Theology as if Jesus Matters—A review and some reflections

Ted Grimsrud—August 7, 2011

My book Theology as if Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions was published by Cascadia Publishing House in November 2009. It received a mostly appreciative review in the July 2011 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review (pages 528-30). The reviewer, Andy Brubacher Kaethler, raised a few questions that I would like to reflect on a bit.

Here is the review. And here are the sermons that make up the core of the book.

Happily, Kaethler reads the book as I would want it read, affirming that for him at least the book largely succeeds with its intentions. He writes that the book is “an accessible and persuasive articulation of why theology must always begin with and keep returning to the life of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels.” And he notes that “a central argument in the book is that formal doctrines tend to induce theological amnesia regarding the life and lived values of Jesus. A corollary argument is that Christians have tended to allow doctrines to function as ‘ends’ rather than as ‘aids.'”

I am glad Kaethler presents the book’s argument in this way. I am not rejecting doctrines (as the book itself is about each of the traditional Christian doctrines) but challenging Christians to see the doctrines as servants to faithful living, not as ends in themselves (which means, for example, not using doctrines as boundary markers or not absolutizing humanly constructed doctrines themselves as revelation).

Kaethler notes that “Grimsrud advances a ‘practice-first’ Christology, which he emphatically asserts should form the content of theology and ethics as well as the methods that undergird them. The life and ministry of Jesus Christ most concretely and most completely reveal God’s character and God’s hierarchy of values. The life of Jesus Christ is normative and constitutes the primary ‘ordering point’ for how Christians ought to live.”

In the course of addressing “many of the traditional categories of theology…as if Jesus matters,” according to Kaethler (accurately, in my view), “Grimsrud consistently loops back to the conviction that Jesus stands for radical love, respect for the disrespected, and a commitment to dismantle the powers of violence and domination, and he consistently reminds the reader that Christians and the church must stand for these qualities too.”

As I said, Kaethler reads Theology as if Jesus Matters very much as I would like it to be read. His summary reflects the book I intended to write. And then his explicit points of positive evaluation are points I want readers to make: (1) “Grimsrud’s practice-first Christological method is provocative and compelling….It is evident that Grimsrud genuinely desires for all people a whole-body, whole-life encounter with Jesus.” (2) “The book is accessible to the lay reader….This book is for all people in the church who desire to think deeply and live as disciples of Jesus.” (3) “Grimsrud’s approach compels the reader to take the Bible seriously and authoritatively without falling into bibliolatry.”

If only the review had ended there! But no, after offering three strengths, Kaethler goes on to offer six weaknesses. Does he then in the end take back all the nice things he has said? Well, no. And actually his six points of “weakness” are all points that stimulate further reflection. They are points for conversation, not points for repudiation. The nice thing about having this blog is that I can actually go ahead and pursue this conversation. I appreciate the points Kaethler makes and think reflecting on them can actually strengthen the arguments the book makes. (I would say, though, that I would have preferred he couch these points more as “questions” than as “weaknesses.”)

(1) Kaethler suggests the book should have provided more concrete direction for present day faithful living. “The book excels in fostering anemnisis, or right remembering, but it falls short in suggesting everyday forms of ascesis, or right resistance, to embody this corrected account of Christianity’s main convictions.” Other than noting that Kaethler’s language here seems to lapse into the kind of technical jargon my book takes pains to avoid, I am sympathetic with this point of critique—in fact, I welcome it since for many theologically-trained readers my book would more likely be criticized for running the danger of “reducing theology to ethics.”

I think it is very difficult to find the proper balance between thought and action in theological writing—especially as one seeks also to be concise. I sought with this book to emphasize thought, but thought that would always be inextricably linked with action. I  hope that the sympathetic reader will throughout the book be stimulated to action, to “right resistance.” But I know I could have done better at providing some concrete suggestions. For one thing, I could have pointed more strongly to Walter Wink’s marvelous book, Engaging the Powers, that embodies more than any other book I know of the linking between thought and action. Also, at the very end of the book (pp. 206-7) I introduce the image of three interlocking circles as a way of envisioning the shape faithfulness to Jesus’ love command could take: working within our faith communities, working on the large-scale for social change, and working in our local settings. I only briefly mention examples of each. Instead of only a bit more than one page, this discussion could have been expanded greatly, specifically with the intent of encouraging everyday forms of right resistance as if Jesus matters.

(2) Kaethler criticizes my responds to the critics who wrote short responses in the final section of the book. He says my “words are too brief and somewhat dismissive.” I completely agree with this point. This 11-page section of “responses” from four theologians with my rejoinder was 100% the brainchild of the publisher. I did not welcome this part, as I felt that it was a distraction from the book itself and that, in its brevity it would not allow for a genuine conversation but only cryptic and largely contextless short shots. I still feel this way. I was under strict orders to keep my comments to only one and a half pages, which made any serious engagement with the respondents impossible. I suppose I could have fought the inclusion of this section harder.

An example of the problem of this enforced brevity was my response to Doug Harink. Harink’s piece was cut drastically from what he first submitted, and I was only allowed three short paragraphs to respond to his sharp critique. That meant I couldn’t explain what I understood him to be saying nor could I explain more what I meant with my own “brusque” comment that Kaethler quotes: “I am especially grateful for Doug Harink’s response for illustrating the kind of theology I seek to articulate an alternative to” and “I confess that I don’t know what he means by ‘the great cosmic battle'” (217). Kaethler then points out that, in invoking John Howard Yoder, I fail “to acknowledge that Yoder himself engages the topic of the cosmic powers.”

Now, I have no way of knowing very much about what Harink precisely had in mind because his space was also quite limited, leading to the cryptic nature of his critique. What I perceived, though, was an important difference between my theology and his. In my terms, I would see in his critique evidence of a kind of dualism that separates life on earth from life in the “cosmic realm,” a dualism he seems to project onto the Apostle Paul. Over against that earth/heaven dualism, I would draw on the writers most responsible for the emergence of the “principalities and powers” analysis who all understand the earth/heaven relationship as two parts of one reality. Hendrikus Berkhof, William Stringfellow, and John Howard Yoder all seek to argue that with the powers analysis we are seeking to discern the spiritual dimensions of earthly reality—and to recognize that these dimensions have structural manifestations (in institutions, ideologies, etc.). Walter Wink, then, in his powerful elaboration of these themes, goes the farthest in articulating how the powers language is metaphorical for the inner aspect of our struggles for peace and justice here on earth. Perhaps Harink would agree with Wink, et al, but my impression from what he wrote was that he wanted to place the “real” conflict out in the “cosmic” or “heavenly” realm, rather than looking more closely at the earthly realm in light of faith.

(3) Kaethler’s third point of “weakness” is probably the one I find most challenging. He asserts that “the dichotomy between Christology informed by metaphysics or doctrine and that formed by the life of Jesus is portrayed overly simplistically… Grimsrud uncritically perpetuates the doctrine/life dichotomy by simply emphasizing the other side, the life of Jesus.” One possible response would be to accept Kaethler’s criticism and admit that in seeking to develop a simple and accessible argument for taking Jesus’ life and teaching as our core theological grounding point, I crossed the line into being simplistic. I do think that is likely; though I think I would rather be too simplistic on this point than to reinforce the other kind of problem which is to perpetuate the “Christological evasion of Jesus” by embracing doctrine in a way that minimizing Jesus’ life and teaching.

I do disagree with a couple of Kaethler’s characterizations of my argument here, though. He says I “perpetuate the doctrine/life dichotomy by simply emphasizing the other side, the life of Jesus.” Well, given that the entire book is an exposition of twelve doctrines, one chapter for each, it seems that the worst that could be said is that I fail at my attempt to overcome the dichotomy by inadequately accounting for these doctrines following my method of reorienting them all in relation to Jesus’ life and teaching. That is, overcoming the dichotomy is precisely what the entire book is trying to do. It’s not a book about the life of Jesus; it’s a book about doctrine. That Kaethler, who clearly read the book sympathetically, would make such a statement certainly emphasizes how difficult it is to try to overcome this dichotomy.

And he writes, “Grimsrud is not candid enough in acknowledging that his Christocentric theology is also an interpretation, complete with his own assumptions.” Now, this must by definition be an accurate statement. I must not have been candid enough if Kaethler didn’t perceive an adequate acknowledgement that my constructive work in this book “is also an interpretation.” Certainly I do believe that I am only offering one very finite and fallible interpretation. I wish I had found a way to be “candid enough” in stating this. Yet, I thought I was being pretty candid, especially in the early discussion about how we have to choose our hierarchy of values and that our developing our self-conscious theology in light of that choice is human work. On the other hand, in a book like this, one hopes to present one’s views in a “compelling” way (Kaethler’s term, used in affirmation of the book). Such a presentation would be less compelling (and more tedious) should one be overly preoccupied with qualifying one’s assertions with “remember this is only my perspective.”

I would also point out that I do not use the term “metaphysics” in my critique of the “Christological evasion of Jesus.” The issue is not metaphysics vs. no metaphysics. The issue is what kind of metaphysics we have. I don’t discuss this overtly in the book, but I think what I am articulating (especially in chapter 5 on the doctrine of creation) is an alternative kind of metaphysics. Kaethler seems to recognize that the issue that matters is which “particular metaphysical account” we are affirming, but he misses that what I actually am trying to do is develop a metaphysical account as if Jesus matters. I don’t think he recognizes how fundamental the critique must be of the theological tradition if we truly approach everything as if Jesus matters.

So, as I reflect on this more I am disappointed that Kaethler makes the criticism he makes here. He seems to forget that this is a book about doctrine when he equates “doctrine” and “metaphysics” and accuses me of perpetuating a dichotomy between those two on the one hand and the life of Jesus on the other. If the book is an attempt to overcome that dichotomy by reformulating doctrine at every point in light of Jesus, then should we not also recognize that the book is thus an attempt to articulate a different kind of metaphysics. That is, I am doing precisely what Kaethler criticizes me for not doing!

(4) Kaethler suggests that while it is good that the book uses the Bible extensively, it is problematic that “Grimsrud privileges the Genesis-prophets-Gospels trajectory without an adequate account of how to resolve tensions that emerge between this trajectory and, for example, Pauline material.” One perhaps flippant response to this criticism is to suggest that since this book is about theology in light of Jesus’ life and teachings, it seems okay to echo Jesus’ own use of the Bible, which certainly seems to privilege the core story line over “tensions.”

Kaethler a bit surprisingly raises “Pauline material” instead of various Old Testament materials as his example of the tensions. Perhaps here he is picking up on Doug Harink’s critique. Partly, my argument is against strands of Christian theology that have privileged “Pauline material” (as they understand it; e.g., Augustine and Luther) over the life and teaching of Jesus. So why would I perpetuate that privileging by feeling that I had to qualify my emphasis on Jesus by taking into account “tensions” that emerge in Paul? If Paul is in tension with Jesus, should we not emphasize Jesus even more, then?

That said, I simply don’t believe that Paul is in tension with Jesus. I don’t think anything I wrote in the book would have had to change had I spent more time with Paul’s thought. Here I would invoke Yoder’s Politics of Jesus. Harink himself in his book Paul Among the Postliberals helps us see just how focused Yoder is on Paul’s writings (the Politics actually spends more time on Paul’s writing than on the gospels). However, it’s crucial to recognize that Yoder’s agenda is precisely to show how Paul pretty much completely reiterates Jesus’ message rather than taking things in a different direction or adding “tensions” to the story Jesus’ life and teaching tells (see my essay, “Against Empire: A Yoderian Reading of Romans”).

I will also admit to a particular writing strategy here. I find so much of scholarly theological writing to be preoccupied with “tensions.” I tend to think part of the reason theological writings don’t get more attention is that they are boring, ambiguous, tedious, and confusing in how they do this “on the one hand/on the other hand” dance, and how they will make some kind of assertion and then undermine the assertion with countless qualifications and delineations of “tensions.” On the other hand, I oppose authoritarian writing and writing that papers over important issues and questions. It is difficult to find the best balance between clarity and positive proposals on the one hand and honesty about differences and genuine tensions on the other. In a book intended for a popular audience, I would prefer to tilt more towards the clarity and positive proposals direction while trying to write with a light touch and sense of vulnerability that allows readers room to think for themselves.

(5) Kaethler asserts that “Grimsrud does not guard carefully enough against conflating theology and Christology….[He] does not provide adequate space for revelation outside of Jesus.” I think on this one, I have to plead guilty as charged—maybe. That is, I do think Christian theology should interpret everything, including its portrayal of God, in light of what we learn from Jesus. Maybe part of the issue here is how we understand the trinitarian confession (as well as the confession of the divinity of Jesus). Is it about understanding Jesus in light of our doctrine of God that is arrived at apart from Jesus—or is it about understanding God in light of Jesus? Of course, I would not want to say taking the latter path is “conflating theology and Christology.” But it is refusing to separate them, and it is asserting that christology in a genuine sense takes priority.

But the point is not that there was no revelation prior to or outside of Jesus. I think my chapter on creation makes the point. The God of Jesus is the same as the creator God. So we should see evidence of the way of Jesus everywhere. This is what some key New Testament texts seem to claim when they link Jesus (or the “Word”) with creation (see, for example, John 1 and Colossians 1). The challenge for Kaethler (and he cites one of the book’s respondents Brenda Martin Hurst) is whether or not they think that their doctrine of God or “revelation outside of Jesus” in some sense limits or qualifies the normativity of Jesus’ life and teaching. If they do see such a limiting, then we will have to agree to disagree. If they don’t, then the disagreement is pretty tiny.

(6) The final “weakness” is that “in order to  maintain the normativeness of Jesus’ life for our lives today, a more fully developed account of contextual differences between Jesus’ culture and our culture is necessary.” This seems like a fair point insofar as I don’t try to account for the “contextual differences” much at all. I can imagine that this could be a useful exercise—but then again, it could (and all too often does) end up being more an exercise in scholarly erudition than actual enlightenment.

Probably the key word in Kaethler’s comment is “necessary.” I don’t actually believe he really means that. The story of what John Driver calls “radical faith"" in his “alternative history of the Christian church” is the story of movement after movement that has emerged to apply in powerful ways the normativeness of Jesus’ life to their own culture. For these movements, the operating dynamic was what theologian Jim McClendon called an attitude of “this is that”—meaning a direct linking between the “this” of the present call to faithfulness with the “that” of the original biblical story of faithfulness. That is, the dynamic focused on contextual similarities much more than differences.

The rise of the historical critical method has brought with it many helpful things for people who would understand and try to follow the way of Jesus. But with the helpful contributions have also come many problems—one being the heightening of a sense of distance from those ancient materials, materials that to be understood must be objectified and dissected. “Distance” is precisely what the story of Jesus challenges us to overcome. We do “theology as if Jesus matters,” most of all, because we believe that in Jesus we find the greatest clarity and encouragement to live fully as human beings, following the path of love of neighbor as our highest value.

Insofar as clarifying the “contextual differences between Jesus’ culture and our culture” helps us actually overcome the distance, it is worthwhile (if not fully “necessary”). But as with doctrines, the quest to clarify contextual differences can become a way of evading Jesus’ message of radical faith.

As I noted above, I wish Kaethler has named his concerns “questions” rather than “weaknesses.” But either way, he raises six points worthy of further reflection.

2 thoughts on “Theology as if Jesus Matters—A review and some reflections

  1. This is a good response to ABK’s review. Given your structure, it is an odd charge to say you pit theology against practice. “questions” would have been better than “weakness.” He was probably just working on the standard book review meme to point our strengths and weaknesses.

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