Category Archives: Salvation

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

Boyd Defends His “Cross Thesis” [CWG chapter six]

Ted Grimsrud—June 22, 2017

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

Arguments against seeing the cross as central

In chapter six, “Is the Centrality of the Cross Thesis Defensible?” (pages 229–77), Boyd responds to what he sees as the two main objections to his argument about the centrality of the cross both for Jesus’s mission and for the overall message of the Bible. These objections are: (1) that early Christianity did not see the cross as central as evidenced by the lack of the use of the cross as a symbol in Christian art during Christianity’s first four centuries and (2) that not very many theologians in Christian history have recognized the centrality of the cross. Since these aren’t the main questions I have about Boyd’s cross thesis, I read through this chapter fairly quickly. It did raise a few issues for me, though.

A question I do have is whether the main problem with Boyd’s thesis is with regard to how he interprets the New Testament, not whether he’s consistent with understandings of the cross in the history of Christianity. As a pacifist, I am used to having convictions that most Christians don’t have. That early Christian art or that Christian theologians over the past 2,000 years would not share Boyd’s view of the centrality of the cross is not necessarily evidence against Boyd’s argument in my mind.

My question is simply whether Boyd is correct in seeming to understand the main referent in New Testament cross language to be simply to Jesus’s death. Is it not possible that “the cross” and related images more often allude to Jesus’s life, a life that resulted in his being executed by the Romans? A significant point if we think of the cross more broadly would be that along with Boyd’s important emphasis on the cross as conveying a message of Jesus’s self-giving love, it would also convey of message of Jesus’s practice of forgiveness apart from sacrifice, of Jesus’s political radicalism that led Rome to crucify him as a rebel, and of Jesus’s continuity with the OT prophets and his embrace of a prophetic understanding of Torah. If the cross is seen as a symbol of the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, we may make more sense of Jesus’s oft repeated call to his followers to take up the cross in imitation of his life of service, resistance, and courage. As I have mentioned before, I do not mean to suggest that Boyd would necessarily disagree with my comments here about imitating Jesus’s life—but this kind of language is rarely a part of his discussion of the cross.

The NT text I am most familiar with, the book of Revelation, illustrates my point here. Revelation does not speak of the cross overtly very often, but it does commonly use the term “blood,” which I imagine most readers would understand essentially to be a synonym with cross. When Revelation mentions “blood,” we could generally substitute the term “cross.” I believe, though, that Revelation uses the image of blood not to refer to Jesus’s death per se. Rather, blood has to do with the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, with the emphasis on the life he lived. Because this life involved resistance to the political and religious structures, it led to bloody responses. And Jesus did not swerve from his commitment to a life of love and healing even in the face of those responses. So, the message Revelation gives us about Jesus’s cross is a call to discipleship. Continue reading

More on Greg Boyd’s Insistence on Making the Cross Central [CWG chapter five]

Ted Grimsrud—June 16, 2017

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

The cross in the gospels

In chapter five, “The Cruciform Center, Part 2: The Cross as the Thematic Center of the Gospel” (pages 173–229), Boyd has a helpful treatment of the cross as presented in the gospels. His discussion perceptively makes clear how the God of nonviolent love is revealed in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion—and, so importantly, makes clear how this picture of God’s love provides a model for how we ourselves should live.

However, though I greatly appreciate these points that Boyd makes, I still felt that his focus was a bit off. I think this may be an issue of tone more than intended content, though I am not sure. I will continue to reflect on this as I work through CWG. I am concerned that Boyd seems to say that the cross was the point of Jesus’s life rather than being the (not precisely foreseen) consequence of Jesus’s life. Was Jesus’s purpose from the start that he would die a sacrificial death? The NT can seem to suggest this, but I think it is a problematic emphasis.

I believe that the true meaning of the story the gospels tell is to be found in Jesus’s life—and that it is his life that is exemplary for us. The way the Romans (in collaboration with the religious leaders) executed Jesus—and the fact that they executed him at all—followed directly from the way he lived. Whatever meaning the cross has, then, derives from Jesus’s life. It was because he so profoundly embodied God’s love (both in the sense of how he showed mercy toward and practiced solidarity with “the least of these” and in the sense of how he confronted the blasphemies and injustices of those seemingly all-powerful human structures that claimed to act on God’s behalf) that Jesus was executed. The cross, then, reveals the fullness of the Powers’ opposition to God-in-the-flesh. It is not intrinsically revelatory or salvific.

So, I would say that Jesus’s cross is more mundanely (this-worldly) practical than Boyd seems to allow for. Boyd presents the meaning of the cross as having relevance most of all on what we could call the cosmic or theological level, as a necessary sacrifice that makes salvation possible. In doing so, he treats it almost ahistorically, as if the specific context for Jesus being executed is not particularly relevant. I would say, in contrast, that it is precisely the context that is most important. Jesus in his life that ultimately led to his death exposes the idolatrous nature of the political and religious institutions of his day. In doing so, he reveals what kind of life God wants human beings to live and what kind of resistance to the Powers is called for. The central meaning of the cross is for this world and for how we live in this world. Continue reading

Pacifism, God, and the punishment of children

Ted Grimsrud—May 18, 2014

[This paper originated as a presentation at the conference, “Mennonites and the Family,” at Goshen College in October 1999. It has been published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying Peace: Collected Pacifist Writings, Volume 4: Historical and Ethical Essays (Harrisonburg, VA: Peace Theology Books]

What difference does it make to assert that nothing is as important for our theology as pacifism (i.e., the cluster of values which include love, peace, shalom, wholeness, kindness, mercy, restorative justice, nonviolence, and compassion)?

I propose that one difference pacifism makes (or should make) is to cause pacifists to look critically at all justifications for violence – and to question all theological underpinnings for such justifications. In this essay, I will focus critically on one case – theological underpinnings that help justify acting violently toward children (what is commonly called corporal punishment).

I want to discuss six points concerning the theological problem of the justification of violence against children.

(1) Human beings tend to be reluctant to act violently toward other human beings. We usually require some kind of rationale to justify such violence. We must believe some value is more important than nonviolence. For Christians, this value or conviction is usually expressed in terms of “God’s will.”

(2) A theological framework, that I will call “the logic of retribution”, underlies the rationale for the use of violence against children. In “the logic of retribution,” God is understood most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured. Human beings are inherently sinful. God’s response to sin is punitive. Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful human beings escaping their deserved punishment.

(3) Consistent pacifists must raise theological concerns here. When God is understood, as with the logic of retribution, primarily in terms of impersonal holiness, legal requirements, and strict, vengeful justice, the biblical picture of God as relational, compassionate, and responsive is distorted.

(4) Not only is it justified according to problematic theological assumptions, corporal punishment also has problematic practical consequences. It may well intensify the dynamic of responding to violence with violence, actually educating young people into the practice of using violence. It may also contribute to a stunted experience of life for its recipients.

(5) Given that all theology is humanly constructed, we may (and must) reconstruct our understanding of God in order to foster consistently pacifist theology and practice.

(6) Foundational for such a theological reconstruction, the Bible may be read as providing bases for a “logic of restoration.” According to the logic of restoration, God’s holiness is personal, flexible, dynamic, and relational. God’s justice is concerned with restoring relationships and community wholeness, not with punishment, vengeance, and balancing the impersonal scales of an eye for an eye. God’s mercy is unconditional, not dependent upon human beings in any sense earning it. Continue reading

How to Read Revelation

[This is the eleventh in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 25, 2012—Revelation 14:1-20

Last weekend, Kathleen and I had the privilege of once again attending the massive annual convention of over 10,000 religion scholars in Chicago, the joint meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. As always, we had a great time and had our thinking quite stimulated.

Several sessions raised a big question for me—in our quest for peace on earth, for the healing of our brokenness—is the Bible our friend or is it mainly a problem? We heard presentations that pointed in each of these directions. A session on the book of Revelation, though, was pretty clear. The presenters, what I would call “cultured despisers of Revelation,” presented the book in its worst possible light. As you can imagine, I wasn’t pleased.

A “jiu jitsu” approach to the Bible

This is what I think, though. In our all-too-violent world, and in our-all-too-violent Christian religion, we can’t afford to squander this amazing resource for peace—the Bible in general and the book of Revelation in particular. We who seek to be peacemakers, instead of a superficial dismissal of unsettling texts, should wrestle with them, wrestle until (like Jacob of old) we get blessings from them. And there are blessings to be had. We should take what I call a “jiu jitsu” approach to biblical interpretation. Jiu jitsu is a form of martial arts. “Jiu” means “gentle, flexible, or yielding.” “Jitsu” means “technique.” So, “jiu jitsu” is a gentle technique of self-defense that uses the opponent’s force against itself rather than confronting it with one’s own force.

So, I suggest we let the difficult, seemingly “pro-violence,” texts of the Bible swing away at us, but step inside the punches and use those very texts as part of our peacemaking repertoire. Today, I want to give an example of how to read Revelation in this way by taking on one of the more troubling passages in the book, chapter 14. Continue reading

Salvation project completed (or, is it, abandoned?)

Ted Grimsrud

The project on the Bible’s salvation story that I have been working on for some time has come to its conclusion (at least for the time being). I submitted a manuscript in early August, 2012, to Cascade Books. The book is under contract and hopefully will be published some time during the summer of 2013.

The book will be called Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness. I do challenge traditional atonement theology, in large part for the sake of advocating for Christian peace theology. The main focus of the book, though, is on the biblical narrative itself. I try to establish that the Bible as a whole follows a logic of mercy rather than the logic of retribution implied in mainstream atonement theology. I will leave it to a sequel to address the history of atonement theology in the post-biblical epoch and speak to the diversity among the atonement models. Continue reading

The Christian Alternative to Vengeance

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.3

[Presented at Theologica Pacis conference, Akron, PA, January 2007]

The faith community is central to biblical religion.  In the Bible, from the start (the calling of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 to bring forth a community meant to bless all the families of the earth) to the end (the vision in Revelation 21–22 of the churches witness leading to the healing of the nations), this community has the vocation not simply to serve its own interests but to serve the interests of all the families of the earth.

I have written a little book reflecting on this vocation as a central theme of the Bible as a whole, suggesting what I call “God’s healing strategy” as a narrative key for interpreting the overall message of the Bible.[1]  The “strategy” is simply that God has called together a faith community to know God’s healing love in its common life and to witness to that healing love in a way the serves to bless all the families of the earth, that brings healing to the nations.

This motif recognizes the need the human family has for healing.  We hurt each other.  We violate each others’ dignity, sometimes in terribly destructive ways.  A key aspect of the healing motif then may be seen as the issue of how to we respond to the inevitable harm we do to each other in ways that does not add to the harm.  Based on the Bible’s core message, the community of faith is central in the effort to respond redemptively to harm.  And a key part of redemptive responses, of course, is forgiveness.

When Michael Hardin asked me to prepare a discussion paper for this conference that would discuss the theme of “how the church might look if it was grounded not in victimage but in forgiveness,” I said sure, that I would be happy to since I was in the midst of teaching a course at Eastern Mennonite University I called “Topics in Theology: Vengeance and God.”  I figured I could draw on materials from that class.  This was a new class for me and back in mid-September when Michael contacted me, I wasn’t quite sure where the class would go.

As it turned out, the class pretty much did go the direction I hoped it would – concluding with a lively discussion on forgiveness and the centrality of the church in the embodiment of forgiveness as the ultimate Christian response to harm-doing.

Forgiveness may most usefully be understood not simply as pardon, a letting of wrongdoers off the hook, so much as a way of life, a set of practices, that brings an end to the cycle of enmity but also effects transformation in the wrongdoer, the survivors of the wrongdoing, and the broader community that is effected by the wrongdoing.

When we look at the dynamics loosed by the manifold violations of human dignity in our world today, we may easily recognize how crucial reflection on and, much more importantly, putting into practice forgiveness has become.  Much more common, it would seem, that seeking to break the cycle of harm triggered by violating acts, human beings tend to heighten the cycle with the “automatic” (?) quest for vengeance.  From the perspective of the Bible and its account of God’s healing strategy, we may want to claim, as Christians, that our tradition offers powerful resources for freeing human beings from the spiral of violence.  As we should.  But, of course, Christianity has, as Michael’s wording in his request implies, all too often embodied vengeful, violent dynamics more than healing, forgiving dynamics. Continue reading

What does Jesus’ death mean?

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.5

[Published in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2000), 49-69.]

There is a paradox with the human religious experience.  On the one hand, religion is a main (perhaps the main) dynamic in death-dealing violence in the world.  On the other hand, religious faith also often provides the main basis for the fruitful rejection of death-dealing violence.

We certainly see religion as a main dynamic in death-dealing violence in generation after generation of “holy” wars—the Crusades, the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in the seventeenth century, the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in newly liberated India in the 1940s, conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and the ongoing hostilities in the Middle East among Muslims and Jews.

Most pre-meditated death-dealing violence requires some sort of fueling ideology which justifies humans taking other humans’ lives.  Often this ideology has a clear religious element; what is claimed to be a divinely sanctioned rationale for coercion, even the taking of human life.

At the same time, religious faith is also one of the keys for people finding the way toward somehow breaking this spiral of violence.  For many people religious faith affirms that that which is beautiful and worthwhile about the human project comes from God—the merciful and loving creator who desires human flourishing and wellbeing, and who grieves at the costly spiral of violence.  The heart of many people’s religious faith moves them at their deepest being to care passionately about finding a way out of this spiral of violence.

For many people, Christianity claims that we have in Jesus a model of a human way of living that breaks free from the spiral of violence.  Jesus models—in life and in teaching—a way toward genuine peace.  Therefore, despite the bloody hands apparent throughout the history of Christianity, many people believe one of our main sources of hope remains the story of Jesus. Continue reading

Violence as a theological problem

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.2

[Published in Justice Reflections, Issue 10, #70 (December 2005), 1-25.]

We live in a world where all 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 respond to violence, 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 avoid lethal violence.  To act violently, especially to kill other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value or commitment overrides the tendency not to be violent.

Almost all violence emerges with a 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.[1]

Other more obviously rational uses of violence (for example, warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) generally follow a fairly 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 commitment to 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 Western Christians believe, leading to strong support for retribution (that is, for justifying violence as the appropriate response to violence). Continue reading