While a majority of theological work exerts its greatest influence upon one side of the aisle or the other, Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion has recently become the exception that proves a rule. Garnering praise from the far left and the far right, this tome, written over twenty years, makes good on an oft forgotten truth that theology centered on the Cross and done for the life of the church will usually lead back to the Cross and the community of faith.
I recently read Rutledge’s masterpiece, and I find myself recommending it to anyone who will listen. It’s the book I tell people they must digest for themselves. So here are my reasons for why a book on the atonement written by an Episcopalian priestess was my favorite read of 2017 (and maybe 2016) and why it should be your next long reading project.
1. The Crucifixion is beautifully written
A friend of mine once admonished me to “write beautiful theology.” Whatever he may have meant, I think Rutledge’s book encapsulates the best of theology written for both truth and pleasure. There’s no way around it. Fleming Rutledge is hands down one of the best theological writers I’ve ever read. She writes with a literary eye and weaves in extraordinary imagery throughout her argument. Christianity Today named The Crucifixion the 2016 Christianity Today Book Award for Beautiful Orthodoxy. It shows. Here’s just a little taste:
There is something sickening in human nature, and it corresponds precisely to the sickening aspects of crucifixion. The hideousness of the crucifixion summons us to put away sentimentality and face up to the ugliness that lies just under the surface. The scandal, the outrage of the cross, is commensurate with the offense and the ubiquity of sin. (p. 197)
2. Fleming Rutledge takes sin seriously.
Language of sin and wrongdoing has been lost in many churches today, especially TEC. But Fleming Rutledge doesn’t shy away from it. In fact, she does the opposite. She looks at it closely so that we can see just how odious sin is, and therefore what kind of savior Jesus is. Her fourth chapter, entitled “The Gravity of Sin,” is a long reflection on Anselm’s quote, “You have not yet considered the gravity of sin” (p. 200). While we may quibble with her reliance upon the Apocalyptic school of Paul, she deals honestly and earnestly with sin’s moral and personal affects upon the world.
3. Liberals have their own things to say.
I’ve highlighted this a couple times, but I cannot emphasize one of the most startling aspects of this book: it’s written by a priest in The Episcopalian Church. A greater amount of difference may not exist between us and her, theologically speaking. Barth makes more than one positive appearance, political and social applications abound, and her feminist readings of Scripture may make more conservative readers uncomfortable. Her reading of Paul comes from the Apocalyptic school. And if she can get around universalism, I’ll drink a Natty Ice. Still, she writes clearly, supports her argument persuasively, and challenges people who disagree with her to read closely the nuances of their own atonement theories.
4. It’s good to read outside of our tradition.
The Reformed tradition may offer a compelling and robust account of the atonement, but it does not totally eclipse other traditions. In fact, by reading other traditions, we may more fully understand our own. This is particularly evident in how Rutledge frames the different “metaphors” for the atonement. Rather than reducing them into an overarching schema, she allows each picture its own space. The result is a multifaceted view of the atonement which we may disagree with, but one that nevertheless offers a polychromatic panorama of Christ’s work on the cross.
5. Her exposition of the Apocalyptic School.
I’ll be honest—I had no idea what the Apocalyptic reading of Paul was until I read Rutledge. Unknown to many Reformed folks, this eclectic reading of Paul seems to have gained some serious traction in the academic and ecclesiastic circles of the mainline churches. The main proponents of the view have laid out their views in newer commentaries and journals. Very little seems to have seeped into popular literature. Rutledge’s views of sin and Sin—moral guilt for which atonement must be made, and a cosmic power from which we must be freed—come straight from de Boer and Martyn. She revamps Christus Victor into a robust doctrine that complements more traditional penal substitutionary models. For those interested in this burgeoning interpretation of Paul, this book will help you immensely in understanding its complexities.
6. Justice will become sweeter.
This point is closely connected to the last, but it deserves its own blurb from me. One thing we Reformed folks will almost certainly disagree with her on is her translation of dikaiasyne (classically translated as “justification”) as “rectification.” It’s an interesting idea, but one fraught with too many pitfalls to be stable. Her commitment to it, though, will hopefully highlight a particular biblical emphasis that many conservative churches can lose: the eschatological theodicy. That is, God’s justice and righteousness proved by his coming to make all things new. When every tear is wiped away and death is no more, the judge of all the earth will deal with all sin regardless of the status of the offended party. Fleming Rutledge’s greatest success is this: she makes justice sweet, because God is the perfect judge.
7. Fleming Rutledge knows the Bible. And she uses it.
I took this one from Andrew Wilson’s list (see below), but I had already noticed it in my own reading. The book closes around page 600. It’s monstrous. Despite extensive exposition of theological ideas, multiple Scripture references show up on almost every page. She does not denigrate the Bible like others. Everything she writes is backed up by loads and loads of Scripture. Most evangelicals are probably not as fluidly adept with their Bibles as Rutledge.
But she isn’t trapped to mere proof-texting. The whole story of the bible with its plurality of pictures is on display. She does not truncate the biblical pictures. She blows them up into high-definition and traces the nuances that each present. Over half the book is concerned with eight different pictures of the atonement: the Passover and the Exodus, the Blood Sacrifice, Ransom and Redemption, the Great Assize, the Apocalyptic War, The Descent into Hell, Subsitution, and Recapitulation. I’ve simply never read anything like this.
8. It will help you love Jesus more.
This point I cannot overstress. Stanley Hauerwas comments on the back of the book, “This is a work of a lifetime that could only be written by someone who has lived a life determined by the cross.” He’s right. It’s evident throughout that Rutledge has committed her life to the preaching of the cross. To read this book is to see more clearly the scandal of the cross.
These are just eightreasons why you need to read this book. If you don’t believe me, read Andrew Wilson’s own recommendation or Derek Rishmawy’s assessment. Whether or not you buy her argument, a slow, meditative read will pay dividends in theological riches. The chapter on the “godlessness of the cross” is worth the price of the book itself.
I’ll leave you with a longer selection from The Crucifixion if you aren’t quite convinced:
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ puts an end to all these religious categories that separate people from one another. There is no one who is not guilty of perpetrating something on someone at some point. We spend a good deal of psychic energy (often unconsciously) in keeping a mental balance sheet, so that one person’s failure in a personal relationship is not seen as equal to another person’s act of vicious assault. In Paul’s words, however, “there is no distinction” (Rom. 3:22). We must find a way to talk theologically about persons both righteous and unrighteous, spiritual and unspiritual, religious and irreligious—and perhaps especially about people who have wasted their “human potential.” Above all, we must account for victims and perpetrators alike. If we cannot do this, then it is not evangel. (p. 577)
Read it deeply. Read it critically. Just read it.