The “Living Significance” of Jesus’ Death
Feb 20, 2020
Interview by Patricia Paddey // Photo by Paul Patterson
Having spent twenty-two years in parish ministry, Fleming Rutledge travels internationally, preaching, teaching, and teaching preachers. An award-winning author, her most recent book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, has been acclaimed by Christianity Today as the 2017 Book of the Year. In February, she delivered the keynote address at Wycliffe College’s Preaching Day. Below, she talks about her book, how it came about, and why Jesus had to die such a brutal death.
Q: Your book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ has been named by Christianity Today as Book of the Year for 2017. Has anything changed for you in the wake of that honour?
FR: My life has changed a great deal. I’m getting constant requests for podcasts and interviews, and I’m at the age where one needs to slow down a bit. But I cannot say enough about how grateful I am, because there were times when I thought I would never finish this book. And I wanted to finish it more than anything, because I hoped it would be a major contribution to the Church, and to the preaching of the Word.
Q: In what way?
FR: I wanted to offer sustenance to Christians who are struggling to bear witness in very difficult circumstances. I wanted to expound the depth and breadth of the riches of Christ—as we read in Ephesians—the unsearchable riches of Christ. I felt that that was not being done sufficiently. I wanted to make a contribution to that.
Q: Your book was more than 20 years in the making. Why?
FR: There were some trivial reasons. After I left the Center of Theological Inquiry [in Princeton, in 1998], I didn’t have any institutional help at all. I was not attached to any academic institution, nor to any congregation with resources. I did receive a substantial financial grant from the Louisville Foundation. That paid for a rented office for two years. After that money ran out, my husband paid for the office for nine more years. Finally, we had to give that up and I had to work from home—with endless distractions—and from Starbucks for several more years.
I never had student assistants or any nearby access to a theological library. The book required massive scholarship, and I’m not an academic. I love to study, but I’m not a born scholar. It was very hard work. It’s also important to say the topic is huge. It took me two years just to write the chapter on Jesus’ descent into Hell. It required a tremendous emotional investment.
Q: You’ve said you believe it is the living significance of the death of Jesus that matters, not the factual details concerning it as a historical event. What do you mean by that?
FR: It’s very easy for people to become wrapped up in historical details and questions about what actually happened. That’s one of the reasons I was reluctant to include very much detail [in the book] about what crucifixion was actually like. The evangelists didn’t tell us, and the Apostles didn’t tell us, and maybe we shouldn’t even be talking about it. But I did decide in the end that since we really don’t know what crucifixion was like, we needed to spend some time thinking about that.
Many people will try continually to drag interpreters off the track by asking questions about historical settings, proposing various theories about what really happened. Those kinds of details may be interesting, but they are beside the point.
We don’t know who Jesus was except through the biblical witness, and I am saddened by the way in which so many people in the Church have been completely thrown off the track by these revisionists who want to tell us that they know more about Jesus than we do—“we” meaning the Church over the ages.
I believe the Holy Spirit has guided the Church in the scriptures, creeds and councils so that we have markers—like buoys in the sea—that guide us into the channels of the deep, instead of constantly being hung up on the shoals.
Q: You’ve also said that Jesus had to die by that most brutal of methods because: “it corresponds to the depth of depravity caused by human rebellion against God. It shows us just how bad things really are with us.”
FR: The hymn Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow has a line in it that says it all. “Crucified by sin for me.” Crucified by sin; that’s why the death was so terrible. That’s why the method of dying was so gruesome.
Nothing less than that would have displayed for us just what sin is.