Christian Salvation, Part Two: Old Testament Mercy

Ted Grimsrud—September 20, 2015

In the first post of this four-part series (drawing on presentations to a Sunday school class at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, VA), I offered a summary and critique of the standard atonement theology characteristic of much of western Christianity. This is called the “satisfaction view” of the atonement, and I suggest that some of its problems are related to the way it presents God in relation to salvation as mechanistic, retributive, and punitive. I have written at length elsewhere how this theology actually has the tragic impact of leading Christians to be more supportive of violence (e.g., war, capital punishment, harsh criminal justice practices, corporal punishment of children).

Restorative justice

My thinking about Christian salvation has been helped a great deal by conversations I have had with my friend Howard Zehr about restorative justice. Howard has been a leader in the movement to reshape the way our society deals with the brokenness caused by crime. Howard’s approach is to focus especially on the needs of the human beings involved, especially the victims (who are often ignored—or worse—by the system) as well as the offenders (who rarely are helped to find healing and often after an encounter with the system end up offending again). We wrote an article together, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders,” that attempted the beginning of articulating a theology for restorative justice (I also have been working on a book manuscript, Healing Justice [And Theology]).

Howard introduced me to a book, Justice as Sanctuary, by a friend of his, a Dutch law professor named Herman Bianchi. Bianchi uses a provocative image. He says that theology is a big part of our problem of criminal justice practices that make things worse, in terms of some problematic ways it has influenced the practice of criminal justice in the West. So, he suggests, what we may need is something like homeopathic medicine where we use a does of what makes us sick actually to help us heal ourselves. That is, he says, a different kind of theology might be able to help us overcome the problems of retributive justice.

The book I wrote about this, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, then, is a kind of exercise in homeopathic therapy—focusing on a rereading of the Bible and salvation as a way of moving toward a more peaceable way of dealing with wrongdoing that will help break the spirals of violence so widespread around us.

In this post I will discuss the Old Testament—followed by two more in the weeks to come that will focus first on Jesus’s own teaching and practice in relation to salvation and then on the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection for our salvation theology. Continue reading


Filed under atonement, Biblical theology, Old Testament, Salvation, Violence

Christian Salvation—Part One: Problems with Atonement Theology

Ted Grimsrud—September 13, 2015

[I am in the midst of a series of presentations to a Sunday School class at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on rethinking our understanding of salvation. I was asked to make a total of four presentations, drawing on my 2013 book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books) and various other writings I have produced on this theme. This written version of my first presentation actually sets the context for the book more than summarizes the book. It is a discussion of how our traditional atonement theology is problematic and why it might be useful to think of an alternative. I have found this a useful challenge to summarize the main ideas of this project.]

These are some questions to get you thinking about this topic of Christian salvation: What were you taught (explicitly and implicitly) about (the means of) salvation when you were growing up? How (if at all) have you revised your thinking on that theme? What role (if any) has the idea of Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice played in your beliefs about salvation? How would you characterize the view of God reflected in your salvation theology? What connection would you make between one’s view of salvation and how life is lived out as a follower of Jesus?


The word “atonement” was coined in English, perhaps very early in the 16th century, as a way to talk about Christian salvation. It was actually created by simply joining together the phrase at-one-ment. It was meant to be used as a way of talking about how human beings are to be reconciled with God. So, “atonement” does not directly translate any Hebrew, Greek, or Latin word; it is something new. It has been called perhaps the only theological term with an English origin.

We should note, then, that the very word “atonement” was created around 400 years after the influential medieval theologian and church leader Anselm of Canterbury wrote his classic text that defined Christian salvation theology—the most influential work for both Catholics and Protestants. Anselm’s position articulated in Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) established what came to be called the “satisfaction” model as the essential understanding of atonement that shaped western Christianity (it is essential to realize that Anselm’s work came about a century after the formal separation between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy as the two main branches of Christianity—and the view of salvation developed in eastern Christianity was quite different than the western theology; so what follows is a critique only of the western, Anselmian theology). Continue reading


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MC USA’s “Membership Guidelines,” part one: A history

Ted Grimsrud—July 15, 2015

Mennonite Church USA had its biennial general assembly in Kansas City the week of the Fourth of July. Most of the attention before and afterwards seems to have been paid to the discussion of whether the denomination should strengthen the role of the 2001 Membership Guidelines that were part of the founding agreement the merger that created MC USA from the former General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. These Guidelines were formulated in order to single out the alleged “sin” of LGBTQ Mennonites and to forbid pastoral participation in same-sex weddings.

This is the first of three posts that will respond to the passing of the resolution that re-affirmed the Membership Guidelines. Here I will give some historical background to the Guidelines and describe what they say. The second post will offer a theological critique of the content of the Guidelines, and the third post will reflect on the relationship between the Guidelines and the Mennonite peace position.

Reaffirming the Membership Guidelines

While it is likely that for most who attended this year’s convention, the experience was about much more than the official business that was done, Kansas City ’15 maybe will nonetheless be linked with the decision about the Membership Guidelines in the same way that Saskatoon ’86 and Purdue ’87 continue to be remembered for the statements on sexuality that were approved then by delegates—and whose reverberations continue.

I actually hope that this will not be the case, that the delegate approval of the MC USA Executive Board’s resolution that enlarged the role of the Membership Guidelines will prove to be the last gasp of a failed attempt to underwrite a restrictive approach to the presence of LGBTQ Mennonites and their supporters in MC USA. As it is, the presence of the Membership Guidelines as an official part in MC USA’s structure signals a tragic failure of Mennonite pacifism, or, as it has traditionally been called, the Mennonite “peace position.”

This blog post is a continuation of a series of reflections that have allowed me an opportunity to think out loud about the current struggle over whether MC USA will be welcoming and compassionate. I wasn’t at the Kansas City assembly, and I don’t write as one particularly well informed about the inside dynamics of MC USA politics. My sense of what happened at Kansas City is mainly filtered through the laments expressed on social media by those who hoped the Membership Guidelines would not pass. What I mainly have to offer, I think, is a historically-informed analysis of some of the underlying theological and ethical issues—more than insight into what actually happened on the ground in Kansas City. Continue reading


Filed under "homosexuality", MC USA, Pacifism, peace theology

Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2015

I hope to have quite a bit more to say about the Book of Revelation and about Mennonite Church USA in the days to come, but since I don’t know when those opportunities will arise, I wanted to share a brief reflection from this morning’s work on Revelation.

“Wrath” in Revelation

A major theme in Revelation is “wrath.” The term is used throughout the book (far more than anywhere else in the New Testament). Often, our English translations perhaps misleadingly add the word “God” as in “God’s wrath” rather than simply “wrath.”

This addition is not unwarranted; generally it is clear from the context that there is a close association between God and “wrath.” But I think it is important to recognize that the absence of the direct connection also likely indicates something significant—perhaps that we should recognize that “wrath” is not the same thing as a direct act by an angry God (I also have in mind to write a blog post soon that reflects in much more detail on the notion of God as an “angry God).

In many of it uses in Revelation, “wrath” seems to indicate more a sense of the outworking in history of negative consequences of human actions and beliefs—kind of an indirect expression of God’s negative response to human injustice. “The wrath” reflects not so much God’s direct intervention as a sense that God’s creation carries within it the dynamics of cause and effect where at some point injustice does lead to brokenness; you live by the sword, you likely will die by the sword.

An added dimension

What I was struck with today, as I was looking closely at the third series of terrible plagues in Revelation, described in chapters 15 and 16, is the thought that maybe a significant element of the experience of “wrath” depends upon the perspective on the agents on the human side of the God/human relationship. That is, an element of the meaning of “wrath” is that we perceive something as “wrathful” or not depending on our way of seeing the world.

Maybe—and at this point this is just a question, I haven’t really looked more closely at the text in light of this thought—what some people experience as God’s love in Revelation is experienced by others as God’s wrath. What is attractive about this thought to me is that then we don’t have to struggle with the deeply problematic idea that God acts sometimes in loving ways and sometimes in punitive ways, that God is divided within Godself between love and punitive justice, that God’s intention for humanity is partly salvific and partly punitive. Continue reading


Filed under Book of Revelation, MC USA

Revelation is a peace book!

Ted Grimsrud—June 23, 2015

I have been interested in the book of Revelation for years. It has now been 28 years since I published my first book, a popular-level commentary on Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. I have times when I pursue this interest more, and then it lies dormant for awhile. I am currently in an upswing in my interest and hope to complete a new book on Revelation by the end of 2015. I’m tentatively calling it, “Healing Empire: A Radical Reading of Revelation.”

Revelation as radically peaceable (or not)

One way that my reading of Revelation is “radical” is that I am presenting Revelation as a peace book, from start to finish. Though Revelation has often been seen as vengeful and supportive of violence both by those who approve of the violence and those who find it repulsive, there is a long tradition of peaceable readings of Revelation going back at least to G. B. Caird’s influential commentary, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, first published fifty years ago.

The new Anchor Bible commentary on Revelation by Craig Koester is very much in the Caird tradition, I am happy to say. In fact, it’s an extraordinarily helpful commentary, packed with great detail but quite well written and theologically engaged. Unfortunately, it’s also quite expensive.

One can’t read scholarly writing on Revelation without encountering a perspective that is contrary to my peaceable reading, however. The book that has triggered this blog post is Greg Carey, Elusive Apocalypse: Reading Authority in the Revelation to John (Mercer University Press, 1999). I also recently read theologian Catherine Keller’s engagement with Revelation, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Beacon Press, 1996). And I have on my pile of books to read a.s.a.p. John Dominic Crossan’s How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015) which has a short but very pointed discussion of Revelatio. Of these three, Crossan takes the most negative view of Revelation: “Revelation is filled, repeatedly, relentlessly, and ruthlessly, with metaphors for actual, factual, and historical violence to come” (p. 180). Carey and Keller are pretty negative, too, though they do find some attractive elements to the book.

What follows was elicited by my reading Carey’s book. It’s a good book that I would recommend. What I offer is not so much a critique of Carey, but some thoughts in defense of my reading of Revelation as a peace book that arose for me as I read Carey. What are some pieces of evidence to support my reading? Continue reading

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Filed under Biblical theology, Book of Revelation, god and violence, Pacifism, peace theology

Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict”

Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2015

Once, when I was in high school, I was on a school bus returning from a basketball game on a rainy winter night. Roads were narrow and windy in the Coast Range of southwest Oregon. On this part of the road there was one spot where it was possible to pass. As we got to that spot, a car flashed by horn blaring. We recognized the people in the car as recent graduates from our school and we were all celebrating because of having won our game. Then we watched in horror as the car speeding by started to spin out of control. The scene remains vivid in my memory, these 40+ years later. It was like that car froze in space for the longest time before hurtling off the road.

As it turned out, the speeding car only ended up in the ditch. No one was hurt and the car wasn’t seriously damaged. I can only hope that the outcome of what seems like a similar scenario for Mennonite Church USA will be as benign. One watches with a sense of horror as the car seems to be spinning out of control, with a landing no one can predict.

I keep writing about this denomination of which I’m part (see my list of links to posts at the end of this one). Maybe partly it is in hope of helping to affect the upcoming “landing”—though I realize that I am about as powerless to effect where MC USA goes as I was way back when to effect what happened with my friends’ car. But there was something I wrote a few weeks ago that triggered a response that has caused me to think. How do we navigate our tensions, speaking honestly but also respectfully?

Being too negative in discussing one’s opponents?

In my May 12, 2015, post, “The ‘end’ of Mennonite Church USA,” I tried to use language as descriptively as possible in laying out what seems to me to be the situation we are facing. One comment on Facebook gave me pause, though (as this comment was not by someone I know and as it is now lost in the cyber mists and as I am not actually wanting to engage them personally, I will not name the person). As I understood the commenter, I was too pejorative in my representation of what’s going on. This evaluation has made me reflect—is it possible to talk accurately about the actual situation, even in a descriptive way, and still remain utterly non-offensive? Should that even be a goal? Continue reading


Filed under Homosexuality, MC USA, peace theology

An interview on justice, mercy, and God’s love

Ted Grimsrud—June 17, 2015

In February, 2015, I was privileged to be a guest on a radio show, Community Justice Talks, on KHEN-FM, Salida, Colorado. The show’s host, Molly Rowan Leach, interviewed me for about half an hour. We talked about an article I had written,“Violence as a Theological Problem” and my two books, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Justice, and The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy.

The recording of that interview is now available. Here’s a link to a page that allows visitors to listen to the interview directly or to download a podcast. Or it can be listened to here as well. I have also post an edited written transcript of the interview on my PeaceTheology website.

I appreciate Molly’s excellent interviewing skills that helped me articulate some of the main ideas I have been working on that relate to the connection between theology, our current dynamics of retribution, and the promise of restorative justice.

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Filed under god and violence, mercy, restorative justice