Review of theology as if jesus matters

Clif Hostetler, Goodreads, 9/27/10

It is surprising how little the Nicene Creed says about the life and teachings of Jesus. It basically says he’s God, was killed, and he rose. Nothing is said about what he said or how he lived. And in case you think the Protestant Reformation came up with an improved creed, you won’t learn much more about the teachings of Jesus from the Westminster Confession. You’d think that if Christians wanted to summarize their beliefs into a creed or statement of beliefs that they would include something about his teachings–perhaps something from the Sermon on the Mount such as loving your enemies. But no, instead traditional Christian theology for the past 2000 years has concentrated on Jesus’ identity as God’s Son/Messiah/Christ, not what he taught.

This book takes a look at what Christian theology would look like if Jesus’ words and deeds were truly central. Interestingly, the result is almost a polar opposite to the direction that traditional Christian theology led. With his life being central Jesus becomes a model for authentic human living, and emphasis is given to the social-spiritual context of Jesus’ struggle with the powers of this world. Recognition is given to his genuine struggle to trust God and live faithfully. All these things are very human in their nature, far different from the image of a transcendent, perfect and omnipotent Christ pictured by the traditional creeds.

From this premise Ted Grimsrud provides chapters elaborating on Christ, God, Spirit, creation, revelation, humanity, work of Christ, Christian community, sacraments, religious pluralism, eschatology, and ethics. At the end of the book are responses from five different bible scholars followed by a section where he responds to the responders. There’s plenty of food for thought here worthy of reading by any who are interested in the subject.

This book can be meaningful for Christian readers who are basically comfortable with their religion but would like to move on beyond the “died for my sins” or “go to heaven when I die” clichés. The book articulates an understanding of Christianity that I believe is more mature than that found in traditional theology. It describes what I perceive to be an Anabaptist world view. I’ve also described this book as a user friendly version of John Howard Yoder’s book, The Politics of Jesus.

This book does not address historical scholarship issues related to Jesus, Paul, Bible and the early Christian church. The traditional canon of the Protestant Christian Bible is referenced and accepted in this book with minimal discussion of the relative merits of its various parts. Nor are possible alternative concepts of God discussed. This makes use of this book easily acceptable for those comfortable in a traditional Christian faith. I believe those with a more metaphorical or nuanced understanding of Christian faith can find the book useful too by translating the traditional terms into the meanings or understandings with which they are comfortable.

Some of the commentaries at the end of the book reminded me just how progressive Ted Grimsrud is. One reviewer was critical of Grimsrud’s failure to “develop an account of the way in which all human kind is enslaved to cosmic and historical powers…” Grimsrud’s reply is to thank him “for illustrating the kind of theology I seek to articulate an alternative to.” All I can say to that is, amen.

The following are some quotations from the book I found of interest.

The following comment is referring to John Howard Yoder’s writing (p76):
“In all of his writings … he never works very hard at developing a theology of creation. Nor does he seek to elaborate in any detail his claim that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the cosmos.”

The following is taken from the discussion of theological anthropology (p113):
“Human beings contain a mixture of attributes that foster a sense of tension. On the one hand, we are limited, finite, and dependent on God and other human beings. On the other hand, we are imaginative, spiritual, and creative. We are limited by our earthiness yet also able to imagine not being limited. We are material creatures with a sense of life beyond the material.”

The following is taken from his discussion of atonement theory (p130):
“Jesus indeed liberates (“saves”), but he does so simply by announcing that it is so.” Regarding Jesus’ death, “This death… is not required to bring about the salvation…. Rather, the death stems from the response of the Powers to the salvation already given by God…. Jesus’ death adds nothing to the means of salvation.”

In his discussion of the “practical value of the church” he says (p139,p140):
“Maybe we should think of the church simply as one possible human community…. One reason for bothering with church is…it still serves the life-enhancing role that any authentic human community does. A second kind of reason is a “Christian” one. If we do theology as if Jesus matters … we will have reasons to bother with the church.” Continuing with that thought he says, “…the church is faithful when it self-consciously furthers Jesus’ way–through its teaching and preaching, through its worship and communal prayer, through it practices and projects.”

Regarding religions other than Christianity he says:
“But I don’t think he (i.e. Jesus) meant to say that a person must pass some kind of doctrinal test that clearly identifies one as a Christian and gives one a token to use for exclusive access to heaven after one dies. I don’t think these words from Jesus were ever meant to negate his call to love our neighbors.”

Grimsrud’s eschatology is “present-oriented, not future-oriented.” The title he gave to that section of the book is, “The End Times Are Now.” And when he says “now” he means it was the continuing and present “now” for all who have lived over the past two millennium.

In his discussion of ethics he says:
“If I were to try to boil my concerns down to one word, I would be hard pressed to think of a more important word than integrity. Doing theology as if Jesus matters challenges us to work very hard toward coherence between belief and practice, theology and ethics, faith and works.”

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