Nonviolent God?

J. Denny Weaver (Nonviolent Atonement, 7) states a common view among contemporary Mennonites when he argues that traditional atonement theories only work “if one is willing to defend the compatibility of violence and retribution with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He argues for continuity between the character of God, atonement theology, and Christian ethics: All must be non-violent. A non-violent ethics rests on trust in a non-violent God.

As Perry Yoder points out in his essay in Struggles for Shalom, this represents a shift in Mennonite theology: “In making a case for nonresistance or pacifism, earlier Mennonite scholars denied neither the ‘violence’ of God or the retributive justice of God as presented in the biblical account’ (13). He quotes from Guy Hershberger’s 1991 War, Peace, and Nonresistance, “there is no contradiction between the Christian ethic of love for others and God’s wrath and judgment” (Yoder, 15).

And Yoder doesn’t think that the shift has been openly acknowledged or adequately defended. He observes that Weaver doesn’t show “how the hermeneutics and assumptions of the preceding tradition were in error” (19). Biblically, he observes that “it is not obvious from a plain-sense reading of the Gospels that Jesus’s God was in fact or in principle nonviolent,” citing Matthew 10:15 and 26:51-53 among other texts.

He thinks that one issue has to do with the difference between a “biblical” argument, which can be constructed from “a few key verses,” and a “canonical” one, which takes account of all the messiness and variety of the whole Bible (22). A canonical approach makes it impossible for us to tie up all loose ends, but “it would bring a corrective to proof texting . . . and the tunnel vision that results” (22).

As always, there is also an issue of theology proper: “The problem with the God of the canon is that God is God. God’s being cannot be limited by definition, nor can God’s character be logically represented. Scripture represents the dilemma of thinking about a radically free God by positing seemingly contradictory attributes of the divine” (23). Indeed, given the role that pleas for justice and retribution have in the prayers of Scripture, “peace” detached from God’s retribution, justice, punishment, and violence against evil, “may be a middle-class luxury and part of the ideology of oppression” (25).

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