INTERVIEW WITH FLEMING RUTLEDGE ON THE CRUCIFIXION: UNDERSTANDING THE DEATH OF JESUS CHRIST
The following interview centers around Fleming Rutledge
How can a female, Episcopal priest have the Gospel Coalition not just review, but gush over her magisterial book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ?
Well, Fleming Rutledge is faithful to Holy Scripture, unwavering with the truth, and she writes beautiful prose.
Moore: You describe yourself as a “nonacademic person.” That strikes me as a bit of self-deprecation, as you are among other things, a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Why did you use the “nonacademic” moniker?
Rutledge: I am not known for self-deprecation! I am not trying to devalue my work, only to locate it. I usually say, simply, “I am not an academic.” I am using the term “academic” in a very specific, defined way—the way it is used in “the academy.” An academic is a person who has a PhD, who is (as a general rule) on the faculty of an accredited school, who writes papers and books on a regular basis for peer review, who is a member of an academic guild, who goes to academic conferences and presents papers. I am most definitely not in any of those categories. I am very grateful that many genuine academics have been gracious enough to encourage me to write a book that has pretensions to scholarship and that many of them have enthusiastically endorsed it.
I am a strong believer in communication between the academy and the church, and I am thankful that God has apparently used me in that role.
Moore: Throughout your book there are pointed critiques of “liberal” or “mainline” denominations.
Rutledge: Yes, well, I am certainly not alone in that. Even some “liberal,” “progressive” mainliners (members of the historic Protestant denominations) are beginning to wonder if we haven’t to some degree lost our way. It has not been unnoticed that our attendance is precipitously declining. Like a significant number of others within the mainlines, I’d say that we have been so focused on social action that we have forgotten “the faith once delivered to the saints.” I believe strongly in social action, as should be obvious to anyone reading my work carefully, but I don’t believe in it as the organizing principle of all biblical interpretation. When the church focuses on social justice to the exclusion of a more comprehensive understanding of classical Christian doctrine, liturgy, and practice, we lose theology, we lose the Trinity, we lose liturgical breadth, we lose discipline, we lose Christology—and that means we lose the living Jesus Christ who alone, by his Spirit, builds the Church and moves masses of people to protest injustice.
Moore: On your Twitter account, you recently inquired, “Tweet if you are an ‘evangelical Reformed Episcopalian’ (as differentiated from Anglican)… I may be one of about 5 in the whole USA.” You’ve stayed in the Episcopal Church. How come?
Rutledge: I have fun answering this frequent question by giving two reasons:
- The Episcopal Hymnal, which I snootily think is the best among those of all of the churches (and I have seen most of them)
- The Advent season, which the Episcopal Church does better than any other denomination including the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics! (Full disclosure: my next book is Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ)
Well, obviously, that is not a fully serous answer, but it points to something important. I believe that the church is worthy of the best hymn texts and the best hymn tunes, and if we don’t treasure them, we become impoverished. I have attended a great many churches over forty years that feature praise bands and praise music, and I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we are robbing the next generations of the deep memory of texts that are not only doctrinally and biblically rich, but also emotionally stirring and communally enriching. My observation is that—generally speaking—praise music trades on repetition, individualism, and theatrical emoting by solo singers. I don’t mean to sound overly critical, but I don’t think there is anything quite like the voices of choir and congregation joined together in the words of a hymn with a text that has a plot—praise and proclamation followed by destabilization and then a powerful, upbuilding resolution with a sense of struggle overcome in the triumph of God—all of it rich in biblical imagery.
The reason that I think the Advent season, together with Holy Week, is so crucial is that these are the times in the church year that take the darker side of life seriously. The traditional Protestant churches, with the exception of the Lutherans to some extent, do not have liturgical time set aside for this. I’ve noticed that many mainlines have begun to observe Advent and, especially, Holy Week, but without the liturgical depth that can only come from centuries of tradition. I think this is important because living according to the church year during the week as well as on Sundays trains the mind and heart to live according to divine rhythms instead of secular ones.
But to come closer to what I think your question may be about, I stay in the Episcopal Church, as part of the larger Anglican Communion, rather than the breakaway Anglican Church of North America, because for all of our divisions, we are still part of a worldwide communion that has—I believe—been able to preserve the essential best of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the Great Tradition more than any other Christian denomination. However, I think we are deeply in danger of losing our position because of our betrayal of the ancient creedal and conciliar affirmations, not to mention our considerable roots in the Reformation (now largely ignored) but I am still hopeful that we as Episcopalians can live through this and come out as a reinvigorated church, with its liturgical and aesthetic advantages intact but with a return to powerful gospel preaching and catechesis in a setting worthy of the Word of God. I know quite a few clergy who have committed themselves to bearing witness as members of the Episcopal Church even if it means being sidelined and even sometimes ostracized at church meetings. The gospel is more than worth it!
Moore: Give us an idea about the initial impetus for this book. Also, how does a self-described technophobe keep track of such a massive amount of research?
Rutledge: Those are two different questions. The easy one first: I am not a technophobe, at all. It’s just that I am essentially incompetent in using all the tools that come naturally to native-born citizens of the cyberworld. I barely know what an app is and don’t use any. I am very good at word processing but beyond that, my competence stops. I keep track of my research the old-fashioned way, by putting everything in manila folders. I know where everything is.
As for the initial impetus, I explain in the introduction to The Crucifixion that when I was a very young adult and active in the church, I began to notice that there was conflict, division, and even contempt surrounding some of the traditional interpretations of the death of Christ. This distressed me very much. I could see that there was some sort of agenda at work, pitting groups of Christians against one another. I still to this day do not fully understand how or why this happened, but it seemed pernicious to me, and still does. If we cannot unite around this unique feature of the gospel we proclaim, it seems to me that we have a serious, potentially death-dealing problem. I set about writing The Crucifixion in order to recommend to the church the manifold ways in which the New Testament itself—the apostolic witness—“proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor. 11:26). That is what St Paul places at the heart and center of his eucharistic teaching.
Rutledge: I have tried in my book to argue against all “theories,” including theories of the atonement, in favor of the extraordinarily rich imagery of the New Testament test itself, drawing deeply from the Old Testament. If my book does anything at all, I hope it makes clear that we must not make any one “theory” into a litmus test of “soundness.” I have mounted a very strong defense of the substitution theme in Scripture, but I have also placed significant emphasis on the Christus Victor theme in at least four chapters, not to mention the other themes such as ransom and recapitulation. The wonderful thing is that we have this kaleidoscope of imagery to marvel at.
Moore: Your footnotes contain a goldmine of wonderful insights. One of them got me thinking further about whether worship is overwhelming doctrine in American churches. Is this a problem we should be concerned about?
Rutledge: I am not sure exactly what you mean by this. Common worship, after all, is the sine qua non of being a Christian. Any other way of honoring God is, in both Testaments, simply unthinkable. But if you mean that we are not teaching Christian doctrine, or biblical interpretation, or those crucial first three centuries of struggle to consolidate basic affirmations about who God is, and was, and is to come—then I think there is indeed nothing we should be more concerned about. We are pitifully lacking in basic catechesis. Worship needs to be strengthened by teaching and by small groups meeting to study the Bible and Christian doctrine. [Note from David Moore: Yes, this was the gist of my question.]
Moore: You argue that our understanding of the judgment of God has become untethered to His love. Kindly unpack that some for us.
Rutledge: Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious that our culture despises “judgment” above all things. There is hardly any room for discernment or connoisseurship any more. If you love Bach more than you love crossover thrash, you’re an elitist and not worthy of a hearing. When you hear that a person is “judgmental” you know that’s a crushing judgment on that person (yes, the irony is deliberate). It’s not easy in today’s culture to show how the judgment that crushes is the judgment that heals and restores—not only restores, but indeed “makes all things new.” So preachers and teachers of the Christian faith must be tireless in illustrating how the necessary judgment of God upon evil is a facet of his all-embracing love and his conquest of all that is harmful to human flourishing. It’s not all that hard to illustrate if we work at looking for examples of how this works. Everyone knows, deep down, that there has to be some sort of judgment if there is to be justice.
Moore: As we ponder the crucifixion of Jesus, what is one of the biggest errors we make about God’s forgiveness and forgiving others?
Rutledge: This is one of the most important points that I make in my book, at considerable length. Forgiveness is close to the heart of the Christian life, but forgiveness, considered by itself, is not enough. That’s what I’m getting at in my previous answer. The seeming impossibility of human forgiveness is made possible only by the action of God in justification—making right what is wrong. Here’s where Paul is so important. If it were not for Paul’s letters, we would not have a full picture of the eschatological nature of forgiveness. This can be illustrated by the often-told story of the woman who was in the Bible study group at the AME Zion church in Charleston, SC, when Dylann Roof walked in with his concealed gun. In the courtroom, she looked him in the face and said, “I forgive you.” And then she said, “May God have mercy on your soul.” The various reporters and interviewers who discussed this for months afterward simply did not understand this. “How can you forgive Dylann?” they kept asking. The answer is, by faith in the God who “is able,” as they say in the African-American church—able not only to have mercy but to rectify all wrongs, that is, to make all things righteous in the Last Day so that there will no longer be even a memory of unrighteousness.
Moore: Now that your book has been out for a few years, are there any significant changes you would make to it?
Rutledge: No, not really, except that I would have read and quoted a few more books! But there is one thing that remains undone. By 2013, the manuscript of The Crucifixion had grown to be more than 800 pages and, obviously, could not be feasibly published in that form. In order to get it published by 2015, or indeed at all, we had to lop off the third part. The book was originally designed to have three major sections. The third section was to be the most important part, “The Cruciform Life.” It was to be the ethical, individual and communal way of working out what it means to carry the cross of Jesus in this mortal life. I was very sorry to let it go, but grateful to have the first 600 pages in print. I have written about 200 pages of “The Cruciform Life,” but it is not in any shape to be published, and in some ways is dated. Whether, at my age, I will have time and energy to get it finished remains to be seen; I rather doubt it. But as Karl Barth said about his own unfinished work, it is a sign pointing to the end of human effort and the oncoming advent of the God who is the giver of all good and the final Victor over all the Powers of destruction and negation—the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the End, when Christ the Lord will take the Kingdom for his own.
Moore: Thank you for your faithful and courageous witness for Christ!
Rutledge: I am deeply grateful that the Lord has granted me the necessary strength and perseverance to do the work he has given me to do.