Sketching a Contemporary Anabaptist Theology

Ted Grimsrud—Presented at the London Mennonite Forum, September 2009[1]

Theology is important, and it’s human work. The best theology, I believe, motivates and guides peacemaking. In my essay, “Contemporary Theology in Light of Anabaptism,” I propose that theology in light of Anabaptism should be “practice-oriented” more than “doctrine-oriented.”  I suggest that such a focus will distinguish Anabaptist theology from mainstream ecumenical and evangelical theologies—especially when it is Jesus-centered, pacifist theology.  In this sequel, I will flesh out a bit the kind of theology I have in mind.

Theology and Our Hierarchy of Values

I believe that our “theology” is made up of the convictions that matter the most to us.  We each have a hierarchy of values.  At the very top of this hierarchy is our god, or gods.  The term “theology” literally means “the study of God (theos).”  To understand the actual theology we live by, we should ask first of all how we order our lives.  What in practice are the priorities in our lives that reflect what we truly accept as ultimate?  These priorities tell us a lot about what our actual god or gods are.

Think back to your earliest memories. What did you value? What would you have said about what was most important in your life?  How we answer these questions reveals a great deal about what we could call our “embedded” theology.[2]  This theology did not come to us through our own choices.  It was given to us; we inherited it.  Then, when we face the world as bigger, when we suffer, when we face questions that shake us up, when we are asked by someone else what we believe and why, we will be pushed to move from embedded to “deliberative” theology.  Then we think and apply and expand and understand and articulate. 

Often, no matter how comfortable and safe our youthful environment was, we will find that our embedded theology needs revision.  Sometimes, embedded theology must be discarded.  It gives us our start. We cannot fully transcend it or live as if it never were a part of us.  Yet, we need self-conscious deliberation to separate what should be affirmed in our embedded theology from what should be jettisoned. Likely, we will become aware that we have a whole mess of things to sort out.  Do we have any criteria to guide our deliberation?  Christians claim that we do.  We claim that in Jesus Christ we have God’s definitive revelation for shaping our theology.

However, one big problem with much Christian theology is how it focuses more on beliefs, doctrines, what we say—than on how we live.  This is why many Christians over the years may proclaim their belief in Jesus as savior while at the same time fighting wars, owning slaves, abusing their children, and destroying the earth.  Abstract doctrinal beliefs often take the place of Jesus’ own message in the hierarchy of convictions for many Christians.

So, we need fresh attention to Jesus in our theology. It seems to me as an Anabaptist that when we talk about Christian theology, our ordering point should be Jesus’ life and teaching.  However, in actual history what’s obvious to me has not usually been so for Christian theology.  Go back to the Apostles’ Creed, first formulated perhaps only 100 years after Jesus’ death. We see a key omission.  The Creed states what matters most about Jesus: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead.” What’s missing?[3]

The Creed jumps from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “crucified under Pontius Pilate”—as if what matters theologically are only beliefs about Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection.  It leaves out Jesus’ words, his deeds and his call to follow. Such an omission makes it easier to make Christian theology about general ideas, abstract doctrines, and hopes for heaven after death.  When the actual deeds and words of Jesus are avoided, we lose our main source of guidance for our reflections on God’s will for life in the here and now.

I do believe that insofar as they help us work on such reflections concerning what matters most, Christian doctrinal categories nonetheless may be useful. These doctrines must not be made the center of our faith.  The doctrines are aids.  They should help us reflect on real life by pointing beyond themselves to the living God and to the model of Jesus.  When they work properly, doctrines will help us think about the life of faith more fully.  They aid us as we consider the many different aspects of how we live and think and relate to one another.  More importantly, they will help us be self-conscious about thinking about our highest values in light of Jesus’ life and teaching.

Theology Beginning With Christology

As we articulate our central convictions, I believe the first doctrine we consider should be christology. We start with Jesus, since he sets our hierarchy of what matters most.  In light of Jesus’ message we look at the other doctrines.  We treat each doctrine as if Jesus matters.  Thus, we will avoid theology that minimizes Jesus’ life and teaching as our guide for faithful living.

A famous account in Mark’s Gospel raises the key question.  Jesus travels with his disciples after a time of ministry. People marvel at this great prophet. So do the disciples.  Who do people say I am? Jesus asked them.  John the Baptist.  Elijah.  One of the prophets.  Yes, “but who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). This remains our big question.  Who do we say that he is?

Well, there is the little boy during a Sunday morning children’s story.  The pastor has a stuffed animal.  She asks, “Does anyone know what this is?”  And a little boy says, “It looks like a squirrel but I bet it’s Jesus….”

Then there is Christian tradition.  It tells us, Jesus is God incarnate.  He is the one whose perfect sacrifice saves us from sin—and who was without sin himself.  He is all-powerful.  For many, the implication here is that Jesus is anything but human and that his actual life has little to do with how we answer this question of who he is.  Remember how the Apostles’ Creed jumps from “born of the Virgin Mary” straight to “crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

Instead of a warm, cuddly friend, and instead of a super (not actually human) being, I want to suggest a different answer.  Who do we say he is?  Jesus Christ is a human being, just as human as we are, who lived among us.  In his life, he shows us how God wants all human beings to live.  Thus, he should be our central guide for discerning our theological convictions.

Often the doctrine of Jesus Christ is divided into two parts.  First, the “person of Christ;” second, the “work of Christ.”  The doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ focuses on his identity.  His second name, “Christ,” is about his identity.  Who is he?  He is the Christ, the is, the king, the messiah.  The doctrine of the work of Christ focuses on how Jesus brings salvation.  His first name, “Jesus,” is about his work.  This name “Jesus” (the Hebrew version is “Joshua”) means “God saves” or “God liberates.”

Jesus provides a lens for evaluating all our values and convictions.  He helps us understand God.  He provides the orienting point for making sense of everything else—including every other theological theme.  What if we understand God first of all in terms of Jesus’ life and teaching?[4]  Then we will likely have quite a different understanding of God than if christology follows after we formulate a doctrine of God based on other materials.  Other core themes (such as the church and the end times) would also all be different if formed before christology.

When we repeat the name, “Christ,” we make a confession about Jesus’ identity. But what do we mean by “Christ”? We may say it means Jesus is God.  When we start with an assumption that Jesus is divine we may have in mind Jesus as perfect and all-powerful.  Then, the name Jesus may actually disappear and be replaced with only “Christ.”  And, often, the life of the person Jesus will disappear.  What matters will be his perfection, his god-ness, and his perfect sacrifice for sin.

What might follow is what we could call the “christological evasion of Jesus”—where Christianity’s hierarchy of values ends up being different from Jesus’ own hierarchy of values.  We have christology but we don’t pay much attention to Jesus.  The “christological evasion of Jesus” links with what we could call a doctrine-oriented christology focused on Jesus’ god-ness.

A focus on Jesus’ other-than-human attributes as what matters most with christology shapes how we view God.  When we confess Jesus as God Incarnate within the doctrine-oriented christology approach, we typically start with God’s other-than-human “attributes” (such as omniscience, omnipotence, etc.) as definitive of Jesus’ divinity.  We may then marginalize or ignore altogether the actual shape of Jesus’ life as a human being.  Jesus’ words and acts will then have little theological relevance.  And they ultimately will then have little direct relevance for how we live.

However, what if we take our cues from the gospels?  Then, we will be compelled to seek instead for a practice-oriented christology focused first on Jesus’ life and teaching.  Confessions about Jesus’ identity as God Incarnate will follow from his life, not from doctrinal assumptions.  Jesus’ first disciples drew their conclusions about his identity from the quality of his life, validated by God raising him from the dead.  In his life, we see that Jesus fulfilled the true meaning of the Law, and he embodied as no one else the message of the prophets.

With a practice-oriented christology, we will realize that it wasn’t so much Jesus’ perfection or his own insisting that he is God that showed him to be “the Christ.”  The disciples saw that Jesus was the Christ due to his love and compassion, his entering into life with sinners and outcasts.  And, God confirmed Jesus’ messianic identity when God raised him from the dead.[5]

Jesus’ Christ-ness mattered because it established a pattern for others to follow. For us to confess Jesus as Christ reveals our hierarchy of values.  When we say, “you are the Christ,” we do not simply make a statement about Jesus being divine in the doctrinal sense.  More, we make a statement about Jesus’ values standing at the top of our hierarchy of values.

When we say, “you are the Christ” we confess that the kind of life Jesus lived reflects what it means to be authentically human. Too often, theology starts with a view of God and kings as authoritarian.  So when we call Jesus the Christ, we tend to fit him within that view of kings—almighty, perfect, aligned with wealthy and powerful human beings, the great judge and punisher.  In contrast, I suggest, we should define Christ by looking first at Jesus’ life.  What if we let the actual Jesus of the gospels determine our understanding of God?  Instead of going from our preconception of kingly God to Jesus, what if we were to go from Jesus to God?

Then we would have christology as if Jesus matters.  We would look at what his life was like and confess that this life shows us God.  We would say that Jesus provides our way to orient ourselves theologically in relation to everything else.  Nothing would be as high on our hierarchy as the way of Jesus.  Sharing that hierarchy is what it would mean to confess him as the Christ.

The Christological Evasion of Jesus

The christological evasion of Jesus has bedeviled Christianity for most of its history. In the year 325, the leaders of the churches in the Roman Empire wrote one of Christianity’s definitive creeds, the Creed of Nicea.  This is part of what it says: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,…God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father…; who for us men and our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human.  He suffered and the third day he rose and ascended into the heavens.”[6]

This statement of faith still powerfully shapes Christian theology.  According to this core part of the creed, what matters about Jesus Christ?  He’s God, he was killed, he rose, andhe disappeared into the heavens.  What doesn’t get mentioned?  We don’t learn anything about what Jesus actually said.  We don’t learn anything about how Jesus lived.  And we don’t learn anything about who killed him and why.

The contextual issues that shaped the creed initially in time disappeared from the tradition and the words remained—and set a tone.  What matters about Jesus is his divinity, his sacrificial death, his resurrection as a miraculous act, and his ascension.  This is doctrine-oriented christology par excellence.  The elements seen as most important (divinity, death, resurrection, and ascension) are delinked from their context in Jesus’ life—and their meaning is thereby transformed.  They become independent events rather than part of a single story that features Jesus’ words and deeds and his connection with Torah and the prophets.

Centuries after Nicea, the Protestant Reformation triggered a theological revolution.  Yet, the christological evasion of Jesus continued. It finds expression in a document summarizing Reformed theology about 100 years after John Calvin.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646 says this: “The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon himself man’s nature…yet without sin….Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.”[7]

Again, what matters most here?  That Jesus Christ is “very and eternal God” and that he is “the only mediator between God and man” (that is, that he offers the necessary sacrifice to save us from God’s wrath).  The Westminster Confession says nothing about what Jesus did and said between his virgin birth and his death as a sinless sacrifice.

Typically, Christians who affirm these statements claim that the statements do not have as high a level of authority as scripture itself.  They say, the creeds importantly interpret the Bible’s message.  It is said that this authority follows from the accuracy with which the creeds reflect biblical teaching. However, we nonetheless find a significant tension over the role Jesus’ words and deeds play in christology. The creeds and the gospels emphasize different themes. Are these differences complementary or in tension concerning what mattered most to and about Jesus?  Do the creeds complement the gospels’ story that focuses on Jesus’ mighty deeds, his message of loving enemies, and how he challenged religious and political hierarchies?  When they assert as their core statement about Jesus that he is “of the same essence as the Father” are they illuminating the story of Jesus?  Or is this a different kind of assertion altogether?

If we do our christology as if the Jesus of the gospels matters, we will be bound to side with the gospel accounts should there be incompatibility between the creeds and the gospels.  I suggest that at a very fundamental point, we do find a conflict. The creeds seem to say that what matters most about Jesus is his being, his God-ness that is part of who he is by definition.  We find no emphasis on a life with concrete acts and words that show God’s ways in the world.  And these concrete acts and words are what the gospels are all about.

The creeds pay little attention to the significance of Jesus’ life for our lives. They give no sense of the social context of Jesus’ struggle with the Powers and little sense of Jesus’ connection with the story of Israel.  They actually tend to turn the Bible’s emphases upside down.  They make abstract conclusions about Jesus’ divinity central.  And they make the actual story of Jesus’ message of costly discipleship in the nitty-gritty of the first century peripheral.  It is small wonder that most Christians who have made the creeds central for their christology have not taken Jesus’ message of love of enemies as normative.

Based on what the creeds affirm, the titles “Son of God” or “Messiah” or “Christ” at their heart seem to refer to Jesus Christ’s divinity, his unity with the transcendent and perfect God of omniscience and omnipotence.  However, as these terms appear in the actual story of Jesus, they seem more to refer to Jesus’ vocation, the shape of the life he will embody as a response to God’s call.

A High, Gospel-Based Christology

In the gospels, God’s affirmation, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” marks a transition into Jesus’ public ministry at his baptism (see Luke 4).  Jesus next retreats into the wilderness to encounter Satan.  Jesus’ clarity about his vocation is tested with temptations concerning what kind of “Son of God” he would be.  His life then repudiates the visions of “Son of God” that Satan tempts him with.  The specifics of Jesus’ life have everything to do with his identity as God’s Son.

We do have a statement from the gospels of Jesus’ own take on his identity.  He affirms that this identity could indeed be understood in messianic terms and in effect offered a definition of what he meant by “Christ” or “messiah” or “Son of God.”  In Luke 7:18-35, John the Baptist wants to know—is Jesus the one who is to come (the Messiah)?  Jesus replies, you can know that I am the Messiah because of what I am doing, because of my life. When you look at my deeds and words you will see that I am healing people and bringing good news to the poor, exercising power over demons and providing sight.  These very manifestations have messianic connotations, drawn directly from Israel’s story.

The creeds focus on aspects of Jesus’ identity that separate him from human beings (“of one essence with the Father”) and underscore his uniqueness (“the only mediator between God and man”).  According to the gospels, though, Jesus’ identity as Messiah feeds into a sense of connection between Jesus and other human beings.  Jesus as Christ is Jesus as the definitive human being who shows the rest of us how to live as human beings in God’s image.

I want to emphasize: doing theology as if Jesus matters does include at its heart a high affirmation of Jesus’ identity.  Yes, Jesus as Messiah is Jesus as God in the flesh.  When we follow the biblical portrayal of this identity, though, we will make this confession based on the events of Jesus’ life.  Our confession will be a conclusion following from how Jesus lived, what he taught, the consequences of his way of living (the cross), and of God’s vindication of Jesus’ life through resurrection.

Jesus as Savior

The second part of christology—the work of Jesus Christ—complements the first, the person of Jesus Christ.  Much Christian theology frames its understanding of salvation in terms of what I call the “logic of retribution.”[8]  In this view, inflexible holiness governs God’s behavior.  Because of this holiness, simply to forgive would violate God’s character.  Due to the extremity of the offenses of human beings against God’s law, God can relate to us only if there is death on the human side to restore the balance, hence the death of God’s son, Jesus, whose own holiness is so powerful that it can balance out the unholiness of all of humanity.

It is said that human beings, when we confess our helpless sinfulness, may claim Jesus as our savior from God’s anger. Jesus satisfies God’s retributive justice on our behalf. Salvation happens only because the ultimate act of violence—the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ—satisfies God’s holiness.[9] In light of this understanding of the nature of God and the universe, the logic of retribution indeed tends to lead to acceptance of “justifiable violence” among human beings.[10]

When read as a whole, I believe, the Bible rejects the logic of retribution.  The core of the Old Testament story may be seen in three moments of salvation: the calling of Abraham and Sarah, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery, and God’s mercy to the 6th-century exiles.  Salvation in each of these moments is given to unworthy recipients.  Abraham and Sarah have no particular virtues; they are simply “wanderers.”  The Hebrews in Egypt were lowly, demoralized slaves who showed no evidence of worshiping the God of their ancestors.  The exiles of Isaiah forty through fifty-five had lost all their pillars of identity as a consequence of their unfaithfulness to Torah.

The explicitness of the unworthiness of those being saved by God makes clear that they had done nothing to earn God’s intervention.  The logic of retribution tells us that God must act to destroy the unclean and unworthy, not to save them—unless “balance of the scales of justice” is restored through punitive acts, the debt repaid.  The biblical story shows something quite different.  God the savior acts in these moments purely out of God’s own good will.  In each case God’s action comes from God’s free choice to intervene.  The recipients did nothing to “purchase” God’s favor.  God required no human acts to balance the scales of justice.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus never hints that he might understand his teaching as anything but in full continuity with Israel’s scriptures.  Matthew presents Jesus making this point explicitly: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  Another overt reference may be found in Jesus’ story of “the Rich Man and Lazarus,” where “Abraham” responds to the condemned rich man’s plea for a new message of salvation to be given to his brothers with this statement about the source of all that is needed to understand salvation: “They have Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29).

Jesus taught that debts would be released without any kind of payment.  The nature of the salvation Jesus proclaims turns the debt motif on its head, rejecting the logic of retribution tied to our need to pay off our moral debt to God.  Jesus proclaims pure acceptance—the poor, captives, the oppressed are given a word of acceptance by God.  God simply forgives the debts.

Jesus follows the prophets and Torah: God initiates salvation, always.  God does this out of love to bring healing to humanity.  Nothing needs to happen to change God’s disposition toward human beings or to enable God to overcome limitations imposed on God’s mercy by “holiness.”  God does not need some sort of sacrificial violence in order to satisfy God’s honor or appease God’s wrath so that God might provide salvation for alienated human beings.

Jesus brings salvation by reiterating in his life and teaching the basic message of his Bible—God love humankind and offers forgiveness and healing to all who turn to God in repentance.  Jesus embodied this message as no other human being ever has—and his actions and words evoked intense hostility from the Powers of the religious and political structures who were claiming to act on behalf of God.

By remaining steadfast all the way to the cross, Jesus simultaneously displays God’s persevering love and exposed the death-dealing idolatry of those who opposed him.  In raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicates Jesus’ message and affirms that, indeed, this man was the son of God and shows the path to salvation.

God

The other doctrines I want to touch on are the doctrines of God, the church, and the end times.

Our doctrine of God will be different if we consider God from a Jesus-centered perspective rather than to start with a definition of God that comes from somewhere else.  God is Jesus’ Abba. The great story that shows this is Jesus’ parable, “The Prodigal Son.” Remember when the wayward son returns home, beaten down by his failures, hoping simply to be hired as a servant to his father.  “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20)—a metaphor for how God welcomes sinners.

Who is God?  Jesus’ loving parent and Hosea 11’s “Holy One” whose holiness leads to healing mercy, not to the punishment one may expect from a “Holy God.”  Hosea and Jesus both redefine holiness.  God indeed is holy.  However, God’s holiness does not destroy human beings who violate it.  It enters their world and brings them healing and transformation. God’s holiness leads God to bring healing to sinners, not condemnation. God in Jesus enters the fray, eating and drinking with sinners and lepers and others in need.

As much as any of the accounts of events in Jesus’ life, the story of his anointment by the woman “who was a sinner” in Luke 7:36-50 illumines how he embodied God’s presence.  Jesus eats with one of the Pharisees at the Pharisee’s house.  While at the table, a woman “in the city, who was a sinner” approaches Jesus, weeping, and anoints his feet.

Jesus’ host thought harsh thoughts about his guest.  What kind of prophet is this who doesn’t realize that this woman he allows to touch him is a sinner?  Jesus recognizes what is going on and challenges his host.  “Listen, Simon, I want to tell you something.” Then Jesus tells of two people who have their debts cancelled, one debt is about ten times higher than the other.  Wouldn’t the person with the larger debt love their creditor more?  Sure, Simon says.  That’s right, Jesus replies. And, “I tell you, [this woman’s] sins, which were many, have been forgiven.”

This good news of Jesus provides our basis for understanding a hierarchy of values that truly reflects the will of God.  When we start with Jesus as our lens for discerning what we believe about God, we will come to several conclusions about God, conclusions about what convictions help us cohere with Jesus’ own convictions.

(1) God may be seen in Jesus’ way of life—peaceable, indiscriminately loving, subversive of human power structures, and steadfast in the face of resistance.

(2) We may also speak of creation itself as consistent with God as revealed in Jesus.  Jesus was with God in creation.  Colossians one tells us: “In [Jesus Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

(3) If we understand Jesus as part of the Trinity, we will have a strong basis for recognizing Jesus’ way as God’s way.  We will also have a strong basis for seeing Jesus’ way confirmed by the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit in the world and in our communities of faith.  Each expression of God—Creator, Son, Spirit—is all God.  There is no differentiation in will or strategy or concern among the three members of the Trinity.  God is always the God of Jesus Christ.

The Church

The Anabaptist tradition has an ambivalent attitude toward the church—depending on whether we understand the church more as a hierarchical dominating institution or more as a face-to-face fellowship of followers of Jesus.  Many of us have seen the church both as a blessing, where we have found healing, friendship, and spiritual empowerment—and as a curse, where we have seen people hurt, rules enforced coercively, and dissent squashed.

How do we negotiate this ambivalence? Maybe we should not think of the church so much as something unique and special in God’s eyes, a “sacred place” akin to the Temple in the Bible.  Maybe we should not think of the church so much as a place that exists over against the secular world.  Maybe we should think of the church simply as one possible human community.  The church is a human structure.  As such it is one of the Powers; as such it is one of the fallen Powers – capable of good, certainly.  But the church can easily become an idol, an absolute that demands to be defended—coercively if necessary.

If we no longer look at the church as sacred, will there be any reason to want to “redeem” it nonetheless?  Is there any reason to bother with the church if it is simply a human structure?

Well, yes…. Even if the church is not sacred, it still serves the life-enhancing role that any authentic human community does. Human beings are, by nature, social creatures.  We need other human beings in order to be human.  So, one set of reasons to believe in the church might be simply our human need for community.

But I also want to insist on a more overtly “Christian” rationale for the church—the church is worthwhile when it self-consciously furthers Jesus’ way through its teaching and preaching, through its worship and communal prayer, through its practices and projects.  The church can be, it should be, it must be (if it is to be faithful), a place where people work together to embody, to make real and concrete, the basic message of Jesus: Love God and neighbor.  And as social creatures, we need other people to help us do this.

One way the church embodies the way of Jesus (or not!) is through its ritual life.  Let’s briefly reflect on one central ritual, the practice of communion. It seems to me that the meaning of communion varies according to what we think lay behind the service.  What do these acts symbolize for us?  Communion can symbolize mercy, power for peacemaking, connection with communities of generosity and support.  Communion can also symbolize boundary lines between insiders and outsiders and human efforts to find assurance of God being on our side over against others.

Let me suggest this.  No human ritual is in and of itself sacred.  God is not to be evoked mechanistically, through the performance of some specific ritual that guarantees God’s presence when the correct words are recited and the appropriately credentialed leaders officiate.

We could say, instead, that rituals may provide a context to be encouraged to love.  We could see our practice of communion linked with the biblical practices of keeping the Sabbath.  Jesus gave us definitive guidance when he asserted that human beings are not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for human beings. The Sabbath was to serve human wellbeing, not to be ritual that works as an end in itself.  Sabbath observance began, according to the story, as a political statement: the Hebrews were free from slavery.  After their liberation, they were to live as free people.  To symbolize this freedom, they were to keep the Sabbath.  On-going Sabbath observance reminds the people of God’s mercy and of God’s radical transformation of their social lives.

We may say the same thing about communion. Complementing the memory of the exodus, Christians point to the liberation effected by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—liberation memorialized in the communion service.  Let us remember Jesus’ affirmation of the commandments to love God and neighbor.  This love is what Torah (and our rituals) should foster.  As the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote, “Above all, the Torah asks for love—love of God and love of neighbor—and all observance is training in the art of love.”[11]  I believe we have the task to seek to make our rituals work in this way.[12]

Eschatology

For Christians, the best reason for talking about the “end of the world” is not to focus on what is going to happen to the world in the future.  Rather, to talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to the purpose of the world—and our purpose. The “end of the world” is what God intends the world to be for.  Why is the world here and why are we here and what are we to be about?  The “end times” have to do with why we live in time, here and now.[13]

Love of God and neighbor define why we are alive.  It is what matters the most.  The “end” that matters is our purpose for being here, not any knowledge we might think we have about future events.  Our purpose is to love God and neighbor—that purpose is the eschatological theme that is central if we do eschatology as if Jesus matters.

Looking through lenses that see the “end times” in terms of our call to love God and neighbor may especially transform the way we perceive the book of Revelation, the book in the Bible most concerned with “the end times.” The first verse says, “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” How do Revelation’s visions reveal Jesus Christ? Notice how 1:5 describes Jesus:  “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth,” who “freed us by” his self-sacrifice.  The term “faithful witness” could also be translated “faithful martyr” and has the sense of Jesus’ faithful life embodying love of neighbor that led to his execution by the Romans.

The victory that matters, the one affirmed right at the start and throughout Revelation, is won by Jesus’ willingness to remain faithful to the ways of self-giving love. Jesus “conquers” through self-giving love.  The Empire conquers through domination. Throughout Revelation, the “faithful servant” (the Lamb) takes the central role.  Through his faithfulness, this “faithful servant” reveals authentic power and thereby is confessed as “ruler of the kings of the earth.”

The act that frees us and wins the battle is Jesus’ faithfulness to the point of execution, vindicated by God’s raising him from the dead.  And this has already happened.  The “Battle of Armageddon” in Revelation 19 is simply a matter of the Powers of evil being gathered up and thrown into the lake of fire.  And—a reference always missed by Revelation-as-violent interpreters—the kings of the earth (the paradigmatic enemies of God throughout the book) do not end up in the lake of fire but rather in the New Jerusalem (21:24).  Jesus’ victory—won by his love—results not in the punishment of human enemies but in their healing.

What truly matters for us is to recognize how God’s victory is attained.  The outcome the book points to is achieved through the self-giving love of the Lamb.  The “conquering” that achieves authentic victory throughout Revelation happens only through the power of consistent love.  Jesus’ faithful witness and God’s nonviolent vindication through resurrection conquer.  Revelation’s readers are exhorted in only one direction.  They are not to fight the Beast’s violence with violence of their own.  They are not to seek to conquer the Beast using his methods.  They have a very simple, but extraordinarily challenging calling: follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

Eschatology as if Jesus matters asserts that history is best understood in terms of Jesus’ way of love, compassion, openness, critique of power politics, and obedience to God.  This way of Jesus is understood to be the purpose, the end, of human life.

Hence, the theology of the “end of the world” takes us right back to the life and teaching of Jesus—as definitive of the Christian’s hierarchy of values.  Love God, love neighbor—in so doing we fulfill our vocation as children of Abraham and play our role in God’s work to bless all the families of the earth.  This love should be the very core of any theology that understands itself to be Anabaptist—or, for that matter, any theology that understands itself to be Christian.

[For more details on this approach to theology see my collection of sermons on “doctrine” and see the book the came from those sermons, Theology as if Jesus Matters.]


[1] This essay draws heavily, with permission, from my book, Theology as If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2009).

[2] I learned this term, “embedded theology” (along with “deliberative theology”) from Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), especially chapter one (“Faith, Understanding, and Reflection”).

[3] John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Church: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3rd edition (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 24.

[4] An important book that helped me understand why christology should be our theological starting point is C. Norman Kraus, God Our Savior: Theology in a Christological Mode (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991).

[5] Probably the most important work for shaping my understanding of Jesus has been John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[6] Leith, ed., Creeds, 30-31.

[7] Leith, ed., Creeds, 203.

[8] See Ted Grimsrud, “Violence as a ‘Theological’ Problem,” Justice Reflections  Issue #10 (December 2005), 1-25.

[9] Thorough articulations of this theology may be found in Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984) and Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).

[10] Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), traces the connection between this theology and violent criminal justice practices.

[11] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1956), 307.

[12] For a fascinating and moving account of one new Christian’s experience of communion as simultaneously an act of healing in her own life and a call to generosity, see Sarah Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).

[13] See Ted Grimsrud, “Why Are We Here? Two Meditations on an Ethical Eschatology,” in Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 179-89.

One thought on “Sketching a Contemporary Anabaptist Theology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s