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!