Book Review-The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Christ

This is an outstanding book that the reader will want to return to, again and again!

Like John Stott’s The Cross of Christ (1986), Fleming Rutledge’s book is receiving high acclaim across theological and denominational lines. The flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today chose it for “The 2017 Book of the Year” award. Destined to be a classic, it is written for all–people in the pews, pastors as well as theologians.

Rutledge is an Episcopal priest reputed for her preaching and teaching and the author of several books (such as The Undoing of Death and The Battle for Middle-earth). Drawing on several decades in church ministry, she has given readers a brilliant and fascinating book that uncovers the inexhaustible potency of the cross of Christ.

In a book she has worked on for almost two decades, the author provides a richly textured and multidimensional theologia crucis (a theology of the cross). Delving deep into centuries of reflection on the cross, and drawing discerningly from the prodigious insights of great theologians and litterateurs, politicians and statesmen, she has produced a magisterial seven-hundred page volume that will be read and appropriated, discussed and debated, for long.

So how do we understand the meaning of the cross? The Sunday school child would declare, and rightly so, “Jesus died for my sins”. Of course, there is more to the cross–much, much more! And Fleming Rutledge works tirelessly to let us into the grand and expansive mystery of our faith in the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Battling with the worldly–wisdom intoxicated Corinthians, their founding pastor cried out: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). We will never comprehend the apostle Paul until we grasp why he says things like, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14a).

The primary task of a preacher of the Christian gospel ought to be to turn people’s attention to God’s work on the cross of Christ. Major religious systems are mostly built on the life and teachings of their leaders and founders. However, the Christian faith surprisingly centers in on the horrific and humiliating death and the subsequent resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

Sometimes it appears today – as it did in Paul’s time two millennia ago – that it is easy to preach “good news” to a world starved of it, conveying a message which does not hold to the cross as crucial (pun intended) to its content. A cross-less gospel is not a Christian gospel – rather one that has been engineered in the workshop of the Deceiver. Rutledge makes a valiant effort to fight this dangerous malaise, rampant today in the church world-wide. George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary remarks, “Here is the kind of strong theology that will undergird strong preaching.”

Rutledge expertly arranges her material in two major sections. Part 1, “The Crucifixion”, has four chapters that delineate the primacy of the cross, the nature of the crucifixion (the utter godlessness of Jesus’ death), and why Jesus had to die such a horrendous death. The themes of Sin (understood as a Power) and issues of justice are discussed. In these first 200 pages, Rutledge argues that the horror of the cross of Jesus, the only way God could deal with the gravity of sin, must be squarely faced before we rush to embrace the glory of the resurrection.

So how does God “rectify” (and not only “justify”) his creation, be spoiled by the Powers? Part 2, “The Biblical Motifs” deals with the main thrust of the book, i.e. “to identify the various themes and motifs used by the New Testament to expound the crucifixion of Christ and to locate them within the biblical narrative so as to avoid forcing that narrative into one narrow theoretical tunnel.” (p. 208) In other words, one motif or system of understanding the work of the Triune God as seen in the cross and the resurrection of Christ fails to capture the great message and mystery of the cross, as revealed in the Scriptures and reflected upon in the writings of the many over the centuries who have grappled with the same. In seven chapters spanning 400 pages, various dimensions of the meaning and significance of the cross are studied – themes of Passover and Exodus, blood sacrifice, ransom and redemption, the great assize (the last judgment), Christus Victor, the descent into hell, substitution, and recapitulation. Her concluding chapter deals with how God has rectified the ungodly.

The enemy Powers have been identified and described – Sin, Death, and Satan – and their deadly evil trail through history has been recognised. Rutledge honestly tackles and presents her take on the ancient and thorny problem of evil, even the mysterious origin of evil, and concepts of judgment and hell, and hopes for the future. The righteousness of God (his rectifying power) has been revealed in the cross of Christ, since “only God can execute a regime change in which the tyrannical Powers are displaced and overthrown” (p. 580).

Whether interacting with towering theologians like Barth and T.F. Torrance, fiction writers such as Dostoevsky and Tolkien, biblical scholars Louis Martyn and Beverly Gaventa, or gleaning from respected statesmen Martin Luther King and Václav Havel, Rutledge’s fair and lucid treatment is both artful and illuminating. Her rich exegetical insights are coupled with pastoral concerns – as expected from a master pulpiteer and pastor.

Adding further worth for the reader are a substantial bibliography, a list of theological commentaries on Bible books, and indices of names, subjects and Scripture references.

While one hopes that an Indian publisher would arrange for a more affordable Indian print, as of now a reader in the Indian subcontinent can buy the book online (and get a taste of it through “Google Books”).

I am still reading . . . and grappling with the grand wonder of our crucified God!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Post

Jesus, The Real Star of Christmas

Next Post

Eating With Servants

Related Posts