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]”

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]”

Salvation—From what? [Jesus story #9]

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2021

When the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would have a baby who would bring salvation to the world, he also told her, “his name will be Jesus.” Now, this was not just a random name—the kind of name that has no obvious meaning until it is attached to the person who makes it famous, like “Barack” or “Waylon” or “Zsa Zsa.” No, the name “Jesus” already had lots of meaning. The Hebrew version was Joshua. The word itself means “God saves,” and the first Joshua was indeed an agent of God’s salvation—leading God’s liberating work for the Hebrew people.

When we ask, why do we pay attention to Jesus, certainly one of the most obvious answers is that we pay attention because we recognize him as our savior. But that answer leads to other questions: What kind of savior is he? What kind of salvation are we looking for? What do we learn about salvation when we ask what we are to be saved from? What does the Bible seem to say we need to be saved from? Let’s look at a few texts:

The Lord inclined to me and heard me cry. God drew me up from the desolate pit and set my feet upon a rock. Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me forever. For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me. I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. Psalm 40

Thus says the Lord, who created the heavens, who formed the earth and made it: I am the Lord, and there is no other. Draw near, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge—those who carry about their wooden idols and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength. Isaiah 45:18-25

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35-39

A lawyer challenged Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You have given the right answer.” But the lawyer asked Jesus, “So, who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise, a Levite. But a Samaritan stopped; when he saw him, he he was moved with pity. He bandaged the wounds, put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he gave money to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

Continue reading “Salvation—From what? [Jesus story #9]”

Are we in debt to God?

Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2016

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the first in a series on salvation and human flourishing.]

My agenda here is to talk about Jubilee. I believe that Jubilee is a central theme throughout the entire Bible, even if the term itself isn’t used very often. A key text is Luke 4, which tells of when Jesus opens his public ministry with words that would have associated him with the Old Testament’s year of Jubilee—which is one of three levels of Sabbath regulations in the book of Leviticus.

Sabbath theology

There is the Sabbath day, the seventh day, a day of rest—which when first instituted was radical for the Hebrew people who had recently been liberated from slavery where there was no rest. Every seventh day should be a time to stop, to recuperate, and to remember how God, in God’s mercy, had given them freedom.

Then there is the Sabbath year, the seventh year. During the Sabbath year, the land was to be allowed to rest, to not be cultivated but to recuperate. The Sabbath year was also a time for the forgiveness of debts, including the release from service for indentured servants, temporary “slaves,” you could say, who worked for others to pay off their debts. Part of the idea here, too, was the reminder of God as a God of mercy and generosity; and part of the idea as well was to prevent a long term separation between various classes of people—no indefinite indebtedness, no separation of the wealthy from the poor, of debtors from debtees.

Then the third level was the year of Jubilee. Here, after 7 sets of 7 years, the 50th year, land was to be returned to those who had originally owned it. There was to be a redistribution—or, we could say, an end to the redistribution—of the land. Instead of being redistributed to the big landowners, it goes back to those who first owned it. It would be as if in the United States all the wealth that has been redistributed from the lower and middle classes to the 1% would be returned every 50 years.

The year of Jubilee was a profound statement about God’s intentions for the community and, more than that, even, a profound statement about the character of God. Prevent having a few push the many off the land; have a society that cares for the vulnerable. Continue reading “Are we in debt to God?”

Christian Salvation, Part Two: Old Testament Mercy

Ted Grimsrud—September 20, 2015

In the first post of this four-part series (drawing on presentations to a Sunday school class at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, VA), I offered a summary and critique of the standard atonement theology characteristic of much of western Christianity. This is called the “satisfaction view” of the atonement, and I suggest that some of its problems are related to the way it presents God in relation to salvation as mechanistic, retributive, and punitive. I have written at length elsewhere how this theology actually has the tragic impact of leading Christians to be more supportive of violence (e.g., war, capital punishment, harsh criminal justice practices, corporal punishment of children).

Restorative justice

My thinking about Christian salvation has been helped a great deal by conversations I have had with my friend Howard Zehr about restorative justice. Howard has been a leader in the movement to reshape the way our society deals with the brokenness caused by crime. Howard’s approach is to focus especially on the needs of the human beings involved, especially the victims (who are often ignored—or worse—by the system) as well as the offenders (who rarely are helped to find healing and often after an encounter with the system end up offending again). We wrote an article together, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders,” that attempted the beginning of articulating a theology for restorative justice (I also have been working on a book manuscript, Healing Justice [And Theology]).

Howard introduced me to a book, Justice as Sanctuary, by a friend of his, a Dutch law professor named Herman Bianchi. Bianchi uses a provocative image. He says that theology is a big part of our problem of criminal justice practices that make things worse, in terms of some problematic ways it has influenced the practice of criminal justice in the West. So, he suggests, what we may need is something like homeopathic medicine where we use a does of what makes us sick actually to help us heal ourselves. That is, he says, a different kind of theology might be able to help us overcome the problems of retributive justice.

The book I wrote about this, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, then, is a kind of exercise in homeopathic therapy—focusing on a rereading of the Bible and salvation as a way of moving toward a more peaceable way of dealing with wrongdoing that will help break the spirals of violence so widespread around us.

In this post I will discuss the Old Testament—followed by two more in the weeks to come that will focus first on Jesus’s own teaching and practice in relation to salvation and then on the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection for our salvation theology. Continue reading “Christian Salvation, Part Two: Old Testament Mercy”

Should Jesus determine our view of God?

Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2015

The question of how to understand the peaceable message of Jesus in relation to less than peaceable pictures of God in the Bible and in the Christian tradition has challenged ethically concerned people of faith almost since the very beginning.

The arch “heretic” Marcion in the second century after Jesus infamously jettisoned the Old Testament and much of the New Testament in his effort to sustain an authentically Christ-centered faith. Though Marcion’s proposed solution to the problem probably made things worse, his impulse to support a coherent view of God and Jesus together is understandable and perennial.

The spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists certain have a stake in this on-going conversation. By lifting up Jesus’s life and teaching as normative and by accepting high claims for the authority of the Bible, we really can’t avoid questions about how to harmonize what seem to be powerful tensions among the various sources of information about God.

In recent years, the broader Christian community has seen an uptick in interest in revisiting these themes. Prominent writers such as John Dominic Crossan (How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation) and J. Denny Weaver (The Nonviolent God) are very recent examples of dozens of books that have been written in the past two decades that struggle, often very helpfully, with the theological (as in doctrine of God) implications of interrelating the peaceable impulses of Christian sources with the more violent aspects of how the tradition has presented God.

A welcome contribution to an important conversation

For those, like me, who welcome this conversation and think we still have a ways to go to achieve a genuinely faithful resolution, Bradley Jersak’s new book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (Pasadena, CA: CWRpress, 2015), will be seen as a singular contribution. Jersak does significant original thinking. Perhaps even more importantly, he writes accessibly in a book aimed at a broad audience. Jersak writes about deep issues in a clear and lively style reflecting the combination of his academic training (a PhD in theology and present vocation as a professor) and two decades work as a pastor and church planter. His own varied ecclesial journey (early life as a conservative Baptist, a stint as a Mennonite pastor, current connection with the Orthodox Church) is seen in his empathetic and inclusive sensibility. Continue reading “Should Jesus determine our view of God?”

Does the Bible have a coherent peace message?

Ted Grimsrud

I wrote my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, out of a conviction that the Bible does contain a coherent peace message (or, I could say, a coherent healing message or a coherent mercy message). Surprisingly to me, I wonder now whether this conviction is shared by all Mennonite academics.

While I would have preferred a more sympathetic reviewer, I appreciate the issues raised by Mennonite Old Testament scholar Derek Suderman’s review of Instead of Atonement in the January 2014 Mennonite Quarterly Review. I want to reflect on several of those issues, not mainly to argue with Suderman but more to take the opportunity offered by his review to address some key elements of how we wrestle with the Bible in face of our call to be agents of healing in the world today.

There will be five issues that I will write about: (1) Is the best way to approach “biblical concepts” through focusing on the big picture or on analyses of specific words? (2) How do we understand God’s judgment in relation to God’s mercy? (3) How seriously should we take the Bible’s own way of summarizing its salvation story? (4) Is suggesting that the Bible has a coherent message actually making an inappropriate “universalized claim”? (5) What kind of assumptions should we have as we approach the Bible? Continue reading “Does the Bible have a coherent peace message?”

Salvation and the way of peace—(6) Is There an Atonement Model in This Story?

[This is the sixth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first five posts in the series.]

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The Basic Argument: Old Testament Salvation

For many Christians, the “biblical view” of salvation centers on Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice required to make salvation possible. This is the doctrine of the atonement, commonly defined as “how Christ accomplished our justification through his sacrifice on the cross.” However, the Bible’s portrayal of salvation actually does not focus on Jesus’s death as the basis for reconciliation of humanity with God.

The Old Testament emphasizes a few key moments at the heart of salvation: (1) the calling of Abraham and Sarah to parent descendants who would form a people to bless all the families of the earth; (2) the liberation of these descendants from slavery in Egypt; (3) the coalescing of these liberated slaves into a coherent peoplehood shaped by Torah; (4) the establishment of this community in the promised land; and (5) the sustenance of this community even after the destruction by the Babylonians through the prophets and Torah.

The story portrays each of these five “moments” as expressions of God’s unilateral mercy. In none of these cases was God constrained by holiness or the need to balance the scales of justice before the gift is given. In some cases, violence may be seen as an element of the story. Human beings do reap consequences for their injustice. However, the violence is peripheral. The gift does not require that there be pre-payment of appeasement or punishment. It is unearned; the violence is not inherent in its bestowal.

The centrality of the gift may be seen in the role the law and sacrifices play in salvation. Both are second steps, responses to the gift. God acts directly to give life to Abraham and Sarah; then they offer sacrifices. God acts directly to liberate the Hebrew slaves from Egypt; then God gives the law to shape the people’s responsive living. Salvation is not the consequence of obedience to the law or the offering of sacrifices. To the contrary, obedience to the law and the offering of sacrifices are consequences of salvation.

This view of salvation is reinforced by Israel’s prophets even amidst their sharp critiques. They proclaim that salvation is a gift; it simply requires trust, while its fruit is faithful living. Reject the gift and you will face consequences—but even then God awaits your return should you choose to do so. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(6) Is There an Atonement Model in This Story?”

Salvation and the way of peace—(5) Romans and Revelation

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the fifth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first four posts in the series.]

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Paul on the need for salvation

The interpreter of the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection who has shaped the generations since most powerfully has been the Apostle Paul. Christian salvation theology has, for better and for worse, tended to be Pauline salvation theology. After examining key elements of Paul’s thought, I conclude that Paul understands salvation in ways fully compatible with the Old Testament and the story of Jesus.

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

Romans 1–3 provides one important opportunity for Paul to spell out his understanding of Jesus as savior. At the heart of the sin problem for Paul is the dynamic of idolatry, people giving ultimate loyalty to entities other than God—with the consequence that instead of experience God’s healing justice, idolators experience “wrath.”

As Paul will make clear in Romans 5:1-11 and 11:32, God’s intentions toward humanity are about salvation. Hence, we make a mistake if we interpret “wrath” as God’s punitive anger directly aimed at people God has rejected. We should understand “wrath” in relation to the gospel. “Wrath” refers to how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.

The true law exposes the sins of us all. It helps us see when we exchange love for neighbors with trust in idols. At such times, instead of practicing justice we instead practice injustice and violate God’s will for our lives. This problem characterizes Jews and Greeks alike. This is the problem: the universality of the domination of the “power of sin” (Rom 3:9) over all groups of people. Being a member of the empire does not save one—nor does being a member of the religious institutions that had emerged around Torah. In fact, when such membership fosters injustice it has become a curse, a ticket to alienation and idolatry. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(5) Romans and Revelation”