LENT 2021. The Crucifixion. Fleming Rutledge. Justice and Judgement (4)

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

In this post we finish chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

Rutledge moves on in the final section of this chapter to discuss justice / righteousness.

You may be aware that these two very different English words come from the same Greek word group. Justify, justification, righteousness, just, justice, righteous are all derived from the same root in Greek

So justice and righteousness are effectively, in the NT, the same thing. But we do not read them that way in English. We tend to think of the ‘righteousness of God’ as his holiness often in contrast to our unrighteousness / unholiness (pre-conversion Luther)

But the crucial thing to grasp here is that God’s righteousness is best understood as a VERB not a noun. It refers to the power of God to make things right. He acts ‘rightly’ to ‘rightify’ we may say.

This is why Rutledge prefers ‘rectification’ instead of ‘justification’ – it better captures this sense of God putting things right.

So, what difference does this make? Well, two aspects of God’s righteousness are brought out

  1. God’s Righteousness as loving pursuit

Rutledge gives the example of Hosea 11 – Yahweh pursuing his Bride in order to restore their relationship. So we can think of God’s righteousness in more relational and restorative terms than that of the law court.

The righteousness of God is not a static, remorseless attribute against which human beings fling themselves in vain. Nor is it like that of a judge who dispenses impersonal justice according to some legal norm. (136)

  1. God’s righteousness as ‘aggressive action’

But the other side of God’s loving pursuit is what Rutledge calls his ‘aggressive action’ to restore righteousness. The example of Isaiah 1:24-27 is given, but Rutledge could have stayed in Hosea. It perfectly captures the double-sided nature of God’s righteousness. It tells the story of God’s astonishing love for his unfaithful people, but also contains more warnings of awful judgement than practically any other prophetic book.

Rutledge contends that even God’s judgement is restorative – the overriding goal is renewal and justice – and that means ‘smelting away impurities and the removal of alloy’ (137)

God’s Righteousness as apocalyptic intervention

Rutledge goes to lengths to make the point that by the end of the OT, this longing for justice – of restoration and renewal – had effectively come to a dead end. Post-exile Israel could only hope for divine intervention. Righteousness could only come from God, not from within

Justice and righteousness are not human possibilities. And this brings us to Jesus, the arrival of the Kingdom of God and his death on the cross.

In the final analysis, the crucifixion of Christ for the sin of the world reveals that it is not only the victims of oppression of injustice who are in need of God’s deliverance, but also the victimizers. (141)

… all are under the Power of Sin. In the sight of God, everyone is need of deliverance .. (142)

This means that God’s action at the cross is the unique and shocking place where loving pursuit and aggressive action against Sin come together.

Nothing else, no other method of execution, no other death, could achieve such justice.

The wrath of God, which plays such a large role in both Old and New Testaments, can be embraced because it comes wrapped in God’s mercy.

The wrath of God falls upon God himself, by God’s own choice, out of God’s own love.

God, in Christ on the cross has become one with those who are despised and outcast in the world. No other method of execution that the world has ever known could have established this so conclusively. (143)

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

God’s love vs God’s wrath? (1)

When’s the last time you heard a sermon really engaging with themes of divine wrath and judgment (rather than just a passing reference)?

How do you understand how the love and wrath of God relate to one another?

This is no abstract question. How you answer it will have profound implications for your view of God and of the ‘morality’ of Christianity for a start.

This post, and a couple more follow-ons, is prompted by reviewing for a journal two recent books on divine wrath and love. I’ll get to them later. I’m also engaging with Tony Lane’s (who taught me theology many years ago!) important book chapter ‘The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God’, in Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), Nothing Greater Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 138–167.

For many, the idea of the wrath of God puts them off Christianity altogether – it’s primitive and repulsive.

Generally within the church, wrath is mentioned rarely if at all.

In many churches I’d wager you could go years without hearing teaching on the wrath of God. One writer wryly draws this parallel

Most preachers and most composers of prayers today treat the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God very much as the Victorians treated sex. It is there, but it must never be alluded to because it is in an undefined way shameful ..

R. P. C. Hanson, God: Creator, Saviour, Spirit (London: S.C.M., 1960), p. 37.

The Bible has a lot to say about the love of God. While there are major debates to be had about what it means that God is a God of love, few (if any?) Christians would question the idea that ‘God is love’ in principle. After all, John states ‘God is love’ categorically, twice.

And love is so deeply woven into the biblical narrative that to try to imagine Christianity (or Judaism) without love at the centre of ethics and worship is pretty well impossible. God’s love for his people and his world, human love for God in response, and human love for one another, form three great strands of the Bible story.

But Christians start to diverge widely when it comes to the wrath of God. A number of responses can be observed, and these are just sketches, not comprehensive descriptions.

i) Love and wrath opposed to one another

This is where God is disassociated from from the ‘lower’ attribute of wrath. Love is effectively opposed to wrath.  Wrath is not an admirable quality: it smacks too much of vengeance and is a destructive emotion, ‘unworthy’ of a God of infinite love.

To make a coherent serious case for this view would require significant reinterpretation and re-reading of a wealth of biblical texts that have no problem attributing both wrath and love to God. For example, portrayals of a God of wrath in Scripture are crude anthropomorphisms – human authors attributing all too human-emotions and actions to God. And we have now moved on from such limited perspectives.

Or you could go the full-on Marcion route and set up the wrathful God of the OT against the loving God of (parts of) the NT. The latter rescues us from the former.

As already mentioned, much more common, is an unspoken denial of the wrath of God. Quite simply it is never talked about and such a silence says a thousand words. Wrath has become a taboo subject.

But why is the church today so reticent about talking about wrath?

I think several factors are at play

– the belief that the attribute of wrath does not belong to a God whose defining attribute is love. Love and wrath do not mix.

– Christians being shaped and formed by a contemporary culture that prizes tolerance, inclusiveness, diversity and love, and which, as a result, has little place for the moral judgments associated with divine wrath

– An Enlightenment mentality (Tony Lane), in which humanity stands at the centre of reality, imagines a God (if he exists) who is like a cheerleader for human progress, not transcendent and holy God to whom everyone is accountable

– A sentimental view of God and love, emptied out of theological depth and detached from the biblical narrative, that has no capacity to integrate divine love and wrath. Instead, God is assumed to be a benevolent, kindly force, depersonalised to such an extent that ‘God is love’ becomes ‘love is God’.

ii) Love and wrath detached

A second response emphasizes wrath as an inevitable and impersonal consequence of human self-destructive behaviour. A cause-and-effect process that results in our human sin, selfishness, disobedience and injustice bringing judgment upon ourselves.

This view does not deny a connection between God and wrath. But it decouples wrath from God’s personal response to human rebellion. God is left somewhat ‘out of the picture’, allowing wrath to be experienced due to self-destructive human behaviour but not being personally wrathful. Indeed he has done everything imaginable (the cross) so that humans he has created and loves do not experience the inevitable consequences of their own actions.

The classic proponent of this view is C. H. Dodd (1959). God is detached from ‘the irrational passion of anger’.  The concern is to distance God from all-too-human destructive, angry and emotional reactions to displeasing behaviour.

There’s a lot to be said for this view.

– Great care is needed not to project human limitations on to God. God is not irrational, arbitrary or capricious, nor vindictive or petty, delighting in pouring out his wrath on his enemies. Especially in the past, there was no shortage of preaching and teaching which did portray God in exactly such terms – with horrible results.

– Dodd is right that much language of wrath in the NT does depersonalise it in terms of a process that culminates in inevitable judgment (a future day of wrath). In Paul, divine anger (thymos) appears alongside wrath (orgē) only once (Rom 2:8). Wrath is more like a condition everyone is under but can be redeemed from due to the loving initiative of the triune God revealed in incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

– Most theologians (and I’d put myself in this category) also affirm that there is a fundamental asymmetry between divine love and divine wrath. Love is God’s essential attribute, but wrath is not. By ‘essential attribute’ I mean that which is intrinsic to whom God is in himself. Wrath is ‘secondary’ in that it only exists as his response to something ‘outside’ of God (human sin, forces of evil). ‘God is love’ does not find a parallel in ‘God is wrath’ (thank God!). God is ‘slow to anger’ – the story of the Bible is about God acting to redeem, restore, forgive, heal and warn so that those he loves will not face judgment.

But, while true in what it affirms, Dodd’s view does not do full justice to how the Bible talks about the wrath of God

– Tony Lane notes the irony that while, on the one hand, there is a major move in theology away from divine impassibility (God is beyond emotion, not controlled or influenced by forces outside himself) to affirming that God does indeed feel love, on the other hand there is a simultaneous move away from God personally feeling angry (Dodd).

– It is difficult, in other words, to argue that God’s love is personal and his wrath is not!

– There is also a moral question. What picture does it give of God if he does not feel anger at human injustice? Let’s personalise that question. Does not God feel anger when an adult man sexually abuses a powerless child?

– To be loving is not to be indifferent to evil and suffering – quite the opposite.

– The overwhelming picture of God in Scripture, taking into account anthropocentric language, is of a God who is passionate about justice and personally committed to overcoming all powers that destroy and corrupt his good creation. We see this in the OT but also in the language and teaching of Jesus in the NT. Yes, Paul uses impersonal language to talk of divine wrath, but God is far from a detached observer – he is active in giving people over to wrath (see point 3 – wrath as loving warning).

– Divine wrath is the ‘other side’ of divine love. For God not to feel anger at the corroding and awful impact of human sin would mean he is not a God of love.

– While Dodd did not hold this theology, his view is too close to the ‘watchmaker God’ of Deism who winds up the universe and then in a detached way, watches events unfold.

iii) Wrath as loving warning

A third perspective is divine wrath as loving warning. Here, God is responsible and actively involved in wrath. His anger is directed against specific behaviours that are destructive of his good purposes in the world.

41ca5vx0vcl._sx331_bo1204203200_I’ll talk more of this perspective in a later post. It is argued, for example, by Kevin Kinghorn in his recent book But What About God’s Wrath?: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger. Kevin Kinghorn with Stephen Travis. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2019

Divine wrath takes the form of actively co-ordinating events that bring judgment, especially on God’s disobedient people, Israel. For example, despite multiple prophetic forewarnings, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile become the climatic events of divine judgement in the OT.

As we’ll discuss, this is primarily wrath as a self-chosen experience as a consequence of self-destructive human behaviour. But it differs from Dodd in that God is wrathful (angry) at sin. He is actively responsible for human experience of wrath. But his motive is always for the good of those he loves. His goal is to change behaviour and avert an ultimate self-destructive experience of wrath.

iv) Wrath as foreordained active retribution

A fourth perspective in Christian theology is shaped by a particular understanding of divine sovereignty characteristic of Augustine, Calvin and much subsequent Reformed dogmatics. If God is the ultimate sovereign over every single event, then responsibility for divine wrath is taken ‘all the way’ to its logical end.

This results in Calvin’s self-confessedly ‘dreadful decree’ of double predestination.

(And let me add here this was not a big theme in Calvin. His writing is frequently pastoral and theologically enriching. He is a profound theologian of the Spirit and of union with Christ. Double predestination was one ‘logical’ outworking of his theology of divine sovereignty, not the core of his theology. But, having said this, it is also one of the most unfortunate aspects of his theological legacy).

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.

https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxii.html

Somehow, God’s good purposes are furthered by this scenario. Somehow, there is something good, something of value, in God foreordaining people to ‘eternal damnation’.

This is a long way beyond an experience of wrath as ‘self-chosen’ and even further from wrath as an impersonal ’cause and effect’ process. It also goes beyond wrath as God’s ‘warning shout’ to humanity. Rather, it is God actively fore-ordaining multitudes to an experience of divine wrath and judgment.

How this is reconciled with ‘God is love’ is hard to explain – to put it mildly.

Those following Calvin here have tried at great length of course, typically referring to themes of holiness, glory and mystery.

But, to my mind, it is attempting to defend the indefensible. Double predestination is incompatible with any coherent understanding of a loving heavenly Father. What loving father would create children for such a fate?

Comments, as ever welcome.

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 (29) The wrath of God understood pastorally

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 zones in on one issue raised within Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’ – the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

And, in a very big chapter, we are going to focus in on one issue that Rutledge discusses along the way – that of the wrath of God.

The wrath of God is linked to both the law court (we are guilty) and to the larger apocalyptic framework of his war against Sin and evil Powers.

It is impossible, I think, to take the Bible seriously and not face head-on the way that God’s wrath is integral to both Old and New Testaments.

Hundreds of texts could be referenced. Rutledge refers to Isaiah 13:11-13. One I find particularly sobering is Isaiah 63 – which reappears in revelation 19:13, this time referring to Jesus as the divine warrior whose robe is dipped in blood.

Why are your garments red,
like those of one treading the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone;
from the nations no one was with me.
I trampled them in my anger
and trod them down in my wrath;
their blood spattered my garments,
and I stained all my clothing.
It was for me the day of vengeance;
the year for me to redeem had come.
I looked, but there was no one to help,
I was appalled that no one gave support;
so my own arm achieved salvation for me,
and my own wrath sustained me.
I trampled the nations in my anger;
in my wrath I made them drunk
and poured their blood on the ground.”

Revelation 19:11-16

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

king of kings and lord of lords.

This is a long way from ‘Jesus meek and mild’.

Rutledge acknowledges that such texts have all but disappeared from mainline USA churches but argues that

“It takes effort and risk to sit with these verses in order to study or teach them, but if we do not, we are left with sentimentality instead of transformation.” (322)

If creation is to be set to rights this means there must be a day of reckoning,

“a conclusive judgment upon and rejection of all that threatens God’s eternal plan.’ (322)

This poses a challenge for preachers and teachers today not to give a distorted picture of the nature of God. His wrath

“is always exercised in the service of God’s good purposes. It is the unconditional love of God manifested against anything that would frustrate or destroy the designs of his love.” (323)

Consider Romans 5:8-10 – how do you read this text?

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Is it to be read chronologically? Namely:

  1. We were God’s enemies
  2. We needed to be saved from his wrath
  3. Now ‘justified by his blood’ we were reconciled
  4. God’s wrath has now been lifted.

Rutledge argues that this chronological view is a “misleading reading of the passage” (323). What do you make of her interpretation here?

“God did not change his mind about us on account of the cross or on any other account. He did not need to have his mind changed. He was never opposed to us. It is not his opposition to us but our opposition to him that had to be overcome, and the only way it could be overcome was from God’s side, by God’s initiative, from inside human flesh – the human flesh of his Son.” (323)

Rutledge is keen to avoid here any sense of ‘schizophrenia’ in God (if I may be so bold to use such an image). She does not say this, but close to the surface here is a concern with creating an impression that God has to overcome his wrath in himself by taking out that wrath on his Son.

Rather,

“The divine hostility, or wrath of God, has always been an aspect of his love. It is not separate from God’s love, it is not opposite to God’s love, it is not something in God that has to be overcome.” (323)

To which I say, Amen.