food, shelter and clothing. The comment about ‘your own flesh and blood’ refers to how, within a land gifted by God, Israel was to have ‘no poor among you’ (Deut 15:4). This radical commitment to each other within the people of God is reiterated again and again in the Old Testament (e.g. Micah 6:8 ‘And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’) and the New Testament (e.g. Matt 6:1-2; Acts 4:32-35; Gal 2:10; James 1:27 ff).

This means that a Christian’s identity is not to be that of capitalism’s self-made individual consumer who has no responsibility to anyone but himself, but that of a brother and a sister with practical obligations to those less well-off than ourselves since all we own is a gift from God.

RESPOND

How is God calling you to loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free?  Can you think of specific people and situations where you can make a difference through generous giving of your time and money?

Have you heard a sermon in the last 5 years about how the beliefs and values of capitalism collide head-on with a biblical vision of justice? If not, why might this be?

How can the church be an alternative community of justice in a capitalist culture that idolises power, money and success?

For further study see Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010). Excellent.