On ‘Doomism’, Sentimentality and the Cross

The April – June 2021 50th Edition of VOX magazine is out in a nifty new smaller printed format designed to make it easier to read on tablet, phone or computer.

You can read it online or download a PDF for free – can’t getter a better deal than that for what is an excellent magazine.

This edition has a particular focus on Ireland’s past, specifically the legacy of abuse formally made public via recent reports in the Mother and Baby homes. I’ll come back to articles on this in later blog posts. It also continues a series on racism in Ireland as well as an excellent article by Karen Huber on the Ravi Zacharias scandal and how it should

“light a fire under all Christians to hold our teachers, our church, and even our doctrines accountable. We should test the actions of those in authority against the standards set in Scripture, and we must pay heed to the spirit of discernment.”

My musings column had an Easter theme and is below. It raises questions, especially in light of the injustices and evil just mentioned above. Questions like:

  • What does it look like to be people of hope in a broken world?
  • What is our response to injustice and suffering?
  • How is the church to embody a different way – a way of justice and mercy for the oppressed and marginalised?

Doomism, Sentimentality and the Cross

Information Overload

The age of Information Technology has certainly lived up to its name; we have instantaneous access to information about pretty well anything we care to think of. Despite lockdown the world remains at our fingertips – there’s no 5km limit if you have a broadband connection. One thing I’ve discovered over the last few months is joining live safaris in the African bush. It’s been a wonderful way to ‘travel’, immerse yourself in another world and learn lots all at the same time. (I’m watching a leopard hunt impalas as I write this!)

But the net is also the gateway to all sorts of other information. There is little that we can’t read or see for ourselves about what’s going on in the world. Because billions of people now carry smartphones, photographs and videos are being taken daily on a vast scale. Even events that authoritarian governments try to hide tend to hit the news. Two examples as I’m writing are the abduction, imprisonment and now disappearance of Princess Latifa in Dubai (only made known through secret videos she took) and ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Chinese government against the Uighur population in Xinjiang (despite denials satellite pictures and videos are damning). But to these we could add countless others.

And then there’s information hidden away for so long, but now exposed to the light of day. In this edition of VOX are stories about injustices experienced by children in an Irish mother and baby home and revelations about Ravi Zacharias exploiting and using women for his own sexual gratification. And this is even before mentioning social media and billions of individuals sharing their lives and opinions on everything from funny cat videos to #FreeBritney to saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Such a vast amount of information has never been available to any human beings before. I wonder sometimes do we know too much? We’ve always known that the world was broken, but now we can watch it unfold livestreamed.

I’ve been musing about this new world – what it does to us and how are disciples of Jesus best to navigate its unfamiliar terrain. It seems to me that there are at least two dead-ends we can go down.

Two Dead Ends

One is ‘doomism’. All too easily, we can become news junkies, overwhelmed with bad news and in a constant state of fear or depression about our world and where it’s going.

Another is ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ – we literally switch off, close our eyes and ears and pretend the world isn’t like it is. We just retreat into a safe bubble of sentimental optimism. A Christian form of this sort of denial is to celebrate the love, forgiveness and presence of God while rarely, if ever, talking about the reality and power of sin and evil (including our own).

Hopeful Realism

But Easter speaks of a third, deeper, and more mysterious way of understanding our world. The way of the cross is neither ‘doomism’ nor optimistic sentimentality, it is, rather, the way of ‘hopeful realism’.

By ‘realism’ I mean that Christians should be the last people to be surprised by bad news, even the bad news of a Christian leader being unmasked. This is because the Bible has a stark diagnosis of what’s wrong with this world. It is Sin with a capital ‘S’. This is not just your wrong actions and mine (personal sins), though it includes them for sure. But Sin as a malign, destructive power that leads to death. A power that we have no way of overcoming on our own: not through better education, or self-esteem, or economics, or human ingenuity, or scientific progress or more information, or good life choices. Humanly speaking, we have absolutely no grounds for optimism about ourselves or our world.

By ‘hopeful’ I mean that our hope is God alone – and that is a great, big, wondrous sort of hope. This is the mystery of Easter. The stronger our understanding of Sin, the deeper is the good news of the cross. The cross

“is the scene of God’s climatic battle against the power of a malignant and implacable Enemy” (Fleming Rutledge).

No human has the ability to break the power of Sin and death – only God can. And, out of love, he has done just that.

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 (42) Unevangelical Preaching vs Evangelical Preaching

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 the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

I freely admit that a post or two cannot do justice to a long chapter, much of which traces the thought of Paul in Romans.

This post is breaking in to Rutledge’s discussion of how recapitulation is preached.

To summarise, recapitulation can be seen as “Christ reliving the story of Adam.” (558). As a real human being (incarnation)

“The Son of God secures our redemption, not over against us as a divine being, but restoring our human nature to the righteousness of God from within the depths of our unrighteousness.” (588)

None of this is dependent on us, but on Jesus’ own righteousness.

Rutledge quotes T. F Torrance’s work The Mediation of Christ here (he is the quote within this quote)

‘… we are not saved by any will or any decision of our own. Our rebellious, egocentric, and disloyal human wills have been established “on an entirely different basis by being replaced at the crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.”’ (558-59)

So, if you are a preacher and teacher, how do you preach the good news of the cross? And specifically the theme that ‘all that is Christ’s becomes ours’?

Unevangelical versus evangelical Preaching

Torrance talks about ‘unevangelical preaching’ “which emphasizes human acting and deciding, and true, ‘evangelical preaching’.” (559). Rutledge quotes Torrance at length and with approval. It is worth doing the same and asking some questions as we do so …

What is your response to what Torrance says here? Exciting? Liberating? Troubling?

How does this compare to preaching you hear regularly?

Does it ‘over-do’ divine action and minimise the role of human faith and repentance in salvation?


“From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God, but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your response to God’s love, and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted in him.

[I]t is not upon my faith, my believing, or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what he has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father.” (559, Rutledge’s added emphasis to highlight Torrance’s use of recapitulation, incorporation, substitution and participation).

In the first paragraph, the theological point being hammered home is that ‘my faith’ is NOT what ‘saves me’ – it is only and completely the work of the incarnate Christ on the cross.

A personal comment on depressing preaching

The gospel calls for a personal response of faith and repentance; this must not be lost. But I like where Torrance is going even if I am not sure I’d go all the way with him.

I have been around a while and there have been too many sermons I’ve heard in my life (and probably preached as well) by the end of which I have ended up feeling frankly depressed!

The thrust has been ‘it all depends on us’: ‘if only we can grasp this’; this experience or that advance ‘is within our reach’; I have discovered this and ‘you can too’ and so on.

Even though God’s grace is talked about, the actual sub-text is that for it to be effective, it is really all up to us / me.

It all adds up to rather exhausting moral exhortation – hence my depression.

The focus is switched from what Christ has done (theo-centric focus), to what I must do if I am to ‘get it’ (andro-centric focus). It almost becomes a form of Gnosticism that we talked about at the start of this series – a secret route to enlightenment for the few and a second-class Christianity for those further back down the path somewhere.

Whereas the preaching of the Christian life, it seems to me, is more like be who you already are in Christ’.

The focus is off ourselves and on Jesus’ completed cross-work:  this is the good news and it is theo-centric through and through.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (41) Recapitulation

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 get to the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

If you are wondering what this actually means, I think that this is wonderfully captured by this paragraph from Rutledge (maybe especially since I am over 50!).

How do her words this resonate with you?

This theme is deeply connected with Christian hope – the present victory of God in Christ has universal implications for the future.

Is this wishful thinking in a world overshadowed by death? Is it what Marx called the ‘opium of the people’ – future myths of a perfected world keeping people being contented with injustice in this one?

Quite simply, it all depends on the cross and resurrection …

Is there anyone alive over fifty who would not want to live his or her life over again in order to correct the mistakes, avoid the wrong turns, undo the damage, maximize the opportunities, recover the wasted time, repair the broken relationships, restore the lost future? More important still, would we not wish to see great wrongs wiped out, – all the mass murders, child abuse, destruction of cultures and populations, despoilation of nature, and all the other miseries and atrocities of history rectified and the memory of them obliterated? In Christ, Paul is telling us, not only will all this happen in the eschatological age, but also the power of what Christ has accomplished for us and the whole creation is active in our lives even now as we put our trust in his remade humanity. (537)

In other words, recapitulation means a ‘summing up’ or ‘regathering’. In Jesus, everything is restored, and all that is in Christ becomes those that belong to Christ.

A key text here is Romans 5:12-21

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

IrenaeusThe most famous, and early, figure connected with recapitulation is Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200).

All of the human race is implicated in Adam’s sin and disobedience and ‘in Adam all die’. But Irenaeus saw that, because of Jesus’ victory over the powers he

“overcomes through Adam what had stricken us through Adam.” (Irenaeus, quoted by Rutledge, 539).

“He [Christ] therefore completely renewed all things, both taking up the battle against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning had led us captive in Adam.” (Irenaeus, 5.21.1, 541)

Notice how his understanding of recapitulation is not simply Christ living the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ human life. It is also a victorious life, defeating Sin and Death.

This theme is all inclusive, it includes the apocalyptic war and Christus Victor. His victory becomes our victory. His life becomes our life.

Participation in Christ is therefore inseparable from recapitulation – as believers are joined ‘in Christ’ they share in his recapitulating of all things.

How does that hope transform your present?

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (39) The Sweetest Exchange

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

In this post we continue within chapter (11) on The Substitution.

Who would you say is the ‘blame’ for the cross? Who is ultimately responsible?

Towards the end of the chapter Rutledge asks key questions about the cross:

“Who is acting in the world to reconcile humanity to God and human beings to one another, and who is the active agent in the crucifixion of Jesus? These two question are related. Here in the context of the substitution motif, the matter of agency is critical. Who is in charge at Golgotha? Perhaps even more to the point, who is in charge in the Garden of Gethsemane?” (524)

There are several possible ways to answer such questions?

The Romans?

The Jews?

All human beings?

“Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued?” (Charles Wesley)

The Demonic Powers? Rutledge says some Feminist and also Anabaptist theologians have removed agency from God altogether and see it lying with the Powers.

The Law?

Rutledge, however, argues this,

In the final analysis, however, the Gospels and the witness of Paul overwhelmingly testify to the primary action of God in the crucifixion of Christ. (525)

This is not to say the other actors do not have agency – but it is a secondary agency. God is the first cause

  • His love
  • His wrath (action against Sin, Death and the Powers)

Rutledge is insistent that, however many other influences,

God did this for us without our assistance or cooperation.” (528, emphasis original)

Coming back to Romans 5:6-8 Rutledge stresses our utter helplessness:

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

[And I would want to add, the motive for the cross is the love of God, vs 8]

Our involvement in Substitution

But if substitution is due to God’s prior agency, Rutledge makes a wonderfully important point – is involves us ‘personally, emotionally, at the gut level.’ (529)

“Since he clearly did not deserve what happened to him, why is it not right to conclude that we should have been there instead of him? Is that not the most basic sort of human reaction? … The plain sense of the New Testament taken as a whole gives the strong impression that Jesus gave himself up to shame, spitting, scourging, and a degrading public death before the eyes of the whole world, not only for our sake, but also in our place.” (529, emphasis original)

What is your response to these words?

Ultimately, the cross is not a theory, it creates relationship. And if faith is real and experienced at all, sure these sorts of words describe what it means to be a Christian:







New Life

These are the consequences of the ‘sweetest exchange’ (Epistle to Diognetus, quoted by Rutledge, 530).


Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (37) The Substitution

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

In this post we begin another major chapter (11) – this one entitled The Substitution

Again, as with the previous chapter, this one starts with a table of contents that could be for a book.

Section 1: a theological history of the motif of substitution

Section 2: Objections to the penal substitution model

Section 3: Karl Barth on Substitution

Sections 4 and 5: on the matter of agency – we may reword this as ‘Who is ‘responsible’ for the crucifixion?’

Section 6: Conclusions

We are going to zone in mostly on section 2 – objections to penal substitution. This is where much historic and contemporary debate is focused and it raises significant theological and ethical questions for us today.

In this post we begin with Rutledge’s definition and summary of penal substitution and description of how controversial this idea has become in the church and outside it.

She dislikes the term ‘substitutionary atonement’ as too academic, theoretical and unattractive, preferring ‘the motif of substitution’ or ‘the theme of exchange’.

Purpose of the Chapter

In the face of major critique, Rutledge sets out to

“This chapter, in conversation with both the attackers and the retreaters, is a defense of the central importance of the motif of substitution … as it appears in numerous scriptural contexts and in the tradition. (465)

This defense is not of all expressions of penal substitution, but it is a robust case for the idea that Jesus dies, not only on our behalf, but in our place.

There is something deep in the human psyche that responds to the idea of substitution – someone who dies in my place so that I may live – and the loss of it from the preaching and teaching of the church would be grievous. (466)

A historical sketch

I’m not going to tarry with Rutledge’s extended discussion of the history of the doctrine, beginning in the NT and moving through the early Church Fathers up to Anselm and eventually to the Reformers. What follows is hardly even a bare outline.

Save to say that she rejects the oft-repeated charge that substitution only appeared with Anselm, nor that Christus Victor in some way makes the idea of substitution unnecessary –the two motifs are complementary.

Luther – held together Christus Victor and substitution (and other themes) in a dynamic and remarkable way.

Calvin – Rutledge appeals for an informed and not caricatured reading of Calvin. In sum, it if fair to say that she wishes his later interpreters were as nuanced, informed and careful a theologian as he was.

A key passage is where Rutledge draws attention to Calvin’s use of Augustine. The issue is did the death of the Son somehow ‘change the Father’s attitude’ towards sinners? Was the cross that which ‘appeased’ his wrath and turned it to love and acceptance?

As said in an earlier post, this would be a real problem. Both Augustine and Calvin say ‘NO’ to this. Both affirm Romans 5:8

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’

We were enemies yes, but beloved enemies. God always loves – he does not begin to love once his wrath is ‘appeased’. The cross is God’s means of redeeming and reconciling humanity by dealing decisively with what alienates and separates us from him.

Rutledge quotes Calvin’s summary of Galatians 3:13-14

“The cross was accursed, not only in human opinion but in God’s law (Deuteronomy 21:23). Hence, when Christ is hanged upon the cross, he makes himself subject to the curse, It had to happen in this way in order that the whole curse – which on account of our sins … lay upon us – might be lifted from us, while it was transferred to him” (Calvin Institutes 2.16.6, quotes 487).

 Calvin as developed by 19th century Reformed evangelicalism

So it is not Calvin or Luther or Anselm that Rutledge has a problem with. It is how Calvin in particular was developed in later Reformed theology. She takes the example of Charles Hodge (1797-1878) of Princeton Theological Seminary and his formulation of penal substitution.

Rutledge summarises it like this (quoted below).

And as you read this some questions:

How familiar is this to you? Is this perhaps the [only?] or main way the cross was explained to you?

What is the relationship of this theological scheme with ‘the gospel’? In many evangelical circles, are the two virtually synonmyous do you think?

What is your gut response to this summary?

What picture does it give of God and of Jesus?

How does it relate to the New Testament?  What is in it and what is not?

  • “As a result of the original sin of Adam, the entire human race has been mired in sin and incurred the wrath of God.

  • God cannot overlook sin as though it had not occurred. Sin must be punished.

  • Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, entered into the place of sinners and took the punishment on himself.

  • On the cross, particularly as shown in the cry of dereliction, Jesus submitted to the curse upon sin and underwent God’s judgment.

  • Be deflecting the wrath of God onto himself, Jesus took it away from humanity.”

For Rutledge, the issue is how this represents a tightly defined, rationalistic and individualised scheme unlike in Calvin or in the New Testament.

It also took on an overly dominant role in the interpretation of the cross within the Reformed world and is still extremely powerful.

In the next post we consider the main objections to penal substitution.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (35) What explanation for evil?

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

We are in Chapter 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’

The chapter progresses from where we left off with a return to themes discussed earlier – the unfathomable reality of evil that has no rational explanation

Rutledge has given extended attention to helping us look unblinkingly at the reality of evil.

Not only extreme evil but (my comment) what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’.

It is rarely a monstrous psychopath who does great evil, but most often ‘normal’ people, former neighbours and colleagues who become ruthless sadists and torturers – whether in Bosnia or in Rwanda or in Third Reich Germany.

We will skip ahead a bit to where Rutledge gets to the second purpose of this chapter (the four were summarised in the last post). To remind us it is:

To ask if the reality of horrific evil calls into question any faith in God’s good purposes. And if we still believe in God, how do we respond to the fact of evil?

Out of the Whirlwind

Question – how does your theology of evil and suffering feed into pastoral practice?

Or, to put it more specifically, what do you say beside the bed of a friend who may not live through the next few days’ harsh treatment in a cancer ward? What can (and cannot) you say about God? About ‘purpose’? About ‘hope’? What words of comfort can you bring?

Rutledge begins with the book of Job. We don’t need to replay the story here – her point is that the book

“moves away from ‘answers’ and ‘explanations.’ Instead it brings us into the very presence of God. (446, see Job 42:1-6)

Job does get a response from God but it not the one he expects.

The question “Why?” is not the right question and will never yield the right “explanation” (447)

Therefore, a prime rule of pastoral ministry is not to look for explanations or give theories to sufferers. They may come to some sort of understanding themselves but that is a very different process.

The only ‘response’ to suffering is to suffer with the sufferer and to “hate these things with a perfect hatred!” (quoting Hart 101, quoted 448)

Descendit ad inferna: New Testament Cosmology

Rutledge then turns to the third of her objectives for this chapter. Recall a couple of posts back that it was this:

To discuss how the ‘descent into hell’ implies a cosmology – linked to the chapter on the apocalyptic war – and that Jesus’ death has cosmic implications.

We are back with themes raised in chapter 9 on ‘the apocalyptic war’ and one of the places that Rutledge cycles back to come to similar arguments from different angles. The cross is about God’s invasion of enemy territory.

Rutledge brings in Stanley Hauerwas, never a bad thing to do ..

Christianity is unintelligible without enemies … to be a Christian is to be made part of an army against armies … [Christians are embattled and] had better be ready for a fierce counteroffensive as well as be prepared to take some casualties.” (Hauerwas, quoted 449-50)

What Hauerwas is getting at, and Rutledge is arguing, is that the cosmology of the New Testament is structured around a cosmic battle against evil.

And, therefore, the mission of the church is to engage in battle, to resist evil, to speak of the good news of deliverance and liberation from those destructive powers.

The question Rutledge then turns to is her fourth goal of this chapter:

To link this theme not only with Christus Victor, but also others, particularly substitution (next chapter).

What she means by this in particular is that Jesus’ descent to the dead brings us to think about the scope of that liberation. In other words, the disturbing and challenging idea that the cross is for all, including the perpetrators of evil.

It is to that question we will return in the next post.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (33) The Descent into Hell

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

We are in Chapter 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’ which is a full 66 pages long.

At the beginning Rutledge gives a detailed outline which reads like the contents of a book. So not only is the content intimidating, so is its length and complexity.

This goes for the following chapter on Substitution as well – it is even longer at 73 pages. We will have about 4 posts on each chapter.

Big questions are going to emerge – and I wonder how you think about them?

Where does evil come from?

Does the reality of evil throw doubt on the goodness or power of God?

Does evil somehow serve the purposes of God? And if we still believe in God, how do we respond to the fact of evil?

What do you say to someone suffering from the consequences of evil when they ask how God could allow it?

How does the cross of Christ speak into such pastoral and theological questions?

Up front Rutledge acknowledges that having a major chapter on a theme that hardly appears in the Bible may seem perverse. It could have been subsumed into the Christus Victor chapter. She explains that her choice to have an extended discussion on hell:

1) To look ‘without blinking’ at the presence and potency of radical evil in the world and in ourselves.
2) To ask if the reality of horrific evil calls into question any faith in God’s good purposes.
3) To discuss how the ‘descent into hell’ implies a cosmology – linked to the chapter on the apocalyptic war – and that Jesus’ death has cosmic implications.
4) To link this theme not only with Christus Victor, but also others, particularly substitution (next chapter).

As Rutledge herself comments, if you wish to skip over a significant amount of background material, the reader can jump ahead to where the discussion picks up the theological discussion on ‘The nature of Evil’.

We are going to do this, partly because the relevant Bible texts and the ‘descendit ad inferna’ clause, which is found in the Apostle’s and Athanasian Creeds, has been discussed elsewhere on this blog – see these posts on Catherine Ella Laufer’s fascinating book Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead

Just before we join the later discussion, some ‘nuggets’ from Rutledge en route. She is keen to frame this whole issue in terms of a great spiritual conflict of the Powers with God:

We need to understand hell, not as a place, to be sure, but as a domain where evil has become the reigning reality – an empire of death ..” (417)

We must take great care lest we leave the impression that Christ’s work was not finished … on the cross. In discussing the descent, we do not want to suggest that Jesus died with more work still ahead of him. (417-18)

On the origin of evil, Rutledge is absolutely right to say that there is no clear explanation, not in the Bible nor in theology and philosophy.

… there never has been a satisfactory account of the origin of evil, and there will be none on this side of the consummation of the kingdom of God. Evil is a vast excrescence, a monstrous contradiction that cannot be explained but can only be denounced and resisted wherever it appears. (419)

The Nature of Evil

It is fiendishly difficult to define evil. Augustine’s idea that evil is ‘non-being’ and is ‘the absence of the good’ is easily misunderstood to give the impression that there is ‘nothing’ to evil. But evil is a reality, it does terrible things, it causes suffering, destruction and pain.

Evil is ‘nonbeing’ in that it does most emphatically NOT have its origins in God, or participate in any way in ‘real Being’ [God] – but this does not mean that evil does not have real presence and power in the world.

But, again rightly, Rutledge comments that this sounds all very abstract

‘it has no shock value’ (425)

We begin to get to grips with evil not in philosophical definitions but in death camps and genocide – these are ‘realms’ or ‘kingdoms of evil’.

The intent was deliberately, purposefully, and systematically to exclude goodness.’ (425)

51o3wazoi7l._sx316_bo1204203200_For me, this quote brings to mind a brilliant but harrowing novel I read some years ago, The Street Sweeper by Elliott Perlman.

Much of it unfolds within Auschwitz – more description cannot begin to explain what went on there. It was indeed a demonic ‘empire of death’ – only a robust theology of evil can begin put words on such horrors perpetrated by human beings.

A Summary of What the Christian Tradition Affirms and Denies about Evil

Rutledge takes a pause to summarise a consensus of what the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy says about evil and God: (what follows is a quote)

• “God did not create and does not intend evil.
• Evil is not a component of God’s being.
• Although evil made its appearance in the creation, it possesses no existence or being of its own, but is rather a negation, or corruption, of being.
• God is not powerless against evil, but for some reason inaccessible to us, he permits it to operate within appointed bounds.
• God is actively at work through human agents to challenge and resist evil, so that any penultimate victory over evil in this world is a sign of God’s ultimate victory.
• Evil will be conclusively and finally defeated and obliterated by God in the final judgement.”

In the next post we will turn with Rutledge to two of the questions at the start of this post:

How can Christians, in the face of horrific evil, believe in a good and all powerful God?

Is evil somehow part of God’s good purpose? (as a good Calvinist would affirm)

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (32) Living in the victory 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).

We are in Chapter 9, ‘The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor’ and in this post we are looking at the Christian life lived in light of the victory of God in Christ.

The question Rutledge turns to is how does apocalyptic battle imagery ‘work’ as a guide to Christian living? Several points can be distilled from the conversation – and these are my headings.


There is a profound paradox at the heart of Christianity. God’s decisive victory is won through the suffering and self-giving of his Son at the cross.

So, while an apocalyptic battle is being waged, the ‘method’ of warfare is non-violence (of God).

The most fully apocalyptic book in the New Testament is of course Revelation. As apocalyptic literature it is packed full of violent, bloody and graphic images of battle. Yet. At the heart of the story is “the lamb who was slain”.

Rutledge quotes Volf again from Exclusion and Embrace,

At the very heart of the “one who sits on the throne” is the cross. The world to come is ruled by the one who on the cross took violence upon himself in order to conquer and embrace the enemy. The Lamb’s rule is legitimized not by the “sword” but by its “wounds” (Volf 300-01, quoted 383)

What I call this “powerful powerlessness” is so deeply woven into the ‘essence’ of Christianity that I struggle to understand how Christians manage to evade both the biblical witness and the testimony of the early Church – to follow Jesus is to be non-violent.

You don’t have to use physical weapons to be in a battle.

The language of struggle and combat is not incompatible with a commitment to nonviolence. The nonviolent combatants are sustained by their trust in God, who has promised that “vengeance is mine, I will repay.” (384)

Rutledge returns to stories of the Civil Rights movement and the path of nonviolent resistance being uniquely inspiring and powerful, as well as a path of suffering.

No-where else will you find this story – no religion, no philosophy …

In the unique event that is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, it is revealed that God is acting. In the divine invasion of this world, the Powers that have been allowed to rule in “the present evil age” are disarmed by the Powers of the world to come, that is by the weapons of the Spirit. Christ the Lord is Victor even in the midst of the suffering of his followers. (386)


Rutledge wisely observes that, despite the fact that we are more aware than ever today of the broken state of our world, we are awash with sentimentality. Christmas is a good example:

Despite the terror and suffering all around us, we demand soft-focus peace-and-joy images for our Christmas cards. By contrast, the apocalyptic gospel dramatizes a cosmic struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, day and night in a symbolic world that grants evil its due and girds itself ahead of time for the irruption of such events as terrorist attacks. (388)

An apocalyptic perspective, Rutledge argues, will be fiercely realistic

Reality is about evil, and suffering, and ultimately victory over suffering. (389)

My comments: Christians should be aware, more than anyone, that life is a battlefield. Therapeutic soft-pedalling of the gospel as that which brings me happiness and fulfilment just do not cut it in the real world. It trivialises the gospel and sends Christian ‘soldiers’ out to battle utterly ill-equipped for the conflict ahead. Its false promises lead to immaturity, disillusionment and cynicism.


If the gospel is a message of deliverance from the forces of evil, it is therefore a message of hope.

The cross is God’s initiative from start to finish, it also ensures that God’s victory won there will, one future day, come to completion. The Powers continue to exist, Christians remain in a cosmic battle in the in-between times of cross and final victory. This is a hope

“beyond any human hope (Rom. 4:18) because it is grounded in the promise of the future of Jesus Christ.”  (390)

Christians are therefore not prisoners of the Powers but are ‘prisoners of hope’.

Final Comments on Christus Victor

One thing so likeable about Rutledge is her integrity – there is no sleight of hand or subtle twisting of truth to make it ‘fit’ her own preferences. At the close of this chapter she acknowledges weighty criticisms of an apocalyptic perspective.

  1. It seems to locate the battle at a cosmic remove, detached from humanity. (Rutledge argues this need not be the case if understood rightly – believers participate in the battle).
  2. It seems to locate blame on evil Powers and attributing too much goodness and innocence to us.
  3. Linked to this, it can “give Christians a pass” from responsibility for our own actions.

These criticisms have weight, which is why Rutledge welcomes the necessity of Christus Victor to interact with other New Testament motifs. While the overarching apocalyptic framework of the New Testament provides the overall context to understand the cosmic scope of God’s victory at the cross, this is never divorced from atonement for sin and rectification (justification) of sinners.

We need all the motifs to begin to appreciate the cross in all its complex glory.

Next we begin chapter 10 dedicated to a surprising theme for a book on the cross – ‘The Descent into Hell’.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (30) The Apocalyptic War

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 begin here Chapter 9, ‘The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor.

There are two big ideas present here: apocalyptic and the victory of God in Christ.

Both are important to get a grasp of. This post will concentrate on Rutledge’s discussion of apocalyptic and the next couple will then unpack the nature and scope of Christus Victor.


Rutledge’s discussion of apocalyptic is excellent. She is well aware that a title ‘Apocalyptic War’ raises problems:

‘Apocalyptic’ is not a well understood term. How would you say the term ‘apocalyptic’ is understood in popular culture today? Maybe images of cataclysmic end of the world events come to mind? We use the term ‘post-apocalyptic’ to talk of a post-nuclear war global wasteland scenario.

‘War’ raises echoes of Christian militarism that is at odds with the way of Jesus. The world may glorify military action, but Christianity does not.

There is a paradox in the battle imagery between God and his enemies (Satan, powers and principalities) – the battle is in an unseen realm. The ‘concrete’ military images are metaphors for a real spiritual conflict, they do not justify physical war.

The Greek word apokalypsis means “disclosure” or “unveiling” or “revelation” – behind the scenes is a battle, “waged not with worldly weapons but with the spiritual armour of God.” (349) (Eph. 6:11-17).

The key to getting a grip on apocalyptic is the idea of disruption, ‘newness’, or discontinuity. God is acting from another sphere of reality to do a new thing – this ‘invasion’ is a ‘revelation’ or apocalypse.

This is God’s work – it owes nothing to human action. And so the cross is very much an apocalyptic event. It is radically discontinuous, it is unexpected, shocking and creates a new reality.

My comments – Yes, the New Testament writers later interpret the cross, in light of the resurrection, through the lens of the OT, as fulfilling God’s plan of redemption and his promise to Abraham in particular. There is a grand biblical narrative that unfolds – ‘The Drama of Scripture’ as Bartholomew and Goheen put it. Unpacking this great narrative is N. T. Wright’s greatest contribution to NT studies.

But the cross is still an apocalyptic event. There is continuity, but this continuity is only ‘revealed’ afterwards.

The cross also reveals things previously unknown about God himself – he is ‘God crucified’ to use Moltmann’s term. It is in the cross that God himself is revealed more deeply and more ‘nakedly’ than ever before – in love, judgement and profound self-sacrificial love.

Back to Rutledge –

Here is the vital center of the Christian gospel, and it is accessible to anyone seeking to know Christ. The purpose of this chapter is to set forth the New Testament picture of the crucified and risen Lord at the head of his heavenly host, and thereby to hint at the confidence and hope that this perspective affords. (353)

Rutledge takes us on a quick tour of recent developments in NT studies and particularly the ‘rediscovery’ of apocalyptic as a way of understanding the radical newness of the New Testament.

Another aside – I have recently written a chapter related to this on ‘Eschatology’ for the second edition of The Face of New Testament Studies, to be published this year, so am interested in Rutledge’s take on things here. There is a big debate going on about the place of apocalyptic in understanding the NT.

9780802875457See for example this book just published by McKnight and Modica, Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives. They include Lutheran, New Perspective, Apocalyptic and Participationist.

As so often in academic debates (!) where people mark out distinctive theologies there can be needless dichotomies created between different ‘perspectives’. No ‘all or nothing’ approach works – there is much overlap between each.

There is a distinction between ‘apocalyptic’ and eschatology.

Eschatology (eschaton, ‘end’) is not just the study of ‘last things’ (as too often it has been relegated to be) but is a theological way of thinking about the way God’s kingdom inter-relates to the created order. The two overlap and one day will be unified

‘May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

‘Apocalyptic’ is more focused on the ‘invasion’ of God’s action in the world – a pervasive discontinuity with what has gone before. This is why N T Wright is cautious about apocalyptic being overstated – he sees it as over-emphasising the disconnections between OT and NT, whereas he has spent his career arguing for those narrative connections and against Christians reading the NT as it the OT was irrelevant!

Rutledge summarises the approaches of two scholars, J. C. Beker and J. Louis Martyn.

Beker is (rightly in my view) arguing against an individualising of Paul (much debate around apocalyptic revolves around Paul) that tends to domesticate the gospel to therapeutic healing of one person at a time. The ‘battlefield’ includes this but is on a much bigger cosmic scale.

Martyn’s themes are drawn together by Rutledge this way:

  • The cross/resurrection is new thing (apocalypse), which calls into being a new reality
  • There is discontinuity between OT and NT – law, Israel, Messiah etc are reinterpreted. The key idea here is there was NOT a nice tidy progressive narrative

    “it was a dramatic rescue bid into which God has flung his entire self’ (Martyn, 355 Rutledge)

  • God acts in the world from ‘outside’ –

‘The Christ event is … the invasion of this world by Another’ (356)

  • The cross confronts hostile forces – is it God, humanity and the Powers. There is a war, there are enemies to be defeated.
  • The scope of apocalyptic is ‘bifocal’ – it holds the tension between the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) and the age to come – of New Creation.

9780801098536Other voices in this discussion include Philip Ziegler who since Rutledge’s book has published Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology.

The big theme of this focus on apocalyptic is how the cross/resurrection and gospel itself is no human philosophy or religious scheme of thought – it is, at heart, almighty God’s revelation of himself within his creation.

This is why, I argue, Paul so often talks of the gospel as a ‘mystery’ that has now been revealed. A mystery that absolutely no-one saw coming.

What are some pastoral implications do you think if God is absolutely ‘other’ and has chosen to reveal himself and win his victory over sin, death and the Devil in an utterly unexpected way?