Is God violent? Naming the questions

 Ted Grimsrud—February 29, 2012

This question (“Is God Violent?”) seems to me to be one of those great questions that challenges us to wide-ranging theological reflection. And it triggers a bunch of further questions that are worth thinking about in order to get at our main one. I will raise nine here. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brian McLaren’s short but thoughtful and provocative article in the January 2011 issues of Sojourners (also titled “Is God Violent?”).

What are our options?

McLaren offers a helpful fourfold typology of the different options for how Christians might answer our question: (1) God is violent and human violence is okay, sometimes even good. (2) God is violent and only in limited cases might human violence be morally acceptable. (3) God is not violent, so human violence is always a violation of our being created in God’s image—hence it is always tragic and regrettable; it is never justified. (4) God is not violent, so human violence in any form is always absolutely forbidden.

I had to read this list several times before I could figure out what the difference between #3 and #4 is. There must be a difference, since McLaren says, regretfully, that he holds #3 and not #4—though he aspires to #4. Finally I figured out that he had left out an additional sentence in his description of the third view that would have made him more clear: “Sometimes violence happens in ways that are the lesser evil; it’s not morally good but it may be the most realistic and least bad possibility.” To this clarification, McLaren might also have wanted to add a thought borrowed from Reinhold Niebuhr that in such cases we rely on God’s pardon; we don’t claim we are doing something that is not sinful.

Unfortunately, McLaren leaves out another option that probably is the most common option for Mennonite pacifists who have thought about these issues. At least it’s a very common option among Mennonite intellectuals. This would be the belief that God is violent but that human beings are called not to be. On the one hand, it is “God’s prerogative to exercise God’s sovereign power however God sees the need to;” on the other hand, God forbids human beings to take this expression of governance into their own hands. They interpret “vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Romans 12:21) as a call to leave the violence to God. Willard Swartley, Miroslav Volf, Mary Schertz, and Millard Lind  all have published various versions of this view—as did John Howard Yoder (see John Nugent’s account of Yoder’s Old Testament interpretation, The Politics of Yahweh). Continue reading “Is God violent? Naming the questions”

Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 3)

Ted Grimsrud—February 10, 2012

In what sense should we think of Jesus as our savior? My cyber-friend Al Steiner has raised a series of challenging questions (scroll down for Al’s comments) of my account of salvation based on his careful reading of the Bible. Reflecting further on the questions Al raises will help me continue to think though what I want to say about salvation.

How is Jesus “instrumental” for salvation?

(1) Al concludes from John’s Gospel and the first letter of John that Jesus “is instrumental in the grace of God, purifying us, taking away our sin.” Key verses include John the Baptist’s declaration when he first sees Jesus that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and these words: “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

On the face of it, at least, I don’t really see these assertions about Jesus’ role in salvation being in tension with what I am trying to say. So much depends on definitions—both of the problem Jesus is trying to resolve and the meanings of such key works as “takes away,” “sin(s),” “blood,” and “cleanses.”

First of all, I see no hint in these verses and their wider contexts that John is portraying Jesus’ saving work as in any way related to providing a necessary sacrifice that, in a way only it can, makes it possible for a wrathful/just/holy/honorable God to offer forgiveness that prior to that sacrifice was not possible. That is, whatever “take away” and “cleanse” have to do with, it is not satisfying something in God.

I think that the problem, basically, is that our trusting in idols has separated us from life-giving relationships with God and fellow humans. What needs to happen is that the power of sin (idolatry) over us needs to be broken. To have sin taken away or to have sin cleansed, it seems to me, is about breaking this power of sin over us and freeing us to accept and live in light of the persistent and ever-present mercy of God. Continue reading “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 3)”

Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 2)

Ted Grimsrud—February 8, 2012

Our understanding of salvation seems an important enough issue to warrant continuing reflection  and conversation. I appreciate comments that have been written in response to some of the thinking I have been doing on this topic.I want to respond to some further thoughts from Philip Bender in this post and will return again shortly with thoughts in response to Al Steiner’s comments.

My earlier pieces since December 2011 have been: “Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”, “Jesus’ Death and My Salvation,” “Does Paul Agree with Jesus About Salvation?”, “Christian Salvation: Do the Questions Never End?”, “Are All Sins the Same Before God?”, and “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions.” I write these current reflections as a preliminary effort to revise and complete a book on salvation, the first draft of which was called Mercy Not Sacrifice: The Bible’s Salvation Story.

Philip Bender, in his latest in a series of thoughtful responses to my posts, raises several important questions.

How are theological and political beliefs related?

His first question is about the connection between our beliefs about God and our political/social philosophy. “Does one’s view of God lead to one’s world view in other realms of life?” or is it more that “one’s social and political ideology…shapes one’s view of God?” Specifically, what do we make of the apparent correlation between “a strong satisfaction atonement theology and [belief] in a quite vengeful God” and “very conservative and reactionary social, political, and economic views”? Continue reading “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 2)”

Christian Salvation: More and More Questions

Ted Grimsrud—February 5, 2012

It is now over a month since I wrote my last set of reflections on the theme of salvation. That post received several quite helpful and challenging responses that I can only now get back to. It won’t be until this summer that I will have the time to concentrate directly on my writing on salvation, but I want to try to keep the conversation going with some responses now.

I will start with a general comment. Like all other theological themes, I think the most important issue in relation to thinking about salvation is that of how can this thinking help us better to love God and neighbor. That is, I am interested in the theology of salvation not mainly because I want to figure out a way to summarize what the Bible or history of Christian doctrine says about it. It is certainly the case that the Bible (and the tradition) presents us with many different views. But I don’t think all those views are equally helpful in helping us to practice love—some in fact are unhelpful.

I don’t think we need to insist that there is just one true view, but I do think we do operate in practice in light of particular ideas that we do value above others. In practice, we don’t operate with a bunch of different views that we keep in mind as various options that reflect the diversity of biblical theologies. We do prioritize. I’m simply saying, then, that we should recognize our need to prioritize and be self-conscious about it. And I then present the case for a perspective that makes theological priorities based on the call to love God and neighbor—in part because Jesus clearly does this and calls his followers to do likewise (I believe).

I greatly appreciated the challenging reflections shared by three people in particular. I find thinking of how best to respond to the comments of John Miller, Philip Bender, and Al Steiner has helped me tremendously in thinking things through. I am deeply grateful to each of these friends for pushing the conversation forward. Here are some thoughts in response. In this post I will only be able to respond to John’s comments. I hope to take up Philip’s and Al’s soon. Continue reading “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions”