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Review of "The Crucifixion" by Fleming Rutledge

Review of "The Crucifixion" by Fleming Rutledge

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 696 pp.

reviewed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

You must read this book.

I have never said that about any book I’ve reviewed, and rarely at all. Rarer still is there a book of seven hundred pages that should not have been a single page shorter and never leaves the reader bored for a moment. If this is the only book of theology you read in your life, or the last book of theology in your life, it is enough. By zeroing in on the most central and most shocking claim of the Christian faith—that Jesus Christ, truly divine and truly human, died on a cross—Rutledge has opened up for us the entire Scripture, the dogmatic claims of the church, the nature of God, the meaning of life. It is no exaggeration to say that everything hangs together in Jesus’ hanging on the cross.

This is also one of the best books I’ve ever come across for teaching theological method; it would make an outstanding textbook for an entire semester’s study. Rutledge studiously avoids the constricting method of trying to find the one single motif, image, proposition, or expression that is correct, into which everything else must fit: a good way to kill both faith and imagination. Instead, her reverence for Scripture suggests the method of listening to the whole canon, in its many tones and nuances, pictures and expressions, for what all the component parts are trying to say and not for what we might prefer them to say.

This nevertheless allows for some ranking of relative importance, noting internal tensions or disagreements among the various biblical books, and thinking through what they might mean. There’s no doubt that Rutledge ranks Paul first as an interpreter of the cross in its apocalyptic dimensions, but she doesn’t snub the Gospels or the other Epistles, or the Old Testament for that matter, in the process. The book is instead an exemplary work of faith seeking understanding, reason seeking conformity to divine wisdom.

Part 1 of the book lays out just how shocking, horrifying, and humiliating the cross was in its place and time. We have a hard time accessing this because none of us have seen a crucifixion in real life—as would have been a not abnormal experience under the Roman empire—and time has sanitized this ubiquitous symbol. The cross, back then, was reserved for the dregs of the empire, for the slaves who dared to revolt; it was virtually never inflicted upon Roman citizens, no matter how outrageous their behavior.

In addition, Rutledge goes into appropriate but not lurid detail on the physical impact of crucifixion (noting that the New Testament says not a word about this—perhaps not to rivet attention on the wrong issue, or perhaps because it was so well known there was no need to go into it). The conjunction of political punishment and bodily catastrophe prompts the question: why this means of God’s death?

And that brings us to another refreshing and timely aspect of Rutledge’s work: knowing the American religious context as well as she does, she can challenge and correct the errors of the religious right and religious left alike. For instance, she rightly critiques the domesticated answer to the question above—“to show how much God loves us”—as a non-answer. Why is love shown with brutal suffering? Why should God go through this to prove such a point to us?

At the same time, Rutledge skillfully deconstructs a fixation on punishment or propitiation as the be-all-and-end-all of atonement theology as found in a certain kind of Evangelicalism. The liberal disdain for Anselm is analyzed and found wanting; but so is the droning chorus of “Jesus paid for my sins with his blood” without ever deigning to ask to whom or what for.

As a final example, Rutledge exposes the shallowness of both extremes’ conception of sin, whether the blame is assigned to self or to structure. Each is fully entangled in the other, and each is the prey of the powers of sin, death, and the devil, which have furthermore exploited the God-given law to hold human beings captive. Only an apocalyptic cross, Rutledge argues via a vast range of scriptural texts, can answer to our predicament—can both rescue us and change us. We need both.

Part 2 then takes up the major biblical motifs that describe, illuminate, or explain the crucifixion of Jesus. Much as I enjoyed Rutledge’s deft handling of atonement theologies and contemporary half-truths, I found this part of the book even more rewarding. It opened up the Scriptures instead of shutting them down (which, sad to say, seems to be the case in most preaching I hear). She deals with, in order, the Passover and Exodus; blood sacrifice; ransom and redemption; the great assize; the apocalyptic war (more familiarly known as Christus Victor); the descent into hell; substitution; and recapitulation. Again, these various motifs are not in competition with each other. Many are found in many books, and the biblical writers shift among them with ease and grace. Focusing on each theme individually brings out its depths and enriches the wider picture.

Any quibbles I might have here or there are purely trivial in the context of this magnificent volume. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It will strengthen the mind, warm the heart, and nourish devotion to the one who humbled himself to the point of death, even death on the cross—whom we rejoice to call our Lord and God.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the Editor of Lutheran Forum.
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