Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (15) the cross as cosmic child abuse?

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post is staying with Rutledge’s discussion of Anselm.

We come back to big questions

What happened at the cross?

What picture does the cross give us of God? Does the Son die on the cross to appease the wrath of a vindictive Father?

Anselm’s satisfaction ‘theory’ of the atonement has had many detractors. The term ‘child abuse’ for the Son’s suffering on the cross to appease the wrath of a vindictive Father did not originate with Steve Chalke, it has been around for some time.

Rutledge summarises how Anselm, and the view of the cross as a way of ‘satisfying’ God’s honour, has been seen as:

  • Legalistic
  • Depicting the ruthlessness of God
  • An overly mechanical view of the atonement
  • Where salvation is primarily a change in God’s attitude to humans not a transformation in believers themselves
  • A drama of an infinitely offended God against a humanity unable to satisfy the demands of his vindictive wrath

And to this we can add, what about the question of necessity – was God somehow ‘forced’ to atone for sin in order to restore his honour? And if so, does this reduce the cross to an act of almost legal obligation?

Yes, says Rutledge, Anselm’s language and reasoning is removed from the biblical narrative and thought world, but the content of his theology has often been unfairly dismissed as a result.

Rutledge defends Anselm, arguing that such objections are caricature. The ‘twist’ is that God is NOT under some external obligation which binds his actions. No, rather it is in his very nature to show grace.

The atonement, therefore, for Anselm is

…nothing mechanical; it means rather, that the story of our deliverance has an inner logic that brings joy to the believer. (156)

Similarly, in regards to ‘honour’, Anslem’s God is not some sort of feudal despot obsessed with his own honour and status. Rutledge has an interesting point here, if we use ‘righteousness’ instead of ‘honour’ we would do no violence to Anselm’s argument.

Again, rather than seeing static systems of honour and satisfaction in Anselm, he is much more concerned to communicate how God graciously acts to put right what is wrong. God does not need to defend his own honour.

‘God is not a tin-pot dictator obsessed with his privileges’ (157).

God’s honor is God’s righteousness, his holiness, his perfection – but it is also God’s love and freedom, which show themselves in the kenotic self-emptying of the Son. (157)

Since the weight of sin is so great, there is no possibility of atonement or satisfaction until that debt is paid – and there nothing in all universe that can do this besides God.

This is not somehow ‘Father against Son’, as Rutledge says the crucifixion ‘should never be interpreted as a deed done to an unsuspecting Son by his Father’ (161). Rather, the Son endures death freely and out of love for the salvation of all.

Who Gets Reconciled God or Us?

The last point on Anselm; a further critique is that he seems to make it sound as it if is God who is changed by the atonement and not us. God’s honour is satisfied and he is reconciled towards humanity.

But the Bible never talks of God being reconciled, it does talk of humanity being reconciled to God. So the key question is this

How can we talk about the wrath of God unless we conclude that somehow the sacrifice of Jesus caused the Father to change his mind? This indeed would cast the Father in a bad light. (163)

But Rutledge argues this is a caricature of Anselm. God’s attitude never alters. There is no change in God, he always wants salvation and reconciliation. It is fundamentally important that we grasp this – God is not capricious and needing to be appeased in order to behave in a nicer way. The cross reconciles us to God, not the other way around.

God’s judgement is enclosed in his love. (164)

This is the heart of Anselm, not caricatures that abound of him. Rutledge quotes David Bentley Hart on Anselm and then Anselm himself

“In the God-Man (Deus Homo), within human history, God’s justice and mercy are shown to be one thing, one action, life, and being … the righteousness that condemns is also the love that restores.” (Hart,  164)

“He freed us from our sins, and from his own wrath, and from hell, and from the power of the Devil, whom he came to vanquish for us, because we were unable to do it and he purchased for us the kingdom of heaven: and by doing all these things he manifested the greatness of his love for us.” (Anselm, 1.5, Rutledge, 164.)

Next, we begin chapter 4 on ‘The Gravity of Sin’


St Patrick’s Day 2019

What better way to spend St Patrick’s Day than this?

I suspect some alternative suggestions may come to mind!

27 IMG_
Mt Snowdon living up to its name



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 (5) The cross and gnosticism

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 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

A major section of this chapter is how, both historically and today, gnosticism is the ‘most pervasive and popular’ rival to Christianity, particularly in terms of the cross.

Now this might sound a peculiar thing to say – wasn’t gnosticism an ancient philosophy? You don’t tend to see any local congregations of gnostic churches dotted around our towns and cities today.

The Greek word gnosis means knowledge. Combine it with the idea of special spiritual knowledge being the path to ‘salvation’ and you are getting to the heart of gnosticism.

So far this may sound quite innocuous. After all didn’t Jesus gather the twelve around him and teach them in ways not available to outsiders? But the real problem is how this secret path of knowledge is open only to the select few who are wise enough to discern the way.

The teaching of Jesus in parables to the twelve prepares them for public proclamation of the kingdom to all.

‘Gnostics, in contrast, are mystery-mongers’ (46).

1 Corinthians is full of references to Paul combatting proto-gnostic ideas among the spiritually elite Corinthians. Wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnosis) are recurring words with the apostle often sarcastically asking ‘Do you not know?’ Are you not wise? In other words, he keeps puncturing their balloon of spiritual self-regard, reminding them that they are not wise, powerful, rich or influential but God has chosen them regardless out of his grace and love.

It is no accident that his theology of the body (1 Cor 12) elevates the ‘inferior’ parts that hidden in shame to be of equal status and importance with the visible and impressive parts of the body – this is anti-gnostic theology. As of course so is John’s great statement ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14).

Rutledge’s argument then, is that gnosticism is a form of spiritual hierarchy that puts human wisdom, knowledge and experience at the centre of revelation and the path to enlightenment. It blurs the distinction between God and humanity. By minimising God’s transcendence and our transient mortality, gnosticism elevates humanity to the realm of the divine – all of us, potentially or actually are God’s children and can reach enlightenment.

This is a lot ‘more appealing than orthodox Christianity’s teaching that God is the creator and we are his creatures, made in God’s image but not God’s substance.’ (50).

Rutledge has a swipe at Richard Rohr in passing (footnote) who uses typical gnostic language in talking of the ‘deeper wisdom teaching’ of Jesus that is the ‘goal of religion’ that helps those on a ‘serious spiritual journey’ towards ‘contemplative seeing’.

A key symptom of gnostic theology then is stratification: where an elite few exist within an inner circle of those ‘in the know’.

What forms of elitism come to mind within contemporary Christianity in your experience? Where have you been made to feel inferior because you did not ‘measure up’ to the knowledge or experience of others?

Rutledge identifies the modern appeal of gnosticism here:

Much of it is in tune with today’s American attitudes. It seems to offer greater openness and flexibility to those who experience Christian orthodoxy as rigid … it is thought to be more welcoming to women, artists, freethinkers, and free spirits … It definitely seems more “spiritual,” and offers a selection of paths to follow … yet without restrictive dogma. For example, gnostic devaluation of the material world offers two views of our sexual nature, both of them conducive to a libertine way of life. Either the sexual act is thought to be immensely spiritual, offering access to the divine, or it is a matter of no importance one way of the other, since the flesh is unspiritual. Either way, the gnostic is free of sexual restrictions.  (51-52)

But the most serious incompatibility between gnosticism and Christianity is in the former’s optimism about human capacity for self-enlightenment.  Gnosticism says, in effect, we can save ourselves. Suffering and the cross are not only to be avoided, they are unnecessary.

Which raises questions:

Where and how do some modern forms of Christianity mirror gnosticism’s discomfort with suffering and the cross?

Where and how, to use another Bonhoeffer’s language, do some modern strands of Christianity represent a ‘cheap’ form of grace that refuses to pay the cost of discipleship?

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (4) theologia crucis

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 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

To be clear, I am not attempting to re-tell the author’s argument in every detail but am giving a sketch of the content of each chapter – probably two or three posts per chapter during Lent should just about bring us to the end of the book for Easter. Along the way I will try to make clear what are my comments and what are the author’s.

Chapter 1 makes an eloquent case for how the cross is the test of whether any Christian theology, or indeed any expression of Christianity, is authentically Christian or not. Without the cross at the centre there is a gaping empty hole.

Maintaining focus on the theologia crucis (theology of the cross) is extremely difficult, particularly in a Western culture of comfort and affirmation.

After reminding us of how all four gospels are structured around the cross as the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry, Rutledge concludes

The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance. (44)

What then is the relationship between the crucifixion and the resurrection? This is a key question for Rutledge.

Since the resurrection is God’s mighty transhistorical Yes to the historically crucified Son, we can assert that the crucifixion is the most important historical event that has ever happened. The resurrection, being a transhistorical event planted in history, does not cancel out the contradiction and shame of the cross in this present life; rather, the resurrection ratifies the cross as the way “until he comes”. (44).

A substantial part of this chapter then explores theologies which DO attempt to cancel out, side-line or bypass the crucifixion. Where the cross may not be so much denied, but it is not at the centre and the focus Christian life and experience is elsewhere.

Can you think of modern examples of such ‘cross-less Christianity-lite’ in your own experience? What would some symptoms of such a theology in preaching and worship?

Rutledge particularly focuses on Gnosticism – both ancient and modern as by far the most pervasive and popular rival to Christianity. We’ll come back to this in the next post.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (3)

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 still in the (substantial) Introduction.

Rutledge flags some questions that will keep reappearing in the book. Take Ephesians 5:2

walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But closer inspection raises some difficult questions and I wonder how you would answer them:

Why did Christ ‘give himself up for us’?

To whom was this voluntary offering made?

What did his sacrifice achieve?

The image of Jesus on the cross strongly suggests that he should not be there – he is an innocent man suffering a penalty for something he did not do – this seems clear.

But, Rutledge asks, does this necessarily lead us to believe that he was being punished on behalf of someone else? (8).

Why did Jesus need to be sacrificed at all?

Why is he being sacrificed ‘for us’?

And if an answer, as Ephesians 5:1-2 makes explicit, is that Jesus dies because he loves us, we are still left with a troubling question:

Why would it be necessary for God’s son to die in such a peculiarly horrible way in order to show us this greater love? (8)

The crucifixion is therefore an event that demands explanation – it is not obviously easy to interpret.

That it was shocking and scandalous is clear – what it means is less so.

The cross does not interpret itself. On its own it can become little more than a magic charm around someone’s neck. When detached from its biblical moorings it can become what Rutledge calls

‘a sign denoting allegiance to a cause that mocks the very One who died in that way – the cross of Constantine, the Crusaders and the Klu Klux Klan.’ (18).

The author’s passion then is to locate and interpret the cross within a biblical theology and ‘strengthen the nerve of preachers and teachers within the church’ in the process

These are most excellent goals that need to be at the heart of all good theology and theological training especially at a time when the preaching of the cross, Rutledge argues, is being pushed to the margins in American Christianity in its pursuit of ‘a more upbeat and triumphalist form of proclamation and practice’ in a culture obsessed with ‘consumption, sensation, and instant gratification’ (37).

What do you think here – does this marginalisation of the cross ring true for your experience of American Christianity – or wherever you are in the world?

Rutledge’s prayer is this – and it is beautifully articulated:

May this volume, an attempt to unfold some of the incomparable riches of Christ crucified, be a present source of strength and encouragement for those who seek to understand and receive the Lord’s gifts. May it serve the gospel of the One who suffered and died to deliver the cosmos from bondage to death, and to incorporate each and every one of us into this own full, true, and eternal humanity. (37)

Chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’ next.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (1)

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddDuring this season of lent this blog will focus on pretty well one thing – the cross of Christ.

We are going to do so by working our way through a magnificent book – The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge (a wonderful name). Published in 2015, it has rightly garnered rave reviews from all quarters of the Christian spectrum.

I can’t say that I have enjoyed reading a book as much as this one for a long long time. It is 659 pages long but a gripping read from start to finish.  Rutledge writs with verve, passion and scholarship in service of the Church. It is probably the most significant book on the cross since John Stott’s The Cross of Christ.

Rutledge is a retired American Episcopal priest and writes from within that context, but this is a book for the church as a whole. This is no pale liberal telling of the cross in abstract psychological or ‘spiritual’ terms, it is a robust theological tour de force designed to envision, challenge and inspire the church to recover the central place of the cross in preaching and the Christian life.

Here is a flavour to get us going

This devaluation of the preaching of the cross is, I believe, a serious deprivation for those who seek to follow Jesus … it is quite possible for a pastor to go through an entire year of Sundays and never once preach Christ crucified in any expansive way. The skandalon (offense) of the cross of which the apostle Paul spoke, and the serious and controversial issues surrounding the interpretation of the cross, have gone missing from the heart and center of our faith. This is a grave deprivation affecting not only evangelism but the shaping of the Christian life.

… It is the living significance of the death of Jesus, not the factual details concerning it as an historical event, that matters … the declaration of the apostle Paul that the word of the cross is the power of God for salvation (1 Cor. 1:18) is not a statement about a mere historical event. The preaching of the cross is an announcement of a living reality that continues to transform human existence and human destiny more than two thousand years after it originally occurred.

The cross reveals its meaning at it takes shape in the experience of believers. In the final analysis, then, this is a book written “from faith for faith”. (xvi-xvii)

… the signs of seemingly invincible evil are unusually pronounced around the world … anyone occupying a pulpit these days needs plenty of fortification. If our preaching does not intersect with the times, we are fleeing the call to take up the cross. (xiv)