J. Denny Weaver is professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio. The excerpt below is taken from his new book, The Nonviolent God.
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Christian faith begins with a narrative — the story of Jesus Christ. Christian theology, literally our words about the God of Jesus Christ, emerges as reflections on that story and its meaning.
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Since the narrative of Jesus in the New Testament pictures Jesus’ rejection of violence and his refusal to use the sword, the traditional confession that God is revealed in this story calls for understanding God in terms of nonviolent images. That God should be understood with nonviolent images constitutes the major thesis of this book. In this discussion, narrative Christus Victor emerges as an atonement motif that not only contrasts with the classic motifs but, most significantly, shows that the important differences concern their contrasting images of God. Whereas the God of the classic atonement motifs uses or sanctions violence as God’s modus operandi in the world, the God of narrative Christus Victor is a God who saves through the power of resurrection and the restoration of life. For this reason, narrative Christus Victor is described as a nonviolent atonement image. . . .
This book presents a theology for living, a theology that is lived. Being identified as “Christian” involves a way of living, a way of life that is identified by the story of Jesus. The theologizing of the book in hand draws on the narrative of Jesus. To describe the life of Jesus (or the nature of the reign of God made visible in Jesus) is to describe the basis of the Christian life. Conversely, to ask how one identified by Christ — a Christian — should live requires a description of the life of Jesus. It is drawing on the narrative of Jesus as the basis of theology that gives this theology for living its distinct character. With the reference to the life of Jesus, it could be called a discipleship theology or a theology for disciples of Jesus.
Being Christian is a commitment to the living Christ, a commitment to live in his story. Theology or doctrine are the words by which we describe the Jesus of that commitment. Ethics or the Christian life is the lived version of that commitment. The words of the book in hand display this kind of theology. Alongside the written theology, the Christian life provides a living picture of the continuing presence of Jesus in the world. This lived version and the accompanying written and oral version — theology— are inseparable. To do theology with words is to provide the basis for living the Christian life, and without the lived version the theology in words devolves into mere abstractions. This volume is an attempt to sketch the theology that is lived as a commitment to the risen Christ.
The theologizing in this book speaks to three sets of questions. The first is, “How is the story of Jesus a saving story?” That is, “What is the meaning of salvation and how is it found in this story?” This question leads into a second, “How does the salvation found in the saving story of Jesus impact contemporary lives, our lives today, as Christians?” That is, “How are the lives we live as Christians changed by virtue of finding salvation in the story of Jesus?” Readers will discover that answers to these two questions are inseparable — experiencing salvation and living as a Christian are each an expression of the other. To experience salvation is to live as a Christian.
In these two answers one discovers the presence of God in the story of Jesus. It is a story of salvation because God is in this story, and the discussion of how it is a saving story points to the relationship of God to Jesus Christ. With the discussion of Jesus’ relationship to God, we enter the realm of one of the classic theological concerns in the early centuries of the church, namely how Jesus relates to God. The answer that emerged in the early church was the profession that God is truly or fully present and revealed in Jesus Christ.
I agree with the profession from the early church that God was fully present and revealed in Jesus, which leads to the third question addressed by this book. It concerns God, and more specifically, the character of God. “What is the character of the God revealed in Jesus Christ?” Discussing the character of God is perhaps the most crucial issue of all. The answer impacts one’s view of reality as a whole, or what John Howard Yoder famously called “the grain of the universe.”
Theologizing that starts from the narrative of Jesus rather than as reflections shaped by the classic formulas does produce some alternative images. . . . As will become clear in several sections of the book, the narrative of Jesus is virtually absent from the classic formulas and confessions of theology, namely Christology and Trinity as well as the classic atonement images. In contrast, the new formulations based specifically on the narrative reflect Jesus’ rejection of violence. Of course, the classic formulations are also theologizing on what the New Testament says about Jesus. Using biblical material and from within their particular context, the authors of the classic statements identify Jesus with God or deity and with humanity as categories. However, these formulations provide little that puts the specifics of Jesus’ life as a man on display. The new formulations (or the efforts to produce new formulations) thus reveal the extent to which theology that treats the classic images of Christology as the unquestioned norm can accommodate violence, and display how the classic atonement theories model violence and innocent, passive submission to violence.
Discussion of these issues appears in several sections of this book. Coming to see the importance of understanding God with nonviolent images and what that view implies for other questions is a developing, multilayered discussion. One result is that the classic images also emerge as a theology for living, but a quite different version of Christian living than that projected by the book in hand. The pages to follow will put on display the extent to which images of God are mirrored in Christian practice, whether those of a violent or a nonviolent God.
That God was revealed in the story of Jesus, and that the image of God reflects the nature of reality and produces alternative images thus leads directly to a challenge to the common perception that an all-powerful God acts in the world with violence. It seems to me that one of the great and longest-running distortions in Christian theology has been the attribution of violence and violent intent to the will and activity of God. But if God is truly revealed in Jesus Christ, and if Jesus rejected violence, as is almost universally believed, then the God revealed in Jesus Christ should be pictured in nonviolent images. If God is truly revealed in the nonviolent Christ, then God should not be described as a God who sanctions and employs violence. Part I of this book develops the argument for the nonviolence of God, which emerges from the discussion of atonement imagery and is itself a way of talking about the narrative of Jesus as a saving story. Part II then sketches some implication of living in the narrative of Jesus that reveals this understanding of God.
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