Getting the God of the cross right…and very wrong

A response to Fleming Rutledge

by Stephen J. Wellum

Any book written to help the church think afresh about the glory of Christ crucified as central to the life, worship, and theology of the church is to be applauded. We need constant reminders of why the death and resurrection of God the Son is the most significant event in redemptive history and what it means for our lives today. With Paul, we must resolve “to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). For this reason, I eagerly approached Fleming Rutledge’s book on the cross, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015).

I was also keenly interested in the work given the stellar reviews it has received from a diverse theological spectrum. In 2017 it was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year. It received high praise from evangelicals such as Scot McKnight, Stephen Westerholm, and Andrew Wilson (who wrote a glowing review on The Gospel Coalition). Outside of evangelicalism, it has been highly recommended from people such as George Hunsinger, David Bentley Hart, Katherine Sonderegger, Stanley Hauerwas, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Obviously, my interest was piqued and I eagerly approached the book. Yet, although there is much to praise about the work, my overall assessment is not as positive as most of its reviewers. But before I explain why, I will first outline the content of the book—content which is rich in biblical data, well-written and researched, perceptive, and thought-provoking, yet also problematic.

What is The Crucifixion all about?

After the Introduction, the book is broken into two parts with a culminating Conclusion. Part 1 is comprised of four chapters. It orients the reader to the importance of the crucifixion in history, Scripture, and theology. Also, by wrestling with Anselm’s view of the cross, Rutledge raises the crucial issue of divine justice—God’s righteousness—and the nature of the human problem for rightly grasping the why or, better, the theology of the cross. Then in Part 2, comprised of eight chapters, Rutledge walks through the biblical data. She concludes that the cross is good news because it is the solution to God’s victory over Sin and the Powers by the substitutionary death of Christ and thus the way that the triune God rectifies all things and ushers in a transformed new creation. I will now briefly outline the content of each chapter and its contribution to the book.

In the Introduction, Rutledge wonderfully captures why the cross is central to Christianity and why it has been and continues to be scandalous to the world, and why it demands both reflection and worship. Rutledge notes the absence of any major study of the crucifixion for pastors and students since John Stott’s The Cross of Christ (1986), although there have been numerous studies about the cross with concentrated focus on the criticism of penal substitution. To fill this lacuna, she has designed her work for the entire church, including Catholic and Protestant, and all denominations (4-5). In terms of methodology, Rutledge endorses a common view of scholarship today, namely that no one atonement theory can adequately explain the cross. Instead, the Bible’s description of the cross is multifaceted and to grasp the cross properly we must account for each image without succumbing to reductionism (6-8). She notes that the church never settled on a conciliar definition of the cross (8), which may reflect more the multi-perspectival nature of the cross (9), yet in the end, she will endorse a Christus Victor view through the substitutionary and recapitulative work of Christ.

Before moving to her exposition of the cross, Rutledge notes some of the theological convictions she assumes. For example, Rutledge affirms a pro-Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology. She correctly reminds us that the cross cannot be understood apart from a robust Trinitarian theology (10-13). As to her view of Scripture, she approaches the entire canon of Scripture in faith and trust, yet she is aware of various historical-critical issues, and in many places assumes critical views. Probably similar to post-liberalism, she is committed to reading Scripture from the posture of trust and taking seriously how each of the biblical motifs concerning Christ’s death are presented. She also stresses that even though her focus is on the cross, one cannot grasp its significance apart from the Son’s incarnation, life, and resurrection (13-33). Overall, in approach to Scripture, Rutledge is to be commended.

Part 1 places the crucifixion in the context of history, Scripture, and theology. In chapter 1, Rutledge establishes the primacy of the cross in the storyline of the Gospels. Each of the Gospels, she reminds us, climaxes in the cross which underscores the fact that “the crucifixion is the most important historical event that has ever happened” (44). No doubt, the cross and resurrection form a single entity (67), yet the New Testament places the emphasis on Christ’s death, thus placing the cross at the forefront of Christian theology. A cross-less Christianity is impossible (71), but what exactly is the significance of the cross?

Chapter 2 addresses this issue by setting the crucifixion in the context of the first century. Given the horrific nature of crucifixions, why did the triune God choose this kind of death for the divine Son? Contrary to views of the cross that remove God’s sovereign action, Rutledge does not shy back from saying that God is sovereignly at work in Christ’s cross and that Scripture teaches that on the cross the divine Son bears our curse (Gal 3:10-14). However, as developed in chapter 4 and in Part 2, she denies that the curse is the Son bearing the Father’s wrath as our penal substitute. Instead Christ bears the curse of the Powers that hold the human race under its grip (101), which leads to her discussion of the nature of the human problem.

Sin before God absent

Throughout chapter 4 and the entire book, Rutledge’s discussion of sin is riveting. Rutledge captures well the Bible’s teaching about the horrendous nature of sin and its awful effects in the world. Yet as valuable as her discussion is, she tends to downplay our individual sin before God. She contends that sin should not be viewed merely as “individual fault and guilt” (171); instead, it is a “malevolent agency bent upon despoiling, imprisonment, and death—the utter undoing of God’s good purposes” (175). Rutledge describes the Bible’s view of sin by unpacking three premises. First, the fall (which she views as non-historical) teaches us that all humans are in rebellion “against our once and future destiny in God” (184). Second, all humanity is in bondage to the power of Sin. Third, given Sin (as a power), we are in “a cosmic struggle between the forces of Sin, evil, and Death” (184) that only God can defeat in the cross, hence Christus Victor via substitution. However, what is absent in her discussion is the emphasis on our individual sin before God and that in the cross, the triune God, as the moral standard of the universe, is making things right by satisfying his own righteous demand by self-substitution in God the Son. In fact, chapter 3 offers the reason why this emphasis is missing.

Divine justice not an essential attribute to God: Retributive justice replaced with rectification

In chapter 3, Rutledge rightly argues that God’s justice/righteousness is central to a correct view of the cross. Yet she does not think of divine justice first as an essential attribute of God so that in relation to sin, God, as the moral standard of the universe and the offended party, stands against sin in holy wrath that must be satisfied. She does not think that for sin to be forgiven, God must first satisfy his own righteous demand against sin. Instead, Rutledge views divine justice more “horizontally,” namely, as “rectification” or God making things right (133-134). God is truly outraged against sin (129-130) but more in terms of the effects of sin. Rutledge rejects any view of God as a “remote judge” who hands down pronouncements “according to some legal norm” (136).

Instead, God declares his “enmity against everything that resists his redemptive purposes” (136) so that his justice “is not retributive but restorative” (136). Similar to the New Perspective on Paul, Rutledge argues that divine justice “is not so much that God is righteous but that he does righteousness” (137)—a display of “covenant faithfulness” (137). God’s wrath or outrage is really a display of his mercy because in the cross, God has taken injustice into himself and begun to make all things right in Christ’s resurrection. In fact, God has so rectified injustices in the cross that seemingly all wrongs are righted so that either “unrepentant monsters of history… will be either utterly transfigured or annihilated altogether, for no one is beyond the reach of God’s power” (603). In Christ, then, God rectifies all wrongs, obliterates any memory of injustices, and annihilates any unrepentant people (who seemingly are few) (610-12). Christ, as the “representative of all humanity” (including the elect and the reprobate [607]), suffers “condemnation in place of all humanity” and destroys the Power of Sin and Death and inaugurates a new creation (610-11).

In this light, Rutledge includes a bridge chapter on Anselm between chapters 3-4 (146-66). Instead of rejecting Anselm as so many do today, Rutledge encourages us to reconsider him. Although she rejects Anselm’s focus on retributive justice and God being the object of the cross, she contends that we can learn from him. Anselm rightly takes sin and divine justice seriously, yet Rutledge will replace retributive justice with justice as rectification (165-66). If Anselm’s focus on justice is understood as the latter, then what he teaches us about the cross is crucial: “something is wrong and must be put to right” (166).

Substitution not penal

In Part 2, Rutledge identifies and develops various biblical images/themes used by the New Testament to teach us about the multi-perspectival meaning of the cross. Throughout her exposition, she unites the biblical material into two overall categories: substitution and Christus Victor. But, as already noted, substitution is not penal substitution; instead, it is Christ acting for us to rectify injustices. Rutledge seems to give us a variation of the Governmental view of the cross combined with Christus Victor, where rectoral justice (God rectifying all things) is privileged over retributive. And in Christ’s victory over the Powers, the Powers are viewed more horizontally—human injustices and systemic structures that destroy God’s creation intent for humans and the world.

God the subject, not the object of sacrifice

In chapter 5, Rutledge discusses the themes of the Passover and the Exodus which teach us that sin and guilt must be rectified along with a defeat of the Powers. In chapter 6, the focus is on the theme of blood sacrifice. Rutledge concludes that two ideas are present: something of value is relinquished for the purpose of a greater good (239). In the OT, God provided the sacrificial system as “the means for the continual restoration of the people in view of their sinfulness” and to make his people righteous (244).

Yet she discusses little about the sacrificial system as God-given to turn back God’s holy wrath. She contends that God is never viewed as the object of the sacrifice but only as the “acting subject” (280, cf. 278-283). God’s outrage must be viewed horizontally—“against all that hurts and destroys [God’s] loving purposes” (280 fn. 97). Nor is there much discussion of the location of the sacrificial system within the Mosaic covenant and how the entire system reveals the need for a greater atonement that actually pays for our sins before God (Rom 3:21-26; Heb 9, esp. vv 15-28). Rutledge contends that “propitiation” is more “expiation” and that the New Testament does not teach that God needs to be reconciled to us (163) or his wrath satisfied due to our sin (278-83). The purpose of the cross is not to satisfy God’s own righteous demand against sin. In fact, she states, “there was never a time when God was against us. Even in his wrath he is for us” (282), but understood in the sense that God’s wrath is his determination first and foremost to make all things right and to destroy “all that is hostile to perfecting his world” (282).

Justice without a courtroom: New Perspective tendencies

Chapter 7 focuses on the themes of ransom and redemption while chapter 8 returns to the subject of divine justice/judgment. Redemption is understood as “deliverance” (victory over the Powers) at a great cost but not deliverance by the payment of our sin before God (288-94). Once again, God as the subject and the object of the cross is denied. Rutledge affirms the truth of divine justice/judgment but “justice” is taken out of the courtroom (thus softening its forensic note and the need for our justification before God) and placed in the realm of cosmology.

Judgment, then, is more about God rectifying injustices than God declaring that by faith union in Christ, individuals stand before God righteous and forgiven of their sin because Christ our substitute has paid for our sin and his righteousness is now ours by imputation (319-322). Instead, for Rutledge, “[t]he imagery of the law court is subordinate … to the theme of apocalyptic victory in the cross and resurrection of Christ” (344). In the NT, “[i]t is not his [God’s] opposition to us but our opposition to him” (323) that must be overcome in the cross. Similar to the New Perspective, Rutledge insists that “the righteousness of God” is “inseparable from the covenant faithfulness of YHWH” so that justice is a “‘relational concept’ based on the covenant, rather than an ‘absolute ethical norm’” (327). God’s righteousness, then, “is not an attribute but a power” that results in salvation (328). God’s reckoning us righteous (logizomai) is not because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, instead it is a blend of justification and sanctification where God’s justifying word “brings transformed persons into being” (333).

Chapter 9 focuses on Christus Victor as a dominating theme of the cross, while chapter 10 discusses, from the Apostle’s Creed, Christ’s descent into hell. Rutledge insists that the cross cannot be understand apart from the theme of victory set within a larger apocalyptic framework so that Christ defeats the Powers which results in ultimate rectification, which for Rutledge seems to an entail a hopeful universalism or an annihilation of a few. Christ’s triumph is so definitive that no “permanent pocket of evil or resistance” can remain. “Whether this means the redemption of the Hitlers and the Pol Pots or their annihilation we cannot say” (459-60), though she seems to prefer the former: “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” (461).

Denial of penal substitution for recapitulation

Chapter 11 tackles the subject of substitution with specific focus on penal substitution. Rutledge rightly argues that the cross cannot be understood apart from substitution, but this does not entail penal substitution. Protestant theology took a wrong turn after Calvin, especially in people like Charles Hodge (487-89). Rutledge discusses and agrees with the standard criticisms of penal substitution (489-506) and insists that the penal view wrongly privileges forensic imagery “over other imagery, especially Christus Victor, and is allowed to obscure it” (506). This leads to a privileging of the individual over a corporate/cosmic emphasis, yet she also contends that substitution must be maintained in a Christus Victor sense (506).

Chapter 12 focuses on the theme of recapitulation. This theme is allied with substitution, and it picks up Christ as the Last Adam. Rutledge notes how many in the early church picked up this truth (537-39) and in Scripture it is taught by Paul’s story of the two Adams. However, she denies the historicity of the first Adam (and the historic fall) and thus, in my view, complicating the biblical theme of recapitulation. If the early chapters of Genesis are not history, it is not only difficult to take the Bible on its own terms, but also Sin and Death are no longer something “abnormal” that needs to be destroyed but a “normal” part of God’s universe. One is no longer able to say that Adam, as the representative of the human race, was once “good” but in history brought sin into the world which has resulted in all of the horrendous effects of sin and injustice that Rutledge has so wonderfully described. Instead, it seems that Sin and Evil are part of God’s created order from the very beginning. Yet, Rutledge repeatedly writes as if these stories give us “theological truths” despite their historical inaccuracy. This view also has the unfortunate consequence of undercutting the need for Christ to act as our covenant representative in perfect obedience (543-49).

Blending justification and sanctification

Furthermore, as Rutledge speaks of the application of Christ’s work to us, she tends to blend justification and sanctification. No doubt, by the Spirit’s work in union with Christ we who are spiritually made alive have begun the process of transformation that will be culminated by our glorification. Yet, in Rutledge’s denial of penal substitution, she has no way of saying that Christ has fully paid for our sin and that we now are righteous before God due to Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to us. Instead she insists that “to be righteous” involves a genuine ontological “transformation” (564), to be “actually made righteous by the rectifying power of God (557, cf. 564-570), and not simply a legal declaration (557, 565). But this blending of justification and sanctification entails that we cannot say that presently we have a perfect righteousness before God. Seemingly, for us to stand before God there is no need for a full payment of our sin and a perfect righteousness.

The Conclusion summarizes the overall argument of the book. In the cross, the triune God is making all things right by defeating the Powers and bringing about justice, namely a new order and our transformation in that order. As noted, Rutledge believes that most, if not all, will benefit from Christ’s work. Christ, as the incarnate Son, hung on the cross “as the representative of all humanity, and suffered condemnation in the place of all humanity, to break the Power of Sin and Death over all humanity” (610), which is gloriously seen in Christ’s resurrection.

Critical Reflections

It is not surprising that so many people have praised this book. It is beautifully written, well-researched and it says so many things well. Orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology is affirmed, human sin is described in all of its horrors, and God’s sovereign initiative to save is wonderfully taught. It engages Scripture, historical theology, and contemporary thought, and it includes many profound insights. It holds together Christ’s substitutionary work by Christus Victor. Rutledge has thought deeply about the cross. However, I also find the book problematic, and I am convinced that she has not theologized correctly about the cross or put together the biblical data on the Bible’s own terms. I offer three points of criticism.

Propitiation as expiation?

First, regarding the biblical language of the cross, Rutledge often sides with interpretations that are problematic. Here are a few examples. First, she holds that propitiation is best understood as expiation and the word does not convey that God is wrathful against individual sin. God’s wrath is only against the effects of sin. Not only is this difficult to substantiate linguistically, it is also difficult to sustain in terms of the Bible’s entire storyline, where God’s wrath against sin is no insignificant detail. Or, she views redemption as merely “deliverance” but not by payment of a price. Or, reconciliation has nothing to do with God being reconciled to us, but only from the human side of things. Or, the sacrificial system does not teach us that God both initiates to provide—the subject—but also that he provides to meet his own righteous demand against us (Lev 17:11)—thus also the object of the sacrifices. Or, the “righteousness of God” only refers to God’s saving faithfulness or rectification—what God does—and not who God is as self-sufficient. No doubt, these issues have been debated for years, but in my view, the case has not been made convincingly for how Rutledge interprets the biblical language to eliminate notions of God’s wrath against individuals, and God, as the holy one, who is both the subject and the object of the cross.

No first Adam to make sense of the Last Adam

Second, I am not convinced that her understanding of the biblical storyline which provides the framework to understand the cross is correct. For example, her emphasis on Sin and its Power and the need for Christ to act as our substitute to defeat the Powers, is undercut by her denial of the historicity of Adam and the fall. Not only is it difficult to deny the historicity of these events on the Bible’s own terms, but if one rejects the original moral goodness of this world which is now fallen due to Adam’s rebellion in history, then one has to affirm that all of the Sin and evil around us is original to God’s creation. But if this is so, then what is the cross doing? In Scripture, the cross solves the problem of sin which is viewed as an abnormality to this world. Yes, God is making all things right by reversing the effects of sin, destroying its power, and making a new world. But unless there is an historic Adam who stands as the representative covenant head of the human race, and by his disobedience brings sin into the world, the rationale for the obedience and recapitulation work of the Last Adam is undercut.

In addition, Rutledge does not view the primary problem of sin as human rebellion against God, nor does she see God, as the holy one, bringing judgment upon our sin which results in death, injustices, Satan’s power over us, etc. (Rom. 6:24; Col. 2:13-15; Heb. 2:14-18). Viewed this way, to rectify all the injustices of this world, the first relationship to be restored is the vertical not the horizontal. In other words, horizontal rectification is the result of vertical reconciliation and justification. This point leads to my third and most serious point of concern.

God’s justice no longer essential to him?

Third, what is lacking the most is viewing God’s justice as essential to him. Rutledge privileges rectoral justice, or “God’s righteousness,” as God doing something—rectification—rather than who he is in himself as the moral standard and Judge. In fact, this seems to be the reason why she denies a strong retributive sense to justice which leads to her denial that God is both the subject and object of the cross. She affirms substitution but not penal substitution. This only makes sense if she does not ground God’s justice in himself, that is, who God is essentially, and thus the moral standard of the universe. However, God is not like human judges who adjudicate laws external to them; instead, the triune God is the law. When God judges he remains true to his own perfect, moral demand–that is, he remains true to himself. Sin, then, is first against God who is holy and just; for sinners to be declared just, our justification before God requires that our sin be fully paid and that we have a perfect righteousness by imputation. Failing to emphasize the inner life of God as the source and standard of justice is a major lacuna in Rutledge’s work, and, in my view, skews the biblical framework for understanding the nature and necessity of the cross.  

No doubt, Rutledge is right to affirm that God is the subject of the cross and that he initiates and accomplishes our salvation due to his love. Yet, given who God is, divine love and justice-holiness go together. The triune, self-sufficient God of holy love is the law, who always acts consistently with who he is. This is why, in relation to sin, a necessity results in the collision of our sin before him. God cannot tolerate sin; he must act in holy justice. Yet, how will God demonstrate his holy justice and covenant love, given his free choice to redeem us? This tension is at the heart of the Bible’s storyline and it is rooted in who God is vis-à-vis sin. It is at the heart of the Bible’s view of why the cross. Since God is the Law, he cannot justify and forgive us without the full satisfaction of his holy and righteous demand (Rom. 3:21-26). God cannot overlook our sin, nor can he relax the retributive demands of his justice. To justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), God must take the initiative to provide a Redeemer who can pay for our sin and act in perfect obedience for us. Christ must not only be our victor and substitute, but our penal substitute.

The ultimate problem with Rutledge’s view of the cross

What is my ultimate problem with Rutledge’s view? It is this: she does not sufficiently account for who God is in all of his perfections. Ultimately what is at stake is a God who truly is the moral standard of the universe and who will not rectify anything apart from the satisfaction of his own righteous requirements, which the triune God has done in the Son. Confidence that the horrors and injustices of this world will be fully dealt with is grounded not in a view that diminishes the demand for the full satisfaction of God’s righteous demand, but in a full satisfaction for sin either in the substitutionary work of God the Son incarnate or, for those who stand outside of Christ (and Scripture teaches there are such people, sadly) in an eternal punishment of one’s sin. In the end, God balances the books perfectly, not by letting sin go, but by bringing about its full punishment in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In at least these three areas, I find the helpful book by Fleming Rutledge wanting. She has not convinced me that she has handled well Scripture on its own terms, or that Christ as our penal substitute is not the biblical way of making sense of the glory of the cross and the victory achieved for us that results in the glorious new creation. For these reasons, it is surprising to see so many evangelicals rally behind a book that denies one of the core, biblical, and evangelical commitments, namely, penal substitutionary atonement. That demonstrates not only that our doctrine of the atonement needs work still, but that our doctrine of God remains weak and in need of correction.

Stephen J. Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Kingdom of Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants; God the Son Incarnate; Christ Alone; Christ from Beginning to End.