What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (1)

The B word. It didn’t even exist a short while ago and now apparently it’s one of the most spoken words in the English language. It’s pretty well impossible to get through a day without it intruding. And as we approach 31 October that cacophony will rise to a crescendo.

I haven’t said much on this blog about Brexit (in fact I haven’t had time to say much on this blog full stop). It’s not because I’ve got my head stuck in the sand and don’t follow the news (I do – rather too much probably, it is an addictive soap-opera-horror-show on both sides of the Atlantic).

The reality is that it is not obvious how to articulate a ‘Christian’ response to Brexit.

If you were to preach or teach about Brexit, what would you say?

Those that confidently pronounce judgement that leaving is a disaster or mock the stupidity of the entire Brexit fiasco sure have plenty of ammunition, but such responses don’t take us very far apart from maybe feeling better about ourselves. I freely confess that much of my response to the unfolding ‘debate’ in London and the catastrophic ‘leadership’ from the Conservative Party from Cameron, to May to Johnston is a gut reaction to an entitled, arrogant, destructive, narrow sort of English nationalism that, as an Irish observer, presses every one of my red buttons. But that isn’t a very good basis for a mature theological reflection! It is no good misusing the pulpit as a platform for one’s own political opinions and prejudices.

An alternative approach is to step back from partisan politics and issue general appeals for tolerance and civility in public life and particularly against whipping up fears for populist political ends. While important in our increasingly fragile political environment, there is nothing particularly Christian in this. Indeed, there is little distinctively Christian in most arguments I’ve heard from Christians and church leaders either for or against Brexit. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The debate revolves around complex issues of economics, national sovereignty, trade, immigration and law, untangling those is proving to be well-on-nigh-impossible practically, let alone theologically. Reasoned Christian responses to Brexit tend to revolve around analysis of such issues and therefore largely mirror reactions in the media and wider society.

A digression – I’m reminded here of this exchange in between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s, Through the Looking Glass (p. 364.) A key reason behind the fiasco is that over three years after the Referendum, no-one is still sure what the word ‘Brexit’ actually means. Different factions fill the word with whatever meaning that best suits their interests.


‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

A third response is to say nothing. Now I have some sympathy with church leaders who have not preached about Brexit (and I have not heard a sermon addressing Brexit – have you?). What do you say, for example, if your congregation in England or Northern Ireland is split down the middle just as the Conservative and Labour parties are?

But saying nothing is inadequate. Like it or not, Brexit has become a defining moment that will shape politics and society in the UK, Ireland and Europe for the foreseeable future. It requires theological engagement, so what follows is some ‘thinking out loud’ towards that goal.

The title of this post asks what is an Anabaptist view of Brexit. As I have often said on this blog over the years, I am an Anabaptist at heart. Researching, writing about and teaching the New Testament only continues to confirm those sympathies. So the next post will try to sketch some principles for thinking about Brexit through an Anabaptist lens.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


A day out in county Clare

Took a day trip to the county of Clare over the bank holiday weekend. Hadn’t been in ages. The weather was beautiful, as was the scenery … and the company good as well.


Dunguire Castle

The Burren


Poulnabrone Dolmen


Lehinch beach

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (40) Substitution the greatest act of love

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 (11) on The Substitution.

For Rutledge, the theme of substitution is an “underlying motif” which supports other themes.

It is best understood, not as a rationalistic scheme (like Hodge’s we discussed earlier), but within the overall biblical narrative.

[My Comments] This very much ties in with issues discussed much on this blog over the years – the scope of the gospel (euangelion) as the great good news about God’s fulfilled promise in Jesus the Messiah and King of Israel, come to bring liberation, forgiveness of sin, the kingdom of God and the gift of the Spirit.

This Jesus-centric gospel narrative is not to be equated with a formula of atonement-for-sin like Hodge’s.  It abstracts substitution into something close to a transactional formula that is all too easily detached from the biblical narrative.

It also risks making substitution narrowly individualistic. While atonement for sin through Jesus paying the price and taking our place IS profoundly personal for every believer, penal substitution happens within the wider story of God’s victory over Sin, Death and the Powers (Christus Victor).

But, having said this, penal substitution is a vital aspect of the atonement. Rutledge argues that it

is more closely linked with the virtually ubiquitous biblical teaching about God’s judgement upon Sin than any other motif, however much our culture may wish to avoid this unpleasant truth about itself. (534)

The powerful emotive image of the Son of God willingly dying ‘in our place’ and ‘for our sins’ tells us at least two things – and please feel welcome to add comments of your own …

First, that there is something profoundly and desperately broken about each one of us. I have never watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But, I am told, there is a scene where the director filmed his own hands hammering in the nails into those of Jesus. Rutledge calls this “the inclusive nature of human depravity”.

Not a popular doctrine today for sure.

Second, substitution must be understood from the perspective of the Trinity, as God in three-persons

“acting together, with one will, for one purpose – to deliver all of humanity from the curse of Sin and its not-so-secret weapon, the Law. Jesus, the representative substitute, not only shows us how human will can align itself with the will of God, but also makes it happen, in his own incarnate person; and then, in the greatest act of love that has ever taken place, he gives his own person back to us, crucified and raised from the dead, the firstfruits of all who belong to him.” (534)


Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (38) 14 objections to penal substitution

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 continue within chapter (11) on The Substitution and particularly Rutledge’s discussions and explanations of objections to the idea of penal substitution – that Jesus not only ‘took our place’ (substitution) at the cross, but also our punishment (penal) as well.

What thoughts or emotional reactions do you have to the cross as a place of penal substitution?

Objections to Penal Substitution

So, without further ado, here is a summary of objections that Rutledge identifies and discusses. An important point to note is that she has them in a a “more or less ascending order of importance” (489)

1) It Is ‘Crude’

This is a distaste for the ‘style’ of the doctrine as that which is rather ‘primitive’, probably believed by more the more credulous (and uneducated).

To which Rutledge simply says that, as argued in the chapter on ‘The Gravity of Sin’ and the ‘Godlessness’ of the cross, yes, the cross IS crude.

But is this objection also to the content of penal substitution? At times there is weight to this criticism if the cross is preached as a “crudely transactional idea of atonement” – as if God is weighing sin on the scales of justice, merits against demerits.

But ‘bad use does not take away right use’ (my comment)

2) It Keeps Bad Company

By this Rutledge means that the cross is often preached in unattractive and frankly unpleasant ways that appears to rejoice in the fate of the unredeemed. This is a particular form of ‘Calvinistic Temperament’ that is ‘overly focused’ on the penal aspect of the cross. (490)

3) It is Culturally Conditioned

Anselm is obsolete because of his context of feudalism; penal substitution is based in outdated notions of justice from the nineteenth century.

In other words, it may have once been a useful way to talk about the cross but we have ‘moved on’.

The subtext here is linked to 1) – it is crude and out of date. We are more sophisticated now and can leave behind ‘old’ ideas like penal substitution.

Another angle on this, is that penal substitution is a particularly Western idea – focused around ideas of sin, guilt, bondage, failure and judgement. Other cultures less familiar with these notions have little connections to penal substitution.

Or, now we live in a ‘sinless society’ in the West, the idea of penal substitution is of less and less relevance. [Rutledge does not reference Alan Mann’s book Atonement in a Sinless Society written in a UK context]

Yet, she argues, themes of sin and guilt are still all around us. She references Spiderman, Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness) … perhaps you can add your own examples here.

4) It views the Death as Detached from the Resurrection

Again, the cross can be preached this way, almost as an end in itself. But Christianity is an Easter faith, Christus Victor is never detached from crucifixion. The cross is a victory over the Powers of Sin and Death, the resurrection does not ‘cancel out’ the cross, it vindicates the victory of God won at the cross.

It was by ‘looking backwards’, in light of the resurrection, that the first disciples came to understand the cross, not as a terrible defeat, but a glorious act of God.

5) It is incoherent: an innocent person cannot take on the guilt of another

Rutledge is right to say that there is no logical way to understand the cross. It is beyond human comprehension. How does it ‘work’ that ‘God made him to be sin who knew no sin’? Or, as in Isaiah 53, that ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’

This is not to say that it is incoherent or nonsensical. The idea of substitution is simple to grasp, even if it inexplicable ‘how’ it ‘works’. There is mystery here and the work of Father, Son and Spirit that are beyond our grasp.

This same objection could be levelled at the OT sacrificial system. ‘How’ does sacrifice for sin ‘work’? It is not ‘logical’ and can’t be reduced to a purely rational transaction.

6) It glorifies suffering and encourages masochistic behaviour

Various feminist critiques of penal substitution argued that “glorifies passive suffering” and has had destructive impact on women over centuries. It was from these critiques that substitution interpretations of the cross were first called ‘divine child abuse’. (494)

Rutledge is unconvinced that substitutionary views of the cross can be blamed for maltreatment of women. She sees the main culprits as lying elsewhere that have been used to reinforce the idea that “the women’s lot is to endure without complaint” (494)

7) It is too ‘Theoretical’, Too Scholastic and Abstract

Does penal substitution (PS) give the impression that the cross was a logical necessity – as if God is ‘forced’ into the crucifixion by external logic rather than love?

Rutledge’s response is again, that poor presentations of substitution may give this impression but this does not invalidate the Bible’s narrative of substitution that has “unparalleled warmth” (496)

8) It depicts a vindictive God

Does the cross reveal a God unworthy of worship? One who demands the torturing of his own Son to death as satisfaction for his wrath?

In such a caricature, the rich theology of a Trinitarian act of salvation is erased. Rutledge again acknowledges that some presentations of PS can lead towards this unbiblical distortion.

Linking back to where we left off last time, Hodge and 19th Century Reformed scholasticism can all to easily end up in this territory.

9) It is essentially violent

Weaver nonviolent atonementMuch has been written about the cross and violence. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement is one significant example.

The key objection is that in some way the cross glorifies or supports violence. Rutledge lists some main sources of objections

  • Mennonite theologians
  • Feminist theologians
  • Those influence by René Girard
  1. The substitution motif gives a rationale, or encouragement for Christians to commit violence
  2. It links the very being of God with violence

Rutledge finds neither of these points convincing.

First Point: To use the violence of the cross somehow to justify violence has nothing to do with any atonement theory. It is a sacrilege – like the KKK using the cross to terrify or Constantine using it to sanctify war or Bosnian Serbs erecting crosses to mark their ‘victories’ over Muslim communities.

Such examples should make any true Christian weep for shame; but there is no rhyme or reason for assigning the blame to one or another model of the atonement. (500)

Second Point:  To repeat two central assertions of this book

  • The Son must never be detached from the Father or violation is done to the Trinitarian unity of God
  • The cross does not effect any change in God. The self-giving of the Son does not ‘change’ the Father’s mind from wrath to love.

God’s wrath is his action against all that stands against his good purposes.  The cross is his ultimate act of self-giving love. Thus

It seems perverse to argue that the theme of substitution assigns violence to the being of God. If the Son of God submits to a violent death by “the hands of sinners” (Matt. 26:45), how is that violence in the being of God? (500)

10) It is Morally Objectionable

To see the cross as morally objectionable depends on a prior assumption that the cross is punishment “inflicted by the Father as part of a transaction” (501).

It is not morally objectionable that there is penalty for sin within God’s economy.

11) It Does Not Develop Christian Character

Weaver (referenced earlier) argues that whereas Christus Victor calls believers to a battle against social injustice, penal substitution fosters passivity.

But this objection does not stand up to either historic or theological scrutiny. Historically, Reformed adherents of PS have been politically active. Theologically, there is no necessary impulse to social withdrawal.

Rather, the opposite can be argued

If one believes that the very essence of God is shown forth in the Son’s death on our behalf and in our place, then the logical outworking of this faith would be a style of living for others, even taking their place if necessary. (502)

12) It is Too Individualistic

Again, PS atonement can be preached and taught in narrowly individualistic ways. The corporate work of Christ can be turned into, what Johnny Cash called ‘My personal Jesus’ (my comment, not Rutledge’s!)

The manner in which the motif of substitution has been used to focus on the salvation of individuals one at a time, with a resulting neglect of the Christian community and its vocation, has been a major error. (503)

Again, Rutledge argues that individualism can hardly be pinned at the door of penal substitution – it has shaped much of Western culture in the last 100 years or so and is the lens by which many Americans view the world – and their redemption.

13) It is Controlled by an Emphasis on Punishment

The idea of a punitive God is often rejected out of hand today.

What does the word ‘punishment’ evoke in your imagination? An angry Father reaching for the rod or balling his fist?

Rutledge appeals for nuance: the theological concept of punishment needs to be detached from this emotive image of human anger. Divine punishment resists human evil; it does justice; it acts against those who destroy others with apparent impunity (literally meaning exemption from punishment).

Imagine a world where evil is done with impunity. Where victims have no redress.

We do not have to think too hard – examples abound. Rutledge again refers to American military action, this time the US Army’s Stryker Brigade in Afghanistan murdering civilians for fun (convictions were made in 2011).

If God is to exclude violence and injustice from his coming kingdom, something has to be done about violence and injustice and every other form of enmity that seek to thwart God’s purposes. These things are the manifestation of the reign of Sin and Death, and they cannot be overlooked or ignored – although many construals of salvation attempt to do so … It is the action of God to make right what is wrong, and that means some form of final rejection must take place. (505)

And so Rutledge concludes, that it is Jesus who

‘absorbs into himself the divine sentence against Sin and Death … in the tormented, crucified body of the Son, the entire universe of Sin and every kind of evil are concentrated and judged – not just forgiven, but definitively, finally, and permanently judged and separated from God and his creation.’ (505)

14) Forensic Imagery Excludes the New Testament Apocalyptic Viewpoint

Remember that the objections are in ascending order. For Rutledge, therefore, this is the principal objection to penal substitution.

Fair to say that this is very much her objection, unlike many of the others it does not find anything objectionable in penal substitution per se, but more in the way it has marginalised the apocalyptic ‘cosmic war’ with an active enemy.

The real problem is when PS becomes the dominant model for understanding the cross – as it has been within much evangelical history and theology and church life. In doing so, it has too easily lost touch with the narrative and imagery of the New Testament thought world.

What Rutledge says here challenges such a flattened-out and uni-dimensional understanding of the cross. It is also, I think, wonderfully written and is worth quoting at length – see what you think.

The problem arises when forensic imagery is given precedence over other imagery … When this happens, the single individual, with his solitary guilt looms over the conceptual landscape, leaving no space for the drama of the cosmic struggle in which the new, living organism called the body of Christ joins forces with the unseen heavenly host on the frontier where the doomed and dying old aeon meets God’s age to come. If the image of the law court is allowed to predominate … we can find ourselves mired in a world of “binary discourse” and “score-settling” that leads to many of the abuses cited above. (506)

And a pithily pointed comment with which she closes this discussion. If critics of penal substitution were friendly and constructive, they would be contending for reform of the way the doctrine is taught and preached.

But most represent wholesale rejection of the theme, therefore

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion: a good deal of the opposition to the substitution motif is rooted in an aversion to its fundamental recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgement on it. (506)

No punches pulled there.


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)

1000 Posts

1000The last post, WordPress tells me, was number 1000.

Phew. I don’t have time to do much pausing to reflect save a couple of thoughts.

I remember the blog being ‘born’ in Kevin and Claire Hargaden’s kitchen back in 2010.

The aims then, and still are now, are loosely these:

1) To write!

To put down ‘on paper’ thoughts about issues relating to Christianity, Christian theology, Christian ministry and mission. I learn by processing ideas in writing, and this is a place where those ideas are worked out.

Someone has said that if you want to be a writer then write a lot and read a lot. So one spin-off from this blog is that by writing a lot, often about what I am reading, has made me a better writer.

2) To enjoy it.

I’ve always said that if I stop enjoying blogging I’ll stop. And at times over the last 9 years I have pretty well stopped, but that scribbler’s itch returns (a Dr friend laughed when I told him that – he said it sounds like a nasty skin condition)! If it ever gets healed, I will stop for sure.

I can’t remember enjoying a series as much as the current one on the Cross – so thank you Fleming Rutledge for writing a marvellous book.

3) To do theology in an Irish context

I believe business people talk about things like KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and USPs (unique selling points). I know nothing very much of such things – but a passion behind this blog is that in a not very crowded market, it is, for all its faults and weaknesses, trying to think and reflect and apply theological ideas within the missional context of the Republic of Ireland.

All theology is contextual. That is why this blog has the name it has – I have never been too bothered to try to broaden its identity or reach a wider audience, but welcome that when it happens.

4) To be a civil place for dialogue, learning and a place to share ideas

I love exploring ideas, discussing with others, listening and debating. I love to teach and engage students in learning.

I think in any personality test I come out on the ‘Open’ end of the spectrum. In a context of increasing tribalism in wider culture, and where Christians can tend to retreat to their own communities, I hope this is a safe and hospitable place for discussion.

I am exactly the same as the vast majority of readers of this blog. For the few blogs that I read regularly, I very rarely comment. But I keep meeting people who say very kind things about the blog – how they found such and such helpful, how they used the series on Abortion in their church …

So, a gentle encouragement – if you find this blog helpful do throw in the odd comment. Not for me – I enjoy it regardless – but for other readers. I would love to see more of a community of discussion and learning together, particularly around ministry and mission in Ireland.

And if you have any suggestions for improvement, topics, developments and how to build more of a community of people discussing and thinking about theology in an Irish context do let me know ..




Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (34) Is evil part of God’s purposes?

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 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’

In this post we are going to look at Rutledge’s answers to two big theological questions concerning God and evil.

What do you say to someone who is suffering? What is your theology of where is God in the midst of human suffering?

Does the ‘argument from evil’ Disprove or Discredit God?

The popular ‘argument from evil’ posits that God is either not all-powerful or not good:

  • If God is both good and powerful, he would not permit evil
  • Therefore, he is either powerful and not good, or good but not powerful.

Or perhaps, God may have some good moral reason to permit evil but we do not have access to it.

But Rutledge comments, that despite much sophisticated philosophical debate about the problem of evil, most discussions are so abstract and rarefied that they offer little help to ordinary people facing the reality of evil in their own lives and experience.

Rutledge refers to the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. I remember in Ireland, as elsewhere around the globe, there was a blizzard of interviews, articles and letters asking ‘Where was God?’ and ‘How could God allow this?’ – with most (as I recall) concluding that belief in God is simply unintelligible and should be abandoned as a primitive, intellectually incoherent and self-deluding belief system.

Rutledge is indebted in her discussion to David Bentley Hart and his Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?

Two cataclysmic events in the modern period have made a lasting impact on this question

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: before it was possible to view natural disasters as within the providential working of God. Afterwards, nature tended to be seen as a morally neutral and inscrutable force.

The Holocaust: before it was (perhaps) possible to imagine that humanity was ‘improvable’ and fundamentally orientated towards the good – with the right education people would behave well. Afterwards, such Enlightenment optimism about humanity progress is dead – along with millions of Hitler’s victims.

Following Hart, Rutledge concludes that no rational and philosophical theodicy (explanation of God and evil) ‘works’

“… God cannot be discovered by human logic” (432)

The bigger question for the Christian is not whether evil ‘proves’ or ‘disproves’ God, the real question is around the goodness of God.

Is Evil Part of God’s Purpose?

This is controversial territory. Can sin and suffering somehow be justified by a ‘greater good’ that emerges from it? [Any good Harry Potter theologians will recognise this question that surrounds the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald]

Rutledge mentions some examples in the main text and footnotes. To give a flavour:

Alvin Plantinga

Suffering can have ‘salvific meaning’. While he works hard to avoid the idea that suffering is a ‘good thing’, for Rutledge

“his is a philosophical argument and therefore … theologically and pastorally useless and, indeed, positively harmful.”

His is an abstruse version of the ‘free-will defence’. You can’t say Rutledge is afraid to give an opinion – especially of one of the most influential Christian philosophers working today.

Popular Piety

‘Everything happens for a reason’. But this trivialises evil and its effects and diminishes the reality of suffering. Try saying this to people who have suffered / are suffering. There are some lives that you wonder ‘were they worth living?’

Rutledge gives examples, but I am sure you can think of many yourself. The fact is that evil is often horrific

‘and it is a form of deception to say otherwise.’

This is why Rutledge likes Hart – his book is pastoral in focus and he is angered at the insensitivity and lack of empathy often shown by those who have ‘explanations’ for evil. Rutledge quotes him here

“It is obscene to seek to mitigate the scandal of suffering by allowing hope to degenerate into banal confidence in ‘God’s great plan’ … such confidence all too easily blinds us to the spiritual universe of the New Testament … even if by economy God can bring good from evil; it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness; it has no ‘contribution’ to make.” (Hart, 69-70, 74, quoted 434).

The Sovereignty of God

Rutledge only comes at this in a footnote which is a bit surprising since it is a classical fault-line that still divides many Calvinists and Arminians.

Was Adam’s original sin ‘necessary’?

In other words, are we better off because of Adam’s sin? For Calvin, God’s absolute sovereignty will ensure his good purposes work out even in the face of sin. The difficulty is, however, that this

Seems to suggest that God’s original plan lacked something that was then supplied by the occurrence of Sin. (433, n.113).

Rutledge could say more here. Calvin acknowledged that ‘the decree is dreadful indeed, I confess’ that God foreordained the Fall and the subsequent introduction of sin into the world. [Calvin, Institutes, III.xxiii.7 (2:955) My emphasis].

For Arminians like Roger Olson, who has indefatigably written about this issue for years, such a classical Calvinist framework cannot escape the charge of making God the author of evil. [For a civil and high quality debate see Olson’s Against Calvinism and Michael Horton’s response, For Calvinism.]

A personal comment:

I think Calvin’s speculations here, driven by an utter theological commitment to divine sovereignty, were, and continue to be, deeply unfortunate. Driven by logic, rather than respecting the limits of biblical revelation, they go far beyond what the Bible itself says. In doing so, they do, I think, link God with sin in such a way that Calvinist theology has been in contortions ever since trying to square the circle that God is utterly good and also not the author of sin.

Way back at the start of this blog, we discussed Chris Wright’s wrestling with these questions – if you have time they are worth a read.

Theodicy as a dead end?

For Hart, and Rutledge agrees,

“the whole enterprise of theodicy is misbegotten. Philosophical ‘defenses’ flounder” (434)

There is no rational explanation. Certain truths must be held on to,

“Evil is in no way part of God’s good purpose”

“Evil is neither rationally or morally intelligible and must simply be loathed and resisted.”

Evil is “a prodigious negation that must be identified, denounced, and opposed wherever it occurs.  (434)

Do you find this both understandable and helpful? How might this feed into pastoral work? Preaching? Teaching? Having coffee with a friend who is dying?  

In the next post we continue within chapter 10 and this discussion of God, evil and the cross.