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”

Salvation and the way of peace—(4) Jesus’s death and resurrection

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the fourth 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 three posts in the series.]

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The story of Jesus’s death helps us understand the violent dynamics of our world and helps us answer the question of how to respond to violence without adding to the violence. This story helps us understand why the simple message of God’s love has not been readily embraced in our world. And this story helps us understand how God works to overcome these problems.

Using the logic of retribution (and its application in atonement theology) as the basis for understanding the meaning of Jesus’s death and our salvation actually leads to the opposite conclusion from what the story conveys. The story tells us that the logic of retribution was an instrument of the fallen Powers, not God—and that Jesus’s followers should see in the story a direct refutation of that logic.

In what sense does Jesus bring salvation from the dominance of the fallen Powers? The Powers rely on belief. As long as we believe in their ultimacy, trusting in them for security and meaning, the Powers rule. Jesus challenges human beings to change our allegiance. He asks us to trust in God’s love and not the sense of superiority over others that legalistic belief in the law provides. He asks us to end our trust in the assured access to God that sacred rituals (at a price) provide. He asks us to end our trust in the sense of power over others that being on good terms with the empire provides. In these ways, trust in Jesus breaks the hold of the Powers.

Jesus’s death links with salvation in that: (1) it exposes the fallacy of the logic of retribution; (2) it exposes the direct link between this murderous logic and the institutions that exploit it; (3) it shows that the spiral of violence that is set loose and ever-deepened by this logic may be broken only by non-retaliation and mercy in the way Jesus embodied them; and (4) it sets the stage for God’s act that vindicates how Jesus exposed the Powers and embodied domination-free life when God raises Jesus from the dead. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(4) Jesus’s death and resurrection”

Salvation and the way of peace—(3) Jesus’s life and teaching

Ted Grimsrud 

[This is the third 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).]

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The story told in the gospels places itself in the heart of the traditions of Israel. Jesus presents himself in this story as embodying the promises of Yahweh to his forebears. For Jesus the Old Testament’s salvation story remains fully valid. He does not tell a different story, but proclaims the truth of the old story.

Jesus and Old Testament salvation theology

In the stories of Jesus’s birth, we learn that indeed something new is at hand, a “new thing” in full harmony with the Old Testament portrayal of salvation. There is no hint that something has to happen to God to make restoration possible. God initiates the reconciliation. God unilaterally declares that salvation has come and is especially available to vulnerable and marginalized people.

The birth of Jesus is not linked with the logic of retribution. The birth stories’ announcement of salvation’s presence contains no sense of a new approach to satisfy God’s aggrieved holiness or violated honor or to balance the scales of justice with ultimate innocent sacrifice. The stories point only to God’s initiating mercy and forgiveness.

As Jesus begins his public ministry, he expresses his own sense of continuity with the Old Testament salvation story. In his resistance to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus quotes Israel’s scriptures. In his opening message to his home synagogue in Nazareth, he links himself with Israel’s hopes and Yahweh’s promises from the book of Isaiah. Throughout his teaching as presented in the gospels, Jesus quotes and alludes to and paraphrases the Old Testament. He never hints that he might understand his teaching as anything but in full continuity with Israel’s scriptures.

Jesus drew on Torah to transform how people viewed God’s participation among the people. People in power used debt to enhance their power and wealth at the expense of the less powerful. Jesus saw debt differently. Drawing on Torah, Jesus’s believed debt provided an opportunity for forgiveness. God does not demand repayment for every ounce of indebtedness. Rather, God offers abundant mercy. The debts would be forgiven without any kind of payment. Jesus’s God was not a God who maintained debt records for the purpose of foreclosing on the poor, but a God who canceled debt and restored life. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(3) Jesus’s life and teaching”

Salvation and the way of peace—(2) The Old Testament

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the second 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).]

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read the Old Testament as a Christian, through the lens of Jesus. Reading the Old Testament in this way simply means allowing Jesus’s values to guide how I sort through the various witnesses. What follows are some ideas about how the Old Testament presents salvation in ways that point ahead to the life and teaching of Jesus.

Salvation as wholeness

Salvation has to do with wholeness. To gain salvation leads to harmony with God, other human beings, and with the rest of creation. We need salvation when we live with disharmony, when we experience brokenness instead of wholeness. The Bible presents salvation on three levels: (1) salvation as liberation from the Powers of brokenness, (2) salvation as restoration of harmony with God, and (3) salvation as restoration of harmonious human relationships. The Old Testament story places priority on salvation in the first sense (liberation). The other two follow from and depend upon the first. Because God acts to deliver, people are then freed to respond to God and restore harmony in their relationships with God and to live at harmony with one another.

In presenting salvation the way it does, via concrete events communicated in stories, the Old Testament locates this salvation in history and not in a cosmic, transcendent context. Salvation in the Old Testament is not about some transaction in the heart of God or some sort of weighing of the cosmic scale of justice. Rather, salvation has to do with flesh and blood actions.

We see in the Old Testament salvation story two distinct themes. First, God calls Abraham and Sarah and promises salvation: a gift of newness in the context of barrenness. God plans to use the community of faith to bring newness to all the families of the earth. This call begins a long process where God’s persevering love bring salvation. Second, God intervenes in the exodus to bring salvation to God’s people. God is a God who liberates the oppressed. God’s salvation does not come through human power politics. God’s salvation leads to a rejection of the values of empires such as ancient Egypt.

Behind God’s gifts and God’s demands lay God’s mercy. Salvation comes from God’s infinite store of mercy that leads to God’s persevering and patient love finding expression in Israel’s history. Salvation arises as God’s initiative and God’s unilateral intervention to heal. The salvation story tells us: (1) God, in love, commits to a long healing process with humankind and (2) God’s healing work involves at its core a counter-cultural sensibility that exalts the oppressed and vulnerable and defies power politics. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(2) The Old Testament”

Salvation and the way of peace—(1) The problem

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the first 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).]

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In our present time in the United States, being a self-identified Christian makes a person more likely than a non-Christian to support warfare, punitive criminal justice practices including the death penalty, and corporal punishment of children. It seems likely that one reason American Christians are more pro-violence is because of their acceptance of a theology that understands salvation in terms of God’s retributive justice.

The logic of retribution

This salvation theology is based on a certain view of the “atonement”: The atonement is seen to  be how Christ accomplished our justification (i.e., being found righteous before God) through his sacrifice on the cross. Implied in this understanding of atonement is that God’s ability to provide salvation is constrained pending the offering of an appropriate sacrifice. It seems inevitable that violence play a role in satisfying the demands of God’s character—and that violence is part of God’s response when the satisfaction is not forthcoming.

As a rule, to act violently toward, especially to kill, other human beings is serious business, undertaken because some other value or commitment overrides our normal tendency not to be violent. Most socially accepted uses of violence (such as war, capital punishment, and corporal punishment) follow a fairly self-conscious logic. At the core of this logic usually rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution; using violence is justified as the appropriate response to wrongdoing. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (usually defined as repayment of wrongdoing with violent punishment, pain for pain).

We may call this the “logic of retribution.” In this logic, people understand God in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. They see God’s law as the unchanging standard by which sin is measured, and believe God responds to violation of God’s law with justifiable violence. Most violence is justified as being in some sense an expression of this deserved punishment. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(1) The problem”

More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)

Ted Grimsrud

Here are some more thoughts as I reflect on the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” The first part of my responding to the responses is here.

Covenant and atonement

Ryan Harker, drawing on N.T. Wright’s early book, The New Testament and the People of God, asks about my sense of how the biblical emphasis on covenant might fit in this discussion. I actually haven’t read this book of Wright’s. It’s the first of what has now been three immense and crucial volumes on New Testament theology, the second being on the historical Jesus and the third on the resurrection. Those latter two were both important resources for my book, and from them I think I have a fairly good sense of what Ryan is asking about.

I really like Wright’s work a great deal, but I am not quite sure I would follow him all the way on his thoughts about the covenant—at least in the way Ryan seems to use them. My difference may be subtle, but still quite important. Indeed, I do think God makes a covenant (or commitment) to Israel that involves demands for Israel’s faithful response to God’s mercy that created them as a people and gave them the vocation to bless all the families of the earth. Torah is the central embodiment of the meaning of this covenant. And there are big problems that arise when the Israelites violate the covenant and turn toward idols and empires and injustice.

However, I don’t think ultimately that the story indicates that God is so offended and alienated by these violations that God then requires a human being (even if God-in-the-flesh) to die as a means of taking upon himself the consequences of the failure. Ryan suggests that God’s “nonviolence” towards God’s people leads God to create this alternative possibility, where the punishment falls on God-in-the-flesh instead of God’s people. This is an attractive idea in some ways, but I think it leaves us with the same problems that other versions of satisfaction atonement do. That is, God remains punitive and we project onto God a retaliatory disposition that must response to sin with punitive consequences.

Certainly, the story does give us instances where God seems to respond the way Ryan suggests, but the overall story makes clear, I believe, that God never requires punishment as a prerequisite for mercy. The mercy is always free and unearned. The role of the covenant (which is closely related to the role of Torah according to Jesus and Paul) is to be an asset in helping people who accept God’s mercy to live faithfully and is best seen in the call to love the neighbor. This was the case throughout the story and does not change with Jesus and the New Testament. As always, the problems arise when people of God get things backwards—be it with sacrifices, Torah, and the land or with the sacraments and doctrines. All these elements of the covenant are meant to serve human beings not human beings serve them.

This is to day, that God’s nonviolence toward God’s people (and the world)—that Ryan, like me, affirms—means that God simply forgives the covenant unfaithfulness and then pulls out all stops to help the people understand and live in response to this forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that God must create some mechanism to punish that would leave God’s people unscathed. It’s mercy all the way down. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)”

More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

I appreciate the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” It has taken longer than I would have hoped, but I want to reflect further on the issues raised by these responses. [Here is part 2 of these reflections.]

Why did Jesus “have to” die?

I appreciate “Tommy’s” affirmative comments about the “Bible’s salvation story” post. He raises a good question. In light of my suggesting that the core content of the salvation story is established at the very beginning and remains in effect throughout (i.e., salvation through God’s mercy in a way that does not require humans offering sacrifices to satisfy God’s requirements), then why does Jesus seem to say that he “had” to die? Thus, “the death obviously holds some significance.”

I strongly affirm that Jesus’ death “holds some significance.” In fact, in my forthcoming book, I devote five long chapters to the significance of Jesus’ death. The issue is what is this significance. I would ask what “had to” means. And, even more, why did he “have to” die? This all comes back, then, to the basic issue—did God need Jesus’ death in order to make salvation possible in a way that it wasn’t otherwise? Did Jesus “have to” die in order to make salvation possible on God’s side—or did Jesus “have to” die in order to make God’s already present (and fully sufficient) mercy sufficiently visible to encourage of response on the human side?

I am uncomfortable with the deterministic connotations of using “had to” in this discussion. However, I would be comfortable saying that Jesus’ death was inevitable given the way he undermined the Domination System of empire, temple, and legalistic cultural boundary maintenance. Because the Powers are so set on opposing agents of the true God, such an agent who embodied God’s will for humanity as thoroughly as Jesus did “had to” die should the Powers not be overthrown. The power of the true God, though, was that this death (that was intended to defeat the will of the true God) actually boomeranged on the Powers. Not only did Jesus not stay dead, but his resurrection underscores how the Powers are hostile toward the true God, and it thus undermines the potential of the Powers to hold sway.

The tragedy is that Jesus’ death came to be misinterpreted. Instead of being seen as a denial of the idea that God is retributive it came to be interpreted in a way that makes God so retributive that God’s will to punish leads to God endorsing the necessity of Jesus’ death for the establishment of salvation.

One can reject the idea of understanding Jesus’ death in terms of satisfaction atonement and still affirm that this death was significant for salvation. Not as something that enables God to forgive but as something that underscores that God’s forgiveness is our starting point and that we need to see and turn away from the Powers that usurp God and keep us from trusting in God as merciful. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)”