Changing Convictions About Jesus? 1996/2011 (2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2011

[How, if at all, have my views about Jesus changed in the past 15 years? This is the fourth of a series of six posts on how my faith convictions have changed (or not) since I have been a college professor. Not long before leaving congregational ministry to begin teaching I did a series of sermons trying to state in concise terms what I understood to be key Christian beliefs. I posted an excerpt from my sermon on Jesus here. Now I will reflect on my current convictions about Jesus. Here are links to the first two posts—one on my views of God 15 years ago and the second on present-day thoughts about God.]

 A standard way to begin a conversation about convictions about Jesus is to cite the story from Mark 8 where Jesus talks with his disciples about who the various people they encountered that day said Jesus was. Then he puts them on the spot: “Who do you say that I am?” I think Mark would welcome this use of his story. He has the agenda throughout his gospel of challenging his readers with this question.

I find it ironic, though, that many who use this question today make a similar mistake to the one Peter made when he responded to Jesus’ original question. Peter stated with firm conviction, “You are the Christ.” This, Mark wants us to know, is on one level the correct answer. Mark also believes Jesus is the Christ. But the story continues with Peter showing that his notion of “Christ” is not the correct one—in fact, he is so off the mark that Jesus rebukes him about as sharply as one could imagine: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

In my sermon from 1996, I begin with this story from Mark as a way of getting at a “Mennonite” answer to Jesus’ question. But I did not pursue my critique of the perspective of the Mennonite pastor who had asked me that question. I now think this critique is pretty important, especially in thinking about convictions concerning Jesus in relation to the contemporary North American Mennonite community.

There are of course many, many ways that people answer this question of who we say Jesus is. Let me, though, break them into three general categories. The first emphasizes a doctrine, confession, or creed about Jesus (convictions about Jesus). The second emphasizes the story of Jesus’ life and teaching (Jesus’ own convictions). And the third emphasizes Jesus as a kind of metaphor for some human aspiration or other without committing to a particular belief about Jesus or to the actual story of Jesus in any concrete way.

We could use the following terms of these three options (though I am not wedded to them): the first we could call “mainstream Christian” (or, “doctrinal”),  the second “Anabaptist” (or, “restitutionist”), and the third “contemporary cultural” (or, “modernist” or “liberal” or “post-dogmatic”).

When I think of the mistake Peter made, I think mainly of the first option, the “mainstream Christian.” This could have a more evangelical manifestation and a more ecumenical manifestation. The evangelical manifestation, which would have characterized my questioner at my ordination interview in 1989, would emphasize beliefs about Jesus’ divinity and his sacrificial, atoning death that turned God’s wrath away from those who accept Jesus as their personal savior. The ecumenical manifestation would also emphasize beliefs about Jesus, more overtly based on 4th and 5th century creeds and later confessions (e.g., the Augsburg Confession for Lutherans and the Westminster Confession for Presbyterians).

What’s mistaken here in parallel ways as Peter? Well, Peter was mistaken because he was looking for a “Savior” who would through direct intervention make things right without suffering and defeat (and probably without a rejection of retaliatory violence toward those seen as enemies). The “mainstream Christian” approach to who Jesus was might well valorize Jesus’ suffering and death—but as a one-time-only sacrifice, not as the model for all subsequent people of faith. That is, what let to Peter’s rebuke from Jesus was that he looked for a top-down savior who would make things right without actually revolutionizing human social life.

Hence, in the Christian tradition we have the Apostles Creed (going way back) that in its confession about Jesus jumps from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” without any mention of the actual content of Jesus’ life and how he set out to transform the way human beings relate to one another (as Mark 10:41-45 states it, replacing domination with servanthood). We have a “Christian” emperor who wages war under the banner of the cross calling together Church leaders to formulate official doctrine (that includes a statement on Jesus that follows the Apostles Creed in leaving out Jesus’ life, teaching, and resistance to domination). We have Christian leaders from Augustine on sanctioning death-dealing violence to the “non-orthodox” in their faith community. We have world famous evangelists praying with presidents the night before the latter order military actions against third-world countries.

The “contemporary culture” option also shares with Peter a tendency to avoid seeing Jesus’ cross as definitive for all people of faith. Here you can have a phenomenon such as the “what would Jesus do?” movements that have arisen numerous times in the past 100 years—who answer the question with a “Jesus would be a good person” that draws little if at all on the actual gospel accounts of a Jesus who welcomed “sinners,” confronted the powerful, and portrayed love of neighbor specifically in terms of enemy love.

I think I see more clearly now than I did in 1996 (though I didn’t really speak to this one way or another in my sermon) that these ways of sharing in Peter’s mistake cross the theological spectrum. The middle option, the “Anabaptist” emphasis, stands in tension with the theological left as well as the theological right. The “doctrinal” approach to Jesus is not only taken by evangelicals and fundamentalists but is also characteristic of the ecumenical churches as well as the Catholic and Orthodox traditions (all of which certainly include theological conservatives—but the mistake is also made by many who position themselves as theological progressives). And certainly the “contemporary cultural” approach has evangelical as well as ecumenical adherents.

Probably “restitutionist” is a more accurate term than “Anabaptist” for the option that I am affirming. It is not linked to one particular tradition but to a way of reading the Bible and to relating the Bible to contemporary life. It is an approach that recognizes in the gospel stories of Jesus’ life and teaching a truthful portrayal of human life as it is meant to be lived—human life that is “saved life.” The core revelation about Jesus is that he shows us both what God is like and what human life is meant to be like.

I don’t think that taking the “Anabaptist option” means we have to reject the “mainstream option” (or, necessarily, the “contemporary culture” option). What it means, though, is that each of the other two options should be seen as serving the third option. The doctrines can be useful if they reinforce and push us back to the life and teaching of Jesus. Insofar as the doctrines lead us to omit Jesus’ life and teaching they should be rejected. Insofar as they help us with language that conveys that the Jesus’ who loved enemies and resisted domination and welcomed sinners revealed God in distinctively authoritative ways, they should be affirmed.

Drawing on contemporary culture (including science) may be helpful, in the perspective of the Anabaptist option, if we are helped thereby to see that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of universe. Such “natural revelation” is helpful when it reinforces what was revealed in Jesus—but it must not be given authority to stand over against Jesus’ message.

But when we seek to answer the question, “who do you say that I am?” we do well to pay close attention to how Mark’s Gospel (and the rest of the New Testament) trains us to answer it—”the Christ,” sure, but “Christ” as the one who serves, the one who confronts domination with creative nonviolence, the one who empowers the vulnerable. These attributes are the heart of my christology.

I like the ways I tried to articulate my christology in my 1996 sermon. I wouldn’t change very much today. Mainly, I would want to add some emphases that were missing back then. The three points I discussed were Jesus as God’s Messiah who brings salvation through death and suffering, Jesus as model human being, and Jesus as God-with-us who shows us that the power of love is the most important kind of power.

I would say more now about how Jesus as Messiah saves. I would want to make clear that it is not Jesus’ suffering and death per se that bring salvation. Rather, suffering and death seem inevitably to accompany the kind of engaged pacifism that Jesus practiced. So, maybe a better (if more convoluted) way to say it is like this: Jesus is God’s Messiah who brings salvation by modeling a life of engaged pacifism that confronts the powers of domination with creative nonviolence and trusts in God’s way of peace even to the extent of accepting suffering and death—and God vindicates this saving life (and empowers us to follow it ourselves) when God raised Jesus from the dead, a thoroughly nonviolent overthrow of the powers of death and violence.

In my 1996 sermon, in my point about Jesus’ life as our model, I briefly quoted and affirmed the Mennonite Confession of Faith on this point. In retrospect, while I still welcome how the Confession does bring Jesus as model into the picture in ways many other Confessions do not, I now see the Confession’s statement as too weak.

This is what it says:  “We accept Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world.  In his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing, he proclaimed forgiveness of sins and peace to those near at hand and those far off.  In calling disciples to follow him, he began the new community of faith.  In his suffering, he loved his enemies and did not resist them with violence, thus giving us an example to follow.  In his sacrificial death on the cross, he offered up his life to the Father, bore the sins of all, and reconciled us to God.  God then raised him from the dead, thereby conquering death and disarming the powers of sin and evil.”

There is not enough here about Jesus’ particular style of life—especially his confronting domination with creative nonviolence. The Confession’s statement about Jesus’ love of enemies as our example is crucial. However, I would want to make even more a point of Jesus’ (and God’s!) pacifism and orient everything else around this.

That Jesus is best seen as “God-with-us who shows us that the power of love is the most important kind of power” remains my central christological conviction. I think my story of the friend who discovered his power in love rather than retaliatory anger powerfully illustrates that conviction.

What I wonder about now, more than I did 15 years ago, is how widely held this understanding of what Jesus as God-with-us means would be in the North American Mennonite communion. In my sermon, I couch all that I said as an articulation of what “Mennonites believe about Jesus.” In the past 15 years, we have seen many conflicts, and an evolution of the Mennonite Church USA (my denomination) that brings more into question my sense that Mennonites are embodying the “Anabaptist option” concerning their convictions about Jesus.

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