A Peaceable Take on Christian Salvation: The Genealogy of a Writing Project [Theological memoir #14/Rethinking salvation #2]

Ted Grimsrud—August 19, 2021

I have long been interested in the theological theme of salvation. This interest stemmed from my concern with how complicit it seems that Christianity has long been in accepting warfare and other violent practices. I came to see a connection between atonement theologies and the acceptance of war. In the 2003-4 school year, I received a sabbatical from Eastern Mennonite University in order to write a book on this topic. Shortly before the sabbatical began, I presented this paper at an EMU Bible and Religion forum (April 2, 2003) that described the upcoming project.

As it turned out, I did most of the work on the book during my sabbatical year, but for various reasons was unable to complete it until 2013. During that time, my plans changed a bit so the final book was a bit different than what I outline in this paper. Most obviously, I changed the title from “Salvation Without Violence” to Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). I also decided to include the discussion of Paul and Revelation and make it a one-volume project.

I reproduce the paper here as it was presented mainly because I think it is informative to see how I understood the rationale for the project before I did the work on it. My interest in these issues has not diminished (see this recent post, “Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand.” To put it mildly, my proposal for a different to approach atonement theories and the understanding of Jesus’s crucifixion did not get much traction among theologians. But maybe if I keep trying….

In the fall of 2002, I received one of the great gifts of the academic life—the granting of a sabbatical from EMU. This sabbatical meant that I would be paid a significant part of my salary for the 2003-4 school year and freed to research and write full time. In order to be granted a sabbatical, I had to gain approval for a proposal outlining the main project I intend to work on next year. What follows in this paper is what I shared in our forum (drawing from my sabbatical proposal) about the genealogy of this writing project—how it was that I came to be interested in a subject with enough intensity and passion that I wanted to devote about a year of my life to do nothing else except write about that subject. And in sharing this story, I expected to open a bit of a window into how my mind works. What follows is my paper from April 2003:

The title of my project is “Salvation Without Violence.” In a nutshell, what I intend to do is write a book taking a pacifist perspective on the biblical portrayal of God’s initiative toward human beings. I am intense and passionate about this issue because I think that a fundamental misunderstanding of God lies behind much of the ideology has and continues to undergird Christian support for violence. In telling you how I came to see this as an issue and how I have been approaching it, hopefully I will communicate at least a little of what I think is at stake.

My journey to pacifism

I suppose in some sense, the roots of this project go back about a decade or so before I was born. My father fought for three years as an infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II. While he always was proud of what he had done, he reacted to what he had experienced by inadvertently setting the stage for my pacifism (at least that’s how I see it now). After he got out of the military, he refused to own a gun (“I saw enough guns during the War”) and he refused to raise his hand in anger toward his children. Ironically, when I was approaching high school graduation, during the height of the Vietnam War, his words trying to talk me into attending one of the military academies for college carried much less weight for me than the peaceable actions he had displayed as a parent. One of the things I am most grateful to my parents for was their respect for their children—if our family had a “rule” it was, think for yourself, make up your own mind. I always felt support from my parents for whatever I chose to do or think.

I did not grow up as a pacifist or as a Christian. When I was 17, after several years of serious thinking and discussing, I chose to become a Christian. I had a close friend who attended the local fundamentalist Baptist church (this was a congregation that would welcome that label). He recruited me and for the first three years after my conversion, that church provided my spiritual home.

I can remember two of the main teachings of Elkton Bible Baptist Church. I am now thinking they were closely, if implicitly, related. One teaching was that a genuine Christian in the United States must be a patriot, strongly supporting the war American was fighting in Vietnam. The pastor’s sermons were filled with proud reminiscences of his service in the US Navy during World War II. When I began attending the church, I was not real interested in political issues, but I probably had a general aversion to war. My views changed, at least for a little while. I made a point to drive home during my freshman year in college to vote in the 1972 presidential election, proudly casting my vote for Richard Nixon. It’s ironic to me now. Nixon’s opponent, George McGovern, is probably the only major party nominee for President during my lifetime that I would now be happy to vote for. But at that point in my life, McGovern’s clear anti-war voice seemed to me to be anti-Christian.

The second teaching, much more theological, was about salvation. We are saved because Jesus gave up his life as a sacrifice, substituting for us before God, taking God’s anger and holy wrath upon himself so we did not have to. That is, God is a God of wrath toward sinners, a God whose holiness is of the sort that God must destroy anything in God’s presence that is impure. That is, God is violent. I had no sense at that time that there was any other way to understand God. And, as I said, I had no sense that there was actually a direct connection between my belief that God is violent and my belief that as a Christian I should support America’s wars and be ready to fight in them if I was called upon to do so.

It’s kind of amazing to me to remember how biblically and theologically illiterate I was through most of my college years. I had not gone to church much until I was 17. Then I was educated into an anti-intellectual form of Christian faith. I had gone to public schools all the way, including two different public colleges. I did not take any religion courses and only in my last term my senior year did I take a philosophy course.

But somehow, I was being prepared to fall head over heals in love with theology once I actually discovered it. When I began attending the University of Oregon as a college junior, a close friend from my hometown also lived in Eugene, and he invited me to attend his church. I was a little suspicious because it was not a Baptist church, but it was small, friendly, and had a pretty high percentage of single women—including, I was soon to discover, a beautiful Arizonian named Kathleen Temple who became my life partner.

In the summer between my junior and senior year I was persuaded by a couple of my housemates to join a book study group that was reading material by Francis Schaeffer, a writer known as “an evangelist to intellectuals.” That title is funny to me now because I see Schaeffer as really at best a pseudo-intellectual. But at the time, it was pure excitement for me. Schaeffer told me exactly what my heart had, without my knowledge, been waiting to hear. That is, he wrote that Christians should not fear them, but rather welcome any and all questions about God, the world, meaning, and faith. “All truth is God’s truth.” So, I took to Schaeffer like a duck to water, reading everything he wrote and finding other books by his close colleagues.

Our little church was a context for much intellectual ferment. We were mainly college students. We talked and argued and sought to make our faith the center of our lives. My worldview was shifting by the day as I learned more and more. One of the issues we could not help but think and talk about was war and peace. The US involvement in Vietnam was coming to an end, but the issues remained on the front burner. Young men were returning from the war and entering or re-entering college. I was coming to see the knee-jerk pro-Americanism of my Baptist pastor as simplistic. I was realizing that many of the things I had been taught needed relearning.

And then, a spring evening in the fall of 1976, my senior year in college, I had an epiphany. I was reading a book dealing with the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, and in a chapter discussing the moral problems with the idea of violent revolution, the writer helped me see that revolutionary violence should not be an option for a Christian. But I took it a step further; I became convinced (and I honestly don’t think I have ever wavered on this conviction in these past 27 years) that there was no kind of violence that I could ever accept.

I can’t remember what precisely was going through my mind at that moment. I did not really know the term pacifism. I did not know anyone who I was aware of being a pacifist. I didn’t really have a clear biblical or theological rationale. I knew nothing of Mennonites. But I was certain—and from then on it was faith seeking understanding. I have spent my life since then trying to understand what I knew in my heart that spring evening.

What followed was one of those experiences where once something becomes true for you, you start noticing it everywhere around you. Like when I hurt my back a number of years ago, it seemed like everyone I talked with had a bad back, something I had not been aware of at all before. Or when your wife gets pregnant you start seeing pregnant women everywhere. Well, I discovered that there were many pacifists around me—including my new girlfriend, Kathleen Temple.

Discovering peace theology

Just a few months after my pacifist epiphany, a close friend of mine took a summer school class from John Howard Yoder and came back with several of Yoder’s books. That was the first I knew of the Mennonite peace tradition. Yoder replaced Schaeffer as my teacher. I began to fill in the cracks in my biblical and theological education. With several of us pushing our pacifism on anyone in our vicinity, some people in our church with different views felt it was important to have some kind of response to this scary stuff we were spouting.

We ended up having a formal debate. One of the main points the speaker who opposed pacifism made was that we can’t put too much weight on Jesus’s life and teaching, and certainly we can’t conclude from Jesus alone that God supports pacifism. We can’t do this because throughout the Old Testament God is in favor of war. And in the book of Revelation, again we see God as being in favor of war. Well, this guy basically set the agenda for my research for the next number of years. I needed to examine the Old Testament and Revelation in order to refute the speaker’s argument. I knew in my heart, if not my head, that God does support pacifism. But I had to find out if this really could be defended.

Yoder’s work provided a bit of help, but as the title of his famous book reflects, his focus was on The Politics of Jesus. He did point me to some work done by his colleague, Millard Lind, on the Old Testament. I managed to get a copy of Lind’s Ph.D. dissertation on the theology of warfare in the Old Testament, which I found pretty helpful. I then spent many months just reading through the Old Testament, with the help of one or two commentaries on each book. That helped some as well, but, as we all know, the Old Testament is a pretty complicated collection of writings, especially when read in relation to questions of violence and pacifism.

I made much more progress with the other part of my project, studying the book of Revelation. I discovered that mainstream scholarship actually presented a portrayal of God in Revelation that was much less bloodthirsty than what I had been taught. In fact, I became convinced that Revelation actually gives us a picture of a God who brings salvation through suffering love, not through acts of violence. I even went so far as to write a book arguing for this view.

As I continued to feed my passion for understanding the Bible and theology, and to fit my pacifism with what I was learning, it became obvious that further formal education would be necessary. During the summer of 1979, I attended a summer school session at a graduate theological school in California and became totally hooked. So, Kathleen graciously consented to move with me to Indiana in 1980 to attend the seminary where John Howard Yoder taught—the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart. I entered the MA in Peace Studies program and spent the happiest nine months of my life there. Kathleen and I had a great time socially at AMBS, we made many close friends, learned about Canadians for the first time, went for many long walks (we didn’t have a car at the time). But it was just as great an experience for me intellectually.

I took “Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament” from Millard Lind and received a framework for working at making sense of all the complexity of those materials. Yoder’s “Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace” class helped me in a similar way to work at making sense of Christian history. I took a fun course on Revelation that allowed me to confirm the validity of the approach I had been developing.

There were two other courses, though, that fit even more centrally to the genealogy of my current writing project. In Yoder’s course “Christology and Theological Method” and Willard Swartley’s “New Testament Theology and Ethics I: The Gospels” I was introduced to the issue of atonement and ethics. Yoder helped me better to understand the doctrine I had been taught back in the Baptist church, the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement.” I still was not making a close connection between this doctrine and my doctrine of God, but I was helped to see that the traditional view was problematic for peace people because it made Jesus important primarily as a sinless sacrifice, thereby minimizing his importance as our model for faithful living. In Swartley’s class, I looked more closely at how Jesus’ atoning death is presenting in the Gospels. I discovered that throughout the Gospels, Jesus linked his cross with his expectations for his followers. The cross is a model for discipleship more than something that Jesus accepted in place of us. Writing a paper on discipleship and Jesus’s cross for that class helped a lot.

For my MA thesis, I decided to write a research paper on the theme of theological groundings for “Christian social responsibility.” In this paper, I wrote chapters on love, justice, and creation, trying to argue that these three themes each should shape how we understand the others, with love being the central motif. One of the best fruits of that project for me was to realize that a strong biblical case can be made for understanding both justice and love in terms of love—an understanding that goes against the grain of much traditional Christian thought. That is, biblical justice is loving justice more than retributive justice. Creation in the Bible is a confession that the same merciful God who offers the world healing forgiveness is the creator of what is—and that this loving will of God is part of the created order.

Learning about ethics—and then Jesus

I then entered a Ph.D. program, attending the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California beginning in 1984 in Religion and Society, with a specialization in Christian Ethics. I had decided that I would probably be better able to focus on the issues I cared about most if I tried to bring theology into the ethics program than if I had tried to bring ethics into the theology program.

However, my focus during the three years in Berkeley was much more directly on ethics than theology. I wrote my dissertation on conscientious objection to World War II. But I did take a yearlong seminar on theories of justice. We dealt more with philosophical than theological themes, but I did get to do some more work on biblical themes related to justice. I continued to push in the direction of thinking theologically of justice more in restorative, relational, reconciliation-oriented ways as opposed to retributive, punitive ways.

After I finished my dissertation, I searched for another big research and writing project to pursue. Sometime around the summer of 1988 I read a book on just war theory and came across what was to me a quite significant statement that pushed me back toward studying Jesus, christology, and justice. The writer, an ethicist named Paul Ramsey, discussed John Howard Yoder’s pacifism and acknowledged that Yoder was correct in saying that the roots of the differences between Yoder’s position and Ramsey’s was christology. More specifically, Ramsey, wrote that the crux of the issue is the cross: Are we talking primarily about the cross as a sacrifice that is part of some kind of cosmic transaction that allows God to forgive sins, or primarily as the consequence of Jesus’ peaceable life and, consequently, as a model for all Christians—calling us to pacifism?

So, I began to read as much as I could about Jesus. By that time, though, I was pastoring by had many other responsibilities. I enjoyed the reading but did not get a lot of writing done—partly because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write about. I was most interested in trying to understand why some Christians have christologies that seem to reinforce their pacifism while others, the large majority, could not find their way to a pacifist commitment. Was this failure to embrace pacifism a christological issue?

The next step on my journey took me back to Elkhart, Indiana. Kathleen and I spent a semester there in1992 while I was on a sabbatical from pastoring. While at AMBS, I first learned of this new thinker on the scene, a French literary critique named René Girard, who wrote about sacrifice, and whose ideas were being applied to biblical studies. One New Testament scholar wrote what was to me an exciting book, Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross, that pointed at least to some degree toward an understanding of Paul that saw as central to Paul’s concerns a desire to move in a pacifist direction in his understanding of God and salvation.

Two years later, I presented a paper at a conference at AMBS on Girard’s thought and peace, “Scapegoating No More: Christian Pacifism and New Testament Understandings of the Death of Jesus.” My intent in that paper was to look at ways the New Testament gives meaning to Jesus’ death that were not based on the idea of his death as a sacrifice meant to appease God’s wrath. Without addressing the texts that have traditionally been used to support the sacrificial reading, I focused on other texts that give us other meanings.

I concluded that the New Testament teaches that Jesus’ death was meaningful in exposing the dangers of idolatry in how people of faith view the state, religious institutions, and cultural identity markers, such as the law. In each of these cases, Jesus challenged entrenched power and, as a consequence, they joined forces to put him to death. However, in raising Jesus from the dead, God revealed that these false absolutes must not be trusted in—that only God as revealed in Jesus is worthy of trust. My point in this paper was to test the idea that there are indeed meaningful interpretations of Jesus’s death that do not require sacrificial theology; in fact, these interpretations provide more fruitful implications for Christian discipleship than the traditional sacrificial views.

Discerning a writing project

In the summer of 1997, I first outlined what I wanted to do. As it turned out, I outlined my current project—and this is still my outline. I decided to begin by arguing that violence is a theological issue. That is, the choice to use violence is a choice based on ultimate values. Human beings are reluctant to kill other human beings—we only do it when we think there is some value higher than protecting life. This is, in some sense, a religious choice, a choice based on our views of ultimate reality and, however we may define God, based on our view of God’s will. To illustrate how violence is a theological issue, I will focus on three cases that have had explicit theological warrant; cases where people have talked overtly about it being God’s will that violence be done. The three cases are warfare, criminal justice, and child discipline (specifically corporal punishment).

Probably the issue of warfare is most obvious. Throughout the history of Christianity, at least since the time of Constantine in the fourth century, most Christians have accepted the claims made by their governments that on untold occasions God wills their country to go to war. I am sure that the United States has never entered a war that was not presented as God’s will.

With regard to criminal justice, the basic assumption of western societies has been that is it God’s will to punish wrongdoers. Timothy Gorringe, in his excellent book, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation, has shown a direct link between medieval doctrines of atonement that place a high priority on the motif of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice meant to satisfy God’s retributive justice and the emergence of punitive criminal justice practices. Today in the United States, surveys indicate that evangelical Christians are significantly more likely to support the death penalty and other punitive criminal justice practices than the general population—surely at least in part due to their atonement theologies. I have written a couple of essays on violence and criminal justice, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders” (published in The Journal of  in 2000) and “Violence as a Theological Problem” (published in Justice Reflections in 2005).

The issue of the use of corporal punishment on children is perhaps the most controversial among the three, at least among Mennonites. Again, I will refer to a book that supports my argument—theologian Donald Capps’s, The Child’s Song: The Religious Abuse of Children, points out that strict and punitive child discipline practices have often been justified by references to God’s holiness. Here is a paper I presented at a conference at Goshen College in 1999, “A Theological Critique of Corporal Punishment.”

So, I will start the book by asserting that the belief that violence is God’s will is a crucial component in war, criminal justice, and corporal punishment. All three are often linked to the belief that God wills punishment of wrongdoers, the giving of pain as a consequence of wrong behavior. As Gorringe has shown with regard to criminal justice, and I think could also be shown in relation to the other types of violence, there is linkage between this idea that God wills humans to inflict punitive pain on other humans and the idea that the very nature of salvation in the Christian framework is also based on the logic of retribution.

In “the logic of retribution,” when all is said and done, God is understood most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured. Human beings are inherently sinful. God’s response to sin is punitive. Jesus’s death on the cross is necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful human beings escaping deserved punishment. For a Christian pacifist such as myself, the question arises, is this really the best understanding of what the Bible teaches? I want to argue that no, it is not, and to do so by reconsidering how the Bible actually portrays salvation.

The Bible’s peaceable approach to salvation

I will follow several steps in examining the issue of how the Bible portrays salvation. The first is to look at what the Old Testament tells us about salvation. I started my research several years ago with the expectation that I would find that the role of sacrifice in the Old Testament economy of salvation would be similar to how its portrayed in Christian substitutionary atonement theology. I expected to develop an argument that would give priority to the prophets (such as Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah) over the earlier sacrificial ideas—and see the prophets as being the source for Jesus’ own teaching on salvation. That is, I expected to read the Bible against the Bible.

However, I have discovered so far, in a preliminary way, that my task might not be as difficult as I thought. That is, it appears that a case may be made that sacrifice in the Old Testament actually is presented in ways fairly analogous to the law. In both cases, what we have are not means to salvation so much as responses to God’s saving initiative. Salvation in the Old Testament from start to finish is not presented as being linked with a will of God for violence. Rather, salvation in the Old Testament is an expression of God’s mercy. And the role of sacrifice is essentially meant to be how people show their commitment to God as a response to God’s saving works—just as following the law is meant to be how people show their commitment to God as a response to God’s saving works. At least this is what I think now. I need to read more and then see if I can put all the pieces together.

So, I will first look at sacrifice in the Old Testament. Then, second, I will look at the prophets’ expression of how they understand the rift between God and human beings to be bridged—seeing Hosea’s statement, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” to express the key motif. My suspicion now is that Hosea’s concern is not with sacrifice as it was meant to be, but with a distorted understanding of it. The third step will be to look at Jesus’ own teaching. It is interesting how little attention is paid to what Jesus himself said, directly and indirectly, about how human beings find harmony with God. What was Jesus’s soteriology (his doctrine of salvation)? As near as I can tell, Jesus’s teaching is remarkable in how little it points toward anything resembling the substitutionary atonement view. Jesus himself did not teach about a God who needed an act of violence in order to establish a restored relationship with human beings. Jesus seems to reflect the ideas of the prophets (and, actually, the ideas of most of the Old Testament): He is twice recorded as quoting Hosea’s words, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

One major implication of this direction of thought is, of course, the likelihood that Jesus’ death is not best understood as being a necessary sacrifice in order to satisfy God’s honor or to placate God’s holiness. If the basis for salvation is simply God’s mercy, then Jesus’ death loses a lot of the theological meaning traditional theology assigns it. This leads to the fourth step in my argument. If Jesus’s death is not to be used as a needed act of violence that gains God’s pardon for human beings, does it have any relevance at all? What meaning might we find there?

What does the cross mean?

So, I want to look in depth at the story of Jesus’ death. Why did Jesus die, historically, and what meaning did that death have for the gospel writers? My thesis right now is that Jesus died due to the combined violence of cultural exclusivism (seen in the Pharisees), religious institutionalism (seen in the religious leaders linked with the Temple), and political authoritarianism (seen in the occupying Roman colonial hierarchy, especially the governor, Pontius Pilate).

That these forces conspired to kill Jesus is not without significance for our soteriology. Taking these factors as central may lead to a dismissing of much about traditional soteriology connected with the belief in substitutionary atonement. Instead, the basic soteriological significance of the death of Jesus, I expect to show, is that his death exposes the powers that put him to death and reveals that these powers are rivals to the true God. That is, we find in Jesus’s death the bases for disillusionment with the central powers and principalities that seek to dominate human life and thereby separate people from God. The story of Jesus’s death, thus, is not a story of necessary violence as an expression of God’s punitive justice and as a requirement for human salvation. Rather, the story of Jesus’s death is a repudiation of violence and a revelation that the Powers’ claim to need to use violence is actually pure rebellion against God.

The fifth and final step in the argument will be to look in depth as well at Jesus’s resurrection. The saving significance of the resurrection may be found in how it vindicates Jesus’ life, reveals the powers as idols, and promises that trust in God’s love is the source of empowerment to find freedom from idols and restoration of harmony with God. So, I expect to show in this book that there is in the Bible a portrayal of the means of salvation that is free from sacred violence and that God’s will does not ever desire violence. It is appropriate for us to affirm that God is not violent, and that God does not ever will that human beings use violence.

Now, I understand this project to be only the first step in what needs to be at least a three-part process of dealing with the central issues. I will only be going through the gospels, and thus will leave out some of the main biblical sources for traditional atonement theology. I will not be considering Paul’s thought or the Book of Hebrews.

So, even if I complete the work I hope to this next year, I will not be done. I will have to arrange for another sabbatical (actually, at least two more!). I do want to do an extensive study of Paul, focusing particularly on Paul’s understanding of justice and righteousness. I have envisioned a kind of chart, where we have five blocks, the prophets, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, and Luther. I would pair the first two and the last two. The question is where to assign Paul, with the first pair or the second. My thesis right now is that Paul belongs with the prophets and Jesus, and not with Augustine and Luther when it comes to his understanding of salvation. We will see in the years to come whether I can sustain this thesis. I will also need to test it in relation to Hebrews.

Assuming I am right about the basic biblical perspective, I then will want to investigate where the retributive soteriology of Christian tradition actually came from. This will involve looking at Augustine, Anselm, and Luther, at least. If I am spared, I hope to work on that, maybe during my retirement.

[Afterword, August 17, 2021: As mentioned in my introductory comment above, I actually ended up writing one book that covered all of the New Testament. That book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013), did by and large follow the outline sketched here and did by and large support the points I summarize here. I have written various other pieces before and after 2013 rethinking Christian salvation. I hope to return to these issues more intentionally now and, if things work out, to produce another book that will engage in more depth with the mainstream Christian tradition.]

Posts in the “Rethinking Salvation” series

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