Christology and History

Ted Grimsrud

[Sermon preached at Eugene (Oregon) Mennonite Church, July 30, 1989—the second of a two-part series; the first part is here.]

I have more to say about christology. In my comments this morning, I will focus on how our understanding of history, of historical events and how we think of those events. That is, how does our view of history affect our approach to christology, our approach to how we understand the implications of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and how we understand interpretations of those implications since then?

Why the historical aspect of christology matters

It is an important characteristic of Christianity that it is a historical religion in the sense that it is based on historical events not myths, thought the symbolic aspect is always intertwined. Christianity asserts that what happens in human history is very important. The major act bringing about salvation, according to Christians, is the work of Jesus of Nazareth, a person in history – his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. And for Christians, the effects of salvation are historical too, not an escape from history. Christians look to a transformed world within history, or as the end of history, not to some Nirvana or personality-less bliss totally removed from history.

Because, as I said, the major act of salvation from Christianity, Jesus’ work, occurs in history, we must conclude then that christology is also closely tied to history. The heart of christology is interpretation of the historical events surrounding what Jesus did and what happened to him. In addition, the development of christological interpretations since the time of Jesus (creeds, confessions, systematic theologies, and so on) all also happened in history. No christology, no interpretation of Jesus, happens in a timeless way separate from the historical context in which it occurred.

For example, both in the case of Jesus’s time and in the case of following doctrinal development, historical social and political issues played a central role even in the theology itself. We cannot really understand what happened with Jesus and how it was interpreted in New Testament times apart from understanding something about the history of the revolutionary political ferment among first-century Jews, the responses of Christians to this later in the first century, and the overarching reality of the Roman Empire. As well, in another example, political concerns in fourth-century Rome, governed by the first so-called Christian emperor, Constantine, greatly affected the formulation of the first great christological creed, the Nicene Creed. So, history has a lot to do with christology. Continue reading

Christology: What It is and Why It Matters

Ted Grimsrud

[Sermon preached at Eugene (Oregon) Mennonite Church, July 23, 1989—the first of a two-part series; the second part is here.]

What is Christology and why does it matter? I suppose for most of us most of the time we do not really think much about this question and hence do not really have an answer. But in reading the pages of the Gospel Herald, in observing the discussion near the end of the Pacific Coast Conference meetings last month, and in seeing that our denomination’s general assembly next month will include a conference on Christology having a registration limit of 600 people, a total already reached – obviously many people in our denomination do believe that Christology is very important. And, as many of you know, I believe that too, and last Fall began a long-term research project on Christology. But I am not sure we all think Christology is important for the same reasons.

Mennonite controversies

Last month, at the Pacific Coast Conference annual meeting, Harold Hochstetler gave his annual report as Conference Minister, which included a summary of the ordinations and ministerial licenses that the Conference Leadership Committee approved during the past year. Following his report, as is customary following all of the reports at the meeting, the audience was asked if anyone had any questions. An older man, a long-time leader in the Conference and retired pastor, stood up to express his concern that the Leadership Committee might not be doing its job carefully enough. That is, he expressed concerned that the Conference might be ordaining or licensing people who are not theologically sound. He mentioned two foundational beliefs that he feels are especially crucial: the virgin birth and the deity of Christ.

Harold attempted to respond by explaining the Leadership Committee’s care in approving credentials for ministers. This did not seem to satisfy everyone, however, as his comments were followed by more expressions of concern, this time by a couple of young pastors sharing the basic perspective of the first questioner. I did not talk with any of these people, but I am pretty sure that they have been influenced by an organization called the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites which for nearly ten years has been arguing very publicly that the Mennonite Church is experiencing a crisis in its theology. This group has focused its concern on the issue of Christology in recent years, especially since the publication of the book Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective, written by long-time Goshen College professor Norman Kraus and published by Herald Press, the official Mennonite Church publisher. These Concerned Mennonites think Kraus’s book is heretical. Continue reading

Why Am I a Christian? [An answer from 1976]

Ted Grimsrud

[This sermon was preached at Orchard Street Church, Eugene, Oregon, October 3, 1976. It was the first sermon I ever preached. The timing notable. I wrote it shortly after I graduated from college but before I began to read Mennonite theology.]

Our pastor, Stuart Smith, asked me a couple of months ago to share about my experiences this past summer of driving across the United States and back. Since then I decided that I would take this opportunity to share about what I have learned in this past year and a half since I began attending Orchard, with the learnings of last summer being only the latest.

I would like to challenge everyone seriously to think through the question I ask in my sermon title. We hear many one-line, simple, pat-type answers to this question of why we are Christians. By sharing the evolution of my own attempted answers to this question I would like to show how it is a very complex question and one, which, when wrestled with can reveal a lot about where we are at in our relationship with God.

So, I would like to share with you the development of my own thinking regarding why I am a Christian. It is a person testimony of sorts, so please bear with me.

I think we can divide this question into two separate aspects – why did I become a Christian and why do I remain a Christian? Continue reading

The Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Life

Ted Grimsrud

[This is a sermon preached at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Arizona, December 28, 1986. I post it at PeaceTheology.net on July 6, 2020. For more of my sermons see the collection under “Ted Grimsrud Sermons.”]

It’s a real privilege to be able to share with you this morning. It has been awhile since the last time I gave a sermon—that was when I last preached here almost 2½ years ago. But I feel good about being here and very grateful to have the chance to reflect—with you—on the relationship between the “Anabaptist vision” and our lives as Mennonites in the 1980s.

A Mennonite in the city

The past 2 ½ years, I’m pleased to report, have been very good for Kathleen, Johan, and me. For all of us, our lives have been centered around our education—Kathleen doing graduate work in theology at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California; Johan beginning pre-school; me in my doctoral program in Christian ethics. And we’ve all had very positive experiences. It helps also to be in Berkeley with its beautiful scenery and wonderful climate (imagine twelve months of Phoenix Decembers).

And I would have to say that even though our environment there is definitely not a Mennonite one, I have been only strengthened in my commitment to the Mennonite church and the Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective on the Christian faith. It is certainly challenging to be thrown into a context where the faculty and students are from a wide range of traditions—many Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, evangelical Christians, not to mention Unitarians and Jews.

In such an environment, one is forced to come to terms with one’s own tradition, one’s deepest beliefs and values. I was helped to do so myself by taking a class on Anabaptist theology and ethics in which I was the only Mennonite. In this class we studied the 16th-century emergence of the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland—and looked closely at the account of this movement given by historian Harold Bender, the long-time professor and administrator at Goshen College who died about 25 years ago.

Harold Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision”

Harold Bender was responsible, more than anyone else, for turning the eyes of Mennonites and many others to the 16th century, and to the relevance of the early Anabaptist movement for understanding how 20th-century Mennonites can better be faithful Christians. In 1943, Bender was named president of the American Society of Church History and in his presidential address gave a speech that was later published with the title, “The Anabaptist Vision.” This article is still an exciting summary of that vision. In “The Anabaptist Vision,” Bender asserts that the two major emphases of the early Anabaptists were: (1) Christianity is primarily a matter of Christians experiencing and living out the transformation of life through discipleship, through following in life the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth; and (2) that this transformed life takes place in the context of the church as a fellowship of love in which the fullness of the Christian life ideal is to be expressed. Continue reading

Why God doesn’t intervene

Ted Grimsrud

[Sermon preached at Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalist Fellowship—December 1, 2019]

You would think that given how important God is to so many people, that we’d find it easier to talk about God. But it seems that even though people act as though, of course, God is real and we all know what we mean by God, very few people are all that articulate when they actually try to talk about God. It’s even difficult to find good jokes about God—when I searched the internet, this is the best I could do: God was talking to an angel and said, “I just figured out how to rotate the Earth so it creates this really incredible 24-hour period of alternating light and darkness.” The angel said, “That’s great. So, what are you going to do next?” God says, “Well, I think I’ll call it a day.”

I suppose for many of us, our understanding of God has evolved quite a bit as we have gone through life; mine has. One of the things I now believe is that we too easily forget that our language about God is always metaphorical. All that humans can say is what we think God is like, not what God for a fact is. It is our concept of God that we talk about. But we have the habit of saying simply, “God is this or God is that.” I will share today about the evolution of my thinking about God—and it seems more authentic to use the kind of language about God that I have used in the past. But I recognize that all I say here is metaphorical, even if I don’t use qualifiers such as “God is like…”.

I was stimulated to reflect on how my thinking about God has changed when I heard the sermon here on God by Paul Britner in October. Paul made me ask, What do I think about God? As a starting point, I think most people actually agree that God does not usually directly intervene in the affairs of human beings. Even most pious Christians have experienced enough tragedy to know that God simply does not step in and stop bad things from happening. My buddy Rod getting killed in a car wreck at age 17. My dad dying suddenly of a brain aneurism at age 67. My mom’s sister having a fatal appendicitis attack when she was four. Not to mention wars, famines, pestilences. So, the question, then, is: Why? Why does God allow so much terrible stuff to happen?

Let me summarize one common notion: the idea is that God has a plan for the world and its inhabitants. But God keeps God’s own counsel. We can’t know what this plan is since God’s ways are not our ways. God does intervene when it suits God’s purposes and our job is to trust God and rest in the confidence that God works all things together for good—even when in the moment we can’t see how. So, God doesn’t intervene because God chooses not to, for God’s own unknowable purposes. Continue reading

A review of Mark Douglas, Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age

Mark Douglas, Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019) viii + 269pp.

Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2020

Mark Douglas, Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, has written an interesting book that addresses important issues. Most of the book focuses on Christian pacifism and its history, offering a highly critical analysis of how Christian pacifists have presented their tradition. Douglas suggests that the climate crisis provides a challenging context for reconsidering Christian pacifism.

Douglas summarizes “the conventional narrative” of the history of Christian pacifism. It begins with Jesus, the New Testament and early Christians until Constantine as universally pacifist. This all changed with the first Christian emperor who oversaw the aligning of the church with imperial power and signaled the end of pacifism as a core Christian conviction. A just war ethic, especially as articulated by Augustine, replaced pacifism and “constitutes not only a change but a fall away from fidelity to a Jesus-centered ethics” (p. 3).

In much of the book that follows, Douglas uses this summary as a foil for a sharp critique of the narrative of Christian pacifism by recent pacifists (he actually only picks up, briefly near the end of the book, the theme of our current environmental crisis; the book’s title is thus misleading). He portrays the Christian pacifist narrative as being centered on that problematic construal of early Christianity—what he calls, disparagingly, the “myth of return” (pp. 7-10) where pacifists seek to recover the supposed purity of the early Christians. Continue reading

Explaining Christian pacifism

I had a great conversation about peace theology on the Libertarian Christian Podcast. The host, Doug Stuart, did an excellent job of asking questions and making comments that helped me say what I wanted to say.

We didn’t talk about capitalism, though….

[The link below goes to the podcast. I hope to post a written transcript before long.]

THE LIBERTARIAN CHRISTIAN PODCAST, episode 134

Biblical interpretation: Anabaptists, Gadamer, and Latin American liberation theology

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2019

[This essay was published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007), 57-71. The chapter title in that book was “Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist Theology and Recent Hermeneutics.” It was drawn from one of my comprehensive exams in my PhD program at the Graduate Theological Union entitled “Philosophical Hermeneutics in Conversation with Latin American Liberation Theology” (1986).]  

Historians have proposed that 16th-century Anabaptist theology and practice pioneered many changes now embraced by Christians throughout the world – believers baptism, separation of church and state, and conscientious objection to warfare among them. This pioneering dynamic may be seen with regard to biblical interpretation as well. The Anabaptist approach to the Bible has many affinities with recent developments.

My concern with this chapter is to use these convergences as a way of articulating an approach to biblical interpretation that builds on the insights of our 16th-century forebears and broadens them with help of philosophical hermeneutics and Latin American liberation theology.

Our age is not friendly to the authoritative use of writings from the past. We breathe the air of a skeptical, individualistic, and ahistorical worldview characterized by radical doubt regarding revelation, by suspicion of claims for loyalty and duty to people and communities outside our selves and maybe immediate family, and by a sense that only the present matters and that how we got to where we are today is irrelevant if not undiscoverable anyway.

Nevertheless, many believe that these issues, though daunting, are not insurmountable. In fact, their existence only underscores the need to construct and enact a biblical hermeneutics that makes available the immensely helpful resources of the biblical materials for Christian ethics.

One recently emergent tradition that has accepted this challenge and thereby made it much more real to the rest of the world is what has become known as “liberation theology.” This movement’s main center has been Latin America, but the label “liberation theology” has been used much more widely of groups such as blacks, feminists, Africans, etc. I will focus on Latin American liberation theology from its “classical” period, the late 1960s through early 1980s.

I will explore the close affinity that liberation theology has in its attitude toward and use of the Bible with another recently emergent “school” of thought – “philosophical hermeneutics.” In particular, I will consider the thought of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. Continue reading

Practice-oriented vs. doctrine-oriented theology: An Anabaptist proposal

Ted Grimsrud

[This article is a substantial revision of an earlier article that was published as, “Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007), 23-26. It was written in 2011 but has not been published in this form.] 

Is there such a thing as “Anabaptist theology” for the present day? Is seeking to construct a distinctively Anabaptist theology an appropriate task for the 21stcentury?

I will suggest that there is—and that is takes the form of what I will call “practice-oriented” as opposed to “doctrine-oriented.” To help understand the practice-oriented approach, and why it’s an exemplary model for those of us engaged in the work of constructive Anabaptist theology for the 21stcentury, I will first look at a somewhat different model for contemporary Anabaptist theology and reflect on the differences between these two models.

Tom Finger, like many other Mennonite writers wrestling with the challenge of working within the Anabaptist tradition (notably a marginal perspective in the history of Christian theology), seeks to find links of commonality with more mainstream traditions. In doing so, he takes an approach I will call “doctrine-oriented” theology.

Finger’s work has many characteristics unique to his own perspective, certainly, yet in relation to the key points I will focus on, his approach is at least somewhat representative of the general approach taken by Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians seeking rapprochement with mainstream theologies.

I understand the central characteristics of “Anabaptist theology” to be centered in an integration of theological convictions with ethical practices.  The ethical commitments of the sixteenth century Anabaptists such as their pacifism, their emphasis on economic sharing, and their rejection of the subordination of the church to nation-states, reflected a distinctive theology that placed central importance on commitment to the way of Jesus in costly discipleship. Continue reading

Violence as a theological problem

Published in Justice Reflections: 2005, Issue 10

We live in a world where too many people “purposefully contribute to the harm of another human being, either by action or inaction” (my working definition of violence). In such a world, an unavoidable moral question arises, how do we respondto violence, or more generally, how do we respond to evil?

Despite widespread occurrences of inter-human violence, the case may be made that most human beings tend to want to avoid lethal violence toward other human beings. If this were not true, the human race could never have survived to evolve to the point it has. In human experience people need some overriding reason to go against the tendency to avoidlethal violence. To act violently, especially to kill, other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value overrides the tendency not to be violent.

Almost all violence emerges with some kind of rationale that justifies its use. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who worked in the criminal justice system for many years, argues, based on his extensive work with extremely violent offenders, that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence usually nonetheless have some justification in the mind of the perpetrator.[i]

Other more obviously rational or self-conscious uses of violence (for example, warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) generally follow a self-conscious logic. At the core of this “logic” rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (that is, repayment of violence with violence, pain with pain).

The legitimacy of retribution is widely accepted in the United States. Where does this belief in retribution come from? One key source is Christian theology, the belief that retribution is God’s will, or that the need for retribution stems from the nature of the universe. That the nature of the universe requires retribution is a part of what most WesternChristiansbelieve, leading to strong support for retribution (that is, for justifying violence as the appropriate response to violence). Continue reading