We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
We begin here Chapter 9, ‘The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor.
There are two big ideas present here: apocalyptic and the victory of God in Christ.
Both are important to get a grasp of. This post will concentrate on Rutledge’s discussion of apocalyptic and the next couple will then unpack the nature and scope of Christus Victor.
Rutledge’s discussion of apocalyptic is excellent. She is well aware that a title ‘Apocalyptic War’ raises problems:
‘Apocalyptic’ is not a well understood term. How would you say the term ‘apocalyptic’ is understood in popular culture today? Maybe images of cataclysmic end of the world events come to mind? We use the term ‘post-apocalyptic’ to talk of a post-nuclear war global wasteland scenario.
‘War’ raises echoes of Christian militarism that is at odds with the way of Jesus. The world may glorify military action, but Christianity does not.
There is a paradox in the battle imagery between God and his enemies (Satan, powers and principalities) – the battle is in an unseen realm. The ‘concrete’ military images are metaphors for a real spiritual conflict, they do not justify physical war.
The Greek word apokalypsis means “disclosure” or “unveiling” or “revelation” – behind the scenes is a battle, “waged not with worldly weapons but with the spiritual armour of God.” (349) (Eph. 6:11-17).
The key to getting a grip on apocalyptic is the idea of disruption, ‘newness’, or discontinuity. God is acting from another sphere of reality to do a new thing – this ‘invasion’ is a ‘revelation’ or apocalypse.
This is God’s work – it owes nothing to human action. And so the cross is very much an apocalyptic event. It is radically discontinuous, it is unexpected, shocking and creates a new reality.
My comments – Yes, the New Testament writers later interpret the cross, in light of the resurrection, through the lens of the OT, as fulfilling God’s plan of redemption and his promise to Abraham in particular. There is a grand biblical narrative that unfolds – ‘The Drama of Scripture’ as Bartholomew and Goheen put it. Unpacking this great narrative is N. T. Wright’s greatest contribution to NT studies.
But the cross is still an apocalyptic event. There is continuity, but this continuity is only ‘revealed’ afterwards.
The cross also reveals things previously unknown about God himself – he is ‘God crucified’ to use Moltmann’s term. It is in the cross that God himself is revealed more deeply and more ‘nakedly’ than ever before – in love, judgement and profound self-sacrificial love.
Back to Rutledge –
Here is the vital center of the Christian gospel, and it is accessible to anyone seeking to know Christ. The purpose of this chapter is to set forth the New Testament picture of the crucified and risen Lord at the head of his heavenly host, and thereby to hint at the confidence and hope that this perspective affords. (353)
Rutledge takes us on a quick tour of recent developments in NT studies and particularly the ‘rediscovery’ of apocalyptic as a way of understanding the radical newness of the New Testament.
Another aside – I have recently written a chapter related to this on ‘Eschatology’ for the second edition of The Face of New Testament Studies, to be published this year, so am interested in Rutledge’s take on things here. There is a big debate going on about the place of apocalyptic in understanding the NT.
See for example this book just published by McKnight and Modica, Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives. They include Lutheran, New Perspective, Apocalyptic and Participationist.
As so often in academic debates (!) where people mark out distinctive theologies there can be needless dichotomies created between different ‘perspectives’. No ‘all or nothing’ approach works – there is much overlap between each.
There is a distinction between ‘apocalyptic’ and eschatology.
Eschatology (eschaton, ‘end’) is not just the study of ‘last things’ (as too often it has been relegated to be) but is a theological way of thinking about the way God’s kingdom inter-relates to the created order. The two overlap and one day will be unified
‘May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
‘Apocalyptic’ is more focused on the ‘invasion’ of God’s action in the world – a pervasive discontinuity with what has gone before. This is why N T Wright is cautious about apocalyptic being overstated – he sees it as over-emphasising the disconnections between OT and NT, whereas he has spent his career arguing for those narrative connections and against Christians reading the NT as it the OT was irrelevant!
Rutledge summarises the approaches of two scholars, J. C. Beker and J. Louis Martyn.
Beker is (rightly in my view) arguing against an individualising of Paul (much debate around apocalyptic revolves around Paul) that tends to domesticate the gospel to therapeutic healing of one person at a time. The ‘battlefield’ includes this but is on a much bigger cosmic scale.
Martyn’s themes are drawn together by Rutledge this way:
- The cross/resurrection is new thing (apocalypse), which calls into being a new reality
- There is discontinuity between OT and NT – law, Israel, Messiah etc are reinterpreted. The key idea here is there was NOT a nice tidy progressive narrative
“it was a dramatic rescue bid into which God has flung his entire self’ (Martyn, 355 Rutledge)
- God acts in the world from ‘outside’ –
‘The Christ event is … the invasion of this world by Another’ (356)
- The cross confronts hostile forces – is it God, humanity and the Powers. There is a war, there are enemies to be defeated.
- The scope of apocalyptic is ‘bifocal’ – it holds the tension between the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) and the age to come – of New Creation.
Other voices in this discussion include Philip Ziegler who since Rutledge’s book has published Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology.
The big theme of this focus on apocalyptic is how the cross/resurrection and gospel itself is no human philosophy or religious scheme of thought – it is, at heart, almighty God’s revelation of himself within his creation.
This is why, I argue, Paul so often talks of the gospel as a ‘mystery’ that has now been revealed. A mystery that absolutely no-one saw coming.
What are some pastoral implications do you think if God is absolutely ‘other’ and has chosen to reveal himself and win his victory over sin, death and the Devil in an utterly unexpected way?