Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (11) forgiveness and justice

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 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).

If the OT ends with hopes of a coming kingdom of justice (Jer. 23:5; Isa. 9:6-7), the NT begins with dramatic announcements that that kingdom of justice has arrived.

First Mary: Luke 1:46-48a, 51b-53

The Messiah himself: Luke 4:16-21

Rutledge’s observation

God’s justice will involve a dramatic reversal, however, which will not necessarily be received as good news by those presently on top of the heap (reader, that means us). (113)

So God’s justice is a deeply disturbing idea – it challenges the status quo, it up-ends the powerful, rich and well-connected, it liberates the poor and oppressed.

And this means that the idea of justice can often be side-lined – it is just too threatening and difficult to face.

Justice and Forgiveness

Rutledge explores this neglect of justice in relationship to forgiveness.

Let me give an Irish example – I grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A school friend’s father was shot dead. A university lecturer and politician was executed outside our lecture room at College, another student was murdered as he waited to go into an exam. No one in ‘the North’ was untouched by violence, either directly or indirectly.

Decades later, after a long ‘Peace Process’, deep wounds remain, mainly, I think, because there has been huge political effort to reach a compromise settlement (The Good Friday Agreement, 1998) but little progress in facing the much harder questions of justice and forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, a political settlement was reached largely at the expense of justice and forgiveness. A pragmatic political process intentionally left justice and forgiveness to one side in the hope that an absence of violence (not genuine peace) would ‘normalise’ society to such a degree that it would become unimaginable for violence to be ‘justified’ in the future.

To a large degree this political approach has ‘worked’ – but in these days of Brexit and political instability, the return of violence is a very real possibility. Divisions are perhaps as deep as ever.

The ‘hole’ at the heart of the Northern Ireland ‘Peace’ Process is the failure to make progress on justice and forgiveness. This is not to say that major efforts were not made – they were. But (and some who were involved on the ground may want to correct me) deep hurts have not been healed.

There has been a lack of forgiveness and subsequent reconciliation because there is little sense of justice.

Rutledge warns against ‘easy’ or automatic forgiveness where a victim is asked, while a loved one’s body is barely in the grave, ‘Do you forgive?’. Authentic forgiveness is hard work, it is costly and difficult. It does not exist in isolation from justice, as if deep wrongs can just be swept away under the carpet.

What do you think of this statement?

Forgiveness in and of itself is not the essence of Christianity, though many believe it to be so. Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to justice if the Christian gospel is to be allowed its full scope. (115)

But what does ‘justice’ look like? Is it simply that the offenders pay for their crimes and end up behind bars for a proportionate length of time?

Here’s the thing – while such legal punishment for crimes may help, no legal system of law will ever bring about reconciliation of enemies. In the North, each side pursuing ‘justice’ on its own for past wrongs just perpetuates conflict.

So justice is essential, but it can also be a weapon against the other. So some deeper understanding of justice is needed than mere punishment for wrong.

Rutledge offers a clear-eyed assessment of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While it had many flaws – not least that people who did horrific violence to others benefitted from an amnesty – the profound achievement of the TRC was that Truth was publically spoken. Indeed, such truth would not have emerged without the ‘injustice’ of the amnesty.

Rutledge’s argument is that, however imperfect, the public acknowledgement of truth, compassion and lament for victims and public affirmation of their suffering is a form of justice in and of itself.

Rutledge quotes Michael Ignatieff

We recognise the past can’t be remade through punishment. Instead – since we know that memories will persist for a long time – we aim to acknowledge those memories [that] … something seriously evil happened to you. And the nation believes you. (120)

This sort of justice recognises something true and important

‘the impossibility of administering human justice that is proportionate to the offense.’ (121)

A Christian form of justice recognises this. Relentless pursuit of human justice will disappoint. As someone wisely said to me, in court you get the law, not justice.

Christian justice is not primarily interested in punishment but in new creation. In transforming situations of horror, not by denying that evil, but by acknowledging it while not continuing in the cycle of violence and hatred.

So then, what is the relationship between justice and forgiveness in Christian understanding?

We’ll come back to this in the next post.


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.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (9) the accursed death of Christ

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 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

We are into some serious theology here – serious both in terms of depth and also subject matter.

What is so refreshing about Rutledge is this seriousness – Christianity is a serious faith about big issues the answers to which will shape our lives.

Questions arising out of this post for me are these:

How seriously is a theology of the cross taught, talked about and understood in the church today do you think? Especially during Lent and climaxing at Easter? How seriously is theology taken in general do you think?

The final section of chapter 2 focuses on Galatians 3:10-14 along with two or three other texts which, take together, Rutledge argues represent ‘the accursed death of Christ’.

Galatians 3:10-14

  • Everyone is living under the power of God’s curse, because the Law (Torah) pronounces that curse on all lawbreakers
  • Rectification (which is Rutledge’s rendering of ‘justification’ – to be ‘set right’) by the Law is impossible since the Law does not give life, only faith can.
  • Only God can do the rectifying and has done so through his Son who took the full curse of the Law onto himself at the cross.
  • A Christian’s identity is not found in the observance of the Law but from the gift of the Spirit through faith in Christ. (99-100)

Rutledge comments on popular caricatures and misunderstandings here. To the objection that it would be a monstrous sort of Father who allows his Son to be abandoned and cursed on the cross, she rightly shapes a reply around the Trinity – Jesus takes the accursedness that is ours on himself by his own decree.

2 Corinthians 5:21

A second text Rutledge turns to is a famous one – probably the strongest text in the NT for some sort of imputation (exchange) of Christ’s righteousness to believers and our sin to him.

For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Much ink has been spilt over this verse. [N T Wright famously and controversially rejects imputation here and elsewhere in the NT, as if we are ‘given’ the righteousness of Christ].

Rutledge says no-one can say for sure what it means that Jesus is ‘made sin’. Wisely, things are framed around Sin with a capital ‘S’ – in Paul sin is a power that is in league with death, opposed to the good work of God. It is much more than merely ‘missing the mark’, but a hostile spiritual force that, in effect, uses the Law to condemn us to death.

Coming back to Galatians 3, Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 21:23 is in effect saying Jesus is condemned by the curse of the Law.

In his death, Paul declares, Jesus was giving himself over to the enemy – to Sin, to its ally the Law, and to its wage, Death (Rom. 6:23; 7:8-11). This was his warfare. That is one of the most important reasons – perhaps the most important – that Jesus was crucified, for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.  (102)

This is where Rutledge is so good, she gets beyond one-dimensional theologies of the cross to how, in Paul, it is a rich kaleidoscope of images and themes converging to form a complex, powerful and beautiful portrait of the love of God in Christ.

By one-dimensional, I mean reducing the cross down to a mere individual transaction – ‘my sin problem resolved’. Yes, the atonement includes this, but there is much more going on, particularly in terms of who the enemy is and the scope of the victory won.

Rutledge draws a creative and memorable parallel here: Jesus’ treatment under Rome is similar to humanity’s condition under Sin. Jesus is:

  • Condemned
  • Rendered helpless and powerless
  • Stripped of his humanity
  • Reduced to the status of a slave
  • Declared unfit to live and deserving of death

So, at one level Jesus takes the literal form of a slave on the cross, but ‘behind the scenes’ the cross is ‘an apocalyptic battlefield where the Lord of Hosts goes to war with the forces of the Enemy’. (103).  [Rutledge returns to the atonement as a battlefield in chapter 9 – Christus Victor].

This is what happened at the cross. The Son of God gave himself up to be enslaved by Sin, condemned by the Law, and subject to Death … Linking all these passages together then, we see that Jesus exchanged God for Godlessness …

… What we see happening on the cross is that Jesus, who dies the death of a slave, “was made to be sin”. Does this mean that Jesus become his own Enemy? It would seem so. Just as his own human body turned against him on the cross, smothering and killing him, so his human nature absorbed the curse of the Law, the sentence that deals death to the human being (Rom. 7:11). By making himself “to be sin”, he allied himself with us in our farthest extremity … Thus he entered our desperate condition. No wonder he cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (103)

In the next series of posts, we turn to chapter 3 and ‘The Question of Justice’.



Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (8) the Father turns his face away?

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 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

A question for today:  how do you imagine what happens at Jesus’ death between the Father and the Son? Does the ‘Father turn his face away’ from the Son on the cross?

We left off yesterday on how a theology of the cross confronts spiritualities of ‘success’ and ‘triumph’ and ‘glory’.

Rutledge quotes Thomas Smail, an excellent Pentecostal scholar, on the relationship between the Spirit and the cross.

A Spirit who could derogate from the glory of Christ crucified in order to promote a more dazzling glory of his own, who passes by the sufferings of Christ in order to offer us a share in a painless and costless triumph, is certainly not the Holy Spirit of the New Testament [who] glorifies, not himself, but Christ, and therefore his mission is to reveal the full glory of Calvary, and to bring us into possession of all the blessings that by his death Christ has won for us. (88)

The point Rutledge is drawing is the parallel between spiritualities of triumph and glory that have no place for sacrifice or suffering in Corinth and the church today.

The paradox of the cross is that Christ is numbered among the ‘low and despised’ (1 Cor. 1:28) – it is the ‘ungodliness’ of the incarnate Son in whom the power of God is displayed.

If a paradox is an event or claim that seems confusing or incoherent but is nevertheless true, then the cross is the most paradoxical event of all.

Jesus’ death is apparently the visible proof of the limitless power of Empire. No ‘hero’ is deserted by all his closest followers (Moltmann) – they knew all too well that it was evidence that God had abandoned their hoped-for Messiah.

The disciples could not have seen his humiliating and inglorious death as obedience to God, a vindication of his mission, or a heroic martyrdom. On the contrary, precisely because it was a crucifixion, they could have seen it only as the utter discrediting of his claims before man and God (89-90).

Rutledge gives some time to describing the process and physical torment of the cross but then acknowledges, having done so, that such details are best left aside – the NT writers simply do not include them and presumably want their reader to focus on something else.

What they (Matthew and Mark) do include is Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

No account of the cross can omit reflection on this most famous of Jesus’ sayings from the cross. For Rutledge, Jesus’ cry is important in

demonstrating the complete identification of Jesus with our compromised, indeed absurd, human condition … Jesus, in the moment on the cross, embodies in his own tormented struggle all the fruitlessness of human attempts to befriend the indifferent mocking silence of space – especially religious attempts. (97)

There is a footnote discussion of the very popular line of interpretation that goes into speculation about a fracture in the Trinitarian relationship between Father and Son (e.g., ‘The Father turned his face away’).

The Father – Son relationship is said to be ruptured by Jesus bearing our sin. Jesus and the Father experience this rupture for the first time, we may say, in the ‘history of God’.

I’ve never been too persuaded by this view – especially given that it is clearly going well beyond what is explicitly in the texts (Matthew and Mark include the cry of dereliction).

Rutledge asks the question ‘Was Jesus forsaken by God?’ and concurs with a commentator who suggests that Jesus faithfully prays to his Father, but he could no longer perceive his presence.

In other words, it is not that Father and Son are somehow separated from each other in Trinitarian terms or that the Father has ‘abandoned’ his Son on the cross not bearing to ‘look’ upon his Son who has become the sin-bearer, but in his physical pain, torment and suffering it was Jesus’ own perception that his Father had withdrawn from him.

It was his first and most dreadful experience of the ‘silence’ of God.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (7) the godlessness of the cross

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 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

Two questions upfront – and I wonder what answers you have to them if asked.

Why did Jesus have to die?

Why did Jesus have to die by crucifixion?

By ‘Godlessness’ Rutledge means that the cross is a scandal not in terms of Jesus’ death but the mode of his death – an obscene bloody execution. Why does Jesus, the Son of God, have to die this way?

Other martyrs are remembered for the fact of their deaths, but Jesus’ death is different – Rutledge argues that the ‘how’ of his death is of unique importance. The cross is a public execution carrying with it a stigma of shame, with which Jesus’ death is forever associated.

Rutledge refers to the cross as

‘by a long way the most irreligious symbol ever to find its way into the heart of faith.’ (75)

By this is meant that ‘religion’ is projected out of humanity’s wishes and desires – and no human being would ever have projected their hopes, needs and longings on to a crucified man.

So it is a profoundly important theological question to ask, not only ‘why did Jesus have to die?’ but ‘why the crucifixion?’

There is a particular ‘godforsakeness’, Rutledge argues, about the cross. In the ancient world it would have been a shameful embarrassment. Roman humanism would have found the cross aesthetically perverse, an unspeakable offense to good manners for respectable people to talk about it. (77).

Further discussion of the cross as shame and degradation follow.

original_400_600An aside of my own here. I recently finished Tombland, volume 7 in the wonderful Shardlake series by C J Sansom. One of the author’s many gifts is to bring Tudor England to life, in all its political and social complexity, but he especially brings out the day-to-day familiarity with sudden death within a hierarchical society shaped around the divine-right of kings. Those who fell foul of the powerful faced terrors of summary trial, torture and public execution, their heads and/or dismembered bodies often displayed on spikes for weeks afterwards.

There are strong parallels with the cross here – designed to degrade, humiliate and shame the victim and act as a warning not to challenge the might of Empire.

But Rutledge argues that Jesus’ death goes beyond any comparison. Its theological significance is tied up with shame and rejection and so we should ‘look unblinkingly at its appalling qualities.’ (79) Its intentional dehumanisation is utterly lacking in any redemptive quality.

This is reversal of ‘religion’ – the word ‘crucifixion’ carries with it a sense of particular horror, of ‘godlessness’.

It is also an utter reversal of expectations of what God’s promise of blessing to Israel would look like. This is a vital point to grasp. A Messiah who dies on a cross was utterly inconceivable to Jewish hopes of fulfilled promise. The idea that God works victory through shame, curse and death was as ‘irreligious’ then as it is today.

Master of the Cross c. 1250


The horror of crucifixion, Rutledge argues, cannot be communicated in sculptures, painting or film. This is a big claim. I remember walking around the Uffizi in Florence some years ago and lost count of the number of paintings of Jesus’ death – you were left wondering did these guys have nothing else to paint!?

If for centuries Christians have tried to capture the religious symbolism of the cross, Rutledge argues this is precisely the problem, the ghastly horror of the cross has been abstracted and distanced from real life.

Do you agree with this?

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, sure tried. Rutledge says it failed – the cross involves more than bloody violence (with which Gibson seems obsessed – my comment), at core it is about shame.

When we say that Jesus Christ took upon himself the sin of the world, it means quite specifically that he suffered the shame and the degradation that human beings have inflicted on one another and the he above all others had done nothing to merit. (84)

Next post, we continue within chapter 2 and return to how the cross confronts spiritualties of ‘success’ and ‘triumph’ and ‘glory’.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (6) cross and incarnation

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 are finishing chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

Marx said that religion was ‘the opiate of the people’ – a drug designed to keep reality, and the political task of reforming the world, at bay.

Along these lines, Rutledge refers to Feuerbach (‘theology is anthropology’ – ultimately it only tells us about ourselves) and Freud (religion is wishful thinking, developed to help make existence tolerable) (57).

If these thinkers are right and the goal of religion is to avoid suffering, then it is no wonder that the cross is repulsive and unnecessary to many people today.

And there are other ways the cross is rejected – Rutledge discusses these:

Islam: has no place for a crucified Christ in the Qur’an.

Buddhism: Rutledge refers to John Stott standing respectfully before a great statue of Buddha, legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, a ghost of a smile on his lips … and turning away contrasting in his mind the image of the crucified Son of God who laid aside his immunity to pain and suffering, embracing it out of love ‘for us’.

Here is the God who suffers.

Modern liberal theology – as exemplified in the Jesus Seminar

The ringing statements of the apostle Paul about the world-transforming significance of the cross/resurrection event are written off by these reconstructionists as theological accretions. Paul is construed as a mythmaker whose theological writings have no truthful relation to Jesus .. (59)

And Jesus himself is reimagined as well. None of the Jesus Seminar’s theories about Jesus ‘ascribe any transcendent significance to his crucifixion.’ (59)

In contrast to all of this, the Christian gospel proclaims the saving significance of the cross – a radical in-breaking of God into the world through the incarnation of his Son.

It is vital, the author argues, not to separate incarnation and crucifixion.

Incarnation without crucifixion will not do the job by itself. The cross can never be merely assumed but must always be interpreted and re-placed at the center. There is a centrifugal force at work in human nature; we want to spin out and away from the offense of the cross. (61)

Embracing the incarnation on its own leaves the world, and ourselves, unchanged. This is a form of ‘creation-only’ theology. But incarnation linked to crucifixion is powerful and speaks of Jesus as a real man who at the cross reveals the very heart of our loving and self-giving God. And so Rutledge can conclude

The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord. (63)

How does this encourage you in the midst of worry, illness or suffering? What hope does the crucified incarnate Lord give you in the face of your inevitable death?

And so the job of a preacher today is to hold up Christ crucified as God’s scandalous way of confronting and overcoming the powers of sin, the devil and death. Without a robust preaching of the cross, we will have Christianity-lite, a religion of smugness and self-satisfaction, at ease with ourselves and the world.

This is why, Rutledge argues, the cross must not be set over against the resurrection as if Easter Sunday is all celebration after the lament of Good Friday. This fosters a triumphalist theology where the cross is put behind us.

It is precisely this sort of triumphalist theology that Paul is so concerned to combat in 1 Corinthians. Easter is both cross and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is both cross and resurrection.

Rutledge’s point – an exclusively celebratory message in the Eucharist or at Easter Sunday promotes an unreal ‘already achieved immortality of the faithful’ (68). So we meet the Risen Lord at the Eucharist, ‘but the resurrection did not occur independently of the crucifixion’ (69) – and so believers have the task of ‘proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11:26).

The New Testament writers see no competition between the incarnation and the cross. Vigilance is needed by the church, however, to see that the ready appeal of the incarnation is not allowed to take over from the wrenching difficulties of preaching and living the offense (skandalon) of the crucifixion (70).

So what do you think it means in practice to live under the cross today? To participate in the death of Christ in light of his resurrection?

Where does contemporary Christianity tend to drift into an unreal triumphalism that, in unspoken ways, move the cross to the periphery of teaching, preaching and experience?

Next, we begin chapter 2 and ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’

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?