Substitution and Liberation: A Review of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ

by Eric Demeuse

Few theological texts garner the cross-confessional praise won by Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion (Eerdmans, 2015). With accolades from George Hunsinger, David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas, John Witvliet, Marilyn McCord Adams, and Bishop Robert Barron, to name just a few, the book certainly lives up to the hype. Rutledge writes unabashedly from the perspective of an Episcopalian, yet succeeds in her desire to write a piece for the “larger church” (xviii), and especially for pastors and the faithful in the pews. The fruit of over eighteen years of reflection and study (though, Rutledge will also say that it is the “work of a lifetime”), this over 600 page tome takes aim at the central mystery of the Christian faith: the crucifixion. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) is the Pauline riff upon which Rutledge improvises. The passage brings to light the centrality not only of Christ’s death, but also the manner in which he died. Only by penetrating this “godless” and “irreligious” idea of a crucified God does Rutledge think we can recover the missional heart of Christianity and effectively respond to the godless and irreligious in our midst.

Of course, the rub is that the “godless” and “irreligious” is no well-defined class. Targeting what she deems a Christian tendency to distinguish neatly and prematurely (i.e., this side of heaven) the “elect” from the “reprobate,” Rutledge prefers to emphasize with Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn that “the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” (142); a method akin to Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John, wherein he advises each of the faithful not to scour the earth for the antichrist, but rather “to examine his own conscience as to whether he is the antichrist.”[1] Rutledge reminds readers that each person is, in the words of Shakespeare, “a mingled yarn, good and ill together” (141), or in those of Martin Luther, simul iustus et peccator, a phrase Rutledge invokes with fruitful though perhaps insufficient ambiguity—similar to the use of that phrase in the annex to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. She seeks to unsettle her reader; to unsettle, as it were, “the easy conscience of modern man” with Anselm’s rebuke to Boso in Cur Deus Homo: “Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis peccatum sit—You have not yet considered the weight of sin!” (167).

Invoking Anselm—indeed, devoting an entire chapter to “Anselm Reconsidered for Our Time”—always raises eyebrows on every side of the atonement debate. Yet Rutledge is emphatic that her work is not just “one more defense of the theme of substitution” (5)—though, admittedly, this does make up a significant part of the book. Instead, the author proposes that “the great church councils that succeeded in defining the nature of Christ and the Holy Trinity left us with no equivalent conciliar definition of the cross… there is a reason for the silence of the sources… [a reason that] favors a multifaceted understanding rather than favoring one theory over against another” (8-9). Rutledge thinks that “the entire spectrum of biblical imagery and theological interpretation” must be considered. Such consideration, Rutledge argues, will lead to the twofold conclusion that (1) the biblical witness cannot be understood without substitutionary atonement, and (2) substitutionary atonement cannot account for all the biblical data—cannot bear the weight of the crucifixion, as it were—and thus must be supplemented and occasionally encapsulated by a treasury of other images (liberation, Christus Victor, etc.).

Approaching the canon through the lens of Paul, Rutledge notes the scarcity of the word “forgiveness” in the Pauline corpus, acknowledging the problem this poses for contemporary accounts of Christianity which reduce the gospel to a cheap story of “forgive and forget.” “Forgiveness in and of itself is not the essence of Christianity,” Rutledge writes, “though many believe it to be so. Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to justice if the Christian gospel is to be allowed its full scope…. Reconciliation is not an easy option. It cost God the death of his Son” (115). Indeed, the cross and resurrection is not an “all better” uttered over yet unhealed wounds. Rutledge repeats again and again: something is wrong and must be made right. Justice—restorative, not retributive—must have its place. In this vein, Rutledge offers a different English rendering of Paul’s famous dikaiosis: traditionally “justification,” Rutledge suggests “rectification.” As might be expected, this translation arises in part from a dissatisfaction with certain brands of “forensic justification.” God does not merely acquit, excuse, or pass over, Rutledge asserts, but makes right what is wrong. At this point, Rutledge begins to flirt with the classic and so-called “infused” versus “imputed” righteousness debate. On the one hand, she argues that God’s reckoning or, quite literally, “wording” of the sinner as righteous is not a legal fiction, but performative: it creates what it names, and the person undergoes an “ontological transformation.” On the other hand, however, she emphasizes rectification as “an eschatological act of the Judge on the last day which takes place proleptically in the present.” She offers no nuance or resolution to these two strands of thought, and seems disinterested in hashing out centuries-old debates, perhaps in service to her wider intended audience.

Rutledge employs a similar via media when treating what precisely happened on the cross. She devotes the final eight chapters of the book to investigate that “entire spectrum of biblical imagery,” embracing the images of passover, blood sacrifice, ransom, assize, Christus Victor, the descent into hell, substitution, and recapitulation. Though each unique in its own right, Rutledge suggests two over-arching categories: atonement/forensic, or “God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin,” and deliverance/cosmic, or “God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death” (209). These two—the forensic and the cosmic—are mutually dependent, such that one isolated from the other leads to a distortion of the Gospel. Yet they are not equal. Rutledge thinks that the courtroom cannot be the controlling metaphor, as it is “too individualistic, and hence reductive; it deals too much in categories of guilt and innocence; it does not envision an Enemy against whom a war has to be fought” (351). Notably, Rutledge levels this critique not only at certain strands of protestant orthodoxy, but also against strands of the social gospel, liberation, and feminist theologies, which reduce the kingdom of God to this earth and fail to acknowledge that the true battle is cosmic, and true victory only comes through the “irresistible invasion” of Jesus Christ. Thus, Rutledge suggests that we must begin from the cosmic, and only within that framework does the forensic find its place.

Of course, there are dangers with an overly-cosmic approach as well—dangers which Rutledge is keenly aware of, even if she doesn’t always completely avoid them. Adopting the dubious claim of Douglas John Hall that “the process of sin’s reduction” began in the second and third centuries only to be recovered in the sixteenth by the Reformers (168), Rutledge critiques the idea of sin as a “deprivation of the good” not outright, but only insofar as it has obscured the Pauline notion of sin as an alien power to which we are enslaved. This Pauline concept, however, is prone to ease of conscience and idle faith. Rutledge recognizes these dangers and emphatically rejects them: our slavery to the power of sin should convict us all the more of our guilt, and “rectification” comes not through idle faith, but through “participation” (a favorite word of Rutledge). Nevertheless, in Rutledge’s text, the enumeration and confession of individual sins—so crucial to the Christian tradition (and especially to Roman Catholics)—while present (see, for example, 117-121), certainly fades into the background.

The language of sin as power has another, more gnostic danger: that of positing Christ and Death as two equal powers in cosmic war. To be clear, Rutledge never equates the two: “Death is a great power, but dikaiosyne (the righteousness of God) is an even greater Power” (366). Yet her (over?)emphasis on the idea of “two competing spheres of power” (365) may leave her more scrupulous readers uneasy. Indeed, Luther’s De servo arbitrio (following Augustine) speaks strongly of the enslaving power of sin, yet he also sees the danger in taking sin too seriously. In response to those struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression, Luther suggests laughing and cursing at the devil.[2] He reserves his coarsest scatology for the devil, even suggesting that an angel could dismiss a demon simply by breaking wind. This levity is completely absent from Rutledge’s account, though this likely due to her original diagnosis that modern Christians already take sin far too lightly.

Perhaps the most speculative section of The Crucifixion is Rutledge’s treatment of hell. Rutledge argues that in the cosmic battle of powers, God’s triumph will be so definitive that no “permanent pocket of evil or resistance” can remain. As a result, the reign of Satan must be “finally and completely obliterated… Whether this means the redemption of the Hitlers and the Pol Pots or their annihilation we cannot say” (459-60), though it seems that Rutledge prefers 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).

In maintaining redemption and annihilation as the two last things, Rutledge adopts a conclusion identical to that recently speculated by Paul Griffiths in his impressive book Decreation, though for slightly different reasons. Whereas Rutledge draws this conclusion by emphasizing the cosmic battle between the Power of Christ and the Power of Sin,[3] Griffiths emphasizes more the notion of sin as a “deprivation of the good.” If indeed sin takes away our being—an “ontological wasting disease” in the words of David Bentley Hart—then the logical conclusion would be the eventual and complete annihilation of that being (though Griffiths, like Rutledge, leaves the door open as to whether any being can actually succeed in self-annihilation). Griffiths convincingly suggests that the idea of a final annihilation lies in the grammar of Augustine, even if the Doctor of Grace refused to affirm it due to the biblical witness.

Yet here a problem arises for both Rutledge and Griffiths, as both theologians fail sufficiently to reconcile their compelling conclusion not only with the biblical witness, but also with the weight of the theological tradition, which points, in the words of Joseph Ratzinger, to “the existence of Hell and of the eternity of its punishments.”[4] The conclusions of Rutledge/Griffiths and Ratzinger need not be mutually exclusive, but more work must be done to reconcile them. Further, when Rutledge hints at a final redemption of all things, account must be made of the weight of individual human actions, an area, again, where Rutledge lacks emphasis. As Ratzinger writes, “Christ descends into Hell and suffers it in all its emptiness; but he does not, for all that, treat man as an immature being deprived in the final analysis of any true responsibility for his own destiny. Heaven reposes upon freedom, and so leaves to the damned the right to will their own damnation.”[5] Whether Rutlege and Ratzinger merely assume entrenched confessional positions on human freedom is a valid question, but it must not be lazily presupposed, especially given the genuine ecumenical orientation of both authors, as well as recent work done to reconcile Catholic and Protestant notions of “freedom.”

Such critiques, however, must not overshadow the genuine accomplishment of The Crucifixion, nor should it suggest a failure on the part of Rutledge to engage the tradition in other areas. Rutledge exhibits a brilliant capacity to weave together otherwise diverse and sometimes opposed figures: Aquinas and Moltmann, Anselm and Juan Luis Segundo, Luther and von Balthasar. She certainly has her heroes and villains. She praises the theologia crucis of Luther and Calvin, and boldly declares the modern lack of engagement with Karl Barth “the most serious deficiency in the current debate about the substitution motif” (507). She laments the rigidification of “substitution” in early modern Protestant scholasticism; though here, Rutledge’s villain appears more a caricature than a reality given the dearth of support she offers for this thesis. Despite this and other shortcomings, however, The Crucifixion is a timely tour de force, a powerfully accurate indictment of modern dilutions of sin and salvation, and an attempt to unite diverse sides of the atonement debate. More importantly it is an invitation to pastors to preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and an invitation to the faithful to find hope in “those hands of liberal love indeed / in infinite degree, / those feet still free to move and bleed / for millions and for me.[6]


[1] Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, trans. Boniface Ramsey (New City Press, 2008), p. 54.

[2] David Bagchi, “The German Rabelais? Foul Words and the Word in Luther,” RRR 7.2-3 (2005), p. 152.

[3] Again, this is never to the exclusion of sin as “deprivation of the good.” Later in the book, Rutlege suggests that the idea of final annihilation or redemption reveals that, “in the End, it will be seen that [absolute evil] had no ontological existence” (595).

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, trans. Michael Waldstein (CUA, 1988), p. 215.

[5] Ibid., p. 216.

[6] Hymn by Christopher Smart (1722-1771), cited with emphasis in Rutlege, p. 612.

6 thoughts on “Substitution and Liberation: A Review of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ

  1. Eric, I enjoyed your review–nice work.

    I wanted a footnote for this statement from your review: Whether Rutlege and Ratzinger merely assume entrenched confessional positions on human freedom is a valid question, but it must not be lazily presupposed, especially given the genuine ecumenical orientation of both authors, as well as recent work done to reconcile Catholic and Protestant notions of “freedom.”

    In other words, what “recent work” are you referring to on notions of freedom? I’m interested.

  2. Zach,

    Thanks for this. I was thinking primarily of a work written by Harry McSorley in 1969, “Luther: Right or Wrong? An Ecumenical-Theological Study of Luther’s Major Work, the Bondage of the Will, By a Roman Catholic Scholar” (Newman, 1969). The work examines Luther’s treatment of the will in light of the preceding tradition (patristic and medieval), and argues that Luther’s understanding of human freedom still lies “within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy,” as it were. I was also thinking of treatments of human freedom in post-Tridentine thought (Domingo Bañez, Luis de Molina, and the De auxiliis controversy), though this more through primary sources and conversations with professors (maybe Matt Gaetano could recommend something?). I also wonder if Richard Muller’s forthcoming “Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought” (Baker, 2017) will address some of these questions.

  3. I always appreciate a thorough and essentially accurate review. Critiques are valuable when they are as well thought out as Eric Meuse’s are. I was very glad to read what he wrote, and am grateful for the careful attention he paid to my book.
    I will just comment on one point. I do not really lean toward the idea of redemption for the great (and relatively rare) monsters of history, the Hitlers and Pol Pots. In my book, I speculate briefly that these few may not be human beings at all, but simulacra. In that case, annihilation would be their proper end if one does not believe in an eternal hell of eternal suffering existing alongside the eternal City of God.
    But we cannot know these things except “in a glass, darkly.”

  4. This was a great article on an even greater book.

    Rev. Rutledge does such a great job of describing depth of our individual sin in various sections of the book… Yet I have a hard time differentiating between “common” sin and the sin of the “great monsters” like Hitler and Pol Pot. Most of these flawed (usually men) are products of their societies, intellectual histories and past traumas. Hitler was not a single handed monster, he was an extreme version of ideas and values gaining traction in the German society of the early 20th century. Many people sinned (or were under the power of Sin), to make Hitler possible. He was enabled.

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