If you are embedded in a Catholic or conservative Protestant community, you might assume that theology is a man’s job. After all, most theological books are penned by male authors. Women are prohibited from becoming Catholic priests and are similarly forbidden from pastoring in many evangelical traditions. And most Christian conference rosters are dominated by male speakers.
It’s surprising then that a woman preacher is leading a conversation about the theology of the cross within these male-dominated communities.
Fleming Rutledge, 79, is a theologian and one of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. Her book, “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,” is a magisterial 669-page tome that has garnered the attention and respect of some unlikely religious leaders.
Exhibit A is the “New Calvinist” movement, which firmly holds that women are barred from the pastorate and are required by God to submit to their husbands. John Piper, who is something of the pope for New Calvinists and once claimed that God had intentionally given Christianity a “masculine feel,” featured a reading from the book on his podcast and called her book “valuable.” Andrew Wilson gave it a glowing review at The Gospel Coalition, a New Calvinist mega-website, where he called it “beautiful scholarship.”
But mainstream evangelicalism has also embraced Rutledge’s work. Mark Galli, editor-in-chief at Christianity Today, devoted a lengthy interview with her about the crucifixion. And the publication named her book its “2017 Book of the Year.”
The influential Catholic periodical, Commonweal Magazine, devoted a feature article to Rutledge’s work. The article called her book “remarkable” and “monumental.” The Jesuit publication America Magazine recommended it as a “vast theological reflection.” And commentator George Weigel quoted from and lauded the book in a column at the conservative Catholic publication First Things.
The widespread acclaim her book has received is not just substantial because of her gender. Rutledge’s book offers something to rankle Christians of nearly every stripe. Catholics will readily identify that Rutledge speaks with a Protestant accent. Feel-good liberal Christians may wrestle with her full embrace of the bloody nature of Jesus’ sacrifice. And conservative Protestants may disapprove of her rejection that the principle point of the cross was to satisfy God’s wrath against human sin.
Because Rutledge’s work has been accepted and even celebrated by the Christian boys club, I decided to invite her to this forum to give us an introduction to her views for those who aren’t familiar. Call it “Crucifixion 101.” Here we discuss what the cross of Jesus means to her and where she believes others have gotten it wrong.
RNS: I know churches that feel uncomfortable about discussing the cross in all its bloody violence. Why do you think churches avoid preaching about the cross?
FR: One significant reason, as I explain in my book, is reaction against overemphasis on a particular version of “penal substitution,” which became an idée fixe in some Protestant circles. Other reasons may be cultural, since many mainline Protestant churches have associated the preaching of the cross with supposedly less-educated, right-wing Christians—and also, a bloody corpus on the cross was more typical of Spanish and Latino Roman Catholic imagery. A third factor is American optimism, a preference for what makes us feel good, and an unwillingness to talk about the power of Sin—in spite of the persistence of Sin throughout the world.
RNS: I grew up in a religious context that saw “penal substitution” theory of atonement—that Jesus died for our sins to satisfy God’s wrath—as a non-negotiable doctrine. How does your view compare?
FR: I argue strongly against (1) making this model the “non-negotiable” feature of authentic faith; (2) presenting any feature of the Bible as a “theory,” since the Bible deals largely in images and narrative; (3) the rationalized, schematized nature of the penal substitution model as expounded in 19th century Protestantism; 4) any model that splits the Father from the Son.
I do, however, attempt to present the strongest case possible to show that the theme of substitution—in the words of a great hymn, “the slave has sinned, and the Son has suffered”—is embedded in Scripture and tradition and, if discarded, is a serious impoverishment.
RNS: You also embrace “Christus Victor” as an atonement motif. Can you explain this briefly for those who don’t know, and what are you saying about this that’s fresh and perhaps more convincing?
FR: Christus Victor is not really an atonement motif. Paul Ricoeur points out that the Bible speaks of Sin in two essential ways: (1) as a responsible condition for which atonement must be made; and (2) as an Enemy that must be driven from the field. Sin is therefore both a guilt and a Power.
The biblical motifs of substitution and sacrifice address the first problem, and Christus Victor (incorporating the Passover-Exodus imagery from earliest Christian liturgies) depicts Christ the conqueror of the cosmic Powers of Sin and Death. It’s important to hold both of these pictures simultaneously. Taken together, they are the most complete account of the human predicament that we have. Of course, if you don’t think humanity is in a predicament, this won’t mean much to you.
I try in my book to show as clearly as possible that the Christian message is the most universal geo-political worldview that has ever been offered.
RNS: You think churches should embrace the gruesomeness of the crucifixion. Why?
FR: I wouldn’t put it exactly that way. As I point out in my book, the Evangelists don’t dwell on the gruesomeness. I do think it’s important for people in our sanitized society to know what is involved in this method of executing a person, but the shame, degradation, dehumanization, and, above all, godlessness of crucifixion are what’s most important. Those features, I believe, lie at the heart of what Christ suffered, and I argue that it is crucial (“crucial” derives from Latin crux, cross) for the church to ask why God chose to die in that particular way.
RNS: But don’t you think that the cross can be voyeuristic or manipulative? I think of “Passion of the Christ” and the way it uses violence in a kind of evangelistic shock-and-awe campaign.
FR: I know what you mean. I mention in my book that I used to see this manipulative approach used in youth groups. I don’t agree with this technique. I have taken pains to avoid it.
RNS: Why do you believe that Jesus’ crucifixion is the “center of the gospel?” Why not the incarnation and birth of Jesus? Or the resurrection of Jesus?
FR: In my book I emphasize the essential doctrine of the incarnation, because it proclaims that the man who was crucified is none other than God’s own self, God’s Second Person in human flesh. I also make a point of insisting that the crucifixion and resurrection are a single event, incomprehensible if separated. But the cross is the uniquely non-religious feature of the Christian message, and that gives our faith its ultimate grounding. There is nothing remotely like this shocking dénoument in any other faith. In the final analysis, I find this a convincing argument for the truth of the Christian proclamation.