Since the fall of 1996, I have taught Introduction to Theology at Eastern Mennonite University, a class for lower-level undergrads. At the beginning of the semester, when I go over the course goals, I tell the students that by successfully completing the class, they will discover that theology is interesting, fun, and important.
I have not done a survey of students who took the class to see if indeed the class did achieve the predicted outcome, but I am happy to make the same claim for any who successfully complete reading this book!
My sources for the chapters that follow, along with years of reading theological writing, come from two places. The dozen or so times I have taught Introduction to Theology and dozens of sermons over the years on theological themes. Most immediately, with this book in mind, I preached thirteen sermons at Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Reflecting this “sermonic” agenda, I seek in this book mostly to encourage readers toward themselves embodying Jesus’ way—more than simply supplying academic information.
I am grateful to my friends who
are part of Shalom both
the opportunity to take on this experiment of constructing doctrinal
theology in the pulpit and for the follow-up discussions after the
sermons that pushed, prodded, and affirmed.
My most important theological influence continues to be John Howard Yoder. One Yoder theme that looms large in what follows is his understanding of “tradition.” As I seek to do, Yoder wrote as an Anabaptist theologian—one who orients all elements of Christian theology and ethics in relation to the Jesus Christ of the Gospels.
Yoder proposed that we best understand tradition not so much like “an ongoing growth like a tree” but more like a vine: “a story of constant interruption of organic growth in favor of pruning and a new chance for the roots.” This “pruning” is a kind of “looping back,” “a glance over the shoulder to enable a midcourse correction, a rediscovery of something from the past whose pertinence was not seen before, because only a new question or challenge enables us to see it speaking to us” (“The Authority of Tradition,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 69).
I understand the story of Jesus to be the “root” for Christian theology, and I attempt to use it as a basis for criticism and ongoing evaluation for present-day faith convictions. This approach leads to a kind of relativizing of post-biblical creeds, confession, and “orthodoxies.” This relativizing is not a move toward a general relativism born out of modernist or “liberal” sensitivities. To the contrary, it is a profoundly conservative interpretive move in the sense of placing priority on the originating vision of our faith. And it stems from a confession of Jesus’ divinity, his identity as God incarnate—that is, God manifest in this flesh-and-blood life. (Here again I follow Yoder. See especially his classic text built on this link between the content of Jesus’ life and teaching and our confession of his divinity, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd. ed., Eerdmans, 1994).
To relativize post-biblical creeds, confessions, and “orthodoxies” is not to reject them. It is simply to insist that they be evaluated in light of the founding revelation in Jesus. The roots are not grown away from as the “tradition as tree-like” image suggests. Rather, they retain a living presence meant to enhance our continuing theological reflection and our lived convictions.
Christian theology, of course, emerges as a communal enterprise. Along with my several congregations and college classes, I also have gained immeasurably from conversations, short and lengthy, relaxed and heated, over many years with friends. Most directly related to this book, I want to thank EMU colleagues such as Ray Gingerich, Christian Early, Nancy Heisey, Earl Zimmerman, and Mark Thiessen Nation for all the great talk.
Even more, I want to thank former EMU colleague and Shalom congregant, David Kratz Mathies, not only for great talk but also for reading through my manuscript and offering innumerable perceptive comments.
And most of all, as always, I want to thank my partner in so many things, Kathleen Temple, for great talk and everything else.
—Ted Grimsrud, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Copyright © 2009 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC