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.
Let me frame my concerns in the form of questions. These are the questions I have when I think about the Christian theological tradition and how it accounts for the meaning of the death of Jesus—with the recognition that this death stands at the very center of Christianity’s account of salvation (Western Christianity’s mainstream tradition, that is; I understand Eastern Orthodoxy to have a much less death-centered notion of salvation, and I am aware of [and a supporter of] various dissenting perspectives in the West about salvation over the generations expressed by marginal groups and thinkers).
These are my four questions: (1) Should the Apostle Paul’s writings be our theological center in trying to discern the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion? (2) What is the human predicament that our doctrine of the cross should address? (3) What is the role of repentance in bringing about our salvation? (4) How does the cross actually work?
(1) The Apostle Paul’s role as theological key?
What do we make of Paul? This is kind of a surprising first question since Paul’s writings don’t show up in the Bible until after the long account of the Hebrew people that we Christians call the Old Testament, the four-fold account of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection we find in the gospels, and the lengthy story of the “Acts of the Apostles.” However, going back to Augustine, at least, Christian theology has tended to read everything through its interpretation of Paul’s understanding of the faith. This is true of Anselm, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, the main sources for Rutledge.
I like Paul, but I prefer to see the story of Jesus at the center and to read Paul in light of that (note that the gospels are at the beginning of the NT, even if they were written after Paul’s writings; they are written with the stated purpose of providing a general picture of Jesus’s ministry for the wider Christian community; whereas Paul’s writings are occasional pieces written to specific groups and addressing particular issues, and are placed after the gospels). This matters not only in relation to the relative importance we will give what Jesus himself is presented as saying and doing, but also it matters in terms of how we will interpret what Paul actually says (an important factor given that much of what Paul says is difficult to interpret and it all must be reinterpreted to apply the specific focus of the letters to broader theological understandings).
If we make Jesus and the gospel accounts of his life and teaching the theological center, we will take our cues about the meaning of his death from that story. We will recognize that Jesus’s message emphasized the present presence of salvation. He freed people then and there from demons, from the oppression of diseases and other ailments, he welcomed the vulnerable and outcast, and freed them from the oppressive power of their sins. He challenged the political and religious leaders. He taught that people simply needed to repent and welcome the presence of God’s kingdom in their midst.
According to this story, Jesus’s liberative acts (which he had presented at the beginning of his ministry as his focus—see, for example, Luke 4:16-30) raised alarm among the religious and political leaders. The gospels tell of the escalating conflict as Jesus embodied healing resistance to the Powers’ oppressive practices—culminating in Jesus’s arrest, “trial,” and execution by the joined forces of the Temple and imperial leaders. As the conflicts heightens, Jesus makes it clear that his followers should expect the same kind of response to their efforts to share in his way of life.
The hostility that the political and religious Powers showed toward Jesus exposed them as God’s rivals, not as God’s agents as they claimed. When God vindicated Jesus’s ministry as embodying God’s will for humanity and Jesus’s identity as God’s Son by raising Jesus from the dead, the way of liberation from the idolatry of Empire-loyalty and Temple-loyalty was opened. The gift of the Holy Spirit as described in the early part of the book of Acts provided for the empowerment of participation in the saving work of Jesus.
Remarkably, Rutledge almost completely ignores the gospel story I have summarized. She asserts that the crucifixion is the center point for Christian faith, but she does not draw on the gospels in describing its meaning. She places Paul’s account of the cross at the center—that is, she places what we could call a “Paulinist” account of the cross at the center. By Paulinist I mean the understanding of later theology—especially Augustine, Luther, and Calvin—that in effect separates Paul’s thought from the Old Testament and the gospels. In the points below, I will have more to say about how the Paulinist account of the meaning of the cross will differ a great deal from a Jesus-centered account.
One crucial element of this choice for a Paulinist take is precisely the separation between Jesus’s cross and Christian discipleship that captured my attention back in 1980. Certainly, Rutledge—like her theological influences—affirms the importance of discipleship in general. However, she fails to recognize the importance for our understanding the cross itself that taking seriously Jesus’s call to “take up the cross and follow” should have. Whatever the cross is about, it is something to be imitated, something that should shape the character of Christian living, and something that has a liberative impact on our world.
The emphasis in the Christian tradition, however, has found the main meaning in the cross elsewhere. When the cross is seen as having some kind of cosmic impact where the saving power is in some sense a kind of transaction that enables God as a consequence to offer forgiveness, then it is seen as something unique to Jesus, not something to be imitated. One expression of this focus has been the idea (that Rutledge discusses at great length) that Jesus on the cross is a substitute—he “takes up the cross” so we won’t have to (or because we can’t).
One important element of this different emphasis is that it has Paul (or, rather, a certain interpretation of Paul) at the center and essentially ignores the story told in the gospels. Of course, such an emphasis not only minimizes Jesus’s life and teaching, it also minimizes the account of salvation and faithfulness given in Torah and the prophets in the Old Testament.
I believe that the distinction between what I am calling Paulinism (Paul as read through the lens of later Christian theology) and the actual writings of Paul is important. I don’t think Paul has to be read in a way that minimizes Jesus and the OT. I think if we read Paul in light of the earlier biblical materials we will find a great deal of continuity. I don’t think Paul is the problem in the misinterpretations I find in Rutledge, it is the way she approaches Paul (and again, the problem here is with the tradition itself that she so accurately represents).
(2) The human predicament?
What is the problem? How do we understand the basic human place in the world? The sensibility we see in Paul (or, “Paulinism”) is quite a bit different than what we see in Jesus. Is the problem our “sin nature” and the need for forgiveness? Or is the problem how do we live freely from the dynamics of idolatry that take the form of political and religious oppression and domination? That is, on what is the quest for salvation to be focused?
I think, in a nutshell, the basic human predicament according to the Old Testament and the gospels is the problem of idolatry. Humans tend to give loyalty to human institutions, ideologies, and other structures (the “Powers”). In doing so, they fall into various forms of possessiveness, injustice, violence, exploitation, and in general treating the created world (including other human beings) as things rather than as part of God’s creation to be valued and respected and treated as precious. Human beings and our social environment are shaped by these dynamics. That is, we are prone to sin, to give our loyalty to things rather than to God, to live in bondage to our idols—and our social structures are shaped by our sins and tend in turn to influence us toward sin.
In light of this analysis, God’s work to bring about salvation is to help break us from the idols. Jesus does this with his liberating life that models the power of love, that shows how to resist the Powers, and that makes the empowerment of the Spirit present. Certainly, human beings are vulnerable to the idols and capable of hurtful behavior, with wounded psyches and fearful dispositions. However, the basic predicament is social, the Powers bearing down on us from the outside. Jesus’s embodied message, though, is that the deceptions of the Powers may be resisted, and healing is a present possibility.
Ironically, Paul’s analysis of idolatry in Romans 1 captures insightfully these problematic dynamics—the spiral of trusting in idols leading to profound injustice. Paul, of course, goes on to portray the liberating work of Jesus as breaking the hold of the idols and empowering people who trust rightly in God to fulfill the law of love. Rutledge does acknowledge the teaching in Romans and helpfully presents Sin as a Power outside the individual human person that shapes us and corrupts us and, most of all, enslaves us.
However, Rutledge emphasizes even more a second sense of the meaning of sin—drawing more on the Paulinists (especially Augustine) than on Paul himself. She identifies the core problem as our fallen human nature due to Adam’s “original sin” that corrupted each human being. Thus, her analysis of the reality of Sin as a force outside of us turns out to be more concerned with a kind of fatalistic and condemnatory understanding of human nature. In her view, this is an intractable problem that requires some sort of “apocalyptic” (meaning decisively coming from outside of time and space) intervention by God. Hence, the cross as the place of this intervention and the moving of the dynamics of salvation into the cosmic realm.
It seems to me that this relocation of the salvation story toward the cosmic realm from the concrete history of human idolatry and Jesus’s radical life and teaching of resistance to the Powers that oppress us has an ironic effect for Rutledge. Following Karl Barth, she writes disparagingly of what she calls “religion” throughout her book and presents Christianity as something else. However, this moving of salvation from history to the cosmic realm and making the decisive intervention a kind of otherworldly transaction that satisfies God’s honor/justice/holiness and thereby makes salvation possible actually ends up being all about religion (at least as I understand it). Salvation becomes a matter of right doctrine and belief, not embodying a way of life. In the end, Rutledge posits Christianity as the one true faith with a unique savior who is the only one who could pay the price needed to achieve salvation—and who must be confessed as the one true savior exclusively available through the Christian faith.
The story the gospels tell (mostly ignored by Rutledge) points in a different direction. Salvation has to do with following a way of life that resists the Powers and embodies love toward all, especially the marginal and the vulnerable. The focus of the communities that Jesus brought into being was empowerment for freedom from oppression, injustice, and other consequences of idolatry—not exclusivist rituals and doctrines. The legacy of moving the dynamics into the cosmic realm has been the generally comfortable coexistence of the Christian religion with the very types of political and religious Powers that executed Jesus.
(3) Is repentance enough?
This third question, in simple terms, is a question about whether the portrayal of salvation in the Old Testament is adequate. Was the basis for salvation in the end a failure and something new and different was required? Or, rather, do we get the resolution we need already in the OT and what we find in the NT is basically an elaboration and application of the core truths in a new environment? I will address these questions quickly, looking first at the OT picture, then the picture presented by Rutledge (that I call the Paulinist view), and then compare the two with what we get from Jesus and the story in the gospels.
Rutledge, in a couple of brief mentions (pages 172 and 356) summarizes the OT understanding of salvation as, in essence, an affirmation that repentance is enough. Should we become aware of our failure and turn to God in repentance (admission, regret, intent to change), God will forgive and save. I think this is pretty accurate. It fits with the portrayal of salvation in Jewish writers such as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. It certainly seems to characterize prophets such as Amos and Micah. Obviously, such repentance must be genuine, and it requires a reorientation of life—it’s not analogous to Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.”
Rutledge’s point, though, is that it became clear by Paul’s time that repentance actually is not enough. What is needed, again, is some sort of cosmic transaction that is radical enough to address and rectify the deep-seated problem of Sin, especially as related to human depravity. I actually think this is not an accurate interpretation of Paul. It is more accurate to the later Paulinists and their understanding of original sin and total depravity. However, rather than debate what Paul actually meant, here I want simply to turn to a third source—Jesus.
Here again the remarkable fact that Rutledge shows so little interest in the story the gospels tell has a deeply problematic impact. Jesus does clearly seem to have taught that indeed repentance is enough—when it is genuine and authenticated by fruitful living. Near the end of the book, Rutledge does finally refer to Jesus’s practices and teachings in relation to responding to sin. Surprisingly, she points out that Jesus indeed did approach sin differently than Paul does. Jesus forgave sin and healed and restored sinners (p. 552). One would think that since Jesus asked nothing of these sinners other than repentance, he actually was embodying the prophets’ idea that repentance is adequate. That is, for Jesus, nothing did need to change from the OT.
These comments by Rutledge about Jesus and sin are brief, and maybe a bit cryptic. What is unclear (and unaddressed) is why she wouldn’t think Jesus did convey a message of salvation that had nothing to do with the supposed necessary cosmic transaction effected by his substitutionary death. I would have found it helpful if she would at least have explained why what Jesus said and did about salvation would not be normative for his followers.
To mention only one problem that arises from Rutledge’s treatment, we note a significant contrast between Jesus’s own practice (forgiving sin and healing and restoring sinners asking of them nothing but repentance) and the practices of the dominant Christian churches since the fourth century (Othering “sinners” and serving the social status quo by asking only assent to doctrines and asking for pardon rather than transformed life).
(4) How does the cross actually work?
I have alluded to this question above. When Rutledge moves salvation outside of history, insisting that repentance is not enough and that salvation must happen on a cosmic level, she is pointing to a much more complicated notion of salvation. So how then does the cross actually work? What are the details of the processes loosed by the crucifixion? I can think of several problematic issues that arise when Christianity makes the cross so central. These issues, I think, make some kind of explanation for why we should go ahead and affirm this centrality necessary.
For example, as Rutledge indeed notes, crucifixion was a horrendously violent and degrading form of punishment. So, we ask, how can the actual endorsement of such an act as necessary for salvation be compatible with a God of healing love? Why would God have made salvation contingent on such an act? Another issue is that making a vicious act of punishment necessary seems to underscore the view of God as deeply punitive—a view that has inevitably shaped how human beings respond to wrongdoing, leading to profoundly inhumane criminal justice practices.
A final issue is simply the logic (or illogic) of this doctrine. It is not obvious how the crucifixion of Jesus could actually bring about salvation. What does it actually make happen? Why does God’s honor (as Anselm put it) require satisfaction in order for God to offer salvation —and how does Jesus’s death provide this satisfaction? Rutledge makes the point often that whatever happens with the cross, it is an act of a Trinitarian God where the Son and the Father are working together. So, it’s not Jesus as a separate entity satisfying the Father. But what is it then?
I never get the sense that Rutledge has answered these kinds of questions. She at times implies that she has but all she ever seems to do, as I read her, is simply assert that they are not important. She does refer to the importance of “mystery” and a “poetic” understanding of truth. I can accept that we should not reduce our understanding of Jesus’s death to strict rationalistic logic. However, I think we need more of an explanation than she offers (recognizing, again, that the problem here mostly is with the lack of explanation in the tradition that she is mainly simply echoing).
Partly more of an explanation is needed because of the weight of the problems I just referred to. The tradition centered on Jesus’s crucifixion as a necessary part of the salvation dynamic has contributed to social problems, theological mystification, and coercive doctrinal enforcement. Another reason we need more of an explanation is that we have an alternative approach that does not share these problems. We could recognize that Jesus’s own message about salvation is indeed adequate—and that the story of his death is mostly not some kind of necessary cosmic transaction but simply the story of the idolatrous Powers revealing themselves to be God’s rivals. This story helps us find salvation by exposing the alternatives to trust in God as anti-human and unworthy of our loyalty. And the story gives us a guide to our own resistance to those Powers as we take up our crosses and imitate Jesus our model, not our substitute.
Rutledge’s disappointing conclusion
Throughout the book, I kept looking for Rutledge to give a clear answer to my question about how the cross actually works. I assumed she would do so because she stated over and over again just how central the cross is for the entire Christian schema. But she never does—at least not in a clear way that I could perceive and get my mind around.
She begins the final chapter (“Condemned into Redemption: The Rectification of the Ungodly”) with a strong promise. “Everything in this volume has been oriented toward this final chapter”—the answer to the “problem of ‘the ungodly’” and how it is that “God’s infinite resourcefulness” achieves “the rectification of the ungodly” (574).
Clearly, though, my sense of what such a resolution to the agenda of the book and her sense were quite different. I thought we would finally get an explanation of how rectification actually happens and why Jesus’s crucifixion was such a necessary part of this work. In my opinion, all the Rutledge does in the end is simply repeat her on-going refrain, affirming that the crucifixion is necessary and profound and uniquely salvific but not explaining how it works to accomplish such a profound outcome. I didn’t find the specificity and the concreteness I was hoping for.
What I would have liked is some kind of ringing affirmation in the end of how the story that Rutledge has recounted will help us see and embrace the healing power of God’s love in ways that guide us and empower us to embody the way of Jesus. I was hoping for something beyond religious affirmations of how special Christianity is that end up being pretty vague and abstract. I was hoping for a vision for how life actually can move toward transformation in the here and now—including how Christianity can make up (“atone”!) for its legacy of undergirding violence in our world.
I conclude, thus, that if Rutledge’s exemplary attempt to convey the core salvation theology of Christianity cannot answer my questions, that we who do desire peace on earth would do well to look elsewhere than mainstream Christianity for guidance and empowerment. I believe that a very different and empowering account of the message of Jesus and its relevance for our world is possible—and more necessary every minute.
At the heart of this account is an affirmation that from the beginning God’s Spirit infuses life with healing creativity. This Spirit is present and available for everyone. All we need is to turn from idols, to repent (yes, repentance is enough), and to have our lives shaped by this good news. I don’t think we need the Bible or Christianity to understand and embody these truths, but I also think articulating these truths is the main agenda of the Bible—when properly understood. And that is does so quite well.