Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 2015. Pp. xviii + 669. $45.00
A Review By
WRF Board Member Dr. Craig Higgins
My friends who get their exercise by running often speak of experiencing a “runner’s high”; I wouldn’t know. But I do know that, having just finished Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, I am experiencing a “reader’s high.” This book is simultaneously challenging & captivating, demanding & exhilarating. Having finished it, I can’t imagine not having read it.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that Fleming and her husband, Dick [one of the people to whom is book is dedicated] are both dear friends and semi-regular attendees at the church where I serve as senior pastor.)
The Crucifixion is a comprehensive book. I cannot think of another book that covers this much ground, grappling with so many themes, so many nuances, so many questions. Anything approaching a truly thorough review of this book would be too long for a web-based forum. I can only hope that this brief review will motivate you to read The Crucifixion for yourself.
After a lengthy introduction, in which Rutledge laments the difficulty of talking about the cross in an American Christianity that is often “sunlit, backlit, or candlelit” (p. 3), the book is divided into two parts. In Part 1, “The Crucifixion,” Rutledge raises the important questions to be examined and calls on the reader to to grapple seriously with them. Two chapters are particularly notable. Chapter Two, “The Godlessness of the Cross,” is a painful, but necessary, reminder of the sheer terror of the cross, perhaps the most shameful and degrading method of public execution ever devised. “It is,” Rutledge argues, “formidably difficult to understand the cross today in its original context, after two thousand years in which it has been domesticated, romanticized, idealized, and misappropriated” (pp. 90-91). Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross is treated here—a recurring emphasis throughout the volume. But most bracing is Rutledge’s emphasis on how the cross—the particular method of Jesus’ execution—reveals the depths of our fallen condition. “Jesus was crucified, for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin” (p. 102, emphasis in the original). The cross, Rutledge argues (in a way reminiscent of Tim Keller) undercuts all human “religion.”
The second chapter to which I wish to call attention is a “bridge chapter” between chapters three and four, entitled “Anselm Reconsidered for Our Time.” St. Anselm of Canterbury—known primarily (though often superficially) for his teaching on substitutionary atonement and his ontological argument for the existence of God—is often maligned by theologians, both mainline and evangelical, in the churches today. Interacting with an important 1998 article by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, Rutledge gives both a robust defense of, and renewed appreciation for, Anselm. This chapter alone is an important contribution to the theology of the atoning work of Christ.
Part 1, covering about the first third of the volume, sets the stage for Part 2, “The Biblical Motifs,” in which Rutledge leaves no stone unturned—and, it seems, no part of the Scriptures unexamined—in seeking to understand the crucifixion of Jesus in a profoundly biblical way. In a time in which biblical scholars and systematic theologians seem rarely to speak with one another—and in which controversies abound on the role of the “theological interpretation of Scripture”—Rutledge gives us, in the final two-thirds of the book, a model on how to engage in deep exegetical work while in constant conversation with the best of the church’s theological tradition.
In Part 2, Rutledge examines each of the following biblical motifs in great detail, dedicating an entire chapter to each motif. Here is a list of chapters 5-12:
- The Passover and the Exodus
- The Blood Sacrifice
- Ransom and Redemption
- The Great Assize
- The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor
- The Descent into Hell
- The Substitution
Again, space does not allow me to speak of each of these chapters in the way that I would like! Just a note, though: I received a pre-publication advance of the book as a PDF. I quickly learned—even as I was reading the introduction—that I couldn’t read this on any electronic device. I printed the entire book out, and those pages are not only marked and underlined, they are filled with exclamation points and the occasional “Amen!” Nowhere is that more the case than in Chapter 10, entitled “The Descent into Hell.”
Summarizing Chapter 10 is difficult. In the space of just over 65 pages, Rutledge surveys the biblical understanding of hell (Sheol, Hades, Gehenna) and how this reflects a biblical cosmology. She looks at important biblical texts (particularly 1 Peter 3:17-21 and Ephesians 4:8-10) and at the idea of the descent into hell—and the harrowing of hell—from the patristic era to the present, with serious attention given to the works of Calvin and Barth. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she discusses the origin of evil, the problem of pain, and the place of theodicy—and I cannot think of a better treatment of these subjects. Rutledge even wades into the deep and controversial waters of the future of hell. She concludes this chapter by saying, “[t]he unalloyed proclamation of Scripture is that the death and resurrection of Christ is the hinge of history. It is the unique old-world-overturning and new-world-constituting event that calls every human project into question—including especially our religious projects… The descent of Christ into hell means that there is no realm anywhere in the universe, including the domain of Death and the devil, where anyone can go to be cut off from the saving power of God” (p. 416, emphasis in the original).
Throughout The Crucifixion, there are some major themes that are often repeated, two of which (at least) are absolutely central to the entire volume.
First, this is a deeply apocalyptic treatment of the crucifixion. Apocalyptic theology (one of the best known proponents of which, J. Louis Martyn, is a major influence on Rutledge’s thought) stresses the two-age schema—the old age of sin and death and the new age inaugurated by the coming & atoning work of the Messiah. Of course, this is familiar territory to most people in modern Reformed circles, largely due to the influence of Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos. The apocalyptic school, however, also emphasizes (rightly, in my opinion) the depths of the brokenness of the very cosmos itself under the domain of the “powers” of Sin and Death (which Rutledge capitalizes). Consequently, this school of interpretation emphasizes the work of Jesus as conquering the powers—the Christus Victor motif.
Second, and closely related, is Rutledge’s insistence that no one theological theme or motif (she adamantly rejects the word “theory”) of the atoning work of Christ can do justice to the rich multivalence of the Scriptures. Early in the work, she argues that, when looking at the Scriptures in their breadth, “we see two things happening in the cross of Christ: God’s definitive action is making vicarious atonement for sin… [and] God’s decisive victory over the alien powers of Sin and death…” (p. 209, bold in the original).
While affirming the biblical emphasis on Christ’s victory over the powers, she—again, in my opinion, rightly—stresses that the Christus Victor model at times undervalues the biblical perspective of the crucifixion as substitution, of the cross as the place of God’s atoning sacrifice. In fact, at its worst, the Christus Victor model can cause one to ask, “Why the cross? Why was it necessary for Jesus to die—particularly in such a degrading and shameful manner?” Rutledge is fully aware of, and fully addresses, these concerns: “The very deep idea that we are approaching here is that the judgment of the ruler of this world—and therefore the judgment of the kosmos itself—coincides with the judgment that Jesus takes upon himself, in our place” (p. 373).
In The Crucifixion, Rutledge passionately calls for the church to embrace both of these themes—Christus Victor and substitutionary atonement; in fact, she stresses the need to listen, truly listen, to all the Scriptures, for no one motif, no one “theory,” can do justice to the breadth, to the richness of the biblical message. Those familiar with John Frame’s theological project will find this call very familiar; the various themes—particularly those of Christ’s victory over the devil and Christ’s bearing our sin as the Lamb of God—are “perspectivally related.”
Rutledge does not shirk the difficult questions, and she does not hesitate to engage controversial topics. This book is, in any reading, a rousing defense of substitutionary atonement (still a very unpopular view in many mainline circles), yet she provides a helpful and appropriate critique of many shallow versions of penal substitution. The debate between the apocalyptic reading of Paul and the so-called “new perspective” seems to be heating up, and Rutledge is not reticent pointedly to critique N.T. Wright at times. As mentioned above, she even—cautiously—approaches the questions of universalism, not as dogma, but perhaps as a hope? “What we can say for sure, proleptically, in faith, is that ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever…” (p. 460, quoting Revelation 11:15).
There are other aspects of the book that will trouble certain conservative evangelical readers: She assumes both that Colossians and Ephesians are extra-Pauline and that Isaiah chapters 40 and following are by another author. These views, however, are widely held, including by many evangelicals. She argues that a literal/historical understanding of Adam isn’t necessary to understanding Paul. And—although this will bother North American political conservatives more than most evangelicals—she is quite critical of the post-9/11 Bush Administration.
None of those things, however, should dissuade anyone from reading this magnificent volume. Rutledge, who was one of the first women ordained to the ministry in the Episcopal Church (USA), bridges the gap between the mainline and evangelical worlds. I’m quite sure that she often feels caught in the middle—too mainline for some evangelicals, too evangelical for many in the mainline. This simply tells me that Christians in both camps need to read her work. This volume, which has been over two decades in the making, is a truly magisterial treatment of the crucifixion of Our Lord. I don’t think I’m biased in saying that this is now the book for understanding the atoning work of Christ. For years, I have wholeheartedly recommended Robert Letham’s The Work of Christ (Contours of Christian Theology series; InterVarsity Press, 1993), and I will continue to do so. (In fact, I was often reminded of Letham’s excellent volume while reading Rutledge.) But in both its breadth and its depth, The Crucifixion is unequalled.
One last note: Do not be afraid of this book! This is a work of rich theology, but it is written by one who is obviously a highly gifted preacher. Rutledge compels us to look without flinching at the depths of our lost condition and at the price God paid in love to set us free. “The human race is redeemed” she writes, “not by ‘acceptance,’ but by death and resurrection” (p. 594). Rutledge quotes from poets and songwriters, from George Herbert and John Donne to the songs of U2. She illustrates her points by stories from the global news, from the American civil rights movement, and from popular culture, ranging from The Hunger Games to Spider-Man! This book is daunting, yes. Reading it in its entirety took longer than I expected, but it was an exhilarating read! Unlike so many theological volumes, this book positively sings—and will make the reader want to sing praises as well.
As an example, listen to this quote from the closing pages, picking up on another recurring theme, that of the justification (or, as Rutledge prefers, “rectification”) of the ungodly, received by faith in Jesus alone:
The power of God to make right what has been wrong is what we see, by faith, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day. Unless God is the one who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, there cannot be serious talk of forgiveness for the worst of the worst—the mass murders, tortures, and serial killings—or even the least of the worst—the quotidian offenses against our common humanity that cause marriages to fail, friendships to end, enterprises to collapse, and silent misery to be the common lot of millions. “All for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.” This is what is happening on Golgotha. All the manifold biblical images with their richness, complexity, and depth come together as one to say this: the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross of Christ. The “precious blood” of the Son of God is the perfect sacrifice for sin; the ransom is paid to deliver the captives; the gates of hell are stormed; the Red Sea is crossed and the enemy drowned; God’s judgment has been executed upon Sin; the disobedience of Adam is recapitulated in the obedience of Christ; a new creation is coming into being; those who put their trust in Christ are incorporated into his life; the kingdoms of “the present evil age” are passing away and the promised kingdom of God is manifest not in triumphalist crusades, but in the cruciform witness of the church.… This is what the righteousness of God has achieved through the cross and resurrection, is now accomplishing by the power of the Spirit, and will complete in the day of Christ Jesus (pp. 610-611).
The Crucifixion, by Fleming Rutledge. Take and read.
NOTE: THE CRUCIFIXION may be ordered here - http://www.amazon.com/The-Crucifixion-Understanding-Death-Christ/dp/0802847323
Dr. Craig R. Higgins is the founding and senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Westchester County, New York.