I’m not going to attempt a review of Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion. I’m not capable of that. It’s not that one can’t summarize the heart of her project in a few paragraphs or a single post, but that would be like naming the peaks of a mountain range without mapping its descents and paths upwards. Rutledge’s book is a mountain range, captivating and inspiring (and, at times, concerning), and as thick a text of 600 pages of sincere, thoughtful reflection on the Cross as you will find anywhere. Even though I will describe points of disagreement, my disagreements in no way mean I’m finished reading and pondering this text. It’s the sort of work you return to over and over.
I hesitated to post disagreements when I attended more closely to the endorsements her book enjoys. Hauerwas, Fr Barron, Marilyn Adams, David Hart, and Robert Jenson, to name of few, all praise and endorse her work. So criticizing it, I thought, only runs the risk of turning out to be an embarrassing display of stupidity on my part. But since I write this blog as much for myself as for anyone else, perhaps it will help me clarify the issues and hopefully learn something in the process.
The Crucifixion divides into two parts. Part 1 describes the Crucifixion – its place of primacy at the center of the Christian story, the special nature of its suffering in Christ’s case (shame, ridicule, rejection, but more importantly godforsakenness and spiritual dereliction), and how the magnitude of this suffering corresponds to the gravity of sin and the depth of humanity’s spiritual predicament which Christ heals and puts right. Indeed, it is one of the several significant achievements of this book that it will not permit you to let go the relationship between these two: the magnitude of the sacrifice (nothing less than God estranged from God) on the one hand, and the severity of the predicament this sacrifice sets right on the other. Thus the key question for Rutledge: What does the method by which Jesus suffered tell us about the nature of our predicament? If God must suffer to heal and free us, how grave must be our sickness and enslavement? This question motivates Rutledge’s reflections from start to finish.
If we reason in this direction, Rutledge explains, we will be better guided to conclusions about what is actually happening on the Cross, and why it must happen as it did. The recurring refrain throughout is that ‘something truly is wrong with the world which must be put right’ (or “rectified”). The solution has to come on the level of the problem, on the stage of concrete material human existence and relations, and must as well be equal to the problem in magnitude. Thus, the godforsaken innocent Jesus on behalf of godforsaken guilty humanity. In conversation with Anselm, Rutledge awakens the sense of divine justice at work in the blessed exchange that occurs in and through the Cross on our behalf and at Christ’s expense. She’s concerned that too many Christians (I’m not sure who these are, she never identifies their representative voices) have effectively reduced Christianity to “forgiveness” or “repentance.” There is no appreciation for the depth and gravity of sin and its effects and no recognition of the cost justice requires to put things right. Her chapter on “The Question of Justice” explores why such reductions to forgiveness are completely inadequate. They’re inadequate because something is objectively wrong. Acquittal won’t do, Rutledge argues. That which is objectively wrong with the world must be rectified or put right. This involves a “proportionate justice.” Something of sufficient value is required to address the magnitude of our offense so that “justice can be seen to be done.” For Rutledge, justice is seen to be done in the descent of the Son of God into the utter dereliction of godforsakenness (which is the ‘just’ wrath of God as the natural consequence of our sin).
Part 2 unpacks this basic understanding of the Cross through a discussion of eight biblical motifs or themes, each motif shedding light on an aspect of the Cross as God’s putting right what is wrong. They are: Passover & Exodus, blood sacrifice, ransom & redemption, the Great Assize [Trial], apocalyptic war (or Christus Victor), the descent into Hell, substitution, and recapitulation. Each motif could comprise a volume of its own, and you best put your exercise attitude on when you read Rutledge because each of these discussions is a serious work-out. What I appreciate about Rutledge is that she exercises not just the speculative, philosophical side of Christian thought (even if she often stops short of pursuing such questions), but also the practical, lived, socially dynamic dimensions of faith. She brings a preacher’s passion with her and there are gems throughout.
Rutledge has no intention of producing a defense of penal-substitution (at least not in any of its cruder, objectionable forms). When she discusses “substitution,” for example, it’s primarily to establish the presence of that motif in Scripture. The ‘idea’ is present, so there’s no dismissing it’s role in shaping our understanding. Something more than mere forgiveness is at work in securing our healing and freedom. But thought she doesn’t interpret substitution in terms of Jesus inserting himself between us and an angry God to save us from a cosmic tantrum, she does see Jesus (indeed, the Trinity) as inserting Jesus between a loving Father’s wrath and us who deserve that wrath. Be ready for a host of very fine distinctions, lots of appeals to mystery, and repeated dismissals of philosophical and metaphysical objections on the grounds that, as Rutledge reminds readers, she’s a preacher and pastor, not a metaphysician. Some of this is fair. Some of it you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Nor does Rutledge suppose the Cross changes God’s attitude toward us. God’s attitude is unchanging in its favor and love. She argues the nonviolent, loving, freely offered — and where you might be inclined to supply the word “forgiveness” next, Rutledge finishes it with rectifying what’s wrong. What talk of “wrath” is present is interpreted in terms of the just and natural consequences of our sin. The wrath we suffer is just our sin itself, its existential dimension as the anxiety and despair which guilt produces in us. She recalls Anselm’s definition of final wrath as “inconsolable need” (a definition I like very much), a state of spiritual dereliction or godforsakenness. This is the “curse” we are under. Christ redeems us by substituting himself on our behalf and in our place under this curse, experiencing the spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness we deserve. The problem here, as we’ll see, is that there is no natural means by which the innocent Jesus may be brought into an experience of wrath as such. So one ends up, despite assurances to the contrary, grounding Jesus godforsakenness and spiritual dereliction in a positive decree of the Father.
All the margins of my copy are marked up with a range of responses, from “Amen!” “Yes!” and “Preach it!” (chiefly at those places she disavows aspects of the penal-substitutionary understanding of Christ’s suffering) to “I don’t think so” and “This doesn’t work” (beside passages that portray salvation in terms that reduce the Cross, to my mind, to essentially the same sacrificial economy behind the cruder, more objectionable models of the penal-substitutionary positions she rejects). She offers an essentially penal, substitutionary view of the work of Christ without the especially unsavory claims that the Cross effects a change in God’s attitude toward us, makes it possible for God to forgive us, or that Christ satisfies an angry God bent on extracting his pound of flesh.
What I’d like to do here is describe a few of Rutledge’s positions which I struggle with and why I believe they undermine her claim to have secured a truly nonviolent view of the Cross.
First—the hermeneutical primacy of the Cross
This comes first in the book so I’ll begin here. At the end of Ch 1 (“The Primacy of the Cross”), Rutledge summarizes:
“…the crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance.”
This seems obviously mistaken. We have no access to the Cross apart from the resurrection, no pre-resurrection accounts of the Cross that establish its meaning and significance (apart from Jesus’ own statements about his cross, and they incline against Rutledge’s view, as we’ll see below). The gospels themselves are written after the fact and reflect a post-resurrection perspective on the significance of the Cross. There is simply no way conceptually to set the resurrection aside while one construes the meaning and significance of the Cross on other grounds which then become the basis for giving the resurrection its true significance. All the descriptions and motifs employed to proclaim the Cross are by definition already shaped by the resurrection. In the end, only the resurrected Jesus can tell us what his cross means.
I do not mean to suggest that the Resurrection ‘makes it all better’, or wipes away the gravity of the violence, or lessens the pain endured, or reduces the Cross effectively to the status of an existential speed-bump Christ cruises over happily on the way to resurrection. After all, there is also no resurrection without crucifixion. The resurrected one is the crucified Christ. (Thank you James Alison.) There’s no celebrating the life of the Risen One without entering into his suffering. However, the whole attempt to establish the primacy of the Cross by determining its meaning and then establishing the significance of other events, like the resurrection, relative to this meaning is a failed project from the start. Allow me to recall something from a previous post:
Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically and one.
What do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many times, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.
Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth), but to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.
Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood…There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.
In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross independent of all other contributions…There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives. But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through the lens of the resurrection. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus.
Second—the Cry of Dereliction
The next few points of this post describe perhaps the most fundamental disagreement I have with Rutledge’s book, assuming I’m understanding her understanding of what actually constitutes Christ’s suffering. Rutledge’s understanding of the Cry is part and parcel of her understanding of 2Cor 5.21 (God make the innocent Jesus “to become sin”) and Gal. 3.13 (Jesus “became a curse”). Her view appears to be that Christ must suffer, not just “as a consequence of” our sin, but actually suffer “the consequence of” our sin, and this consequence is the wrath of God (understood as inconsolable need, viz., the anxiety and existential despair of estrangement from God). She has profound things to say about the deconstructing, dehumanizing design of Roman crucifixion and about the abiding gracious and loving disposition God always has for us. But, she notes (“Rejection and Dereliction”), the Cry demonstrates “the complete identification of Jesus with our compromised, indeed absurd, human condition,” that Jesus “embodies in his own tormented struggle all the fruitlessness of human attempts to befriend the indifferent mocking silence of space.” Christ “is suffering the curse and the defilement that would have fallen upon them—that is, upon us.” “God was separated from God—while still remaining God.” Jesus was “utterly cut off from his powers, from his Father, from any hope of redemption or victory” and therefore “suffered what the book of Revelation calls the ‘second death’…as our substitute.” This is an “interposition of the Son between human beings as the curse of God upon sin” where Jesus “exchanged God for Godlessness” and was made to be sin. “Does this mean that Jesus became his own Enemy?,” she asks “It would seem so.” Jesus entered into our condition as having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2).
I should add that Rutledge does say that “for Paul, it is not God, but the curse of the law that condemned Jesus.” But I’m unable to do the math. Exactly how does “the Law” bring Jesus into an experience of spiritual dereliction and estrangement from God? But that the Law and “not God” condemns may be irrelevant. Rutledge adds:
There is considerable disagreement among theologians as to whether God actually forsook Jesus or not. Moltmann says yes, God forsook God – though he goes to great lengths to avoid splitting the Trinity or implying that God denies his own nature.
Rutledge appears to agree, “Moltmann’s argument is subtle and seeks to avoid the obvious pitfalls.” The point, she adds, is that “in the Godforsakeness of Jesus, God was involved.”
Readers here may have grown tired of my preoccupation with the Cry of Dereliction, but it really does get at the heart of what for many of us separates violent from nonviolent understandings of the Cross. I’ve argued at some length elsewhere that this narrative of godforsakenness is in fact part of the mythology of sacred violence God redeems us from.
It is of more than academic interest whether or not creation is “set right” by God surrendering the innocent Jesus to a state of spiritual dereliction and absurdity or by God’s allowing us, in the absurdity of our spiritual dereliction, to exhaust every resource of religious violence against Jesus.
Recall Jesus’ instructions the night before he died. He knows he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples. He does not believe, however, that his Father will leave him alone – on any level. Jn 16.31-33 is explicit:
Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
Besides declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus intends his disciples to understand from his suffering that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness.
If one wonders where the violence is in the claim that Jesus “dies the second death” and suffers the despair of godforsakenness, one can approach an answer by asking how an absolutely innocent person can be brought into such an experience. More specifically, by what means is the innocent Jesus brought into an experience of the spiritual dereliction of being estranged from God? Who brings him into this experience? It can’t be any human being. Rutledge suggests that it is simply the Law, not God, that condemns. But how is ‘the Law’ to accomplish the sentence? It should be clear that only God can accomplish such a thing, perhaps by “giving Jesus over” to dereliction, or perhaps the Father “withdraws” himself from Jesus, removing from him that filial affection and affirmation of the Spirit that grounded Jesus very identity. But by whatever means, we’re describing a state of dereliction that only God can effectively accomplish. Jesus cannot bring it upon himself as each of does by sinful misrelation. It is only by an act of violence that an absolutely innocent man can be brought by God into the experience of godforsakenness which is God’s wrath.
Does it help to say that Father, Son and Spirit are in agreement that Jesus should suffer this particular form of abandonment? Does this suffice to establish the nonviolence of such a view? I don’t see how. What would a trinitarian agreement to plunge Jesus into into true spiritual dereliction even look like, and would it be sufficient at this point to appeal to mystery? Perhaps one only means that Father and Spirit relate to Jesus as if he was guilty while knowing his innocence. But that would reduce the very means by which we are saved to God’s relating to Jesus outside the truth of his innocence. We’d be saved by a kind of falsehood, and surely it is the truth (and God’s relating to Jesus within the truth of his innocence) that saves us.
We want instead to say (as Rutledge herself occasionally says) God stands on the side of the victim. We already noted Jesus’ belief that though all would leave and forsaken him, his Father would be with him. Consider also Jesus’ explicit denial (Jn 14.28-31, esp. 30b-31) that the prince of this world had any hold over him. “He comes,” Jesus assured his disciples, “so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” Are we disagreeing with Jesus over the question of whether he suffered estrangement and godforsakenness? Jesus assures us no such thing would occur and in fact offers what and how he suffers as a model of hope and confident for his disciples to participate in. To the extent we describe Christ’s sufferings as imparticipable by us, we make the Cross of Christ to be something it’s not.
What of 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13? Must these not be read as describing just such a state of accursed godforsakenness? As we said earlier:
We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). How can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that divine justice doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes [our] curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God; not because we’re right in believing God curses the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.
Regarding 2Cor 5.21, note the entire passage. If Christ suffers the godforsakenness we deserve as the consequence of our sin, then God was in Christ counting men’s sins against them, which is just the opposite of what Paul says takes place. And notice too that it is God (not the Law) who “makes Jesus to become sin.” This can only refer to God’s turning Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms by which we (not God) identify the innocent victim with our sin and its consequences.
Part 3 to come, hopefully.