The Book of Revelation and the Problem of Violence: A Response to John Dominic Crossan

Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2017

Prominent Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan has written an interesting and helpful book addressing what I believe are some of the most important issues in Christian theology. In this book, How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015), Crossan seeks to provide what is essentially a pacifist approach to the perennial question about how to understand the Bible’s notorious pro-violence teaching in light of Jesus’s message of nonviolent love.

Crossan’s antipathy toward Revelation

I greatly appreciate it any time a theologian argues in favor of nonviolence, so I am grateful for Crossan’s effort. However, I have some concerns as well that were triggered by the book’s first chapter. I became aware from reading an earlier Crossan book, God and Empire, that he is not a fan of the book of Revelation. Right away in How to Read the Bible, Crossan makes his antipathy toward Revelation apparent. Sadly, Crossan profoundly misreads Revelation—at least in my opinion. And his misreading weakens the overall argument of the book.

Crossan begins the book by describing how he was motivated to write it by questions he received from audiences on various speaking engagements. So he set out to respond to those questions and to make the case that the Bible can be read to support nonviolence—especially if we understand the message of the historical Jesus as the core.

One difficult set of questions concerns the book of Revelation. Crossan was continually asked: “What about that Apocalypse from John of Patmos, what about the book of Revelation, and what about the second coming of Jesus Christ? No matter what I said about the nonviolence of the first coming, questioners objected that the second coming was to be supremely violent, was to be a war to end all wars. Put bluntly, the nonviolent Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount seemed annulled and dismissed by the later Jesus in the book of Revelation” (p. 9).

Such questions about Revelation are indeed common for me, too, whenever I speak about the Bible and peace. Although Crossan and I share the same desired outcome—an embrace of the nonviolence of Jesus as the norm for all Christians—we see Revelation’s role in contributing to that outcome in drastically different ways. Continue reading “The Book of Revelation and the Problem of Violence: A Response to John Dominic Crossan”

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A Positive Reading of the New Testament

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the fifth in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the fourth in the series, “A Positive Reading of the Old Testament.”

Ted Grimsrud—October 8, 2017 [Luke 7]

There are some standard assumptions that Christians tend to have about the Bible—the Old Testament is old, outdated, primitive, problematic, violent and judgmental. And the New Testament is new, fresh, merciful, useful, peaceable and about forgiveness.

Well, I have spent a lot of time over many years trying—in sermons, classes, discussions, and writings—to show that the Old Testament is actually pretty good, that it’s an asset for faith and a guide for our quest for peace and justice in our hurting world. I know I have not persuaded everyone of this, but I’ll keep trying, though not this morning.

The New Testament’s dark side

The other side of the coin, though, is that the New Testament itself also has a dark side. It’s much shorter and not nearly as detailed in its accounts of political struggles. It covers just a short bit of time, unlike the hundreds of years the Old Testament has to do with. So the dark elements are perhaps a bit more subtle.

But we have things such as Jesus’s sharp, dare I say, even violent, dressing down of the Pharisees: “You blind guides, you white-washed tombs, you children of hell, you brood of vipers!” And his threats about God sending people to hell: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

And then there are the writings of Paul and of the book of Revelation. It is kind of uncanny that three times, just in the past couple of weeks, I have kind of randomly gotten into fairly intense arguments with friends–good, pious Mennonites—about whether Paul is an asset or a liability for Christian faith. I defend Paul, but apparently not very persuasively for my friends. And those of you who sat through what probably seemed like interminable sermons that I preached on Revelation here several years ago know that I go against the stream and present Revelation as a book of peace, not a book of judgment and violence. But the New Testament does present challenges.

One other difficult New Testament text is the story in the book of Acts about the early Christian married couple, Ananias and Sapphira. They are struck dead when they are caught lying and not giving the church the full price of some property they sold. Continue reading “A Positive Reading of the New Testament”

Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—October 4, 2017

Over the past several decades, as North American Christians have sought to discern the way forward amidst differing convictions concerning the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians and of same-sex marriage, one of the arenas of debate has been what to make of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Several different perspectives have been argued for, in a general sense breaking down into three broad options.

Paul and “homosexuality”*: Three options

*[I will use quotes around “homosexuality” throughout this post to signify my uneasiness with using the word because of the pejorative connotations it has in general usage. What I will mean by “homosexuality” is the general phenomenon of people being attracted to others of the same sex. Part of the difficulty with the language is due to the fluidity of human sexual attraction in general that shows that our reality cannot be reduced to two simple categories, “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”]

(Option 1) Paul may not have written a great deal about “homosexuality,” but what he did write is clear and utterly damning. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 Paul makes it clear that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong. And, for those who hold this view, Paul’s views remain normative for today. Hence, Christians are bound to oppose same-sex marriage and to restrict the involvement of LGBTQ Christians in the churches.

(Option 2) Others mostly agree with the interpretation of Paul’s writings given by the people in the first group, but they would strongly disagree about the application of Paul’s perspective for today. They would say that Paul was simply wrong; that he was bound by his cultural limitations to hold to views that we no longer need accept. So, in spite of Paul, we should affirm same-sex marriage and full LGBTQ involvement in the churches.

(Option 3) Yet others argue Paul was not writing about we today call “homosexuality” at all. He simply did not address the phenomenon we know today of people whose affectional orientation is toward people of their same sex. Rather, in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, he had in mind the kinds of behaviors that are also wrong for heterosexual people—not a condemning of a class of people for the inherent wrongness of their same-sex orientation. Continue reading “Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]”

Why the creation story can’t carry the weight the restrictive view puts on it: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 1]

Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2017

[The following short essay was my contribution to a recent discussion among several Mennonite scholars concerning the Bible and LGBTQ inclusion in Mennonite churches. Our assignment was to reflect on the significance of the biblical creation story for our discernment. We had to keep the papers quite short, so were unable to address many of the various ambiguities and complexities with these issues. The background for my piece is the argument in opposition to same-sex marriage and in favor of restricting the involvement of LGBTQ people in the churches (e.g., opposition to the ordination of LGBTQ pastors) that centers on the idea of the creation story establishing an irrevocable norm of opposite-sex marriage—without exception (here is a critique of one such argument based on “God’s design for marriage”). I give several reasons why I don’t think is argument works.]

(1) Same-sex marriage is not the agenda of Genesis 1–2

The intent of the story in its own context was not to posit male/female marriage as the only valid marriage. It had other purposes. This is not to say that the gender distinction in the story is irrelevant, but that is not the story’s agenda—so it is making too big a deal of that distinction to use it as the central biblical teaching relevant to same-sex marriage.

It seems also that the male/female element is descriptive not exclusive. It is simply the case that procreation happens through male/female sex. But only a tiny fraction of such sex leads to procreation. Clearly sexual intimacy has other important purposes. Genesis 2 would indicate that one purpose is companionship or friendship—an intimate physical and emotional connection with one other person. And, again, this is not implying that every person is required to do this.

My point would not be to deny that it could be a valid interpretation that the creation story presents male/female marriage as the expected or normal arrangement for humanity and links such marriage with the bearing of children. However, it is not self-consciously trying to make an argument for male/female marriage with children for life is the only allowable arrangement. Continue reading “Why the creation story can’t carry the weight the restrictive view puts on it: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 1]”

The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Ted Grimsrud—September 1, 2017

I conclude my four-part series with this post that interacts closely with a second essay by Harold Miller. Previously, I commented at some length on Harold’s essay, “Romans 1:26-27 – Interpretations I have known.” He followed that essay with a shorter account of his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. After my close reading of that essay, I will finish with some more general reflections on the state of the conversation on LBGTQ inclusion.

The context for 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

In his discussion of this second text that those of a restrictive persuasion see as central to the New Testament message about “homosexuality,” Harold states that he is seeking a “strong understanding.” By “strong understanding,” Harold says he means “each text guiding us has strong exegetical certainty (though never ‘total certainty,’ for all texts have uncertainties).” So, he sets a pretty high standard for what he expects to achieve with his essay.

After two brief paragraphs about the “context” of 6:9-11, Harold zeroes in on verse 9 and the meanings of two words in that verse. In his “context” paragraphs, he does mention that the problem Paul addresses in this verse is that people in the Corinthian congregation are suing other people within the congregation. However, he does not explore how that problem might effect how we interpret the verse and the individual words he focuses on. In fact, he never again refers back to that “context.” He treats the meaning of the words in 6:9 as contained fully within the words themselves and not shaped by how they are used in the sentences that surround them.

Harold states that the two words he wants to focus on are “crucial.” But he does not explain why they are crucial. It could appear that he thinks they are crucial because he is looking for something that will support his views about “homosexuality.” But he does not explain why in a list of terms that serve Paul’s agenda of challenging the Christians in Corinth not to take their disputes to the secular courts, Paul would be giving us definitive teaching concerning “homosexuality.”

I understand the proper way to interpret biblical texts is not to focus on individual words as having what we could call autonomous or self-contained meaning, but we rather look carefully at the context that surrounds those words. The meaning of individual words is shaped a great deal by the sentences, paragraphs, and sections of which they are part. Especially with this text, the verse that Harold focuses on is simply a list without any elaboration within the list of what the words might be referring to. Just taken as individual words, the meaning of the terms is often unclear.

So, if we want accurately to discern the meaning of the particular terms, we would need always to keep Paul’s broader argument in mind. How does the specific word he uses in his list of characteristics of the “wrongdoers” support his argument that Christians should not take their disputes to the magistrates? Continue reading “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11”

The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on Romans 1:26-27

Ted Grimsrud—August 28, 2017

The first two posts in this series on “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion” tell the story of my thirty-year journey as an advocate for welcome and offer reflections on some of what I have learned from that journey. I told there how I was stimulated to write about these subjects again by an assertion by Mennonite pastor Harold Miller in a blog post discussion on the Mennonite World Review site that I had failed to “engage with the strongest biblical arguments” (“My Denomination Swings Left,” [July 19, 2017]). Challenged by that assertion, I initially set out to demonstrate that I did want to (continue to) engage such arguments. I figured I would do that with an extended engagement with Harold’s own articulation of those arguments.

As it turned out, I ended up writing something quite a bit different. However, as a two-part appendix to those first two articles, I want to go ahead an offer my response to Harold’s version of the biblical arguments. What follows may seem dry and overly detailed to many people, so I offer a “reader beware.” Unless you are particularly interested in close-grained debates about the meaning of a few verses in the New Testament, what follows might not really be worth your time. That warning given, I do think there is quite a bit at stake in this part of the discussion. A lot hinges on the restrictive reading of these particular verses, since these are two of the main biblical bases for their views. The soundness of “the strongest biblical arguments” would seem closely connected, then, to the soundness of the restrictive perspective in general.

In this first post, I will respond to Harold’s essay, “Romans 1:18-32 – Interpretations I Have Met” from his Interacting with Jesus blog (July 8, 2016), and in the second post, I will respond to a somewhat shorter post on the same blog, “1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – A Strong Interpretation” (July 12, 2016). My main interest with my two additional posts is to illustrate the kinds of arguments I have been using in exploring the meaning of the biblical passages. I have and do understand myself to be responding to “the best biblical arguments” that support the restrictive approach—and here I will do so in some detail with regard to those arguments as presented by Harold. I am open to further discussion concerning the interpretation of these texts, of course. But that is not my main intent here. It’s merely to show the kind of thing I have been doing the past 30 years as I have sought to have a conversation around the Bible with other Mennonites about issues many of us disagree about. My website, Peace Theology, contains many other examples. Continue reading “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on Romans 1:26-27”

The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part II—Learning from the journey

Ted Grimsrud—August 22, 2017

[This is the second of a four-part series of posts. The first part sketched a thirty-year history of my involvement in trying to be part of Bible-centered conversations about LGBTQ inclusion with other Mennonites. I discussed how surprisingly (to me, at least) difficult it has been to find conversation partners—especially with those on the restrictive side who would actually interact with my interpretive arguments. In this post I will suggest some possible explanations for that difficulty.]

A long time conversation partner

There has been one Mennonite on the restrictive side who has been willing to respond to my thoughts many times over the years, Mennonite pastor Harold Miller (I recently uncovered an interchange we had from as far back as 1997). While I appreciate Harold’s perseverance and general congeniality, I also doubt that these interchanges have actually been cases of the Mennonite practice of examining the Bible together.

One reason I think this is that Harold himself has continually stated in public forums that progressives avoid engagement on the key texts. Quite recently he repeated that assertion in a conversation about his blog post on the Mennonite World Review site, “My denomination continues to swing left” (July 19, 2017). He wrote: “We worry that those making inclusivist arguments are mainly echoing our culture. We who are conservatives don’t see them carefully grappling with the strongest biblical arguments that support the church’s historic stance against same-sex relations.” When he was challenged in the comments about this characterization of those making “inclusivist arguments,” he doubled down:

“I have witnessed great love of Scripture among inclusivist pastors and much “scriptural engagement.” I have eagerly read their biblical arguments for full LGBTQ inclusion in the church, genuinely open to beginning to sympathize with those holding our culture’s rather than our church’s stance…. But as I read them, I don’t see them interacting with the strongest biblical arguments that support the church’s historic stance.”

I found these comments troubling. I would be an inclusivist (or “progressive”) who has indeed published dozens of pages “interacting with the strongest biblical arguments” used by restrictivists—including a co-authored, 317-page book published by the Mennonite Church’s own publisher that featured such interaction. Not to mention a large number of blog posts that have done likewise, many on which Harold himself commented.

So I wrote in a comment that I found Harold’s assertion that we on the inclusive side avoided “the strongest biblical arguments” disrespectful. And he still wouldn’t back down: “I wish I didn’t feel the need to see you engage those arguments, that I could just quickly say ‘The differences are because of honest disagreements, not a willful failure to engage the argument.’ But I’m not there yet.” In other words, Harold seems to say, I do believe that you are willfully failing to engage the “strongest biblical arguments.” Continue reading “The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part II—Learning from the journey”

The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part I—Reflections on a thirty-year journey

Ted Grimsrud—August 21, 2017

I have recently been challenged in several contexts to continue to think about various issues related to how Christian churches, in particular Mennonite churches, have struggled with their ability to show welcome to sexual minorities. These challenges have gotten me to reflect on my experiences in trying to play a constructive role in work among Mennonites to discern how best to proceed. And, I realize that those experiences have in general been pretty negative.

However, through these reflections I have come to some new understandings of the events of the past thirty years. So, as a way to process those understandings I decided to write a series of four blog posts. The first will tell the story of my part in this journey. With the second post, I will share some new thoughts I have had about what it means, what particular problems I now see have arisen with the attempts at conversation and discernment. Then, as kind of an appendix, I will respond to some of the writings of one of my adversaries in these encounters, focusing on two New Testament texts that have often been the center of our attention (Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

I title this series “The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion,” though I could just as well call it “My failure to contribute constructively to the Mennonite conversation about LGBTQ inclusion.” I will focus especially on the inadequacy of the ideals I had in my early years as a Mennonite that the Mennonite way, when faced with serious disagreements in the church, was to go the Bible together to listen to the Spirit’s guidance that we may expect through communal discernment.

Church membership?

In the late summer of 1987, my wife Kathleen, our young son Johan, and I made a move. We traveled up the West Coast 500 miles from Berkeley, California, where we had been going to graduate school, to Eugene, Oregon, for me to begin my ministry as the pastor of Eugene Mennonite Church. It was at that point, now exactly thirty years ago, that I began my adventure as an advocate for a more welcome, inclusive Mennonite Church.

We knew when we headed to Eugene that the congregation had welcomed as worshipers two men in a committed relationship with each other. I was looking forward to helping the group work through some of the biblical and theological issues related to its discernment processes. As it turned out, not long after our arrival, the two men (Eric and Mark) asked to become formal members of the church. As it also turned out, people in the congregation were not overly interested in my offer of leading in Bible study. They had had a fairly detailed study a few months before our arrival, and they concluded that the differences in interpretation seemed irresolvable. Continue reading “The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part I—Reflections on a thirty-year journey”

Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind, 3rd edition

Ted Grimsrud—July 20, 2017

David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, is a prominent and prolific writer who a number of years ago, like most other evangelical theologians who ever wrote about the issue, was on record opposing the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the churches. He opposed same-sex marriage. Probably his most notable statement came in a chapter he wrote in what was at the time the standard text book on Christian ethics for evangelical students—Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in a Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press, 2003). The co-authors of this book were Gushee and the late Glen Stassen.

Gushee’s change of mind

More recently, though, Gushee changed his views and became an advocate for the churches being much more inclusive—and blessing same-sex marriage. He wrote a series of blog posts in the Fall of 2014 where he “came out” as an advocate and followed that series almost immediately with a book version called Changing Our Mind. In 2016, he published a revised edition of Kingdom Ethics (now published by Eerdmans rather than InterVarsity) that reflected that change of perspective (that I know from a conversation I had with Stassen not long before his death would have reflected the views of both authors).

Just a few months after Changing Our Mind was published, it was followed by a somewhat expanded second edition. As would be expected, this book met with intense responses. Gushee has decided to bring into print a third, significantly expanded, edition of Changing Our Mind (the final one, he asserts).

I had been eager to read the first edition of Changing Our Mind. I was familiar with Gushee’s work and knew of his stature as a highly regarded evangelical thinker. I had responded quite positively to Kingdom Ethics when it came out and wrote a glowing review of it, though I did not discuss why I was quite disappointed with their treatment of “homosexuality.” I had learned from my conversation with Stassen that Gushee was the main author of that section, so to hear that he had changed his mind intrigued me.

So I read Changing Our Mind as soon as I could and immediately wrote a quite positive review. As the bulk of this third edition is made up of the only slightly revised chapters of the first volume, I will refer readers to that review for my thoughts about Gushee’s main arguments. I want to focus here more on the additions to the third edition, with a couple of brief comments about his overall argument. Continue reading “Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind, 3rd edition”

A short review of Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God

Ted Grimsrud—July 18, 2017

I recently finished reading a fascinating, challenging book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I have invested a lot of energy in this book because I think the subject matter is extremely important, and not only for Christian pacifists such as myself. And I think Boyd has done an impressive job of examining the issues related to violence in the Old Testament.

I am pretty sure I spent more time reading this book than anything since I read Ernst Troeltsch’s Social Teaching of the Christian Churches in grad school 30 years ago. Crucifixion of the Warrior God (henceforth, CWG) is a huge book—it actually takes up two large volumes, 1,487 pages in all. I have gotten so absorbed with this book, that I decided to blog my way through it. I have written an essay per chapter (I’m through chapter 10 so far) and have posted them at my Peace Theology site. I started on that before I had actually finished the whole book. Since I just now finished, I thought I would take a moment and write a quick reflection on the book as a whole. When I finish with my detailed, chapter-by-chapter critique, I will write a comprehensive review of the whole.

Initial excitement

I started reading feeling very excited. Here was someone who promised to give this important question of how to deal with the “violent portraits of God” the attention it deserved. I was also excited because I knew that Boyd would be working from a pacifist perspective.

I’ll admit that the book became a bit of a slog at times. I’m looking forward to seeing how he boils things down when he publishes his much shorter, “popular” volume on the same topic, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of the Old Testament (due out August 15, 2017). Though Boyd writes clearly, as a rule, his argument is complicated and the detail with which he examines the various issues make it a hard to follow at times.

I remain delighted with Boyd’s consistent commitment to affirming that God is a God of humble, self-giving, nonviolent love—period. That commitment makes me want to recommend this book highly and to express my gratitude to him taking the huge risks and devoting the huge amount of energy to putting this volume together and to following it up with a more accessible version that will widen the book’s reach.

A different approach

And yet, on just about every point, I have concluded that I would make the case for reading the Bible as a consistent witness to this humble, self-giving, nonviolent, loving God in a different way. I strongly agree with Boyd that followers of Jesus must imitate God and always turn away from violent acts. But I don’t really think he makes as good case for this conviction as I had hoped he would. Continue reading “A short review of Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God