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

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (27) The Great Assize

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 sees us begin Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’. Or, in other words, the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

A question up front – what do you see broken in the world? In yourself? In human nature? How ‘fixable’ is the brokenness? And how can it be fixed?

This is a long, complex chapter which I found the hardest to read in the book. Rutledge weaves in multiple themes, but, in my opinion, the argument feels like they don’t quite form a coherent whole. A lot of disparate themes ideas are packed in.

The framework is something like this – and this is my take.

  1. Individuals are under a weight of judgement
  2. Human society is also under judgment
  3. ‘For all that is wrong in the world, a cosmic reckoning is required’ (312)
    1. This reaches its climax at the great and final judgement of God
    2. The death of Christ is inextricably connected to the law court and judgement.

      ‘In the judgement upon Christ, all judgements converge.’ (315)

  4. The Bible talks about this judgement in different ways
    1. Forensic (legal) judgement
    2. Apocalyptic judgement of the powers – Sin, death, the Devil
  5. Human unease with judgement – to get rid of judgement
  6. Pastoral implications of how judgement is understood
    1. The problems with a dominant forensic, legal understanding of judgement
    2. The good news of the wrath of God
  7. Justification / rectification – how God deals with sin
    1. The relationship of faith and justification
    2. The power of God to speak transforming words to the believer
  8. Reconciliation – where does it fit in?
    1. Reconciliation as struggle
    2. Reconciliation as eschatological gift
    3. Are we active or passive in reconciliation?

So you can see what I mean by complicated and long! There is overlap in this chapter with earlier themes (chapter 3 on judgement and chapter 4 on ‘Gravity of Sin’ especially). In a big book I think this chapter could have been edited down more.

Having said that, as throughout, there are gems on virtually every page.

In this post, we’re going to go back to points 1 and 2 – Rutledge’s argument that human individuals and human societies are under God’s judgement.

This is not a popular position to hold – especially outside the church but also within it.

Do we live in a ‘post-guilt’ culture? And, if we do, ‘images of Christ’s death addressed to this concern are of little use to us today’ (303). But Rutledge argues that

‘Sin and guilt are real whether we acknowledge it or not, because God is real.’ (304).

In an ‘age of anxiety’ people are

‘afraid that that they “won’t make the cut” or – here it gets more complicated – they worry that they will not be sufficiently inclusive of others … we are driven and riven by anxieties of various sorts.’ (305)

This is the human condition. Rutledge goes to Philip Roth, novelist and secular Jew, who says of his male characters that they are

“bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic engagements, consequential misjudgement, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying … men stunned by the life one is defenceless against.”

Cheerful fellow that Roth – wonder what he says about women!?

And if we reject that we are guilty or anxious, Rutledge proposes another trait of humanity that brings under judgement, we are obsessed with condemning others – regardless how much liberal societies educate populations about tolerance, society is riven by tribalism and groups protecting their own power.

And so Rutledge argues that such is the pervasive reach of sin in societies as well as in individuals, that

‘… it will help us to understand that the Great Assize is not just an event that transpires on the level of the individual. For the most part the Bible is thinking collectively, communally and, ultimately … cosmologically.’ The Powers that will be unmasked and sentenced by the Judge who is to come are the powers and principalities of this world, and finally Satan himself. (312)

In the next couple of posts on this chapter we will come back to some pastoral and practical implications of judgement and how it is understood today.