The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

crucifixion rutledgeWhy the cross? Why this particular, bloody, grotesque means of execution? Why was this the necessary mode of the Savior’s redemption of the human race? Why not a life, leading into old age and peaceful death leading into resurrection? Why the seemingly Godforsaken horror of it all? This is the motivating question at the heart of Fleming Rutledge’s masterful tome The Crucifixion: It’s Meaning and Significance. After over twenty years study, research, and meditation, Rutledge has delivered a stunning piece of theological and pastoral reflection on the cross of Christ.

I originally intended to work through it for my Lenten readings every morning (being far too addicted and Protestant to give anything up for Lent), and found myself running far ahead of my intended, daily page-count. It’s really a beautiful piece of theology.

Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.

In what follows, I’ll simply highlight what I take to be some of the significant features (both positive and negative) of the work and hope that gives you something of a feel for the whole.

Sin and sins

One of Rutledge’s chief concerns is to get her audience to reckon with the reality of sin. Coming out of the Episcopal mainline, this is unsurprising given the theological trajectory much of the church has taken over the last forty years or so. Rutledge is not dour, or morbid, but after years of preaching, teaching, advocating for justice (especially on social and racial fronts), she is not naïve about the pervasive wickedness and corruption of both human nature and human cultures. As one of the blurbs put it, she wants us to “get real” with ourselves, open our eyes and truly look at the world as it is, and reckon with our dire need for redemption. Her work is a bracing antidote to any last vestiges of cheap sentimentalism in our doctrine of humanity that would blind us to our need for the kind of salvation only a bloody cross can bring.

Connected to this, Rutledge doesn’t simply want us to recognize personal culpability and “sins”, but rather the Power of Sin. This is partially due to her heavy leaning on the “Apocalyptic” school associated with J.L Martyn, De Boer, and the Union School. For Rutledge, we need rescue from the Powers of Sin, Law (used by Sin), and Death. We are not only culpable, but captives, sold and bound under the dark dominion of evil that overwhelms us and keeps us oppressed in sin.

Deliverance AND Substitution

It is this sense that gives shape to Rutledge’s main argument, which I take to be the resituating of the “substitution” motif within an Apocalyptic understanding of the Christus Victor motif. Because she takes both sins and Sin seriously, she wants to take both of those master motifs and develop them as well.

When it comes to substitution, Rutledge does a fantastic job slowly, carefully, and piercingly drawing our attention to the problem of injustice in the world. Whether to apartheid in South Africa, the struggle for racial equality in the Civil Rights movement, child abuse scandals in the Catholic church, to the millions of petty, untold sins in our own lives, she forces us to deal with both the biblical and the theological need for satisfaction, for an atoning sacrifice, for a judgment that says no to a culture of impunity, to cheap grace, or the sort of “forgiveness” that makes a mockery of the victims of violence throughout history. What’s more, she does it in such a way that is appealing, not so much to theological conservatives, but to those with more progressive and liberal sensitivities. You might say that as someone who has taken the social gospel seriously, Rutledge knows that you need a more classic theology to undergird it.

But, of course, we need not just sacrifice but redemption. The Exodus is a good model here. In the Exodus, the Israelites received both atonement in the slaughter of the lambs at the Passover, but also redemption from the social, political, and yes, spiritual, powers of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Rutledge forcefully argues that the cross of Christ (and his resurrection) were at the heart of a liberation, a deliverance from the powers of Sin, the Law (as used by sin), Death, and the Devil. In him, we have a liberating “Lord”, who transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son, who frees us for his glorious service.

And these two halves point to the broader concept of righteousness and justification she embraces. Following much 20th Century scholarship, for Rutledge, God’s righteousness is his saving justice that is more than forensic, but also transformative and liberative. She translates “justification” as “rectification”—God’s justification of the ungodly, then, is not merely their forensic vindication, but their total deliverance from the Powers and their “setting right.”

This “rectification”, though, that comes by way of the cross and resurrection of Christ is not merely individualistic in nature. In this regard, she joins the choir of many other recent voices in proclaiming a “cosmic” salvation, in which God sets the whole world to rights through the Son in his cross, bringing about a New Creation, while the rectification of individual comes within that broader schema. Indeed, over and over again, Rutledge emphasizes the “cosmology” implied in Paul’s theology (because this is a heavily Pauline work), in regards to both the aim and the characters involved.

Multiple Motifs

Within those two broader motifs, Rutledge does a good job at trying to give voice to the broader range of New Testament motifs surrounding the death of Christ. Sacrifice, justification, ransom and redemption, Apocalyptic war, and the descent into Hell. In many ways, this is one of the chief strengths of the work. I would say, though, in comparing it to Jeremy Treat’s similar project The Crucified King, Rutledge’s treatment could have benefited from a more synthetic, redemptive-historically organized account.

While she is no Marcionite (she makes fantastic use of the Old Testament, connecting it to the New), there is something of an atomism, typical of much of the critical scholarship she draws on, at work in the treatment of the themes that could be integrated to greater effect. That seems to be something of a side-effect of her Apocalypticism which makes less use of unifying, covenantal themes, and places a greater emphasis on the disjunctive, in-breaking work of God. Again, though, overall, she’s got a very sensitive eye for the diversity of the New Testament witness to Christ’s work. There’s nothing reductionistic about it. And this, I think is probably because she’s not exclusively “Apocalyptic” in her orientation, but has a strong regard for certain traditional, Western exponents such as Anselm, Calvin, and others.  Still, I would probably add Treat’s work as a complementary one, in this regard.

The Problem of Theodicy

Given her concern with the necessity of the cross, justice, and sin, it’s no surprise that the question of theodicy is a running theme throughout the work. Indeed, much like the great theologian of “holy-love” P.T. Forsyth, Rutledge connects the cross with the issue of the “Justification of God.” There is much to commend in this regard. I will say, I had my qualms about this thread in her work, though, as it drinks quite deeply from the Dostoyevskian/Hart-style anti-theodicy. There seem to be some equivocations at work with respect to thinking about evil as “purposed” by God, or “part of God’s purposes” because of a failure to distinguish different senses of the will of God, the decree, and so forth.

Again, though, she does tap the breaks on the cheaper, hasty work of theodicy that we see all too often from the pulpit and the counselor’s office. So there is much benefit in the section.

Defending Substitution

One of the major sub-themes of Rutledge’s work is defending the substitutionary motif both against critics and misguided supporters. I have to say, her work here is simultaneously some of my favorite and least favorite segments. Connected to the themes of justice and God’s rejection of a culture of impunity, Rutledge has excellent discussions of the pastoral use of the doctrine of the wrath of God. She does fantastic work defending the different, mutually supporting elements of substitution and representation in Christ’s work. Also commendable is her repeated, careful emphasis on the perfectly and beautifully Trinitarian character of the Son’s cross-work. And I especially appreciated her exposition of Karl Barth’s contribution to the subject and the way his work can help us think more carefully about the notion of God’s agency in the cross, guarding against some of the more ham-handed expositions we’ve all heard.

That said, there were moments I thought she gave too much ground to the critics of “cruder” expositions of “penal substitution.” While there’s plenty right about those criticisms, I think there are not as many as Rutledge credits, or they don’t have quite the force she accords them. Also, her tendency to beat on the Post-Reformation Orthodoxy and their schematizing, propositionalizing, depersonalizing, etc. ways, grew a bit tiresome, but that’s probably just some of the Post-Barthian influence.

Overall, for those of us in more Reformed, Evangelical circles, it’s a very helpful exercise reading Rutledge’s defense of substitution within a church context that in many ways has left it by the wayside long ago.

Indeed, this could probably said about many of her discussions. Yes, there are tell-tale marks of the liberal tradition she’s engaged with that I just won’t agree with. For instance, Rutledge will follow Riceour on the nature of the Adam narrative (no historical Adam), and gesture towards either annihilationism or universalism in her discussion, all the while giving us a discussion of both radical evil and the realism of hell that’s still quite useful in pastoral conversations and preaching about the issues for those rejecting some of her premises. This is particularly relevant for more conservative readers since many of the theological tendencies Rutledge is speaking to are still with us and more widespread than simply the mainline.


Instead of wrapping up with my words, I figured I’d give you a taste of Rutledge’s own work drawn from her concluding summary:

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 murderers, torturers, 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 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 age” are passing away and the promised kingdom of God is manifest not in triumphalist crusades, but in the cruciform witness of the church. From within “Adam’s” (our) human flesh, the incarnate Son fought with and was victorious over Satan—on our behalf and in our place. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the kosmos to its rightful Creator. 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 Jesus Christ. (610-611)

That’ll preach.

Soli Deo Gloria

15 thoughts on “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

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  3. In your quote of her: From within “Adam’s” (our) human flesh, the incarnate Son fought with and was victorious over Satan—on our behalf and in our place. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the kosmos to its rightful Creator.

    Seems like she’s drawing on Torrance, Weinandy, et al, re: Jesus’ death on the cross as the conclusion of a successful career of cleansing sinful human nature from within?

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  8. Hi Derek,

    My apologies for the length of this comment. I’ve asked some people close to me about the following and I haven’t really been able to get to a satisfying answer. I was hoping you might be able to take the time to indulge me a bit.

    I have been reading through The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge and I’m just about done, but I find myself kind of confused about her view on substitution. I’ll explain to you how I understand she has put it, and then I was hoping you might be able to explain to me where I’ve gone wrong or what I’m missing becasue, to me, her conclusions don’t follow from her arguments. I willingly concede that it may make no sense becasue I’m so deeply entrenched in the view that I hold (the more traditional post-reformation view she seems to dislike), and that blinds me from being able to understand her view on my own.

    She spends some time in the middle of the book (near the end of Chapter 6 if I remember correctly) explaining why she believes that the New Testament as a whole, but Romans 3 in particular should utilize the word expiation instead of propitiation. I found myself disagreeing with her there (no surprise), but then I became thoroughly confused by her treatment of Christ as the means of our reconciliation (Chapter 7) and “The Substitution” (Chapter 11). She makes very clear early on in Chapter 11 that she rejects the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), yet goes on for 60 pages in that chapter alone to make a case that due to our sin (as both a power binding us, and as individual transgressions) God’s wrath has to be appeased for us to be put right with him, and the way in which God took away our sin (power and guilt) is that he substituted his Son (himself) to bear our guilt for us.

    She often refers to II Corinthians 5:21, and other verses like it, to demonstrate that Christ himself bore what we should have, and in our place, so that we could be reconciled to God and have what he deserves.

    I’m confused becasue I found myself completely agreeing with her, and then she would throw in phrases like, “but by this I don’t mean PSA” or something like that, which would really throw me off. I’m just not following the argument. If God is just to have wrath stored up for sin and those who have participated in it (as she seems to believe), and the only way that we can be justified (or rectified as she puts it) before God is by his grace through faith in Christ to have been our substitute holistically, but specifically in bearing that penalty (as she asserts), I am just not understanding how that can be done without a punitive view of the substitution.

    She emphasizes that through Christ as our substitution, our sins are removed from us and not counted to us (expiation), but I am not sure how she is getting to justice and restoration (especially after she spends so much time making a case for our complete inability and guilt before God, that we deserve wrath, and that Jesus was substituted for us so that we could be placed back in a right relationship with God) while outright rejecting PSA and propitiation generally.

    I guess my main questions are:
    1. If we deserve punishment for sin, and Christ was our substitute so that we don’t have to be punished, how would one argue that his substitution is not punitive or PSA?

    2. If Christ’s atonement for our sins has not only removed our sins from us, but actually satisfied God’s wrath and through faith set us back in reconciled relationship with him (rectification/justification), how would one argue that his atonement does not involve propitiation?

    Do you think you can shed some light on my confusion? There is a great chance I’ve misunderstood her, or I’ve simply missed something that she has said along the way that would link the argument together somehow.

    Thanks for your time!

      • No, but he’s pretty busy so it was kind of a long shot any way. Plus this was a pretty old post by the time I commented, and he may have notifications off on things after a certain date.

    • I came away from her book with the exact same confusion. It seems impertinent to suggest she’s confused on the matter, but she appears to throw out contradictory statements with no attempts to resolve them.

      “It should now be generally agreed that any concept of hilasterion in the sense of placating, appeasing, deflecting the anger of, or satisfying the wrath of, is inadmissible.” (p.280)

      She rejects Hodge’s formulation of PSA and its association with Anselm: “However, Anselm never used language like this: ‘When the Lord suffered, the Wrath of God was poured out in such measure upon him, that the Father was satisfied.’ Such statements easily lead into both of the errors we have identified, separating the Father from the Son and suggesting a change in the Father (not to mention a truly distressing view of the Father).” p. 487-488.

      But ultimately it seems to be on aesthetic grounds. As far as I can tell she affirms every point in Hodge’s syllogism, but dislikes that it’s it bulletpoints, not narrative. There is no resolution as to how Christ is not satisfying God’s wrath, yet “the wrath of God has lodged in God’s own self”, and specifically through the suffering of the Son. The Trinity for her seems to be a shield from having to affirm any Person in particular is suffering wrath, or that it’s from Anyone in particular.

      Again, if anyone else has clarifying thoughts, it would be very helpful.

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