The Rev. Fleming Rutledge has published a major new study of the Cross—one that will rival, in its own way, John Stott’s The Cross of Christ (380 pp., 1986) and Raymond Brown’s 2-volume The Death of the Messiah (1664 pp., 1994), Rutledge’s 620-page book, released by Eerdmans September 4, is titled The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.
On Wednesday night, December 9, the peripatetic preacher and Episcopal priest presented the message of her new book to an eager audience at St. Mary’s Seminary & University. The event was hosted by St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute.
Rutledge began to write the volume 20 years ago when she was struck by the absence of the preaching of the Cross in the churches she visited. “Our pastor says preaching the Cross is not a good tool for growing congregations,” she quoted one lay person as saying. “No, it is not a good tool,” she responded, intimating that preaching the Cross should not be a tool at all. Preaching the Cross is of the essence of Christianity.
Why? Because at the Cross God did something radically new. Where other scholars are now emphasizing the continuity between God’s work with the people of Israel and God’s work in the ever-expanding church, Rutledge wants to emphasize the discontinuity, the radical newness of Christian faith. Thus she finds herself out of step with those who promote a “new perspective on Paul” and in line with those who emphasize an apocalyptic view, which accents the in-breaking of God’s reign to be consummated in a new creation. Apocalyptic emphasizes divine, not human, agency; it casts God’s work as warfare against an active third party (Satan, the Prince of this World, the Devil, the Enemy by whatever name); and it underscores the discontinuity between “the justification of the ungodly” as proclaimed by Paul and any form of religion that came before.
For us to face the radical evil in our world, Rutledge says, we need this kind of apocalyptic understanding. Evil is pervasive and persistent. It manifests itself in genocides and mass shootings, but also in individual lives. The apocalyptic gospel recognizes the potential for such evil in every human person. And the magnitude of radical evil in our world requires a radical solution. Thus Rutledge turns not just to the fact of Jesus’ death, but to the particularly ghastly manner in which he was executed. “The horror of the Cross corresponds to the annihilating power of Sin and Death,” she says. Anything less tends to trivialize the problem.
Rutledge is not interested in constructing a theory of the Atonement. She is, however, interested in finding the strengths of all the interpretive strands in Scripture and in the Church’s tradition. Thus she examines sacrifice, ransom, redemption, Passover and Exodus imagery, the Last Judgment, the victorious Christ, the descent into hell, substitution, recapitulation, incorporation, and participation. She even wants to rehabilitate the much maligned Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), whose Why God Became Man emphasized the inadequacy of any human action to balance the weight of human sin. She intones Anselm’s words: “You have not yet considered how great is the weight of sin.”
But the Cross is not simply a means for forgiving sin, she says. When people ask, why doesn’t God just “get over sin” and forgive us, they fail to see the scope of God’s project. God’s project is not only the forgiveness of sins but the making right of all that has been wrong. There is, indeed, an incredible wideness in God’s mercy.
Each of the traditional interpretive motifs is likely to distort the truth when taken alone, Rutledge says. But when all are held together and not pushed beyond their explanatory power, they present a glorious picture of God’s work at the Cross. And God’s work at the Cross means the three persons of the Trinity acting together. Too often preachers have spoken as if the Father were punishing the Son, thus creating division rather than unity in the Godhead. But God is not divided.
Rutledge’s book took 20 years to write, and would have taken longer had her editor not told her to hold the final part of her argument for another book. That final section was to have been about the ethical vision that emerges from a deep understanding of the Cross. The Crucifixion means nothing, she says, unless it issues in the cruciform life of the people of God, embodied in the practices of individuals and the social action of the Christian community.
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Two New Testament scholars who teach at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute responded favorably to Rutledge’s book.
The Rev. Amy Richter highlighted Rutledge’s suggestion that we reclaim sacrifice as an act of power rather than weakness. She also affirmed the way Rutledge wove together the disparate motifs, saying that we must understand Sin both in terms of guilt (a debt that must be paid) and as a Power that must be defeated.
Professor Michael Gorman joined Richter in affirming Rutledge’s consistently Trinitarian approach. He highlighted her attempt to take seriously the wrath of God as a manifestation of God’s just character. It all depends on what outrages you, he said. To be outraged on behalf of the powerless and oppressed is to participate in God’s work.
Gorman also suggested that Rutledge could maintain her commitment to an apocalyptic approach while also giving greater emphasis to Jesus as the Jewish messiah. She is not so far distant from the vision of N. T. Wright as she supposes, Gorman said.
by David Neff, the retired editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine, is a member of the Executive Board of St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute. He has written about Irenaeus’s theology of recapitulation here.