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]”

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?”

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”

Reflecting on Jesus’ Cross

Ted Grimsrud—April 6, 2012

I was part of a panel during Holy Week at Eastern Mennonite University on “Heaven, Hell, and the Cross of Christ.” Each of the five speakers was given five minutes. That’s right, five minutes….

A challenging assignment indeed. The point was to stimulate discussion for the audience, largely made up of college students who, by their attendance, were signaling an interest in theological reflection. It was a worthwhile evening. The five speakers, perhaps a bit surprisingly, mostly reinforced each other’s perspectives and the discussion was lively but respectful. And, for me personally, certainly the discipline of trying to say something meaningful and coherent in five minutes was useful to submit to.

However, we left one rather significant issue on the table that didn’t get addressed. The audience constructed a list of questions for further discussion following the opening presentations and some small group processing. We worked through most of the questions, but ran out of time before we could to get to them all.

The question left unaddressed had actually been addressed to me and one of the other panelists by name. When I saw the question, I began working on a response in my head. So I was a bit sorry that we didn’t get to it. The nice about having a blog, though, is that I can address the question here. Continue reading “Reflecting on Jesus’ Cross”

Christian salvation: Do the questions never end?

Ted Grimsrud—January 1, 2012

I keep thinking about salvation and related issues—aided considerably by various thoughtful questions and comments. My post this week will be kind of a grab bag of responses to various recent comments that relate to my three-part discussion of Jesus’ death and salvation (“Does Jesus’ death have meaning?” “Jesus’ death and my salvation,” and “Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?”).

Life after death

My old friend David Myers in Washington, DC, asked about (I think) salvation in relation to life after death. He wrote: I’m stuck on the word ‘saved’—its forthright, non-theological meaning, especially related to the resurrection. I get that loving God and neighbor saves us into a richer, more meaningful life than we would have if we worshiped the idols, etc. Yet that very life of salvation may well lead to getting killed. So, now we’re dead as a rock, which is a condition I’d like to be saved from. Why then doesn’t the resurrection save us, in the simple, non-theological meaning of the word?

I don’t think my points about the relationship between resurrection and salvation were meant to speak to the issue of life after death one way or another. I believe there is strong continuity between life and in the present and whatever happens after we die. By the nature of the case, we cannot say anything definitive about life after death. And the Bible as a whole is much more circumspect in speaking about that theme than much of later theology. Whatever salvation means, though, I think it should be seen to apply to both life in the here and now and life after we’re “dead as a rock.”

That is, if we enter the “life of salvation” in this life (which is clearly the concern of the vast majority of biblical talk about salvation) there is no reason not to expect continuity in the afterlife. Whatever it is that saves us in the former state surely will save us in the latter state. The problem with much Christian talk of the afterlife is that it seems to assume some kind of discontinuity—we are “saved” for the afterlife by a kind of belief that does not necessarily lead to a “life of salvation” in the present. When Jesus responds to the question about “eternal life” with his call to love God and neighbor, he clearly has in mind life in its fullness in the present—we know we are living in such love when we imitate the Good Samaritan in his risky and costly compassion. But there is no reason not to think this “eternal life” does not extent to after we “get killed” for practicing such compassion. Continue reading “Christian salvation: Do the questions never end?”

Jesus’ Death and My Salvation

Ted Grimsrud—December 18, 2011

My earlier post on Jesus’ death (“Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”) was rather heady and theological—grappling with this big question in the realm of ideas. This is appropriate, and I have been happy at the discussion that was stimulated by what I wrote.

One extended comment, from Philip Bender, challenged me to think about these issues a bit more personally and existentially. I understand the essence of Philip’s questions to be about how our beliefs about salvation, atonement, Jesus’ death, et al, actually speak to our lives, to our sense of assurance of our connection with God, to our on-the-ground appropriation of the Bible’s message of being reconciled with God.

These are some of the specific questions he raised:

• How do we appropriate Jesus atonement?

• How do personal, structural, and cosmic “at-one-ment” with God happen? How are these processes different and how are they unified?

• What does it mean to “trust in” the forgiving and transforming mercy of God?

• How do I know when I’ve trusted in it? Is it when I say that “Jesus (out of mercy) died for me”? When I endeavor to practice a life of mercy (“works”)?

Rather than respond to these questions head on, one-by-one, I will speak to the general thrust of what I perceive to be involved in these types of questions. Part of my concern in this discussion is that we let Jesus’ own teaching, and how he embodied his teaching, be our main guide. It seems to me that in discussions about atonement and salvation, this rarely happens. So let’s turn to two of Jesus’ most important accounts of how he understands salvation, two stories from the Gospel of Luke: the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32).

The Good Samaritan story stands as one of the very few times that Jesus’ directly addresses the basic salvation question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Prodigal Son story has so commonly been associated with Jesus’ message of salvation that it has come to be called “the gospel in miniature.” Continue reading “Jesus’ Death and My Salvation”

Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2011

I recently read and discussed with my Contemporary Theology class three books on atonement theology. Each answers the question of the meaning (or lack thereof) in Jesus’ death.

Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, sees the most meaning in the crucifixion of Jesus in his defense of traditional atonement models (his is not simply a straightforward defense of traditional satisfaction and substitutionary views, though).

J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement challenges the view that Jesus’ death is necessary for salvation, but as he does still work with the language of atonement, there is some ambiguity in his treatment of Jesus’ death. The death was strictly an act of evil, not something God in any sense willed. But Jesus’ death is part of the story of salvation that in some sense is dependent upon Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is the saving act, but—though Weaver does not state it like this—there had to be a crucifixion for there to be a resurrection. So Jesus’ death has meaning in relation to his resurrection.

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, utterly reject any kind of positive role for the story of Jesus’ death. They believe that Christian theology that valorizes Jesus’ death, especially that sees his death as necessary for salvation, is actually advocating a kind of “divine child abuse” where the “father” requires the violent death of the “son.”

As it turns out, Boersma’s view is pretty complicated. He tries to hold together all three of the tradition models: satisfaction, moral influence, and Christus Victor. There are other arguments for the satisfaction model and its substitutionary atonement variant that are stricter. One recent example is this book by British theologians Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach: Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. The subtitle makes the stance of the authors clear.

The two approaches: Satisfaction or mercy “all the way down”

One way to approach this topic is to note that, at bottom, there are basically two ways to think about Christian salvation: the satisfaction view and the “mercy all the way down” view. Continue reading “Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”