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.

Review: The Cross and Christian Ministry

the cross and christian ministry

The Cross and Christian MinistryD. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (repackaged edition, originally published 1993).

Summary: In these expositions from 1 Corinthians, Carson sets forth the cruciform character of biblically faithful Christian ministry.

In the 1990’s, D. A. Carson published several collections of expositions. Recently Baker has begun “repackaging” them. Recently I reviewed The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus. The Cross and Christian Ministry is another of these repackaged works that I am glad is receiving a new lease on life. What Carson says about the cruciform character of Christian ministry is just as, if not more, relevant today than when these works were first published twenty-five years ago.

This book is a series of expositions from the book of 1 Corinthians, four on the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians and a final one from chapter 9. Each concludes with questions that may be used for reflection or group discussion. In brief, they cover:

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5The Cross and Preaching. He begins by showing how the cross divides humanity as foolishness to the perishing and the power of God for those being saved. It is folly that outsmarts the greatest of human wisdom and yet includes many the world would exclude. He concludes about the message of those who preach, that testifies to God’s work, focuses on Christ crucified and relies on the power of the Spirit. He has pointed comments about those who try to manipulate audiences, particularly in youth ministry.

1 Corinthians 2:6-16The Cross and the Holy Spirit. This message notes three contrasts in the passage:

  1. Between those who receive God’s Wisdom and those who do not.
  2. Between the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world.
  3. Between the “natural person and the “spiritual” person.

He concludes by observing that the work of the Holy Spirit is essential for a person truly to understand the cross. We may intellectually grasp the meaning of the cross but nevertheless need the Holy Spirit to illuminate that understanding and overcomes our human resistance to facing our sin and God’s saving work.

1 Corinthians 3, The Cross and Factionalism. Factionalism fundamentally is a sign of Christian immaturity. It fails to realize that leaders are really servants, and will give account for their leadership. Sadly, factionalism both fails to recognize the great work of God, focusing on human beings, and inevitably diminishes the great inheritance we have in Christ as it focuses on only a select aspect of that inheritance. Carson notes that in factionalism, we cut ourselves off from so much that is good and enriching in the rest of the church.

1 Corinthians 4The Cross and Christian Leadership. In this message, Carson explores what it means to be a Christian leader in light of the cross:

  1. It means being entrusted with the “mysteries” of God. Leaders should faithfully fulfill that trust, and others should realize that such leaders are seeking to please God and not stand in judgment of them.
  2. It means living in the light of the cross which meant for Paul following a crucified Lord and embracing suffering.
  3. It means encouraging and enforcing the way of the cross among the people of God. We both help people to grasp the precious significance of the cross, and warn those who presume on the cross and fail to follow Christ in their daily life.

1 Corinthians 9:19-27, The Cross and the World Christian. The term “world Christian” was much used in mission-oriented circles in the 1990’s and might be similar to today’s “missional Christian.” Carson gives a wonderful definition that challenges the contemporary attractions of nativism and tribalism that focuses on either the greatness of one’s country or the pre-eminence of one’s own particular “tribe.”

“The allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom is self-consciously set above all national, cultural, linguistic, and racial allegiances.

Their commitment to the church, Jesus messianic community, is to the church everywhere, wherever the church is truly manifest, and not only to its manifestation on home turf.

They see themselves first and foremost as citizens of the heavenly kingdom and therefore consider all other citizenship a secondary matter.

As a result, they are single-minded and sacrificial when it comes to the paramount mandate to evangelize and make disciples” (p. 133).

Carson emphasizes from the text that such people understand their freedom and their constraints in Christ; they do not stand on their “rights”; they set the salvation of others as their aim and understand that there is really no other way to be a Christian.

This collection of messages, originally given at several conferences, are not exegetical commentaries, but rather seek to make clear for both the original audiences and the reader the meaning of the text and its implications. Carson writes with clarity, devotional warmth, and a perceptive eye to application for the contemporary church. He particularly addresses any person in leadership, making us take a hard look at our own character and practice and vision in light of the cross. I’m struck with how well these messages have worn. While certainly one can spy references that are dated, it seemed to me that these messages if anything may be more timely in our own day, because they center around the timeless truth of the cross.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the CrossJohn Frederick. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Contends that worship should be “cross-shaped,” that communities who do so may be formed in service of God and each other. Addresses flawed assumptions, interpersonal relationships, and liturgical elements as these related to cross-shaped worship.

John Frederick, a musician as well as theologian, is deeply disturbed by much of what he sees on the contemporary worship scene. He argues that instead of performances that focus on a rock star worship leader, worship is about the story of Christ and his cross and needs to be shaped by that story to counter the destructive stories of our society. He believes that when this is done consistently bringing elements of music, liturgy, preaching, and Eucharist together, God’s people are formed in the character of Christ, growing in love for God, each other, and the world, expressed in service. He calls this “cruciformation.” and argues that as we encounter Christ in the elements of worship, we become more like the Christ we encounter.

As I noted, he can be critical of the ways worship is often framed. At points, he writes with tongue firmly in cheek, as when he describes the “Karoake Chapel” character of much of the contemporary Christian music scene, where one encounters the same songs sung the same ways in churches across the country. He pleads for artistic integrity and creativity within church communities, and that worship teams stop simply being “cover bands.” He touches on the monocultural worship of many of our churches, built around the homogeneous unit principle, although here, I would commend Sandra Van Opstal’s The Next Worship (reviewed here), which takes the theory of this book and incarnates it with years of praxis. Later, he is critical of “propositional” music and preaching. On this last I would agree these can be sterile, but I’ve also seen many instances, both musically and expositorily where propositions crystallize the sense of narratives, and narratives flesh out and bring to life propositional elements. I wasn’t that keen on him trotting out this hobby horse which just seems one more example of binary, either-or thinking that lacks the creativity and synergy I think Frederick actually values.

Many will find helpful the sections in which he fleshes out what cruciform relationships look like between those who lead worship, the congregation, and the larger pastoral and church leadership team. Also helpful are discussions of how liturgy, prayers, singing and preaching, and communion all help form us in Christ. He helpfully counters the resistance to written prayers and liturgy by observing that we usually do not make up songs or worship on the spot. While these can become formalized, so can “the spontaneous.”

The author has two different voices in this book. One is rather “hip,” witty, and often quite engaging, for example when he interviews a former pastoral team on which he worked about how they worked together, or when he is characterizing the “Karaoke Chapel.”  The other voice feels to me a bit like that of the seminary student displaying facility with the theological jargon of the guild. Yet my sense was that this was not written for academics but for those who lead worship in the church. Consider this short paragraph toward the conclusion:

“Thus the paradigm of redemption by which the cruciformed church is called to bring about the cruciformation of the cosmos is a guiding principle and pattern, rather than a particular application or approach for the renewal of all things. The particular applications of cruciformissional ideation rely on the pneumatic discerning of the Spirit from the heart of the local community and the local church rather than on a pragmatic dictating of successful ministry strategies.” (p. 177)

I found myself wondering how many worship teams would have the inclination to wrap their minds around writing like this (no criticism of the intellectual capacities of worship teams intended!). In addition to a fondness for making up new words (cruciformation, cruciformissional), the language felt abstract and obscure. Another example in the section on liturgy is “the ecclesio-pneumatic ideation of Jesus Christ.” He even invokes the cool-sounding name and work of a German scholar, Wolfgang Iser. He actually is making quite an important point in this in talking about how the church (“ecclesio-“), through engaging the texts of liturgy, music, and scripture (ideation), by the power of the Spirit (pneumatic), encounters and is shaped by Christ. I’m hoping that others will make it through the thicket of language to get the point he is making.

I make this criticism because I think Frederick has a contribution to make in moving worship beyond the banal sameness of much of contemporary Christian music and the cult of the superstar worship leader. He wants us to focus in all the elements of worship on Christ and he is passionate about this because he is convinced it will transform people to be more like the Christ they worship together. I hope that he will work on writing in the way of the cross, which may mean putting to death some scholarly prose to make these important ideas more accessible to those who lead worship in our churches.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: To The Cross

To The Cross

To The Cross, Christopher J. H. Wright. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Transcripts of five expository messages on gospel passages pertaining to the passion and death of Christ.

In the season of Lent, one of the things I try to do along with some kind of fast is to read some kind of reflection on the death and resurrection of Christ. This collection of five messages drawn from five passages representing all four of the canonical gospels met this goal perfectly and brought fresh light to familiar passages. In this case, the table of contents is helpful for seeing the ground Wright covers:

Preface
1. The Last Supper: Matthew 26:17-30
2. Peter’s Denial: Matthew 26:69-75
3. Insults and Paradise: Luke 23:26-43
4. From Darkness to Light: Mark 15:33-39
5. It Is Finished: John 19:28-37
Appendix: Preparing to Proclaim
Acknowledgments
Notes

There were some fresh insights. Wright argues persuasively that Judas was probably seated in one of the two seats of honor, allowing John, in the other, to overhear the conversation Jesus has with him. It signifies the great love Jesus had for Judas, and the hope that even at this hour, Judas might be turned from betrayal

Wright summarizes Luke 23:26-43 in terms of “Four scenes full of scripture,” “Three last temptations full of irony,” and “Two last sayings full of hope” (“Father, forgive them” and “today you will be with me in paradise.”). One sees here the strong heritage of biblical exposition at All Souls, Langham Place, where Wright preached these messages. This was the parish long served by John R. W. Stott, and Wright carries on this tradition in messages like these, as well as his work with the Langham Partnership dedicated to carrying on the work of John Stott in training ministers in biblical preaching.

A message that connected with me and may for many is his study of Peter’s denial in Matthew 26:69-75. He helps us both see ourselves in Peter, and find hope. Here are a couple excerpts:

There, on the one hand, is Jesus—in danger of losing his life, and yet he stands firm under threats before the highest authorities in the land. And there, on the other hand, is Peter—in danger of probably not very much except embarrassment and possibly a bit of a beating, but he gives way in front of nothing more than a couple of servant girls.

There, on the one hand, is Jesus—put on oath to speak the truth about himself, and he does so. And there, on the other hand, is Peter—calling down oaths in order to deny the truth about himself and Jesus.

. . .

How do we respond, not only to what this story tells us about Peter, but also to what it tells us for ourselves? Why has Matthew reported it? Why have all the Gospels reported this story? I think it tells us three things, at the least: failure is a fact, failure is foreseen, and failure is forgiven.

There was one other insight that I had not thought about that Wright draws from the words of John 19:30, in the last message of this collection:

“John makes one last observation about the inner consciousness of Jesus: ‘With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ That is quite deliberate language. John means that Jesus did not just expire. He did not just lose consciousness. He did not even just lose his life. Jesus gave up his life. This was his moment, it was his active choice, and he was conscious of making that choice, finishing the task he had come to do.”

You might have noted in the table of contents that there is an Appendix on “Preparing to Proclaim.” In this section, Wright takes us into his study and shares both some general practices he uses in study and preparation of messages, and how he developed the outline and content of each particular message in this collection. Having prepared many messages, I enjoyed looking over the shoulder of another for what I could learn. Even if you do not preach, this will help you know something of the practices of any pastor who tries to carefully exposit scripture.

This is a great collection for personal reflection, group study, or for those who might give messages on some of these same texts. These messages take me from the last supper to the foot of the cross, and leave me in wonder and praise, saying, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, Donald Macleod. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A thoughtful, contemporary restatement of the classical doctrine of the atonement including different contended terms in reference to the atonement including substitution, expiation, propitiation, satisfaction, and victory.

The cross is not only the most significant symbol of Christianity, but this act, and its meaning is central to Christian hope. The cross also raises telling questions, of which the most significant are: Why did Jesus die? Was this truly necessary? What did this accomplish? And, what does this mean for us? When we get beyond the vague sentiments that this “shows us the love of God” (how does the cruel death of a man on a Roman gibbet show love?) or that “he died for us” (why did he choose to die when he could have avoided it? how can one die for us all? why was this death necessary? what about us needed dying for?) we are faced with questions like these whose answers take us into the deep purposes of God and the raw truth about the human condition. Hard questions, and yet at the end, profound good news.

Donald Macleod in this work explores the death of Christ and its significance. The book is in two parts. The first is a meditation upon the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and their theological significance. Of particular value in this section in light of questions raised about the idea of Christ’s death as a substitution for us, which some have alleged to be “divine child abuse” Macleod provides this striking defense:

“…the child-abuse charge ignores the clear New Testament witness to the unique identity of Jesus. Not only was he not a child; he was not a mere human. He was God: the eternal Logos, the divine Son, the Lord before whom every knee will one day bow (Phil. 2:10). This is no helpless victim. This is the Father’s equal. This is one who in the most profound sense is one with God; one in whom God judges himself, one in whom God condemns himself, one in whom God lets himself be abused. The critics cannot be allowed the luxury of a selective use of the New Testament. It is the very same scriptures which portray the cross as an act of God the Father which also portray the sufferer as God the Son, and the resulting doctrine cannot be wrenched from its setting in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The ‘abused child’ is ‘very God of very God’. It is divine blood that is shed at Calvary (Acts 20:28) as God surrenders himself to the worst that man can do and bears the whole cost of saving the world.” (p. 64)

The second part then takes seven words that are used to describe different aspects of Christ’s atoning death: substitution, expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, satisfaction, redemption, and victory. A number of these are often contended against as well, yet he defends these with careful textual study and devotional eloquence. His discussion of the use of hilasterion as the word used for ‘mercy seat’ in the Greek Old Testament is an example, giving us the vivid image of the place where sin is expiated and the judgment of God against sin propitiated. I am hardly new to such discussions, but Macleod’s clear, theologically acute, and devotionally rich writing left me pausing to rejoice again in familiar truths understood with freshness, and in some instances greater depth.

The uses of this book, it seems to me are several. First, it is one to be used devotionally in measured, thoughtful reflection, perhaps reading a section of a chapter at a time. Second, it is a significant book for any who bear witness to the good news of the cross. Any thoughtful person will raise questions similar to those I mentioned at the beginning of this review, and to be able to speak biblically, clearly, and joyfully of the work of Christ is our great responsibility and privilege. Finally, those who raise the question of the cross as divine child abuse, or repudiate the idea of penal substitution need to engage with Macleod’s writing, and not the straw men representations of the doctrine of the atonement often cited in their arguments. I would set this alongside John Stott’s The Cross of Christ (reviewed here) as one of the very best books I’ve read on the cross.

Review: The Cross of Christ

The Cross of Christ
The Cross of Christ by John R.W. Stott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is the best book we have read in this group.”

So commented a faculty member recently in a campus book group that discussed Stott’s book. And we’ve discussed some pretty significant books by the likes of Augustine, Pascal, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Barth, and others!

I think what marks this book by John Stott, that I first read when published nearly 30 years ago, is a combination of theological clarity and pastoral application that help one deeply root one’s understanding of the work of Christ on the cross not only in belief but in Christian devotion and practice.

The book consists of four sections. The first is introductory, “Approaching the Cross” and explores the centrality of the cross in Christian belief and practice and considers why such an instrument of torture would become so central that it even shapes the architecture of our great cathedrals. This leads to a focus on why Christ died, considering not only the historical events but the deeper reasons in the purposes of God and the need of human beings.

This brings us to what I think is the central section of the book, which is appropriately enough titled, “The Heart of the Cross.” It is here that Stott carefully lays the groundwork for his defense of the substitution as foundational to our understanding of how Christ atoned for sin. But this isn’t Jesus simply “taking one for the team” that leaves itself open to questions of divine child abuse. Allow me here to quote Stott at some length:

“Our substitute, then who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man, and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to dissociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.” (p. 156 in the 1986 edition)

The third section then moves on to describe “The Achievement of the Cross” in the salvation of sinners, the revelation of God, and the conquest of evil. Particularly striking was his focus on what we see of the glory, justice, and love of God coming together in the cross. Equally wonderful is his explanation of how the victory of the cross frees us from wrath, sin, the law, and death.

The last section then considers “Living Under the Cross.” He begins with a discussion of how we are a community of celebration and how our worship and the Lord’s table indeed celebrate the work of the cross. I was surprised in this chapter with the extended discussion of differing views of the eucharist where he distinguishes Anglican from Catholic practice. He then moves to how the cross helps us understand ourselves as both sinners and redeemed and of great worth in a way that releases us for great service. This even empowers us to love our enemies and find meaning in suffering.

Stott then concludes with a summary of the pervasive influence of the cross in a chapter that summarizes the book using the letter to the Galatians as a means of review.

What John Stott gave us here, as in all of his writing is a theologically rich but evangelically orthodox account of the cross. He is gracious and pastoral and yet willing to surface theological differences and to clearly set forth arguments from the scriptures for his own positions in a way that demarcates the matters that need to be honestly faced if the Church is to be one not merely in sentiment but truth. Above all, he shows us how the work of the cross is indeed central to the message and life of the Church when we may be tempted to get caught up in moralism, activism, or speculative theology. This may be a word we need as much in our day as when Stott wrote in 1986.

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Review: The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls

The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls
The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls by Elizabeth Gerhardt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a war going on that knows no national borders or physical territories. It is a war that occurs in clinics, ritual ceremonies, sweatshops and brothels, college campuses and religious homes. It is a war against half of the planet’s population. It is the war against women. One manifestation of this war is that there is not a woman I know who feels safe walking alone at night. Sometimes the warfare is expressed “merely” in leering looks or harassing comments. But the war is far more serious in many parts of the world.

In some cases, girls do not even have the chance to be born or are killed shortly after birth. Female genital mutilation is practiced in many parts of the world, affecting both sexual intimacy and exposing women to problems with infection and incontinence. Women are trafficked for sex and labor in forced servitude. Rape is used as a tactic of war. And sadly, even in homes of church leaders, women and girls are exposed to physical and psychological abuse and this has too often been justified or covered up by religious leaders.

In the first part of her book, Elizabeth Gerhardt chronicles both the current extent and historical roots in societal, political and religious contexts of the violence against women that scars or takes their lives. What must be faced is the complicity of many churches in this violence, sanctioning cultural rituals like female genital mutilation in some contexts, or in attributing blame to women when they are abused by husbands with no repercussions or discipline toward the husband.

This is not just an advocacy piece however. Gerhardt, as a theologian, believes that the church’s response to violence in various forms against women must be shaped and informed by the central reality of Christian faith–the cross of Christ. In the cross, we see the identification of the Son of God with those who suffer violence. In entering into the suffering of those who have faced such violence, we walk in the way of the Savior who suffered. In understanding that the cross is the Triune God’s just response to human sinfulness and injustice, we are challenged both to repentance and advocacy on behalf of and care for those who suffer injustice and resistance toward the political structures and persons that perpetrate that injustice.

Gerhardt considers Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany as a model of this Christ-shaped response to evil. She traces the three-fold response of advocacy, care, and resistance in which the Confessing Church and Bonhoeffer participated and its confessional roots. And she applies this as a model for how the church in various countries may respond today whether in denouncing abusive patterns in marriage, supporting micro-finance efforts that help women experience economic independence that makes them less vulnerable to abuse, or in forms of resistance to corporate or governmentally supported attacks upon women.

My one question in this treatment is what the cross means for the perpetrators of evil against women. Perhaps this book was more or less silent on this issue so as to make unequivocal its advocacy for women and the Christian implications of the cross for them and for the church. But it seems that something needs to be said of both the cross’s implications of judgment against evil and the possibility of repentance, forgiveness and transformation of the worst offenders. This can’t be spoken of lightly in a way that sweeps violence under the rug. It means confession of wrong-doing, legal consequences, restitution where this is possible, and a reformation of life and in the treatment of women.

This consideration aside, Gerhardt’s book is a singular and important contribution to a uniquely Christian response to the global concern of gendercide. So often, Christian activism is not grounded in Christian belief but rather a kind of “us too” response. Hopefully books like this can help galvanize a response in the church that contributes to protecting the lives of women and girls and pushing back the individual and structural forms of oppressive injustice afflicting our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

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