Ted Grimsrud

Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

How the light gets in: A book review

In Book reviews, Theology on December 15, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Graham Ward. How the Light Gets In: Ethical Life I. Oxford University Press, 2016. xv + 354 pages.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—December 2016

How the Light Gets In is the first of a projected four-volume systematic theology by Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. Ward is pulling together his wide range of research and writing interests into an integrated whole that will emphasize the ethical dimension of Christian theology.

This first volume serves as a kind of prolegomena. It addresses a wide variety of themes in order to establish the grounding for what Ward calls “engaged systematic theology.” Volume II (which will be called, Another Kind of Normal: Ethical Life II) will focus on christology, and in light of christology take up themes such as revelation, anthropology, and creation. Volume III (The Vision of God: Ethical Life III) will deal with ecclesiology, pneumatology, and the doctrine of God. The series will conclude with a fourth volume (Communio Santorum: A Theology of Religions) that will consider both world Christianities and non-Christian religions in light of the systematic account Ward will provide in volumes II and III.

This series promises to be a distinctive take on these crucial themes given Ward’s emphasis on Christianity’s engagement with culture, his “radical orthodox” sensibility, and his practical concerns.

In volume one, Ward begins with a historical survey that traces the evolution of Christian systematic theology from the creedal formulations through the emergence of the Summa and culminating in the creation of Protestant dogmatics. He chooses somewhat surprising exemplars to illumine these three approaches: Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386), Hugh of St. Victor (died 1141), and Philip Melanchthon (died 1560).

He then explains what he means by “engaged systematics.” He sees his approach as a “corrective” to the “disembedded” and adversarial character of most Christian systematic theology ever since it emerged. He hopes for a theology that will empower “a life of embodied practices all of which can be summed up as prayer” (p. 117). Read the rest of this entry »

A Future for American Evangelicalism: A book review

In Book reviews, Evangelicalism, Theology on December 14, 2016 at 11:18 am

Harold Heie. A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015. xvii + 156 pp.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—August 2016

Harold Heie, a retired college administrator (Gordon College, Messiah College, Northwestern College), has embarked on a second career as the coordinator of a series of impressive conversations among evangelical Christian thinkers on important and oven conflicted issues.

Heie has created a website (Respectful Conversation) that hosts these conversations. The archives are a fascinating record of conversations on issues such as same-sex relationships, political philosophies, biblical authority, human origins, and numerous others. Remarkably, these conversations are respectful—but also honest and in-depth, revealing differences and agreements in insightful ways.

In A Future for American Evangelicalism, Heie provides an account of a number of these conversations. The chapters are each titled “Evangelicalism and …” and cover topics such as the exclusivity of Christianity, the modern study of scripture, morality, politics, human origins, and higher education. Each conversation included several invited participants, selected in large part to provide a fair amount of diversity in perspective.

To Heie’s immense credit, he has chosen topics that genuinely matter, and he has chosen participants who do differ from one another. The book is Heie’s report on the conversations, not a transcript of the conversations (though those are available on the website). As such, it is a good summary on current thinking on these various issues.
Perhaps more importantly to Heie, though, the book is a report on a process. Clearly, at the heart of this work is a desire to help evangelical Christians not only examine particular issues but even more, to learn how to talk together respectfully and honestly. This is an excellent challenge, and Heie’s book gives us a good sense that such conversations are possible and when engaged in with good will, thought provoking and insightful.

So, for example, in the chapter, “Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture,” we learn from a spectrum of thinkers about what’s at stake in current debates about how biblical authority does and should work. Heie emphasizes that all the participants affirm the centrality of “biblical authority,” but they disagree on the meaning of that commitment. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 16)

In Biblical theology, Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on July 17, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes of Revelation 15]

Revelation sixteen describes all seven of the final set of plagues—the “bowl plagues” where seven angels pour out onto the earth “the wrath of God” (16:1). Unlike the partial destruction that the two early series of plagues (seals and trumpets) describe (in turn, one-quarter and one-third—perhaps the thunder plagues that were “sealed up” and not reported [10:4] would have told of one-half destruction), here the destruction is total (“every living thing in the sea died,” 16:3). With the seventh plague “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying ‘It is done!’” (16:17). Now, John’s reporting of the “revelation of Jesus Christ” is not done. We still have six more chapters and several important visions to go. But this is the final plague and the expanding circle of destruction has reached its climax. The dynamics of wrath and destruction seem to have reached their culmination here. We will need to think carefully about these plague visions and also consider what is to come in Revelation—all in light of the core visions we have already heard, especially chapter five’s vision of the triumph of the Lamb—before we draw conclusions about what is being communicated in this chapter.

Revelation 16:1-11

The “loud voice from the temple” almost certainly is God’s voice telling the angels to “pour out on the earth” bowls of the “wrath of God” (16:1). We should read this description in light of what we have already discerned about God, the plagues, and wrath. The basic idea may be we are again going to have described for us the dynamics on earth during the “three and a half years” where the Dragon and his minions are wreaking havoc—but not in a way that will actually defeat God. “God’s wrath,” thus is not God direct anger being visited upon the earth in order to punish wrongdoing. Rather, it is what results when people turn against God and order their lives on the values of domination and exploitation—gaining their marching orders from the Beast and not from the Lamb. On a certain level, we may say that God allows the spiral of destruction loosed by the Dragon, but also that this spiral of destruction actually leads to the destruction of the Dragon himself along with the Beast and the False Prophet. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 14)

In Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on July 4, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 13]

Chapter thirteen concludes with a call to wisdom. The picture of the Beast and the False Prophet exercising domination reflects the perspective many of John’s readers would have had. Some would have welcomed the Empire’s kind of “peace” and sought to accommodate with its ways to protect themselves from the kinds of consequences to resistance that are alluded to with the Beast “making war on the saints” (13:7). Others would have still believed in resisting the Beast but would have despaired of fighting “against it” (13:4).

So the call to wisdom is crucial (much more so than the exact meaning of the 666). The Beast might simply destroy the witness of the Lamb’s assembly—either by crushing the resisters or, more likely, by converting them to an accommodating approach to faith where the Beast and the Lamb seemingly coexist.

John wastes no time, though, in countering the temptation to accommodate or despair. Of course, the content in Revelation leading up to the vision in chapter thirteen also gave powerful reasons not to take that vision as definitive of the actual situation. Jesus already has been identified as the ruler of the kings of the earth, worthy to be worshiped by all creation and the one who brings healing to countless multitudes from all corners of the earth. Chapter fourteen, then, actually does not provide the antidote to the Beast’s claims so much as reiterate what has already been asserted—but with new depth.

Revelation 14:1-5

The impact of the contrast between the “I saw…” of 13:1 and the “then I saw…” of 13:11 with the “then I looked…” of 14:1 is lessened a bit by the chapter division. However, the three need to be read together. The vision of 14:1-5 is the conclusion to the Beast account. What is seen in chapter thirteen only has meaning in Revelation in light of the conclusion in 14:1-5. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (chapter 13)

In Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on July 3, 2015 at 11:54 am

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 12]

Chapter 12 ended with an ominous image, “the Dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). What follows will be an account of this “war,” though we should understand that what this verse refers to is the same phenomenon we have already seen in the plague visions.

And, crucially, we also already know the outcome of this war. Revelation does not allow for any doubts about the outcome of the Dragon’s war. Right away, back at 1:5, we read the affirmation that Jesus is the victorious “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Then, the center point of the book, chapter five, proclaims Jesus as worthy “to receive power and wealth and honor and glory and blessing” (5:12).

So, whatever the impression we might get from the picture of the Dragon’s “war,” especially in the vision of the mighty Beast we see in chapter thirteen, this is a war that is not really a war. The outcome is not in doubt—and, as we will see, the methods of combat between the Dragon’s side and those “who told the testimony of Jesus” are quite different, two diametrically opposed approaches to “conquering.”

Revelation 13:1-10—The Beast from the sea and the politics of domination

We briefly met the Beast back in chapter eleven where the “two witnesses” (essentially the same as those who hold the testimony of Jesus in 12:17) are warred upon, conquered and killed by the Beast “that comes up from the bottomless pit” (11:7). This “bottomless pit” is first mentioned at 9:1, where a “fallen star” goes from heaven to earth, is given a key to the shaft of the bottomless pit, and sets a plague of locusts who torture “those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads … for five months” (9:4-5). Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (chapter 12)

In Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on June 1, 2015 at 9:11 am

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 11]

With chapter twelve, John begins a more detailed account that provides a fuller picture of the forces at work in the plagues we have seen and will see more of. It becomes more clear over the next several chapters how the Powers of evil are involved in the kinds of events that make up the plagues—and how the victory of God is won and implemented.

First, “God’s temple in heaven” is opened (11:19) as part of the seventh trumpet vision that announces “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (that is, the One on the throne and the Lamb) and the time has come “for destroying those who destroy the earth” (11:18). This “time has come” should best be seen as a plot device—the time of the story where we turn to the “destroyers of the earth” and their fate has come. Revelation is not setting out a chronology for the world’s future so much as exhorting its readers to part of the work that will destroy the earth’s destroyers—who are the Powers behind the empires of the world, including the Roman Empire.

The “opening” of the temple here signals the coming change in focus in the second half of the book that will culminate with a return to the temple—though we will see in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two that John has in mind a radically changed notion of the temple.

Revelation 12:1-6—The two main actors

Chapter twelve contains a wealth of images and events—many are cryptic and difficult to understand. As elsewhere in Revelation, with this chapter we should focus more on the overall sensibility that is being conveyed more than expect to see in each of the images a direct correlation with a particular historical person or event. With all the uncertainty we can’t help but have about many of specifics, the general message here is pretty clear—a new dimension is added to the story with the introduction of the Dragon. We are now able better to understand the paradoxes of previous chapters concerning the plagues in relation to the One on the throne who is so closely linked with the Lamb. God is not the only cosmic actor in this drama. Read the rest of this entry »

How Does Jesus Challenge Us Most?

In Biblical theology, christian hospitality, Jesus, peace theology, Theology on January 19, 2015 at 8:23 pm

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, Ohio)—January 18, 2015—Genesis 12:1-3; Leviticus 19:33-34; Matthew 25:34-40

I am happy to be with you this morning. I bring you greetings from Shalom Mennonite Congregation, from the eastern edge of Central District Conference. Also, since we are in the heart of Ohio, I assume some of you may be college football fans. As a lifelong Oregon Duck I have been in mourning this past week, but I am glad that some people I know are happy about Ohio State’s victory last Monday.

Though the title of my sermon is “How does Jesus challenge us most?” I actually plan to start with the Old Testament. Sometimes I think Christians don’t appreciate enough how much Jesus was an Old Testament person. Even as he brought a message of newness and transformation, he still drew heavily on those who came before him. He did not come to abolish the Old Testament law but to fulfill it.

I think about a friend of mine years ago. A Bible study group in our church had just finished the Gospel of Mark. Someone suggested we should do something from the Old Testament. Gwen, an 80-something student of the Bible known for being outspoken stated flatly—“I don’t want to have anything to do with that bloody book!” We persuaded her at least to give it a try and we actually had a good time studying the book of Amos.

What’s at the heart of the Old Testament?

The Old Testament, I believe, when we read it as a whole, can be seen as a book of peace. And it is the source of most of Jesus’s message. So, when we ask how does Jesus challenge us most, one answer—the one I will test this morning—comes from an old fashioned concept that is actually at the heart of the Old Testament.

If we were in a smaller, more intimate setting, I would ask you to come up with one word to describe what the Old Testament presents as crucial to the life of faith. I imagine we would have several possibilities. Think for a second about what you would say. What is the one word you’d use to describe what’s crucial to the life of faith? Then, let me ask, how many of you would say “hospitality”? I am not going to insist that this is the only true answer. But I will insist that hospitality is a very important virtue—something central for Jesus as well—and something very challenging for us. Read the rest of this entry »

The Peace Position During a Time of War

In Anabaptism, Biblical theology, Jesus, Pacifism, Theology on August 20, 2014 at 8:25 am

Ted Grimsrud

[Workshop presentation at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary School for Leadership Training, Harrisonburg, VA, January 17, 2005]

I grew up the child of a father who fought in World War II and a mother who also served in the U.S. military during that war. Our family definitely was not heavily militaristic, but I certainly would willingly have gone into the military myself had I been drafted when I was 19. As it turned out, the draft ended the year I turned 19 as the Vietnam War wound down. In the several years after that, I thought often and intensely about military service and my faith. When I was 22, through a kind of mystical awareness, I came to a clear conviction that I could not, at the same time, be both a follower of Jesus and a participant in or even supporter of warfare.

Only at this point did I first learn of the Mennonite tradition, with its long held refusal to fight in wars. I loved what I learned and, about 25 years ago, joined the Mennonite church. I continue on the process of faith seeking understanding—what does the peace position mean? What’s basis? How might it be put into practice?

Defining “pacifism,” “nonviolence,” and “nonresistance”

The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare. Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight.

Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness. Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love. In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality; there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.

The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism. I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms. One distinction would be to say that “pacifism” focuses more on underlying principles and values, “nonviolence” more on tactics and actions.

“Nonresistance” is the more traditional term, widely used among Mennonites, for the refusal to fight back against evil. Typically, it has carried the connotation of witnessing to peace more through living as an alternative community in some sense separate from secular politics than through direct engagement.

The Bible’s witness to peace

My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare. The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting. Read the rest of this entry »

Pacifism, God, and the punishment of children

In Justice, Pacifism, Restorative justice, Salvation, Theology, Uncategorized on May 17, 2014 at 10:05 am

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Good grief

In Biblical theology, Theology on April 6, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—April 6, 2014—John 11:35

The scripture text this morning is short, in fact don’t yawn or anything like that when I read it or you might miss it. But you probably know it. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. The King James Version of John 11:35 says it this way: “Jesus wept.” The New Revised Standard Version is a bit more expansive: “Jesus began to weep.” I guess those translators couldn’t stand it that an entire verse had only two words.

Small verse, big message

I want to take these two (or four) words, this little Bible verse, and make a big statement. At this point of Jesus weeping, of Jesus experiencing deep grief—the word translated “wept” could actually be translated “wailed and lamented;” it signifies something quite intense—when Jesus weeps he shows us the intersection between the divine and the human like nothing else he ever did. In his grieving, Jesus most clearly shows us what God is like.

It’s notable that the Gospel of John, of all the gospels, shows us that Jesus wept. John’s Jesus is the most divine of the four gospels, the most—we could almost say—superhuman of the four Jesuses presented in the gospels. Yet John makes the point that Jesus weeps. I want to say that this fits; the most exalted, God-manifesting Jesus is the one who weeps, the one who grieves.

The godness of God is seen in God’s grief. The divine presence in humanity is seen, as much as anywhere, when we grieve. Our grief marks us as creatures made in God’s image, as creatures who possess the spark of God—even as our grief also marks us as human, all too human, fragile creatures, all too fragile.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually think of grief as all that great of a thing. I think of the few moments of deep grief that I have experience and I would be more than happy to have bypassed those moments. Though, as I reflect a bit, I realize that what I would want to bypass are the experiences that led to the grief, not the grief itself—grief was a response on the way to healing.

Let’s think about how we use the word grief. But first a tangent. Read the rest of this entry »