Mennonites and Jesus

Photo by birdfarm.

In a comment a couple posts back, Krista Smith asks, “how much does a Mennonite believe in Jesus?” Which is a great question, and one I’m going to try and tackle here.

(You should also check out Krista’s blog Salt City Food – even if you’re not in Salt Lake City, there are some delicious-looking recipes.)

So what do Mennonites think about Jesus? The short, flip answer is that Mennonites like him a lot. The longer, messier answer is that when this Mennonite says he likes Jesus (and, though he is a product of both Mennonite high school and undergrad, he is not necessarily a representative sample) he means something a bit different from what most Christians mean by that. Mennonites are good trinitarians, mind you, but we understand the crucifixion of Jesus as more than just a sacrifice for our personal sins – we understand it as the example by which we must live, and the lens through which we view the rest of the Bible.

Christus victor

This view was best articulated by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (no relation) in his book The Politics of Jesus. Yoder argued that, in freely submitting to death on the cross, God (in the person of Jesus) subverts and triumphs over the worldly power of the Roman Empire that crucified him – Yoder’s perspective here is related to the “Christus victor”, or Christ victorious, view of the Crucifixion. Furthermore, Yoder interprets the Gospel to mean that Christians are to imitate Jesus by freely submitting themselves to nonviolent service, even total sacrifice, for others around them:

It is often mistakenly held that the key concept of Jesus’ ethic is the “Golden Rule”: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is stated by Jesus, however, not as the sum of his own teachings, but as the center of the law (Mark 12:28f; Matthew 22:40, citing Leviticus 19:15). But Jesus’ own “fulfillment” of this thrust of the law, which thereby becomes through his own work a “new commandment”… is different, “Do as I have done to you” or “do as the Father did in sending his son.”

This is the underpinning of Mennonite pacifism, and our understanding that Christians are called to service and peacemaking as much as to proselytizing.

The Gospel first

This perspective on Jesus is closely associated with – or even gives rise to – the way Mennonites view the Bible. Though we believe that it is sacred, and “God-breathed,” we also believe that the Bible is not a “flat” book, with every verse given equal theological weight. For Mennonites, the “weightiest” part of the biblical text is the Gospel message, centering on the teachings of Jesus, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. All other passages are interpreted in light of the Gospels’ text. So, rather than understanding Old Testament passages that seem to sanction war or slavery as evidence that God likes either of those things, we look through the Gospel lens and conclude that these are records of life before the example set by Jesus, not models for Christian behavior.

This perspective is actually very important to me, as a scientist. If the Bible is not one monolithic whole, but a collection of stories, I can understand, say, the Genesis creation narrative as a symbolic account of God’s relationship to the universe without necessarily having to treat the Gospel in exactly the same way.

Further reading

But don’t take my off-the-cuff theologizing as the last word; the website of Mennonite Church USA has user-friendly explanations of Mennonite thought and doctrine and links to denominational documents that go into way more detail than this.

2 thoughts on “Mennonites and Jesus

  1. Thanks for answering my question and giving my blog a shout out. So in your mind how have you resolved evolution and Christianity? Did God create everything or just somethings?

  2. Krista,

    Well, I owe you at least that shout-out for taking an interest in my own cyber-ramblings – thanks for coming by and starting a conversation! In many ways, I’m still trying to figure out how God fits into a world that operates by its own self-consistent laws (including evolution). My current position is that natural forces and evolutionary processes are responsible for the origin and diversification of life on Earth – but that God is still somehow responsible for it all. I posted on this subject back when I was just starting to blog, and although that piece looks a little bit imprecise and fluffy to me now, I still mostly think that way: just because science can explain something, whether it’s the motion of the planets through space or the origin of life, doesn’t mean it’s not also miraculous.

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