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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 116–119 

Book Review

God Without Violence: Following a Nonviolent God in a Violent World

J. Denny Weaver. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016. 199 pages.

Reviewed by Keith Graber Miller

In his most recent text, Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Bluffton (Ohio) University, sets out to write an accessible, more user-friendly distillation of his previous tomes The Nonviolent Atonement (2nd ed., Eerdmans, 2011) and The Nonviolent God (Eerdmans, 2013). Weaver is intent to demonstrate how every theology implies an ethic, “the link between what Christians believe about God and Jesus, and how Christians should act” (17). This is the driving force behind Weaver’s exploration of traditional Christian theological understandings of God and Jesus: what we believe about Jesus should and will affect how we live, so it’s best to have more faithful understandings of God’s work in Jesus.

Beginning with a five-year-old child’s innocent question to his mother following a Sunday school lesson—“A parent would never put their child to death on the cross, right?”—Weaver doggedly critiques {117} “inherited understandings” of Jesus’s life, mission, and death. His rejection of “inherited understandings” or “orthodoxy” (defined as right opinion, or accepted and authorized belief)—a term he doesn’t use until near the end of the book—is consistent with his earlier work as well as with a spate of other recent Mennonite theologians who believe that much of the orthodoxy reified and concretized in early Christian creeds has led Christians astray for most of the last fifteen centuries. In his helpful, late-in-the-text chapter titled “Reading the Bible Again,” Weaver writes: “Some Christian traditions consider creedal formulas developed in the fourth and fifth centuries to be the authoritative norms that determine the truthfulness of theology today. But from the perspective explained here, namely that theology is always in process, using fourth- and fifth-century statements as the authoritative theological norms is to come into an ongoing story in the middle, and then to attempt to stop further developments in the theological story” (140–41).

One can easily imagine using God Without Violence in an undergraduate theology course or in an educated Sunday School class. The book is written, says Weaver, for adult questioners disturbed by the implications of a violent God, some of whom already have left the church and others who haven’t left but find themselves troubled by traditional theological beliefs about Jesus’s life and death and God’s violence (3).

As Weaver says, he sought to write a “popular theology” rather than an “academic theology” (ix), and he succeeds in doing so through some sections of the book, explaining complex theological terms in simple language, referencing sporting analogies and telling illuminating stories to illustrate his points. Quite useful for groups are Lisa Weaver’s seven pages of “Discussion Questions” at the end of the book (201–7) e.g., “What religious or faith questions did you have as a child? Have they been resolved, or do they remain with you to this day?” “In what ways do you assess the world around you? Emotional? Theological? Spiritual? Biological? Psychological?” “How does your life reflect your belief systems, religious or otherwise?”

Chapters 2 through 6 of the text address atonement, nonviolence, and forgiveness, condensing key thrusts of Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement. “For perhaps eight centuries, some version of satisfaction or penal substitutionary atonement has been the dominant motif, along with the assumption that this motif reflected the writing of Paul,” says Weaver (195). Those are the views the author sets out to counter, and he does so by privileging the Synoptic Gospels and narratives about Jesus over Pauline texts, as he did in the first edition of The Nonviolent Atonement. Near the end of God Without Violence, Weaver returns to Paul, drawing extensively on David Brondos’s Paul on the Cross (Fortress, {118} 2006), which makes Paul more useful for Weaver’s rendering. In Brondos’s new interpretation of Paul, says Weaver, “the death of Jesus has no saving impact in and of itself . . . Jesus’ death is rather the consequence of faithfully carrying out his mission to witness to the salvation of the reign of God” (193–94).

In this text, as with The Nonviolent Atonement, Weaver lays out the various classical theories of atonement, ultimately rejecting them and then proposing a refurbishing of the Christus Victor motif by speaking of “nonviolent atonement as a narrative version of Christus Victor” (38). While rejecting many “inherited understandings” of atonement, Weaver is committed to hanging onto Jesus’s resurrection, which figures prominently in Christus Victor. Were it not for that, Weaver’s narrative approach would perhaps make more sense as a theological refurbishing of Peter Abelard’s (1079–1142) “moral influence theory” of atonement, which suggests Jesus’s life and death were aimed at changing humans more than changing God.

The atonement chapters are followed by two chapters on the ethics of Jesus, with a focus on economics, race, ethnicity, and gender. Although insightful, appropriate, and relevant given Weaver’s focus on Jesus’s life rather than his death, those sections seem less integrated with the overall text.

Chapters 8 through 12 address God’s omnipotence and violence/nonviolence, drawing more from Weaver’s other major theological work, The Nonviolent God. Suggesting that “the Old Testament does not present a uniform picture of God” but instead evidences “a conversation—even a debate—about the character of God,” Weaver delineates examples of the violence and nonviolence of God in Hebrew Scriptures. The balance is tipped, though, says Weaver, in the narrative of Jesus: “The story of Jesus, who rejected violence, finds its roots in the images of the nonviolent God and the nonviolent responses to conflict” (130). This approach may work for some Christians but may be too simplistic for other “people of the Book.”

Chapters 14 through 16 address the book of Revelation, which is clearly another of Weaver’s concerns, in terms of how Revelation is traditionally rendered. While “inherited understandings” of Revelation’s violence may make that biblical book relevant for this analysis, these chapters in Weaver’s volume also seem less directly integrated into his overall text, seemingly intruding into the flow of the volume.

The final chapters of the text return to the notion of whether theology can and has changed in relation to Christology and the atonement. Weaver’s answer to that, of course, is a resounding yes: “We need to be open to ways that questions that arise in our society may send us back {119} to the narrative of Jesus with new questions that produce different theological formulations” (199).

Overall, the project succeeds in providing a mostly accessible text that combines some of Weaver’s key teaching/writing themes from his life’s work as a professor. On occasion, that gives the book a bit of a “cobbled” feel, though that doesn’t undermine its worth. And while the battles he is fighting aren’t every Christian’s battles and his conclusions won’t be everyone’s conclusions, I suspect Anabaptist-type readers will be richer for the journey, the stimulation, and the opportunity to reflect critically on “inherited understandings.”

Keith Graber Miller
Professor of Bible, Religion and Philosophy
Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana

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