Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand (part 2): A response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began [Rethinking salvation #4]

Ted Grimsrud—October 30, 2021

Back in August I read and interacted with an impressive book that sought to explain the meaning of Jesus’s death, Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus. The piece I ended up writing, “Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand,” while offering quite a bit of praise for the book, ended up making some sharp criticisms. The core criticism, I think, was that she did not in the end actually help me very much to understand the death of Jesus. What I was looking for was an explanation of how rectification (her term) actually works and why Jesus’s crucifixion was such a necessary part of this work. I began the book being skeptical about her salvation theology and was not persuaded to change my opinion. I concluded: “All that Rutledge does in the end is simply repeat her on-going refrain, affirming that the crucifixion is necessary and profound and uniquely salvific but not explaining how it works to accomplish such a profound outcome” (nor, I might add, address serious problems that seem to arise from making the cross so central to salvation).

So, based on Rutledge’s book (one of my affirmations of it was that she seems to me to do an excellent job of recounting the core ideas of the mainstream Western Christian tradition [Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Barth]), my tentative conclusion was that “the cross is so hard to understand” because it has never been helpfully explained—other than the extreme Calvinist types who explain it in terms of a punitive, angry, and inherently violent God who viciously punishes Jesus and accepts that as a substitute for giving each of us the eternal punishment we deserve. Rutledge rightly rejects that “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” stance as being based on a nonbiblical view of a non-loving God. But she doesn’t really present us with a clearly explained alternative.

Rutledge’s book was published in 2015. A year later, a somewhat similar book was published, N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering Jesus’s Crucifixion (HarperOne, 2016). I don’t think Wright’s book got quite the same amount of acclaim—partly because it can kind of get lost in the avalanche of books he has published in recent years. Wright’s book does not have quite the dynamism of Rutledge’s, though as with all his books, it is well-written and relatively clear and straightforward. One way that Wright’s book looks the worse of the two is that, though Revolution is a quite substantial book, he does not overtly interact with other scholarship at all—either contemporary thinkers or the key players in the tradition. On the other hand, Wright gives us a lot more biblical analysis than Rutledge, including interaction with the Old Testament and the gospels, sections of the Bible she mostly ignored.

Rather than engage in a detailed comparison between the two books, though, what I will do in this post is focus on Wright’s book and specifically on the question whether he does a better job of helping us understand the cross of Christ. In a word, much of the disappointment I felt with Rutledge’s failure to help me was present after I finished Wright’s Revolution as well. I hope to post before long a third part to this series: “How the cross of Christ may be easily understood.” I will show how the “difficulties” in Rutledge and Wright are not necessary.

Continue reading “Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand (part 2): A response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began [Rethinking salvation #4]”

What is Paul good for? [Rethinking salvation #3]

Ted Grimsrud—September 1, 2021

When I read Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, I was struck with how much she focused on the thought of Paul the Apostle (as she interpreted it) and how little she paid attention to the life and teaching of Jesus. She presented her theology of salvation, in my opinion, in a clear and persuasive way. And I would say that she quite definitely takes her place square in the middle of the Christian tradition—Catholic and Protestant—that may broadly be categorized as Augustinian. That tradition, going back to the fifth-century Bishop of Hippo (the second most influential Christian theologian ever, after Paul himself), has been by far the dominant shaper of Christian theology in the West. Rutledge echoes the theological line from runs from Augustine through Anselm, Luther, Calvin, and down to Barth.

Christian faith with Jesus at the center

I believe that Rutledge (and the others) present a problematic understanding of salvation, though. I think they distort the biblical story’s portrayal of salvation, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, I think that salvation theology, not coincidentally, has a problematic legacy in relation to the ethical practices of the Christian churches, especially in relation to the ethics of warism and violence more broadly. A big part of these problems, I would say, seems to follow from the interpretive move to marginalize the life and teaching of Jesus (and with that, the teachings of many of the Old Testament prophets and the message of Torah itself) and foreground a certain reading of the Apostle Paul.

So, I advocate for a reading of the New Testament and a theology of salvation that places Jesus’s life and teaching at the center. I see this as simply a straightforward way to read the New Testament since it clearly places the story of Jesus as the main event. Even if the mainstream tradition does not approach theology this way, I think it should have. It is more faithful to the Bible itself to do so. I also believe that such a Jesus-centered approach underwrites a more peace-oriented perspective. No longer would the message of Jesus be marginalized, and no longer would we affirm an understanding of the cross and salvation in general that marginalizes the call to embody Jesus’s way of life as central to the very definition of Christian faith.

In making this point about centering the story of Jesus and de-centering the theology of Paul, though, I am not advocating excluding Paul’s thought from our theology. To the contrary, I believe that the tradition Rutledge embodies actually misreads Paul himself. I think reading Paul in light of Jesus is the best way to appropriate the message that Paul actually intended to convey. To read the New Testament straightforwardly, I would say, is to take the ordering of the writings there seriously.

Continue reading “What is Paul good for? [Rethinking salvation #3]”

The eclipse of Mennonite peace theology? A diminishing tradition faces questions [Theological memoir #15]

Ted Grimsrud—August 25, 2021

I first learned about Mennonites in the late 1970s, right after I finished college. I was part of a small, independent evangelical Christian church and became interested in theology, first, and then pacifism. I found the peace position I was introduced to by the first Mennonites I met to be enormously attractive. The desire to be part of a peace church tradition led my wife Kathleen and me first to attend a Mennonite seminary and then join a Mennonite congregation. Both of us ended up becoming Mennonite pastors and then teaching at a Mennonite college. Peace theology was always a central part of our engagement.

After all these years, I am sensing that what seemed to be a vital community of activists and academics and ministers seeking, often together, to develop and put into practice Jesus-centered pacifist convictions has become much less vital. At least that is a hypothesis I want to test in this blog post. First, I want to describe what I mean by “peace theology” and then I will suggest a number of factors that may be contributing to the loss of vitality.

The emergence of Mennonite peace theology

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the experience of US conscientious objectors during World War II. As one of my central learnings, I analyzed how Mennonites managed to find in those challenging years resources that actually generated creativity and the expansion of their peace witness in the years following the War. A crucial dynamic was the investment Mennonite churches were willing to make to support their young men seeking conscientious objector status and performing alternative service in the Civilian Public Service program. Mennonite leaders joined with Quakers and Brethren to help shape the legislation that established the option for alternative service for young men who were conscientiously disposed not to join the military.

A key victory for the peace church lobbyists in relation to what had happened during World War I came when the CPS program was established as an entity separate from the military. This meant that prospective conscientious objectors would not have their quest for CO status subject to military oversight (a part of the World War I system that led to extreme difficulties for many pacifists). On the other hand, a key defeat came when the legislation required that funding for CPS come from non-governmental sources. That meant that the COs themselves would have to provide funding for their living expenses. For Mennonites, this meant that a great deal of fundraising among the churches would be necessary. As it turned out, people in the churches were extraordinarily generous, especially given that Mennonites tended to be people of modest means.

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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.

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

Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand: A response to Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion [Rethinking salvation #1]

Ted Grimsrud—August 10, 2021

When I was in seminary, with the help of my New Testament professor, I noticed and analyzed the connection between Jesus’s cross and the call to discipleship. It seemed like an obvious theme once I thought about it: Jesus taught directly, “Take up your cross and follow me.” What could he have meant but that his life of subversive peacemaking was our model, even as it led to his conflict to the death with the religious and political leaders? However, this was a new way of thinking for me—and it did not seem widely emphasized among Christians. The problem was that everything I had been taught about Jesus’s crucifixion had emphasized that it was a unique thing. He died so that we don’t have to.

Ever since then I have worked at trying to make sense out of this tension. Why is there such as difference between what Western Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) teaches about salvation, atonement, Jesus’s death on the one hand, and what the gospels themselves seem clearly to emphasize on the other? The difficulties pointed to by this question became even more acute for me when I read books such as Timothy Gorringe’s God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge University Press, 1996) that show the historic connection between traditional atonement theologies that focus on God’s punitive disposition toward sinners and the actual devastating practice of punitive criminal justice in our world.

Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion

This question was very much on my mind when I recently read Fleming Rutledge’s impressive book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015). The book received great acclaim upon its publication. When I did a quick internet search, I found laudatory reviews from mainline Protestants in periodicals such as the Christian Century, a book of the year award from evangelical Christianity Today, and mostly positive reviews from conservative Reformed theologians. I noticed hardly any negative criticisms. The reviews present this book as an instant classic. As I worked my way through The Crucifixion, I could see why it was so well received and how it could appeal to such a wide array of readers. It is, in a nutshell, well-written, scholarly and pastoral, accessible and substantial.

Rutledge is a retired Episcopalian priest who writes with an evangelical sensibility. Her skill as a preacher shapes the book. She is deeply influenced by the core theological tradition—Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, and especially Barth. If anyone could help me make sense of my basic questions about the meaning of Jesus’s death, it would seem to be her. I suggest that The Crucifixion is the ideal one-stop account of the meaning of the crucifixion in the mainstream Protestant Christian tradition.

It’s a big book, over 600 pages of text, that to its great credit, reads relatively easily. I felt pulled along by Rutledge’s prose. And she marks the development of her argument with regular summaries and by linking back to earlier discussions as she moves along. Strictly on stylistic grounds, I would give the book a high grade and recommend it—though the final chapter disappointingly kind of petered out without achieving the apex of clarity and punch that the author had promised along the way (more on this below).

The point of my essay here, though, is to discuss why, in the end, I put the book down with some deep disappointments. I am disappointed, though, not so much with Rutledge as a writer and thinker as with the tradition that she actually represents so well. Her skill as an author actually would seem to make her the ideal guide. In just about every case, the points in the book that disappointed or frustrated me were due to her good work in articulating the issues. I think the reason that my starting question about the difference between the gospels’ story and the Christian theological tradition concerning Jesus’s death was not satisfactorily answered by this book is that the Western tradition simply is not set up to answer it.

Continue reading “Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand: A response to Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion [Rethinking salvation #1]”

At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]

Ted Grimsrud—June 30, 2021

I can’t be sure, because I never made a record of it, but as near as I can figure, 50 years ago today is when I self-consciously made a decision to become a Christian. My self-conscious identity changed at that moment. Every day in my life since then has been shaped by that choice even as my understanding of what actually happened in those moments has evolved a great deal.

My question for today is whether it was a good choice. I am basically pleased with the trajectory my life has taken. Thinking of myself as a Christian has from June 30, 1971, to today given my life meaning and direction (for better or worse, but mostly better it still seems). I’m grateful for the people who have entered my life over the years due to my engagement in Christian communities. I have had meaningful educational and work experiences that I owe to this engagement.

At the same time, my sense of confidence in the intellectual validity of Christian teachings is lower than it has ever been. And this matters for me, because my entry and on-going participation in the Christian world has always been a choice based to a large extent on my convictions. I didn’t grow up in the church. Some branches of my extended family were active church people (including numerous pastors), but those never lived nearby and were never influential in my life. I’ve never had the “it’s in my bones” kind of pull to be a Christian that many of my friends do—something that keeps quite a few them within the circle of faith.

What are the main concerns?

The roots of my dis-ease go back to the very motivations that drove me to take the step of faith to begin with. My burning passion was to understand the truth. It was that simple. Through reflections on my experiences in life and through conversations with a close friend, I came to sense that the Christian message was true. That to know the truth meant to take the step of (in the language I was taught at the time) “accepting Jesus as my personal savior.” But my “need” was never to feel forgiven or to be “saved” from anything. I never feared death or condemnation. I just wanted to understand the world I lived in and to move toward the truth (whatever that might be).

It seems highly ironic now that I would have thought jumping into fundamentalist Christianity (the Bible Baptist Church) would have been a move toward the truth. I think the theological schema I was initially taught was profoundly untrue. However, I think there was always a core of something present that did point me in the right direction. The message of Jesus about love, restorative justice, and resistance to the domination system began to work on my heart from early on, even if it took several years for me to recognize it for what it was.

Continue reading “At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]”

God and warism: The dilemma [Theological memoir #12]

Ted Grimsrud—June 7, 2021

I can’t seem to escape the reality that people’s beliefs in and about the divine and their attitudes about war seem to be closely related. On the one hand, it seems obvious that belief in God often underwrites war. Yet, on the other hand, in studying the history of pacifism I am struck with how important religious faith has been for quite a few of war’s most committed opponents. So, this is the dilemma: How do we find a way to navigate this centrality of religious faith in ways that lead to peace and resist warism? Let me illustrate these issues with my story.

“God” and radical politics

When I began my political awakening back in the mid-1970s, I believed very intensely in “God” (meaning the personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent deity of conservative Protestant Christianity). My belief in “God” gave me the sense that truth in light of this “God” mattered more than anything else. I also believed that Jesus was the incarnation of this “God,” and that we know best what “God” wants through “God’s” revelation in Jesus.

These beliefs gained political significance for me due, first of all, to paying attention to the war in Vietnam that had been destroying so many lives for no good, life-giving reason (I had faced the genuine possibility of being drafted to fight in this war and missed out by being a bit too young). When my disenchantment with the US was emerging, I happened upon a newly arrived sensibility expressed by various younger evangelical Christians that in the name of radical discipleship critiqued the American Empire and called for alternatives (most significant for me was the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, and their monthly magazine). These radical evangelicals helped me see that loyalty to “God” actually stood in tension with loyalty to the nation of my birth.

So, “God” was very important in helping me step outside the lines of the received sense of security and comfort that comes with being a loyal American. Once I did step outside the lines, I easily came to see the profoundly corrupting nature of the American Empire. Vietnam was surely the most egregious case of imperial violence on an incomprehensible scale—but only one case out of many dating back to the very settling of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans (I learned a lot from William Appleman Williams’s book, Empire as a Way of Life). I have become ever more certain about the deeply problematic nature of the United States. Still, I realize that my initial step outside the lines was definitely not inevitable. It had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. The Vietnam War, the possibility of being drafted, becoming friends with several returning war vets, entering the evangelical world at precisely the same time as the emergence of the radical evangelicals, gaining a theology that connected “God” with engaged pacifism—all these factors and more coalesced at just the right time for me.

As I think about it now, I am especially intrigued with the significance of the “God” part of this constellation of influences. I tend to think that I never quite believed in “God” in the way I was taught during my fundamentalist and evangelical years (about 8 or so years from the time when I was 17 [1971]). Certainly, it was easy and painless to evolve away from that belief. At the same time, I do think that the belief in “God” that I had was crucial for me having the wit and courage to step away from the Americanness I was raised with and surrounded by.

Continue reading “God and warism: The dilemma [Theological memoir #12]”

The prophet’s vindication [Jesus story #14]

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2021

I was a teenager when I became a Christian. As western Oregon was pretty unchurched, I didn’t grow up with any peer pressure to be religious. So, in many ways I was a blank slate as far as faith goes when I first walked into Elkton Bible Baptist Church with my friend David. It’s interesting to me as I look back because the driving force for me was a desire to understand, to get help with my questions, to move towards discerning truth. And I happened into a church which had this basic stance: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” We’ll answer your questions, but just one time. Though treated with kindness, I was certainly not encouraged to keep asking questions.

I was taught a bunch of things as true without really being given too many reasons why. So, as a result, when I went to college and by my junior year started getting pretty serious about the whys and wherefores of my faith, a whole bunch of beliefs quickly dropped by the wayside: No more rapture and Great Tribulation doctrine, no more creationism, no more inerrant Bible, no more substitutionary atonement. But for some reason, one of the really big beliefs, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, remained pretty much unscathed for quite some time. Like so many other beliefs, it was simply presented to me as factual, not open for negotiation, absolutely necessary. Don’t ask why; don’t ask what it’s based on, that is; don’t question it.

Questioning Jesus’s bodily resurrection?

Unlike the rapture, creation/evolution, and the perfection of the Bible, I didn’t mind not questioning the resurrection. But it seems to me that theological beliefs are kind of like a slot machine—different ones come up at different times. And, for various reasons, about 20 years ago or so, the resurrection came up for me. So, I started really thinking about it, and realized that, indeed, there are lots of questions.

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Life in Death [Jesus story #13]

Ted Grimsrud—May 17, 2021

One of the great things about being around young kids is getting all these questions. I really enjoyed that when my grandkids were preschoolers. I guess the questions weren’t all always welcome—such as when you say it’s time to go home and one would say, “Why?!” But most of the questions are wonderful (even if sometimes hard to answer): What’s the difference between a fire engine and a pumper truck? Why are the lights off in the bank at night? How do they make fudgsicles? Why do we root for the Oregon Ducks? But the questions can also be a bit complicated. Why doesn’t Granny remember my name? What’s the earth? Why did G-Ma’s dog Trika die? Why don’t some children have beds to sleep in?

Questions are terrific. We need to encourage them. I am grateful to my parents for many things—one of the biggest ones is that they never made me think I shouldn’t be asking questions. Some great words for parents and grandparents to keep in mind come from British folksinger Ewan MacColl’s “Father’s Song,” that concludes with these lines: “Go on asking while you grow, child/ Go on asking till you know, child/ And then send the answers ringing through the world.”

One of the big questions

The grandchildren liked theological questions, too—I guess they came by those honestly. What’s the Bible? Where is God? What does salvation mean? We told them, well, these are good questions—and not just for four-year-olds. Then there’s our question for today: Why did Jesus die? Try explaining that to a four-year-old! Or to anyone else. However, like so many questions that are difficult to answer, we can learn by trying to come up with an answer—even if we know our answer will be weak or only partial.

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When the “good news” is bad news [Jesus story #12]

Ted Grimsrud—May 13, 2021

A number of years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Straddling self-help and theological reflection, this book brought to popular consciousness the perennial question: What kind of world is this where young children die of terrible diseases (like Kushner’s own son) or where great tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanoes bring massive death and destruction? This question, of course, remains. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It points to a large uncertainty about the predictability of life. We may think of variations, too. Such as, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Or, as a friend of mine suggested were he to write a book about his life, “Why do good people do bad things?”

Good news is not always good

I have another variation in mind in this post. Kushner’s concern was with kind of random bad things that strike, the kind of things that show that God, if God is good, cannot be all-powerful. And his reflections are helpful, I think. But this is my concern in this post, based on the story of Jesus: What about when bad things happen to good people not in a random way but precisely because the good people do good things?

To some degree this seems to be Jesus’s focus. Good news is here. Turn to God, trust in this good news, be transformed by this good news. Let this good news shape how you live. Then, expect trouble. Jesus’s message clearly contradicts a lot of feelgood religion. His is not a prosperity gospel. Believe, become a good person—and then bad things will happen. And they will happen precisely because you live as a good person. Is that not a bit unsettling—perhaps even more so than Harold Kushner’s question?

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