Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand (part 2): A response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began [Rethinking salvation #4]

Ted Grimsrud—October 30, 2021

Back in August I read and interacted with an impressive book that sought to explain the meaning of Jesus’s death, Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus. The piece I ended up writing, “Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand,” while offering quite a bit of praise for the book, ended up making some sharp criticisms. The core criticism, I think, was that she did not in the end actually help me very much to understand the death of Jesus. What I was looking for was an explanation of how rectification (her term) actually works and why Jesus’s crucifixion was such a necessary part of this work. I began the book being skeptical about her salvation theology and was not persuaded to change my opinion. I concluded: “All that 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” (nor, I might add, address serious problems that seem to arise from making the cross so central to salvation).

So, based on Rutledge’s book (one of my affirmations of it was that she seems to me to do an excellent job of recounting the core ideas of the mainstream Western Christian tradition [Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Barth]), my tentative conclusion was that “the cross is so hard to understand” because it has never been helpfully explained—other than the extreme Calvinist types who explain it in terms of a punitive, angry, and inherently violent God who viciously punishes Jesus and accepts that as a substitute for giving each of us the eternal punishment we deserve. Rutledge rightly rejects that “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” stance as being based on a nonbiblical view of a non-loving God. But she doesn’t really present us with a clearly explained alternative.

Rutledge’s book was published in 2015. A year later, a somewhat similar book was published, N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering Jesus’s Crucifixion (HarperOne, 2016). I don’t think Wright’s book got quite the same amount of acclaim—partly because it can kind of get lost in the avalanche of books he has published in recent years. Wright’s book does not have quite the dynamism of Rutledge’s, though as with all his books, it is well-written and relatively clear and straightforward. One way that Wright’s book looks the worse of the two is that, though Revolution is a quite substantial book, he does not overtly interact with other scholarship at all—either contemporary thinkers or the key players in the tradition. On the other hand, Wright gives us a lot more biblical analysis than Rutledge, including interaction with the Old Testament and the gospels, sections of the Bible she mostly ignored.

Rather than engage in a detailed comparison between the two books, though, what I will do in this post is focus on Wright’s book and specifically on the question whether he does a better job of helping us understand the cross of Christ. In a word, much of the disappointment I felt with Rutledge’s failure to help me was present after I finished Wright’s Revolution as well. I hope to post before long a third part to this series: “How the cross of Christ may be easily understood.” I will show how the “difficulties” in Rutledge and Wright are not necessary.

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