Review: Three Hours

Three Hours

Three Hours: Sermons for Good FridayFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: Short messages on the “seven last words” of Christ on the cross, preached on Good Friday of 2018.

One of the ways churches have remembered the death of Christ on the cross on what is called Good Friday is through a three hour service from noon until 3 pm, usually organized around the seven “words” of Jesus from the cross, interspersed with liturgy, hymns, prayers, and silence.

Fleming Rutledge gave seven meditations on these “seven last words” at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York City on Good Friday, March 30, 2018. These meditations were published, with little alteration earlier this year, and served as my own Good Friday meditations this past Friday.

Each of these short meditations left me with a thought for reflection. This may or may not have been Rutledge’s focus, but I share these as much to capture them for myself, as well as to give you a taste of what is here. There is much more to each short meditation than my summary thought!

Luke 23:32-34. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” What about those who know what they are doing, as is the case for all of us at times? Christ is the one who died to justify the ungodly!

Luke 23:39-43. “Verily, I say unto thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” We speculate much about the afterlife. We focus little on what it means when Jesus says that it will be “with him.” “In his presence is fullness of joy!”

John 19: 26-27. “Woman, behold thy son!…Behold thy mother!” Two unrelated believers become kin. “There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus” (p, 32).

Matthew 27:45-46. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus “steered toward the pain” and plumbed the very bottom of despair and alienation as he “became sin” and surrendered to Death. This is the one who has defeated Death and Hell, whose love, nothing can separate us from.

John 19:28-29. “I thirst.” Water is life. Living water is nothing less than real water–the water from Jesus side along with his life-giving blood. The one who thirsted now says, “come to the water.”

John 19:29-30. “It is finished.” Rutledge writes, “The crucifixion is not just an unfortunate thing that happened to Jesus on his way to the resurrection. It is not a momentary blip on the arc of his ascent to the Father. John tells us otherwise. It is precisely on the cross that the work of Jesus is carried through to its completion” (p. 67). Tetelestai!

Luke 23:44-46. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” In Flannery O’Connor’s words quoted here, “The creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ.” We each may commend our lives to the Father through this Son.

It was the reading of Rutledge’s magnificent study on the crucifixion (review) that prompted me to buy this book. In much briefer form, I found the same depth of thoughtfulness, and elegance and economy of words. More than this, I was led to meditate through the Seven Words on the meaning of the cross–who Christ died for, the community Christ established, the hope of being “with him,” and the cross as the consummation of Christ’s work. I found myself stopping again and again and saying, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

This review comes too late for you to read this on Good Friday in 2019. But it is far from too late to acquire and read this book, particularly if you rushed through Passion Week preparing for Easter, or to have on hand for next year. This book will bear multiple readings and I look forward to returning to it again and again.

 

Review: The Crucifixion

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The CrucifixionFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: A study of the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus including the biblical motifs that have been used to express that meaning.

It is striking to consider how relatively few books in recent Christian publishing deeply explore the meaning of the death of Christ by crucifixion, particularly considering that the death and the resurrection are central to Christian proclamation. Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion goes a long way to remedying this deficit.

This is a large book, but I would encourage the prospective reader not to be daunted by the size. While rich in insight, it is also a model of clarity, among the very best theological books I have read, both worthy of the academy, and written for the people of God.

The book consists of two parts. The first considers the crucifixion, particularly the godless character of this brutal execution, and the critical importance of this horrible execution as primary to the Christian faith. Rutledge also deals in this part with the biblical understanding of justice as the setting right, or rectifying, of something that is radically wrong, and that this something is the radical power of Sin over humanity. She makes a case that Anselm’s version of “satisfaction” is actually closer to her idea of rectification than he is credited for.

The second part of the book (about 400 pages) explores eight biblical motifs of the crucifixion that, together, help us understand the meaning of the crucifixion and what God accomplished in Christ on the cross. Rutledge prefers the language of motif to the more common language of theory because she believes all of these work together, rather than at odds with each other, to convey the glorious significance of the work of Christ. The motifs are:

  • The Passover and the Exodus
  • The Blood Sacrifice
  • Ransom and Redemption
  • The Great Assize
  • The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor
  • The Descent into Hell
  • The Substitution
  • Recapitulation

She would contend that these show two basic things that happen in the cross:

  1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin.
  2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.

There are several things about her treatment of these motifs that are quite wonderful. One is that she reintroduces into theological conversation terms we are often averse to speak of: blood, ransom, judgment, hell, and substitution among others. Two is that she helps us see through these terms both the gravity of the human condition and how Christ truly has paid what we could not and triumphed over sin and evil, breaking their power and hold on humanity. These terms tell us essentially that we are worse off than we thought, and that is good news because God has done what we could not. Finally, she retrieves the language of substitution from the disparagement that it has become popular to pile upon it, while acknowledging the problems in some formulations. She beautifully unites the idea of Christ’s substitutionary death for us and Christ’s victory of the power of Sin, Evil, and Death (she capitalizes these terms reflecting the idea of these as powers). Instead of opposing these two ideas, she sees substitution as the basis of the victory of Jesus. I also found her treatment of Christus Victor as far more compelling than Aulen, in her linkage of this idea with the apocalyptic war.

The conclusion of the work returns to the beginning and amplifies these themes with the motifs she has developed. She emphasizes again the uniqueness of Christianity as the account of the Son of God who not only dies to redeem, but does so facing utter contempt and horrible suffering. And she emphasizes that this work makes right what was wrong. What she does in this conclusion is draw out the implications of these ideas. All the distinctions humans make are muted in the face of this work. All of us are in the same predicament, and this work of Christ addresses the wrongs in all of us, banal or horrid, and sets things right. This is not “God loves you just as you are” as we blithely love to say. The gruesomeness of the death of Christ reflected the cost to God necessary to set things to rights in breaking sin’s curse and power, and the horror reflects the power of this act to address the condition of even those who have done the most horrid.

What she is saying is that it is all of grace, all of God. In summary, she writes:

“Forgiveness is not enough. Belief in redemption is not enough. Wishful thinking about the intrinsic goodness of every human being is not enough. Inclusion is not a sufficiently inclusive message, nor does it deliver real justice. There are some things–many things–that must be condemned and set right if we are to proclaim a God of both justice and mercy. Only a Power independent of this world order can overcome the grip of the Enemy of God’s purposes for his creation” (p. 610).

This is what the crucifixion accomplished. Not only are individuals justified (or rectified) through this work, but all the injustices of the world are atoned for, and the process of setting these right has begun. Both the preaching of justification by grace, and the preaching of the restoration of justice find their warrant in the cross and are not at odds.

Rutledge does not come out and say this, but an implication of her “inclusiveness” is the possibility of the ultimate “rectification” even of those who have resisted the proclamation of rectification, as in her treatment of the Jews in Romans 9-11. Elsewhere she speaks of the final annihilation of Satan and those given over to him, but here she speaks of Christ’s death as an outcast as redeeming even those on the outside. She admits (p. 459, note) to struggling with Matthew 25:46 and Jesus’s own statement about eternal punishment. Perhaps this restrains her, as it does me, from asserting a final universal “rectification” of all people, but she comes very close. What is clear is that, for her, this arises from her expansive understanding both of the utter helplessness of all of us to save ourselves, without distinction, and the utter greatness of God to save through the cross of Christ. Perhaps in the end, this is a call to humility, of leaving these matters in God’s hand, and never presuming upon but utterly trusting in the grace of this God.

Without question, this was perhaps the most profound theological work I’ve read in at least the last five years. It made me look again at the uniqueness of Christ and his work on the cross. It made me think deeply not only of why Jesus died, but why he did so in such a horrid way. It made me think, and question, the ways I’ve formulated my understanding of the work of the cross and particularly challenged me to think more about the victory of Christ on the cross over the power of Sin, as well as his atonement for the guilt of sin. This was a marvelous work to read in this season of Lent.

In addition to this review, I’ve written three reflections on portions of this work that may be accessed at:

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/03/22/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-one/

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/03/27/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-two-a/

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/04/04/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-two-b/

 

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part Two-B

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWell, I’ve finished The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge. I will be doing a full review of the book tomorrow, but for today, want to capture and share some of my reflections on the last third of the book, leaving discussion of the Conclusion to my review tomorrow.

The last third of the book is a continuation of Rutledge’s discussion of motifs of the crucifixion and focuses on just three of these: the descent into hell, substitution, and recapitulation, with discussions of the first two lengthy enough that she provided an outline at the beginning of each chapter. I will share a few reflections from each.

The descent into hell. It was fascinating that she would embark on such a lengthy discussion of a motif found in but a handful of verses. For Rutledge this serves as the pretext to explore not only the idea of “hell” in scripture and the development of the doctrine throughout church history. Her aim is to take a hard look at the reality of and problem of evil, and how Christ’s death and resurrection have cosmic implications that prefigure the final destruction of the power of Sin, Evil, Death, and Satan and his domain, where the nothingness of these will finally be confirmed in their utter annihilation. Perhaps most striking for me is her assertion that we cannot speak of meaning when it comes to evil, that it is the negation of meaning. Her discussion of the radical nature of evil, that runs through every life sets up her discussion of what she might call Christ’s substitutionary victory (she so closely links these). It gives the lie to any human distinctions of righteous and wicked, and the folly of human pretensions to innocence. She writes: “The unalloyed proclamation of Scripture is that the death and resurrection of Christ is the hinge of history. It is the unique old-world-overturning and new-world-constituting event that calls every human project into question–including especially our religious projects” (p. 461).

The Substitution. This is a marvelous chapter that everyone who derides the idea of substitution should read. Rutledge traces this history of the motif, not going to classic proof texts like 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 but to Romans, to Galatians 3:10-14, and Isaiah 53 and its use in the New Testament. She explores how Christ’s death is both for us and in our place. She surveys the development of the motif in history and the objections that are raised, which often reflect formulations that are problematic, but are not ultimately the underlying reason for rejection of substitution, which she argues reflects our aversion to substitution’s “recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgement on it” (p. 506). She turns to Barth and the idea of “The Judge Judged in Our Place” and the idea that the Godhead is the acting subject of substitution, the agent accomplishing this in God’s self to undo the curse of Sin. What is striking in Rutledge is how she develops in all of this an understanding of substitution, not in opposition to the idea of Christus Victor, but as the means of the victory of Jesus, uniting these two motifs in a splendid display of the glory of God.

Recapitulation. This follows from substitution, in tracing the idea that Christ is the second Adam; that his incarnation, baptism, obedience of faith in the power of the Spirit, death, and victory over death recapitulate in a transformative way, the life of Adam, as Christ represents all of humanity as Adam did, but for our redemption. I love her conclusion here:

“This is what Jesus did. He rewrote the book of love. We are the ‘ugly people’ who put Jesus on the cross, but he is going to give us all his riches nevertheless….Because he has rewritten the story, we are no longer prisoners of our worst selves, nor of the evil powers that would destroy us. At any moment of our lives, God may break through with yet another miracle of rewriting. And laughter will resound from the farthest reaches of the created universe: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4)” (p. 570).

What all three of these chapters underscore is that, as G. K. Chesterton has put it, we are what is wrong with the world, and utterly incapable of ourselves in setting things to rights, and that God, in Christ rectifies, or sets to right by sheer grace what we could never deserve or accomplish.

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part Two-A

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddI have continued to revel in the richness of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. What I so appreciate is the marvelous way in which she draws various aspects of the biblical story together into a coherent narrative rather than as simply disparate parts. One of the passages that reflects this, from the second part of her book, considers the love and wrath of God, and is some of the finest thinking and writing I’ve come across:

“God did not need to 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 the Son. 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 God’s love, it is not something in God that had to be overcome” (p. 323).

The focus of Part Two of the book is on motifs of the crucifixion. This reflection will cover the first half of Part Two up through the motif of the Apocalyptic War. In an introduction to this section, she summarizes these motifs under two categories:

  1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin. In this section, this included chapters on the blood sacrifice (6) and ransom and redemption (7).
  2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death. The chapters that would fall here are those on Passover and Exodus (5), the Great Assize (8), and the Apocalyptic War (9), the later two being closely related for Rutledge.

Rutledge challenges our thinking at every point. Her chapters on blood sacrifice and ransom and redemption get at our squeamishness about the imagery of blood and the idea of a price being paid, which sounds like Jesus paying a price to change God’s mind, justifying the charge of divine child abuse. Instead, Rutledge defends the idea of redemption as deliverance by purchase–that the focus of Christ’s death, as in the quote above, was not on changing God, but on addressing our quandary, but at a cost that involved God investing God’s self.

Likewise, in the chapter on blood sacrifice, she notes the pervasiveness of blood and sacrificial imagery in scripture, but challenges our literalism, that we do not grasp the metonymy in which the term blood stands in for its effect, God’s provision for human restoration. She explores the idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and the superiority of Christ in every way, including his self-sacrifice, in Hebrews. In this chapter she also folds in discussions on scapegoats, the lamb of God, and the binding of Isaac, one of the passages I’ve always wrestled with. She notes how Abraham is the only one ever asked to give up a son, and that God himself does what Abraham does not do because of the substitute provided.

I have to think more about her chapter on the Great Assize. She helpfully notes our fears of judgment excluding some and not others in an era where the watchword is inclusion. Her contention is that the biblical narrative proclaims all under judgment–that there are no “good” or “bad.” She also notes the communal nature of judgment–peoples, tribes, nations, societies will be judged. She argues, however that this is not a mere forensic situation but rather one in which people are held in the power, as well as are under the guilt, of sin. Rutledge makes an argument here that to make people right, it takes both an apocalyptic deliverance from the Power of Sin that holds people in bondage, as well as justification, which she translates as “wording people into righteousness” — a vivid picture of the power of God’s saving word to effect what it declares, through Christ.

This leads to her chapter on the apocalyptic battle and the theme of Christus Victor, first developed by Gustav Aulen. I have to be honest and found Rutledge far more compelling than at least what I remember of Aulen. The basic focus here is that in the cross, God acts in Christ to decisively defeat the Enemy and break the Power of Sin and Death in the death and resurrection of Jesus, bringing about new creation, both already, and to be fully revealed.

As I reflect on all of this, it is making me re-examine my almost exclusive focus on substitutionary atonement and the forensic aspects of justification, or as Rutledge would describe it, rectification. What I find heartening is that Rutledge does not join those dismissive of substitution or the forensic aspects of justification, showing how these motifs are indeed important, even essential, to our understanding of crucifixion. At the same time, she challenges me to think about the victory of Jesus over the power of sin, death, and Satan, in the cross and resurrection. I think of this pastorally. I find people, myself included, wrestle as much with the power of sin as they do their guilt before God. A work of the cross that addresses both is indeed critical, it seems to me, for truly setting to rights our human condition.

I feel I’ve only scratched the surface in these reflections–there is so much more here than I’ve been able to capture including her discussion of the passover and exodus, her discussion of the place of reconciliation, and how one may both embrace pacifism and yet draw great hope from the apocalyptic war of the Lamb. Perhaps the mentions of these things and my brief summary of this part of the book may whet your appetite to dig into it yourself!

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part One

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I’ve taken a break from reviewing new books I’ve received from publishers for a short while to immerse myself in what may be the most significant theological book published in the last ten years. It was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2017. I thought it appropriate in this season of Lent to finally dig into Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion“Dig in” is not inappropriate for this 612 page (plus bibliography and indices) study on the central event of Christianity. The work is made lighter by Rutledge’s elegant and accessible prose–this is a work of meaty theology meant for those in the pew and not merely the academy. It is such a rich book that I thought I would write several reflections in addition to my usual review to capture, at least for myself, something of the richness of this work. This is on the first two hundred pages, most of Part One of the book.

Right at the start, Rutledge contends for the primacy of the cross, and the challenge Christianity has always faced from various forms of gnosticism, and its devaluation of material life, including the very physical act of a crucifixion in history. In place of an action of the Triune God entering human history to make things right by a gory death, human beings prefer systems of attaining to hidden spiritual knowledge through human achievements, and the devaluation of the body. She notes that Christians have even drawn back, sometimes accepting narratives of the cross as divine child abuse, which she will contend reflects neither the shared will and agreement of the Trinity in the act of the cross, nor the object of the cross, making things right for those under the power of Sin.

She made a statement stunning in its clarity in her chapter on “The Godlessness of the Cross.” She writes in response to those who would ban the cross as a religious object that “[t]he cross is by a very long way the most irreligious object to find its way into the heart of faith.” She then explores at length the horror of the cross as an instrument of torture, degradation, and execution for the dregs of criminal society. the significance of the idea of those who die on a cross being under the curse, and explores the question of why God would choose such a horrific form of death to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes in the world. I’ve often asked the question “why did Jesus die?” What this book is challenging me with is the question of why did Jesus die in this particularly gruesome and horrific fashion?

She begins to explore a response to this in discussing the idea of justice. She notes that “[g]ross injustice demonstrates a basic premise: in our world, something is terribly wrong and cries out to be put right.” She uses the example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to show that “putting things right” involves something far different from the “forgive and forget” idea we sometimes think of in God’s work through Christ. It involves accountable truthfulness about atrocities, both confessing wrongs and hearing from one’s victims. Yet the object isn’t punishment, which can never be proportional to the offenses, but a new creation. She goes on to explore the biblical word group connected to dikaiosyne, variously translated as “justice,” “righteous,” “righteousness,” and “justification.” She contends that the underlying idea is one of God making things right and suggests that “rectify” in its various forms may be a better English word and uses this in the remainder of the book. She argues that the cross is an apocalyptic event–a divine intervention that makes right what could not be made right by human law-keeping.

One of the striking emphases here that I sense will run through the work is the gracious initiative of God. Later, in a chapter on “The Gravity of Sin” (a topic she admits we have a hard time talking about) she contends “[t]here is no way to help people to the knowledge of sin except to offer the news of God’s ‘prevenient’ purpose in overcoming sin through the cross.” Countering our tendency  to put repentance first, she argues for an order of “grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace.” It is in grasping the grace of God revealed in the cross that we understand the enormity of our sin. It is understanding the mighty work of the cross in delivering us from the power of sin that we are moved to repentance and realize the sheer pardon into new life we enjoy by grace.

This chapter also develops an idea she has hinted at, of capital S Sin. We often think of particular acts. She develops the idea of Sin as a Power, a principle of rebellion that holds people captive, that there is a power of darkness over the human heart in all of us that helps explain the horrors of what humans do to each other. And it begins to explain why the Triune God chose the instrumentality of the cross to deliver us from this horrid power. This is hard stuff. It strikes me that this helps explain our obsession with explaining why people commit mass shootings and other atrocities. We look for some “reason,” perhaps because we do not want to face the reality of the reason-defying logic of human evil, and the scary possibility that it is not so far from any of us. Yet there is also the wonder that in the Cross, God, in the innocent Son, becomes the object of human evil to set to rights what was terribly wrong in us that we could not self-rectify.

One other aspect of this work, in a “bridge” chapter on Anselm, is that she argues that Anselm has been misunderstood as a proponent of penal suffering. She argues that his idea of “satisfaction” is much closer to what she is proposing as “rectification.” It makes me want to go back and read Cur Deus Homo to see if her reading of Anselm can be supported. In the second part of the book she will go on to discuss eight “motifs” for understanding the crucifixion, including substitution. Given her comments on Anselm, and her sensitivities to the accusations against penal substitution, as well as her defense of the death of Christ as a work of love in which the Triune God acted as one, I am curious how she will weight these different “motifs” (she disdains the terminology of “theories of the atonement”) and what she will conclude. Already, it is clear that for her, this will all point to the idea of rectification, of God putting right what was wrong through Christ.

I don’t know whether I will agree with all that Rutledge writes, but this work forces me to look with fresh eyes at what easily becomes too familiar. She helps us to face the skandalon of the cross lost in our back-lit crosses and eye-catching PowerPoints. She confronts us both with things about human nature that are uncomfortable, and the relentless determination of God to address what is terribly wrong with the world and put it right, which is quite wonderful.