Author Archives: Ted Grimsrud

About Ted Grimsrud

I live in Virginia

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

Trump as “Anointed One”: But who’s the anointer?

David L. Myers—February 27, 2018

[I am happy to welcome my old friend, David Myers, to Thinking Pacifism and to Peace Theology as the author of this guest post. David served a number of year as a Mennonite pastor in Kansas and Illinois and as a social service administrator in Chicago. He also worked in the Obama administration for about eight years. We attended the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary together in the early 1980s and before that both grew up in Oregon. He is especially interested in public theology.]

Okay, Evangelicals of a certain type; let’s play a little game of mix and match.

First, a little about the game itself, whose genesis was a headline: “Why is it so hard for Trump to say that evil things are evil?” (Washington Post, February 15, 2018)

Hmmm…why, indeed, I wondered. How can so many (though not all) Evangelicals, who believe someone like Trump has been anointed or been put in the presidency by God, have such a difficult time condemning what they themselves believe to be evil? (I’ll save you the mind-numbing list from Trump’s own twittering fingers and prevaricating tongue—it’s in the public domain.)

Then a series of thoughts fell into place, as if the right key finally unlocked the tumblers. God’s anointed. That’s the key—but not in the way you may think.

The root of Jesus the Christ means Jesus the Anointed One. Here’s the recently deceased R.C. Sproul, a leading Evangelical theologian, commenting on the Gospel of Matthew’, chapter 16:

Then Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15b). Peter answered with what is known as the great confession, a statement of his belief as to the identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (v. 16). With these words, Peter declared that Jesus was the Christos, the Mashiach, the Anointed One.

Jesus: Tempted in the wilderness

A seminal moment in the life of Jesus was his baptism in the River Jordan. It was then that the Holy Spirit announced his Sonship, his anointing. The life of Jesus the Christ, the life of the Anointed One, was publicly inaugurated. And what happens immediately thereafter? The Synoptic Gospels agree: he was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Slanderer (The New Testament, A Translation by David Bentley Hart).

There were three temptations and there are a variety of interpretations of their respective meanings. I’ll go with Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud’s take on Luke 4:3-13 (from personal email correspondence).

Temptation #1—Command the stones to become bread. This could be seen as a temptation to put one’s own comfort and wellbeing above devoting your life to serve others. Jesus said “one does not live by bread alone.” I think he means, among other things, placing the priority on our own desires and pleasures and not recognizing that a full life involves care for others, especially those in need. Jesus refused to make his own comfort and self-aggrandizement central but to instead be the servant of all.

Temptation #2—Worship Satan and he will give you all the kingdoms of the earth to rule. This could be seen as a temptation to seek power over others even at the cost of making such power one’s highest value. “Worshiping Satan” is equivalent to embracing power that is based on domination and coercion and is not concerned with empowering others. Jesus refused to become a mighty king type of messiah but to embrace a politics of compassion, decentralized power, and generosity.

Temptation #3—Jump off from the top of the temple and the angels will save you. This could be seen as a temptation to seek the acclaim of the religious leaders through wonderworking power rather than through putting into practice the core values of Torah—concern for the vulnerable, generosity, and compassion. Jesus saw the temple structure and religious institutions as secondary to true faith. He did not seek their support but rather appealed directly to the people who were on the margins by addressing their needs.

Jesus refused to be seduced by, refused to succumb to, the temptations. Not that they weren’t real possibilities with real appeal. After all, for something to be a temptation it must have a vortex of attraction that swirls our appetites and imaginations. And not all temptations lead toward darkness and destruction. Not all are lies. As a good friend once said, grace is a temptation. It has a seductive power and when we succumb to it, we are better people and the world is a better place. But not so the Slanderer’s temptations titillating Jesus the Anointed One. Jesus said no to his own comfort (choosing no place to lay his head), to ruling the world by domination (choosing to be a servant), and to religious acclaim (choosing ridicule by the religious powers).

Trump’s temptations

So back to Trump and certain Evangelicals. Let us say, for the sake of illumination, we somehow agree Trump was anointed to be the president. And let us say that after his inauguration he was immediately tempted by the Slanderer with the same three temptations as Jesus the Christ. The temptation to think of himself first; the temptation to rule by domination; and the temptation to seek the acclaim of the religious powers.

We come now full circle to the game of mix and match. Take Trump’s first year of policy decisions; of statements spoken and written; and of actions known first-hand and measure how he did with the three temptations. I’ll give you that no president of the United States of America will come out with a clean bill of health on this test. But then most presidents haven’t been proclaimed as an anointed one, as a chosen one.

That’s an exceptionally high standard. Even starting just from January 20, 2017, when his anointing took place, Trump has been habitually seduced by and succumbed to the three temptations. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an example when he did not give into them. Mix in anything he’s written, said, and done and there’s likely a match with at least one of the temptations.

So then, what shall we say to the question asked by the newspaper headline: Why is it so hard for Trump to say that evil things are evil? Perhaps it is because he daily succumbs to the temptations and therefore he cannot see and name evil because it is through the Slanderer’s eyes he sees and ears he hears? Perhaps that is the reason it is so very, very difficult for him to call evil, evil.

Jesus, the Anointed One, warned about false prophets: From their fruits you will know them. If Trump is an anointed one, we then must ask, based on his fruits: Who has done the anointing?

Wrapping up Boyd’s CWG [chapter 25; Postscript; Appendices]

Ted Grimsrud—January 24, 2018

[This is the 27th (and last) in a long series of posts that have worked through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 26th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 25, “Mauling Bears and a Lethal Palladium” (pages 1195–1248), Boyd discusses his final category of violent divine portraits, what he calls “The Principle of Semiautonomous Power.” He then has a short “Postscript” (pages 1249–61), subtitled “Unlocking the Secret of the Scroll,” that is essentially a summary of the core argument of CWG as a whole. He concludes the book with a series of “Appendices” (pages 1263–1301) that elaborate on various issues that have arisen in the book.

Misusing God’s power

Boyd discusses several stories that tell of God giving someone superhuman powers—and then having those individuals use the powers to do violence. Examples are Samson and the prophets Elijah and Elisha. It what sense should we attribute such violence to God? Boyd coins the term “semiautonomous power” to describe how the violence should not be laid at God’s feet. “When God gives someone divine power, he … places [it] under the control of their own power” (1196).

These stories don’t seem particularly important to me, partly because they are rare and peripheral. More to the point, to me the question is why these stories were told. What contribution do they make to the Big Story? The story of Samson seems relatively easy to deal with since Samson is presented as a less than exemplary character and to a significant extent, his violent deeds illustrate the chaos that the book of Judges shows—“when there was no king in Israel.” The violence of Elijah and Elisha seems to make a less obvious contribution to the story. Certainly, though, the violence is not normative.

Boyd asserts, regarding Samson, that “the immature, immoral, and violent ways Samson used the power of [God’s] Spirit can only be understood as reflecting Samson’s will and character, not God’s” (1230). But I wonder—isn’t God the one who gave Samson this power? Doesn’t that make God in some sense responsible for the consequences of how it was used? Again, it seems that Boyd is too focused on keeping God’s hands clean. That focus seems to follow from Boyd’s problematic view of inspiration. In a move that may make things worse, Boyd wants to turn God’s seeming irresponsibility into a virtue: “We can only marvel at the humility of a God who, out of covenantal solidarity with his people, would stoop to work through legends of a man who was as infantile and degenerate as Samson” (1231). I’m not sure what I think we should learn from the Samson story, but I do think it shows God in a pretty bad light.

Boyd’s point with the principle of semiautonomous power is that “God is not implicated in the violent way his servants sometimes used his power” (1197). I find this argument to be unpersuasive—the stories themselves don’t seem to tell us this. They celebrate God’s involvement. The power for violence seems unambiguously attributed to God. So, Boyd’s principle seems like another convoluted effort to leave God with clean hands. Continue reading

Even more on Boyd and Spiritual Warfare [chapter 24]

Ted Grimsrud—January 15, 2018

[This is the 26th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 25th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 24, “The Dragon-Swallowing Dragon: Examples of Cosmic-Level Aikido Warfare” (pages 1143-92), Boyd continues to make the case both for his understanding of the role of cosmic evil powers being responsible for most of the OT violence that is attributed to God and for centrality of the dynamic of God’s strategic withdrawal as God’s method of judgment.

The violence in Numbers 16

One of the most violent passages in the OT is Numbers 16, where God is said to judge rebellious Israelites by killing nearly 15,000 of them. Boyd uses this text to illustrate his crucicentric reading strategy. “There is no question but that this gruesome narrative presumes that it was Yahweh who performed these supernatural destructive acts” (1145)—but we cannot “theologically interpret this passage” as actually meaning that it truly was God who did the violence. We must “assess this portrait to be a literary crucifix, reflecting the same willingness of God to stoop as low as necessary to bear the limitations and sin of his people that is reflected on Calvary” (1145-6). That is, as I understand Boyd, God was willing to have this passage attribute the violence to God in order to “bear the limitations and sin of his people.” Presumably, then, God did not actually cause all these deaths.

It seems to me that in order to save his “commitment to treat all Scripture as ‘God-breathed’ as well as his commitment to the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle (1144), Boyd is compelled to read Numbers 16 as if the clear meaning the writer gives the story is wrong! I fail to see how his argument actually does save the infallibility of the text. One could say the story is wrong (and not directly inspired) and yet take it seriously as part of the Big Story (which is inspired in its overall message). People who affirm both the inspiration or truthfulness of the Bible and the normativity of the peaceable revelation of God in Jesus need not follow Boyd’s path. We may see the truthfulness as present in the Big Story as a whole, not in each element of that story.

I find it ironic that Boyd presumably affirms the validity of the need for punishment in this story. What he thinks is not true is simply the idea that God “himself” “pulls the trigger” and causes the deaths. I would respect his crucicentric method more if he would recognize that the cross simply is not about divinely needed punishing judgment (beyond the evil actions of Rome and the religious leaders). I wish he would recognize that the cross refutes the validity of punishment and shows it to be evil in relation to Jesus. Then Boyd could use his method to deconstruct the idea itself that God needs to punish. Continue reading

More on Boyd and Spiritual Warfare [chapter 23]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2018

[This is the 25th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 24th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 23, “When Hell Breaks Loose: Redemptive Withdrawal and Cosmic Conflict” (pages 1099-1142), Boyd reflects further on the implications of his cruciform hermeneutic for understanding OT violent portraits, focusing especially on the Genesis story of the Flood. A key element of his perspective is his emphasis on the cosmic evil powers who actually are the agents of the destruction, while God’s role is simply to withhold God’s protections and let the powers do their damage.

The way to justice: divine withdrawal or something else?

Boyd begins the chapter by summarizing his basic argument concerning spiritual warfare: “When God decides he must withdraw his protective presence to allow one form of evil to punish another form of evil…. Satan and other cosmic powers are … present, looking for every opportunity to kill, steal, and destroy” (1099–1100). I sense that in order to save his belief in God as in ultimate control, Boyd must project onto God a will to punish. Why “must” God “withdraw his protective presence”? I suspect that Boyd wants to hold on to the belief that God is in ultimate control of what happens in the world. The only way God can be in control and still be nonviolent is if God exercises “control” by “withdrawing” and letting Satan, et al, be the actual enforcers of the needed punishment that a “just” world requires.

One way this notion ends up being deeply problematic is the extraordinary imprecision of this punishment with its enormous collateral damage. The “killing, stealing, and destroying” that Satan, et al, do in this scenario catches up everyone in its path, just and unjust, innocent and guilty. And it is not only human beings that are crushed but also the rest of creation. Not only does God actually remain complicit in the violence if God could stop it, but God’s means of punishing sin are extraordinarily unjust toward those who don’t deserve to be punished.

I tend to think that the only moral alternative to Boyd’s scenario (because I agree with him that a violent God who actively punishes contradicts the truthfulness of the definitive picture of God we have in Jesus) is a weak God who is not all-powerful. God does not exercise brute power to destroy God’s enemies. For example, Satan (i.e., the Dragon) is not punished in Revelation but defeated and robbed of existence simply through disbelief—disbelief that emerges from the self-sacrificial, persevering love of the Lamb and those who follow him wherever he goes. The power of the Powers rests solely on the power given them through idolatry, through people’s consent. Continue reading

Boyd and New Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 22]—Part two

Ted Grimsrud—December 30, 2017

[This is the 24th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 23rd post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Due to the unusual length of this post, it has been divided into two parts. This is the second part, the first part may be found here.

God’s way of dealing with sin and evil

Boyd once more emphasizes the role of the withdrawal of God’s “protection” in dealing with the sin problem. “In a world that is presently caught in the cross fire of a cosmic war and that is engulfed by violent forces of destruction, God need never throw people down to have them experience the destructive consequence of their sin. Rather, God needs only to stop preventing people from falling to have them experience this” (1070).

Now, I do think that Boyd’s sensibility here could be helpful if it were part of a strategy to cultivate love as our only weapon—and if such a strategy were applied to socio-political analysis and action. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be a well-known example of a Christian leader who understood the call to resist evil being about both “spiritual warfare” and concrete political acts of resistance—all undertaken in the name of love. Boyd certainly does affirm love, but he offers little help in discerning our socio-political context (I have noted his tone deaf positive allusions to our militarized Department of Homeland Security in its work vs. “terrorism” in his story about his wife). A second thought is that Boyd’s discussion of God’s way of causing people to suffer the consequences of their sin turns our attention in precisely the wrong direction. It gives “Satan” way too much power, and it seems to reduce the struggle against evil and sin to a moralistic process where God mainly wants to punish sinners—albeit indirectly.

Boyd disagrees with the idea that he has a Manichaean-like dualism that gives equal power to good powers and evil powers. In his defense against that charge (1071), he argues for a biblical portrayal of the ability of Satan to corrupt nature, but that (unlike Manichaeanism) God is the sole creator and that creation was originally good and not a mixture of good and evil. I think, though, that even seeing Satan as a personal being who actively corrupts nature is problematic. I believe, instead, that we are better off using Satan as a metaphor for the corruption that is already there. Is Satan actually an active personal agent or simply a way of talking about the dynamics of the world we live in (that include human idolatry). Continue reading