Eschatology and Advent (10) Fleming Rutledge on the good news of judgment

If you are a Christian, what are you waiting for?

Or, in other words, what is the content of Christian hope?

This is an advent question since the Christian faith is lived out in the overlap of the ages, awaiting the return of the King.

To make the question more specific, how is God’s judgment hopeful?

In her book of (mostly) sermons related to Advent preached over decades, Fleming Rutledge addresses this question from various angles.

One angle is how divine judgment is good news.

I’m referring mostly here to material from two sermons within a section of the book on ‘Justice and Final Judgment’. The sermons are ‘Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment‘ and ‘The Great But

Some key points she makes include (and this sort of summary does not attempt to capture the flow of a sermon which is dialogical, the text of a spoken address)

1. The judgment of God as good and necessary

‘Judgmental’ is a relatively new word, not appearing in the OED until the 20th century. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and a perjorative description of an intolerant person.

Rutledge comments that in the past judgment was a process of discernment leading to wisdom in assessing the value or truth of something.

The real theological problem here is that we have lost sight of the fact that an act of judgment may very well be an act of liberation (180)

… The coming of the Lord will be accompanied by the final judgment over all things – over the waste we have made of God’s creation by wars and greed and rapacity and cruelty and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the poor and needy whom God loves (180-81)

(My comments) We don’t have to look far back into 2019 to know what she is talking about.

If we struggle with the idea of judgment, we need to look into the heart of darkness – not to ignore those raped, abused, trafficked, used and discarded; not to close our eyes to injustice and exploitation, to those that deal in arms at the expense of millions globally. God will judge the destruction of his good creation and those he loves.

And as we look upon this broken world – our hearts should cry out for the justice of God to be done.

  1. Syria: 13.1 million people needing humanitarian aid. 6.7 displaced. 350,000 or so dead.
  2. Yemen Civil War. 22 million displaced. 230,000 dead. 380,000 cholera. 1.8 million children suffering malnutrition
  3. Royhinga ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military: 750,000 fled. Rape and murder, systematic destruction of a people with no place to call home.

It is these sorts of evils we need to look at in the face, especially if

we are unable to live with the thought of the judgment of God because we don’t want to allow it into our tidy concept of God as loving, forgiving, and accepting (175)

… in such circumstance, we can understand that the judgment of God upon all evil is good, right, and necessary, A culture of impunity is nothing less than hell. (175)

2. God will save us from judgment but he will not save us without judgment

But, if we are honest with ourselves for a minute, we know that we cannot stand before God’s judgment either. It’s too easy to see the manifest wrong others do and either naively or self-righteously exempt ourselves.

This is the ‘BUT’ Rutledge refers to. How are we going to survive such judgment? She refers to this Advent text from Isaiah 57:15-19

For this is what the high and exalted One says –
he who lives for ever, whose name is holy …

I will not accuse them for ever,
nor will I always be angry …
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their wilful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort ..

‘But I will heal them’ is the only source of hope for God’s people.

Hear also this advent text from 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5

for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

Judgement will come – but those in Christ are children not of darkness but of light. They have no fear of God’s final judgment because judgment has already been passed in Christ.

This is the reason for Christian hope – the saving love and compassion of God.

GOD WILL SAVE US FROM JUDGMENT, BUT HE WILL NOT SAVE US WITHOUT JUDGMENT (182)

3. Personal Judgment

And such judgment is more than a ‘not-guilty’ verdict. It is transformative. The Christian gospel is anything but naive about human nature. It is not as if Christians are somehow morally superior people who have ‘done good things and will therefore be rewarded’ (181)

Even our best efforts are like dirty rags (Isaiah 64:6). We need the judgment of God.

Rutledge is refreshingly honest here. There are not many leaders / preachers who speak as she does of a growing weariness of personality traits with which she (and therefore others) have struggled, even though she has worked hard at overcoming them. She looks forward to God’s refining and purifying judgment when all that is sinful and twisted will be ‘judged and gone forever’.

We rejoice to know that it is the Lord himself who will come to be our Judge. (184)

This reminds me of Eugene Peterson who said something along the lines that the gospel brings us to the end of ourselves. Self-obsession is a dead-end, it is in losing our lives that we find them; it is in repentance and humility that we come into the presence of God.

These themes are not popular today which is why Rutledge’s writing on Advent, and her book on the cross, are so important.

Do you think of the judgment of God as ‘good and necessary’? What causes you to cry out for justice to be done?

Do we have space in our ‘tidy’ theology of a loving God for a God who is also a fearsome judge?

What is it about your own life and character that you look forward to having purified and transformed by the judgment of God?

Eschatology and Advent (9) Fleming Rutledge: Advent sermons – a word to preachers

And so to a flavour of some of Fleming Rutledge’s Advent sermons – which are eschatological through and through.

But first, one more post on methodology. In the Introduction she has a word of advice to preachers who want to take the task of preaching seriously.

What do you think of these three points? What, for you, are the ingredients of effective and powerful preaching?

1. Always do serious exegesis of the text

The preacher’s job is to preach the Word. To do that there is no short-cut, the text must be studied, understood and engaged with at a serious level.

The great error that lies treacherously before us all, especially as we feel we are growing stale, is the temptation to lose sight of the text itself … never fail to do a searching exegesis before you begin. (p.26)

This is not to say sermons are to be ‘academic’, regurgitating different scholars’ views, but it is to say that the preacher needs to have wrestled with the text’s meaning and what it is saying – otherwise the sermon will be just a collection of the preacher’s thoughts and opinions. While these may, or may not be interesting, it is not preaching God’s Word.

A practical question that Rutledge does not address is the practical implications of this sort of commitment. If you preach, what sort of time are we talking about here to do serious exegesis in preparing a sermon?

If, say, it is 16 good study hours (for sake of argument) that’s two days’ work per week.

And if that’s the case, what implications are there for pastors and church leadership teams in terms of realistic workloads, priorities and administration that pastor/preachers are expected to do?

2. Take yourself out of the sermon

A sermon may lead people away from the Word of God

unless the preacher can get herself out of the way. That, too, was important advice I received: take yourself out if it! (p.26)

This reminds me of a comment by Stanley Hauerwas on preaching.

The issue here is focus is off the text and on to the preacher. I like to think of a preacher like a referee – if he/she does her job well no-one particularly notices the ref. The game is not about them. If the match becomes all about the ref, something has gone wrong.

3. Announce the promises of God’s gospel (rather than moral exhortation)

Rutledge is again right on the money with a third observation – God is the subject of the verb. A sermon isn’t all about us – as if God can’t get anything done until we help out. Rutledge has strong words here:

If a sermon is an exhortation to help out a ‘dreaming’ God build the kingdom, as if he couldn’t do it without our efforts, it’s not the gospel. (p.27)

For this reason Rutledge is wary of exhortatory sermons (‘Let us …’ or ‘If only we can grasp this’ or ‘we should be doing justice, feeding the poor, fighting racism, marching for climate change etc’). Here’s why

When sermons end that way, the hearers feel defeated and powerless, except of course the few who are already doing whatever it is, who can then feel superior. For that reason, hortatory sermons are divisive. (p.27)

What’s your experience here? How does some preaching make you feel defeated and powerless ? What sort of preaching uplifts and inspires you? What place is there for exhortation in preaching?

Instead, she argues, sermons should be messages announcing God’s hope and promise. This speaks good news to everyone and such a word liberates and empowers. Good preaching happens when

Every person in the congregation should feel that a promise has been made to him or her by the God who, unlike human beings, keeps his promises. (p. 27).

Amen. Preach it sister.

Eschatology and Advent (8): Fleming Rutledge and Apocalyptic Theology

Advent is a time of waiting, in hope, for a transformed future. The season of Advent makes dedicated space in the church calendar to reflect on the nature of the Christian faith as life lived in the eschatological tension between two ages – the old age that is passing away, the new age of the Spirit that has dawned with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

This eschatological framing of Christianity is a very long way away from the liberalism of Ritschl and Wrede, or the demythologised existential faith of Bultmann.

It sees the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God, the victory of cross and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit as apocalyptic events.

Apocalypse (apokalypsis) means ‘revelation’. Technically it refers to a particular type of literature (like the book of Revelation), full of dramatic symbolism, revealing divine realities in order to help readers (often facing persecution or suffering of some sort) to interpret their present circumstances and live accordingly.

But a broader understanding is used by many today, including Fleming Rutledge. When she uses ‘apocalyptic’ she is referring to a divine invasion into the present world order, a catalyst for something dramatically new that has happened in the here and now, so much so that nothing will ever be the same again.

[An aside: the ‘apocalyptic turn’ in NT theology is not uncontroversial. Building on work by J C Beker (1980) and J L Martyn, others like Beverly Gaventa, Philip Ziegler, Douglas Campbell, Martinus de Boer and others, have stressed themes of divine invasion, discontinuity with previous revelation, and a cosmic war with almost personified forces of Sin, Death, Flesh and the Powers. This emphasis on a great spiritual conflict behind the scenes has a very different feel to emphasis in much traditional Christianity on individual faith, divine grace and forgiveness of sin. It does not have to be a case of ‘either / or’ – though some theologians push in that direction].

In her Introduction Rutledge summarises the main components of apocalyptic theology (pp.18-21). All of them resonate with the fully eschatological character of the Christian faith that we have been talking about in this series.

These themes continually appear in her Advent sermons and are thus essential for the book as a whole. We will summarise them here and after this post we will simply look at a selection of her sermons in the lead up to Christmas.

A question first – do you think of Christianity as an ‘apocalyptic’ faith? Do you see your life, and the vocation of the people of God in the world, as being lived out within a cosmic battle behind the scenes between God and forces opposed to his good purposes?

Does this sort of language and imagery feel a bit ‘extreme’? Or do you find it truthful, making sense of the ‘heart of darkness’ which describes our world?

The Components of Apocalytpic Theology

1. God is the acting subject

The action of God is revealed in Jesus Christ (‘When the time had fully come’ Gal. 4:4). It is God who inaugurates his kingdom and takes on the forces of evil. It is God’s prophet John the Baptist who announces judgement. The active agent in history is God.

2. The Three Agencies

Liberal theology tends to elevate human experience and reason. God may or may not be an actual person. Apocalyptic theology begins with God, his enemy who has invaded the world, and human beings who are under his power.

3. Two Ages Overlapping with one another

The NT world is one of two ages, two powers in conflict with each other: Spirit versus Flesh; God versus the Devil; two kingdoms in battle; darkness versus light. (Rutledge has a passing swipe at language of ‘spiritual journey’ as if we face no opposition, just a journey towards maturity and wisdom).

4. Struggle and Conflict at the turn of the ages

The ages are in battle; believers are called to participate – to be non-violent soldiers in a spiritual conflict against this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and the Enemy and his powers.

5. The Apocalyptic Role of the Church

Christians do not fight alone. Called into community, the battle is corporate not isolated soldiers on their own. The task of the church is to be a bridgehead of the kingdom of God in the world (kosmos).

6. The Armour of Light

The ‘weapons’ of the Church are different to those of the world. Patience, love, kindness, forgiveness, prayer (see Eph 6)

7. The Stance toward the Enemy

Rutledge calls the Great Enemy “the personified power of Sin and Death” to whom all humans are in bondage. All of us are God’s enemies until the Gospel brings us over to his side (not by our own wisdom or efforts but by grace).

8. The Justification of the Ungodly

Everyone is ungodly – this is the great argument of Romans 1-4. Pagan Gentiles but also Jews are alike unrighteous. “None of us deserves God’s favor” (p.20). Hope depends utterly on God’s redeeming action.

9. The Future of God

The Christ-event has inaugurated the reign of God but it remains unfulfilled. “God’s future determines the present, rather than the other way round.” The present evil age is temporary.

10. Suffering and Hope

In the inbetween times Christians are to expect suffering, trials and tribulations. Apocalyptic literature is written to encourage believers in desperate circumstances. But the promises of God will have the last say at the return of Christ.

11. Apocalyptic Transvision

Christians need discernment to understand the battle they are in. The Spirit is given to the church as a sign of the age of come, empowering and equipping the church for life in the inbetween times.

12. Continuity and Discontinuity

Rutledge rightly acknowledges that this is the issue where most controversy exists around apocalyptic theology. Some so stress ‘invasion’ and newness that it seems to cut off the NT from the story of Israel (N T Wright is especially critical of some apocalyptic theology at this point). She argues discontinuity does NOT mean severance from the OT.

What it does mean is a rereading of the Old Testament in light of the first and second comings of Christ. It means that the hope of redemption and the advent of the age to come no longer seeks evidence of the promise of God from present circumstances, but only in terms of the promised future of God … This is the truly radical nature of the Advent promise, which sweeps away cheap comforts and superficial reassurances and, in the midst of the most world-overturning circumstances, still testifies that “Behold, I am coming soon! … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end! (Rev. 22:12, 13) (p.21).

What, I wonder are your present circumstances this Advent? Perhaps they are, humanly speaking, practically devoid of hope. Perhaps you find little to rejoice about this Christmas. Or perhaps you feel overwhelmed by the scale of bad news and prophecies of doom in your newsfeed.

It is precisely into such darkness that Advent speaks hope.

Eschatology and Advent (7) Fleming Rutledge ‘Advent Begins in Darkness’

The vast hoards of readers of this blog will know that during Lent earlier this year, we read our way, one day at a time, through Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

I don’t do end of year lists, but I can say that it is easily the best book I read this year – in fact in quite a few years.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading her Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (2018). Of disappointment there has been none.

The introduction to thinking theologically about Advent is excellent. Most of the rest of the book consists of sermons preached over the last 30 or so years organised loosely into various themes. The next few posts in this series are going to give just a flavour.

So let’s get going.

What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

Rutledge quotes the Swiss pipe-smoker early on because his words encapsulate her overall argument – all Christians live in eschatological times between the ages. The kingdom of God has arrived, but we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

The world in which we live is riven by innumerable horrors – war, famine, disease, abuse, injustice, environmental destruction, ethnic cleansing, violence against women, industrial levels of abortion …

This is, in Joseph Conrad’s words, the heart of darkness. And Advent looks unflinchingly into that darkness and names it for what it is.

It does not do so nihilistically. Advent awaits a transformed world; it looks forward in hope to a future consummation of the kingdom because of the victory of God in Jesus Christ over Sin, Death and the Powers.

In this sense, the Christian faith has a threefold dynamic that Rutledge puts this way (p.7):

The past: God’s initiative towards the world in Christ (Christmas)

The future: God’s coming victory in Christ (second coming or Parousia, made present in the power of the Spirit at Pentecost)

The Present: a cruciform (cross-shaped) life of love for the world in the present time (Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week)

The surprising twist that she traces is that historically Advent is NOT orientated primarily towards preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Rather, it is primarily a time of reflection on, and preparation for, the second coming of Christ.

If you’ve followed this series, you can appreciate why focus on the second coming has been neglected in the church. In the modern period it was either dismissed as mistaken, mythological, symbolic or scientifically untenable. Rutledge tells the story of, as a young woman, being told we don’t believe that sort of thing nowadays.

If you are in a church community, how much is the second coming talked about? Is it preached on? If so, how? Or is it quietly ignored – with such silence speaking a thousand words?

Another way of putting this is, how honest is our theology in facing up to the darkness? What has Christianity to say to those suffering, to the sick, to the trafficked, the abused, the poor and those without hope?

What has our theology to say to those who use others for their own ends, who exploit, abuse, hate, kill and bully? To systemic evil? What do we say about final judgement and the reality of hell?

As we have seen in this series, Christianity is eschatology – is future hope. So what Barth means is that Advent describes living within the tension of the now and not yet while patiently awaiting a transformed future.

Rutledge puts it this way

… the Christian disciple finds his or her vocation precisely here: in the collision of the ages where the struggle of the Enemy against God continues, making space for the conquering love of God for the world. (16)

Advent requires the courage to name the darkness of the now and that judgement is something to be hoped for. (She’s good here noting how ‘justice’ is a popular word but ‘judgement’ is equated with ‘judgemental’ which is ‘bad’).  Yet God’s judgement is a putting all things right.

Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgement of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world. (22)

 Honesty requires that this truth is acknowledged and faced. Christianity is not sentimental or trivial – God in Christ has confronted the darkness of evil and death at the cross.

Faith and hope means trusting in God amidst the confusion, pain and transitoriness of life in the now. Much that happens in this world now is not God’s good intent. In fact he is waging a war against powers and principalities opposed to his good will.

All this has the flavour of apocalyptic theology – we’ll summarise how Rutledge defines this in the next post.

Eschatology and Advent (6) the inaugurated eschatology of N T Wright

This post finishes our sketch of the recovery of eschatology within contemporary New Testament studies. To bring the story up to date I’m going to look at one of the main voices in NT studies and in eschatology – that of N T Wright.  

From this foundation, some follow on posts will dip into Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous preached eschatology within her book of sermons on Advent.

Doing things this way will highlight how eschatology is no Cinderella doctrine tacked on to the end of Christian thought and life. It is key to understanding and interpreting the gospels, Paul and all the other writers of the NT

Switching focus from eschatology in modern theology to Rutledge on Advent, is deliberate. Not only is eschatology central to Christian theology, it preaches! We’ll look at examples of how.

N. T. Wright

Wright’s eschatology is central to most of his work. And it is most certainly not a fluffy, sentimental, vague hope. Indeed, Wright has spent a lifetime battling against what he sees as popular Christianity’s platonized eschatology – a form of dualism that wants to escape the world and get to heaven.

At times, so much has his emphasis been on realised eschatology along with a historically realist interpretation of the gospels, that when Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) came out in 1996 some reviewers wondered if Wright had abandoned the ‘not yet’ altogether.

An example is Wright’s reading of Mark 13 and the Olivet Discourse. This is a clip – see the whole chapter.

20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Rather than read this as futurist end of age language, Wright’s reads it as Jewish apocalyptic language, referencing Daniel 7:13, referring to the vindication of the Son of Man within history (namely the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and not as a literal description of Jesus’ second coming in the clouds with power and glory.

Wright self-consciously travels the Schweitzerstrasse in his reconstruction of Jesus within history coming to understand himself, through reading of Israel’s scriptures, as the embodiment of an Israel in exile awaiting YHWH’s return to his elect people.

Acting in faith, Jesus the Messiah acts courageously in himself to confront evil in and through his sin-atoning and representative death. His coming simultaneously enacts divine judgement on Israel’s rejection of her true king and his gospel of the kingdom come.

But Wright departs from Weiss and Schweitzer in seeing Jesus’ death not as a failure of mistaken hopes, but God’s paradoxical victory over sin and death, witnessed in the vindication of the resurrection Christ.

Since JVG, his inaugurated “already and not yet” eschatology has become clearer and more fully worked out.

Jesus is an eschatological and apocalyptic prophet in and through whom the kingdom comes. This world has been changed as a result and, because of Jesus’ resurrection, will be fully transformed in the future.

Thus, Wright says for Paul

“this hope both had been fulfilled through Jesus, in his kingdom-establishing death and resurrection, and the life-transforming spirit, and would yet be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus and in the work of the same spirit to raise all of the Messiah’s people from the dead.”[1]

And from my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies

The nature of that transformation is holistic; it embraces the spiritual, political and social within a renewed creation. A consistent Wrightian theme is that the emphatically “earthy” nature of that future hope has social implications for the praxis of Christian ethics in the “here and now”.

Wright loves the big picture. Some say he pushes this too far in ways that the evidence does not support. But the story he tells is that Paul, the Synoptics, John and other New Testament authors all, in distinct ways, articulate a recognisably consistent eschatological hope in light of the story of Jesus Christ.

Wright summarises Paul this way

“The belief in a now and not yet inaugurated kingdom through the exaltation of the human being Jesus, Israel’s messiah, was not then a piece of clever apologetic invented in the late first century let alone the mid-twentieth century. It was part of the earliest apostolic gospel itself.”[2]

And for the Gospels

“John has his own ways of saying the same thing, but it is the same thing [as the Synoptics]. The gospels do not contain apocalyptic; in the first century sense they are apocalyptic. They are describing how the revelation, the unveiling, the visible coming of God took place.”[3]

God has disrupted the world in Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension to become reigning Lord.

A new revelation (apokalypsis) has unfolded. Reality will never be the same again.

The victory of God has been won, the long promised Spirit has been poured out, we live now in the overlap of the ages, the present evil age is passing away, the new age has dawned, flesh against Spirit, Spirit against the powers, God versus his enemies – all until the final consummation of the Kingdom when God will be all in all.  

This is how the NT sees things.

And it means that the Christian life within the community of the people of God, is eschatological through and through.

We live in an age of sin and death that is under the power of spiritual powers opposed to God and his kingdom. Unless Christians grasp this, and face the darkness head on, they will be ill-equipped for the battle.

Christmassy sentimental religious feel-goodism just does not cut it. The world is too broken. Injustice is too brutal. Sickness and suffering is too painful.

And this is where Fleming Rutledge comes in.

Few preachers have seen the challenge more clearly and how Advent is NOT primarily a time for preparing to celebrate the incarnation and birth of baby Jesus.

Rather it is a time to look into the heart of darkness with hope in the future coming of Jesus Christ as Lord and judge to overthrow Sin, Death and the Devil and establish his kingdom of light.

The next few posts this Advent will be in her company. You are welcome to join us.                                                                                                                                                   


[1] Wright, PFG, 1258-59. Emphasis original.

[2] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

[3] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

Christ is Risen!

Greetings this Easter Sunday, a day to celebrate the victory of God in Christ, the Risen Lord.

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddAfter our Lenten series, what could be more appropriate than some words from the marvellous writer and theologian, Fleming Rutledge on the theme of Christus Victor.

The Christus Victor theme in the New Testament … speaks with new force and relevance for today because it grants evil its due. The theme emphasizes the infernal intelligence, the annihilating force, the lethal fury of the demonic Powers. In the contemporary world we know too much of this kind of evil. Anyone following the news as the twenty-first century continues to unfold must know the feeling that our globe is inhabited by truly unbearable wickedness, and that this wickedness is out of control. (392)

It is in to this reality that Easter speaks – of the crucifixion and apparent defeat of good by evil, and of the Risen Lord, triumphant over Sin, death and the powers of evil.

Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus

… the Christian life does not go on as if the world had remained unchanged. The church is not a redeemed boat floating in an unredeemed sea. It is not as if the only thing that has changed is that our sins are forgiven and we, person by person, come to believe in Jesus. Rather, there has been a transfer of aeons, an exchange of one kosmos for another. The Powers and the principalities may not know it but their foundations have been undermined and cannot last. The creation itself has been and is being invaded by the new world, the age to come. (393, my emphasis)

Romans 8:20-21

20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (46) the role of faith and God’s rectification of all

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddDay 46! And I always thought Lent was 40 days long.

We are finally finishing our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

It has been a challenge to read and post each day through Lent but personally a hugely beneficial one – and from comments by email, conversations and texts, others have found it helpful too which is a bonus.

In our church, a group of us met for four consecutive Sunday evenings discussing specific chapters of the book (the gravity of Sin; justification; apocalyptic war; and substitution).  They were really good evenings; wonderful to have space to talk and think together about the richness, power and wonder of the cross.

I have also just finished preaching a series of 4 sermons this Holy week (Monday – Thursday evenings) on the cross and love at a joint church event in south Dublin where 5 churches come together every year (Dun Laoghaire Evangelical Church, Crinken C of I, Kill O the Grange C of I, Dun Laoghaire Presbyterian, and Dun Laoghaire Methodist). It was an honour to be part of a wonderful event. Thanks to Dougie McCormack, David Nixon, Trevor Stevenson, Alan Breen and Chris Kennedy for the invitation, hospitality, good craic and commitment to prepare for Easter together.

Reading this book alongside the sermon prep was profoundly helpful. Rutledge’s chapter on the ‘Gravity of Sin’ was important – again and again it was apparent in thinking and preaching about the cross that we need a robust theology of Sin and evil if we are to make sense of the cross of Christ and how it demonstrates the love and justice of God.

After this spurt of (for me) intense blogging (totalling c. 39,000 words I think, admittedly a chunk of that a mixture of descriptions and quotes) the pace may go back to a more leisurely one!

OK, back to Rutledge’s concluding pages and the questions we left off yesterday …

“What does it mean to believe in Christ as the Saviour of the world, the One whose birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection inaugurated the age to come? What of those who reject him?” (601)

While Rutledge has been moving towards some form of universal reconciliation, she candidly acknowledges that,

“There is ample evidence in the New Testament that Jesus himself requires personal commitment from all who would be saved by him … and that salvation is from Christ alone. The most obvious extrapolation from this is to declare that human beings must come to faith in Christ if they are to be saved. If the wonder and miracle of faith in Christ is dismissed as unnecessary and unimportant, then the dynamic, outgoing, evangelistic pulse of the gospel is negated and Christianity becomes a feeble shadow of itself.” (601)

This is precisely why universalism has been a marginal voice in the church history and theology – it sits uneasily (at least) with the testimony of the Bible itself, and raises all sorts of questions about mission and the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus the crucified and risen Lord.

So how does Rutledge navigate these seemingly insurmountable problems to a theology of universal acceptance?

Her overall theological framework here, is that God’s judgement is always in service of his salvation. She gives numerous examples from the OT of how God’s judgement on his people is consistently tempered or shaped around is absolute covenant commitment to Israel. God does not simply ‘forgive and forget’ Israel’s sin.

Taking this forward to the day of final judgement, Rutledge ‘applies’ this principle to all of humanity. God’s judgement is in service to salvation.

[My comment]: It is this ‘shift’ from focus on God’s covenant people (OT and NT) to humanity in general that will be seen as the most contentious part of her argument

“God in his righteousness will make right all that has been wrong. This is the very promise of God that the ‘former things’ will be obliterated and no memory of them will remain. And here is the staggering irony: all this is accomplished in the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion, the method that was especially designed to erase the memory of its victims as though they had never existed.” (603)

This victory includes the eradication of Sin and evil.

And she includes mention of specific ‘unrepentant monsters of history’ like Pol Pot. They will

“… be either utterly transfigured or annihilated altogether, for no one is beyond the reach of God’s power.” (603)

[My Comment] Despite Rutledge’s extensive treatment (which is much broader than I have had space to summarise) I struggle here to see how the argument coheres here. On what basis are some ‘unrepentant’ sinners transfigured (presumably a huge chunk of humanity?) and some others annihilated (the really bad ones like Pol Pot?). How does this square with her paragraph above about the necessity of personal faith in Christ? Is it ‘necessary’ or not?

It seems to me that her assent to the requirement of personal faith and her parallel argument for God’s rectification of all sit in unresolved tension in this closing chapter.

She comes at these issues again in a final few important pages on Romans 9-11.

In sum, Paul is wrestling with the grievous fact of Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. But Paul has a radical perspective on their unbelief. In God’s wisdom, through Israel’s unbelief the Gentiles have been brought in, but this does not mean Israel is rejected…

11 I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.  (Romans 9:1-2)

Somehow Israel’s unbelief plays a part in God’s bigger purposes.

“Strange and contradictory as it may seem, unbelief apparently plays a part in the plan of redemption.” (606)

This sheds, she argues, much needed light on the fate of the ungodly. The ‘godly’ would have originally the Jews as God’s people and the Gentiles the ‘ungodly’. Now, she sees Paul’s train of thought unfolding to a point where “the term ‘ungodly’ comes to embrace all humanity.” (607, my emphasis).

The whole ethos of Romans 9-11 is one of God’s glory and human limitation. (Read Romans 9:6 and following for example).

Rutledge argues with passion that these chapters be restored as a climax of the apostle’s theological argument in Romans. The key idea is God’s sovereign plan of redemption that embraces all and to which the apostle anticipates objections and even outrage at God’s ways of acting in history, that are far beyond human comprehension.

“Salvation (soteria) in Paul’s letters is not to be understood simply in the way that we so often hear it used in American Christianity, as the rescue of first one person, then another, individual by individual, as those persons put their faith in Christ. When the individual is exclusively emphasized, serious theological, ecclesiological, and – not least – geopolitical errors ensue. As Paul develops his message in Romans, the individual Christian does not lose his individual preciousness, but is taken up into the new family of believers and ultimately into the cosmic plan of God. Verse 11:32 is as radically ‘inclusive’ a statement as the Bible contains: ‘For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.’

Yet, magnificent and ‘broad’ as this vision is, Rutledge closes reiterating the necessity for the faith and confidence of the individual believer – in which she includes herself within this closing poem by Christopher Smart:

Awake, arise, lift up your voice,

Let Easter music swell;

Rejoice in Christ, again rejoice

And on his praises dwell.

 

Oh, with what gladness and surprise

the saints their Savior greet;

nor will they trust their ears and eyes

but by his hands and feet,

those hands of liberal love indeed

in infinite degree,

those fee still free to move and bleed

for millions

and for me