Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2011

Jesus’ approach to salvation was simple—he bypassed the sacrificial system and offered direct forgiveness. He answered a direct question about how to inherit eternal life by reiterating what he believed was the essence of the law and prophets: love God and neighbor. He told an amazing story about a terribly sinful son who is welcomed by his father back into the family simply by returning home.

In other words, if we take our cues from Jesus himself, we should not be investing his death with the kind of meaning that sees in his death the one necessary sacrifice that might satisfy God and enable God to bring salvation about. To the contrary, Jesus echoes the prophets by insisting that God operates according to the logic of mercy, not the logic of sacrifice, payback, reciprocity, and punishment. According to Jesus, God’s justice is restorative not retributive.

But what about Christianity’s greatest interpreter of Jesus’ message, Paul the Apostle? How compatible is Paul’s understanding of salvation with Jesus? Do we have to choose between the two? I think not. In this, my third post on salvation (the first was “Does Jesus’ death have meaning?” and the second was “Jesus’ death and my salvation”), I will make that case that Paul was faithful and accurate to Jesus’ main message (with the implication that later Christianity has actually misread Paul).

Like his Jesus and the prophets, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world.  Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor.  Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death. Continue reading “Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?”

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Jesus’ Death and My Salvation

Ted Grimsrud—December 18, 2011

My earlier post on Jesus’ death (“Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”) was rather heady and theological—grappling with this big question in the realm of ideas. This is appropriate, and I have been happy at the discussion that was stimulated by what I wrote.

One extended comment, from Philip Bender, challenged me to think about these issues a bit more personally and existentially. I understand the essence of Philip’s questions to be about how our beliefs about salvation, atonement, Jesus’ death, et al, actually speak to our lives, to our sense of assurance of our connection with God, to our on-the-ground appropriation of the Bible’s message of being reconciled with God.

These are some of the specific questions he raised:

• How do we appropriate Jesus atonement?

• How do personal, structural, and cosmic “at-one-ment” with God happen? How are these processes different and how are they unified?

• What does it mean to “trust in” the forgiving and transforming mercy of God?

• How do I know when I’ve trusted in it? Is it when I say that “Jesus (out of mercy) died for me”? When I endeavor to practice a life of mercy (“works”)?

Rather than respond to these questions head on, one-by-one, I will speak to the general thrust of what I perceive to be involved in these types of questions. Part of my concern in this discussion is that we let Jesus’ own teaching, and how he embodied his teaching, be our main guide. It seems to me that in discussions about atonement and salvation, this rarely happens. So let’s turn to two of Jesus’ most important accounts of how he understands salvation, two stories from the Gospel of Luke: the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32).

The Good Samaritan story stands as one of the very few times that Jesus’ directly addresses the basic salvation question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Prodigal Son story has so commonly been associated with Jesus’ message of salvation that it has come to be called “the gospel in miniature.” Continue reading “Jesus’ Death and My Salvation”

Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2011

I recently read and discussed with my Contemporary Theology class three books on atonement theology. Each answers the question of the meaning (or lack thereof) in Jesus’ death.

Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, sees the most meaning in the crucifixion of Jesus in his defense of traditional atonement models (his is not simply a straightforward defense of traditional satisfaction and substitutionary views, though).

J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement challenges the view that Jesus’ death is necessary for salvation, but as he does still work with the language of atonement, there is some ambiguity in his treatment of Jesus’ death. The death was strictly an act of evil, not something God in any sense willed. But Jesus’ death is part of the story of salvation that in some sense is dependent upon Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is the saving act, but—though Weaver does not state it like this—there had to be a crucifixion for there to be a resurrection. So Jesus’ death has meaning in relation to his resurrection.

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, utterly reject any kind of positive role for the story of Jesus’ death. They believe that Christian theology that valorizes Jesus’ death, especially that sees his death as necessary for salvation, is actually advocating a kind of “divine child abuse” where the “father” requires the violent death of the “son.”

As it turns out, Boersma’s view is pretty complicated. He tries to hold together all three of the tradition models: satisfaction, moral influence, and Christus Victor. There are other arguments for the satisfaction model and its substitutionary atonement variant that are stricter. One recent example is this book by British theologians Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach: Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. The subtitle makes the stance of the authors clear.

The two approaches: Satisfaction or mercy “all the way down”

One way to approach this topic is to note that, at bottom, there are basically two ways to think about Christian salvation: the satisfaction view and the “mercy all the way down” view. Continue reading “Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”

How Does Pacifism (Properly Understood) Work as a Core Christian Conviction?

Ted Grimsrud—December 4, 2011

[What follows is an essay intended as a kind of thought experiment. It arises from many discussions and much thought in relation to how we best understand theological role of Christian pacifism. It is especially aimed at other Christian pacifists—though hopefully many other people would find it interesting as well. I don’t mean it as a dogmatic statement but as a invitation to on-going conversation and discernment.]

“Pacifism”—A recent and complicated term

The term “pacifism” has a rich if brief history. It was first widely used in English just a bit more than 100 years ago, based on the newly coined French word, pacifisme, that was used of “making peace.” The initial use in English focused on opposition to war, and one of the major ways the term has been used has been to refer to a principled opposition to all war, and more broadly, all uses of violence.

Interestingly, in Mennonite circles, during the short career of the term “pacifism,” its usage has evolved quite dramatically. Perhaps the first significant use of “pacifism” in widely read Mennonite writings came in Guy F. Hershberger’s classic text, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, first published in 1944 to provide American Mennonites with authoritative guidance for negotiating the life of faith amidst a warring society. While forcefully and comprehensively developing a theological rationale for opposition to war, Hershberger differentiated “biblical nonresistance” (the path he advocated) from “pacifism.” Hershberger associated “pacifism” with the non-Christian social change advocate Mohandas Gandhi and with liberal American Protestants who unwisely sought to effect wide-ranging social change. Both Gandhi and the liberal Protestant pacifists departed significantly from the biblical model of Jesus-centered nonresistance that turned the other cheek and refused to use coercion to seek justice for oneself.

Hershberger himself evolved in his views, by the early 1960s actually endorsing the Gandhian social activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Civil Rights Movement. By this time, due to other factors as well, “pacifism” had begun to gain currency in Mennonite circles as a useful term that connoted a combination of nonresistance’s refusal to take up arms with a new openness toward political engagement heightened by opposition to the U.S war in Vietnam. The term “pacifism” was seen as a more inclusive term than “nonresistance,” carrying the connotation of a broader application of the anti-violence message of Jesus. Increasingly, Mennonites engaged broader peace concerns than simply assuring their own community’s non-participation in war—and “pacifism” seemed like a good term to capture this broadening of the peace position.

In time, though, the term “nonviolence” came to have increased attraction. “Pacifism,” ironically, came to be linked with the more withdrawn stance earlier connoted by “nonresistance.” Perhaps, in part, the word “pacifism” sounded too much like “passive-ism.” Also ironically, “nonviolence,” though negative in construction, came to be seen as a more positive, activist term than “pacifism.

Why “pacifism” remains a useful term

However, the term “pacifism” retains important virtues. Unlike “nonresistance,” “nonviolence,” and “non-retaliation” (a term that has never actually caught on, though it has been suggested by some as a more accurate description of Jesus’ meaning in the Sermon on the Mount), “pacifism” is positive in construction. It could literally read “love of peace.” Continue reading “How Does Pacifism (Properly Understood) Work as a Core Christian Conviction?”