Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand: A response to Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion [Rethinking salvation #1]

Ted Grimsrud—August 10, 2021

When I was in seminary, with the help of my New Testament professor, I noticed and analyzed the connection between Jesus’s cross and the call to discipleship. It seemed like an obvious theme once I thought about it: Jesus taught directly, “Take up your cross and follow me.” What could he have meant but that his life of subversive peacemaking was our model, even as it led to his conflict to the death with the religious and political leaders? However, this was a new way of thinking for me—and it did not seem widely emphasized among Christians. The problem was that everything I had been taught about Jesus’s crucifixion had emphasized that it was a unique thing. He died so that we don’t have to.

Ever since then I have worked at trying to make sense out of this tension. Why is there such as difference between what Western Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) teaches about salvation, atonement, Jesus’s death on the one hand, and what the gospels themselves seem clearly to emphasize on the other? The difficulties pointed to by this question became even more acute for me when I read books such as Timothy Gorringe’s God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge University Press, 1996) that show the historic connection between traditional atonement theologies that focus on God’s punitive disposition toward sinners and the actual devastating practice of punitive criminal justice in our world.

Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion

This question was very much on my mind when I recently read Fleming Rutledge’s impressive book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015). The book received great acclaim upon its publication. When I did a quick internet search, I found laudatory reviews from mainline Protestants in periodicals such as the Christian Century, a book of the year award from evangelical Christianity Today, and mostly positive reviews from conservative Reformed theologians. I noticed hardly any negative criticisms. The reviews present this book as an instant classic. As I worked my way through The Crucifixion, I could see why it was so well received and how it could appeal to such a wide array of readers. It is, in a nutshell, well-written, scholarly and pastoral, accessible and substantial.

Rutledge is a retired Episcopalian priest who writes with an evangelical sensibility. Her skill as a preacher shapes the book. She is deeply influenced by the core theological tradition—Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, and especially Barth. If anyone could help me make sense of my basic questions about the meaning of Jesus’s death, it would seem to be her. I suggest that The Crucifixion is the ideal one-stop account of the meaning of the crucifixion in the mainstream Protestant Christian tradition.

It’s a big book, over 600 pages of text, that to its great credit, reads relatively easily. I felt pulled along by Rutledge’s prose. And she marks the development of her argument with regular summaries and by linking back to earlier discussions as she moves along. Strictly on stylistic grounds, I would give the book a high grade and recommend it—though the final chapter disappointingly kind of petered out without achieving the apex of clarity and punch that the author had promised along the way (more on this below).

The point of my essay here, though, is to discuss why, in the end, I put the book down with some deep disappointments. I am disappointed, though, not so much with Rutledge as a writer and thinker as with the tradition that she actually represents so well. Her skill as an author actually would seem to make her the ideal guide. In just about every case, the points in the book that disappointed or frustrated me were due to her good work in articulating the issues. I think the reason that my starting question about the difference between the gospels’ story and the Christian theological tradition concerning Jesus’s death was not satisfactorily answered by this book is that the Western tradition simply is not set up to answer it.

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