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Confessing Jesus

I spent the latter half of last week at a Canadian Mennonite Brethren study conference in Saskatoon, SK where the topic under discussion was what it means to “confess Jesus” in a pluralistic world.  It was a good conference on many levels.  If provided a chance to see my brother and many other friends (old and new) from around Canada, to listen to intellectually stimulating lectures, and participate in many interesting conversations.  All in all, it was four days very well spent.

So today I’m sitting here trying to distill the events and topics of the conference into something I can actually pin down and translate into terms that mean something “on the ground.”  The “so what?” question always looms large after these kinds of conferences, at least for me.  Much as I enjoy and value ideas for their own sake, I do feel that ideas—especially the best and most important ideas—have deep significance for specialists and non-specialists alike, and that it is part of my job to figure out what this might be.  Presumably, those who spent three days in Saskatoon last week ought to have something to say if asked, “So how do we confess Jesus in a pluralistic world?

One of the peculiarities of this particular conference was that, for many in attendance, the main topic wasn’t really the main topic.  As I’ve mentioned before (here, here and here), the nature of the atonement has become a bit of a lively issue in the MB Conference and some folks in attendance certainly seemed to come to Saskatoon seeking clarity/resolution on what, exactly, Canadian MBs believe about this.  Some sought an assertion of the primacy of penal substitution as the “controlling metaphor” of how we understand what was accomplished by the cross of Christ.  An important part of “confessing Jesus in a pluralistic world,” for some, seemed to involve achieving greater doctrinal precision as a denomination on this question.

The guest speaker at the conference was Thomas Yoder Neufeld and I found his perspective on Christology immensely helpful (and attractive).  In his final lecture, he talked about the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25:31-46.  There are many unsettling and destabilizing implications of this passage, but one theme that comes through quite clearly is that whatever else “confessing Jesus” might mean (in a pluralistic world or any other kind of world), active service to the “least of these” is a crucially important part of it.  We perhaps tend to think of “confession” primarily in terms of the words we say, the propositions we affirm, the creeds we recite, etc.  According to Yoder Neufeld, though, “our confession is null unless it is tethered to service of the other.”

Null.  Not, “less authentic,” not “requiring application.”


Lofty Christologies or theories of the atonement might make us feel good or religious or faithful to Scripture or some other thing.  But the Jesus of the gospels seems less interested in people thinking exalted or precise enough thoughts about his identity or about the mechanics of what his death and resurrection accomplished than he is with them following the pattern of his life—a life devoted to the love of God and neighbour, to the breaking down of barriers between people, to suffering and weakness as the ironic and triumphant display of the wisdom of God.  One of the haunting questions Yoder Neufeld left us with is this: “Is our Christology too high to go as low as Jesus did?”

A while back I came across an image that, while spoken about the American evangelical context, seemed relevant to me as I listened to Yoder Neufeld’s last lecture in the context of some of the things we get worked up about in our little denomination.  The image is this: if Christ is represented by his church, and if the church is Christ’s body, and if the body is comprised of many different (essential) parts, then for the last fifty years or so, the “body” of Christ has looked like a giant mouth with atrophied arms and legs, hands and feet.  In a pluralistic world, which is very familiar with the mouth of Christ’s body, perhaps the time has come for the church to confess with some of the recently under-utilized parts of the body.

I interpreted Yoder Neufeld’s challenge to Canadian MBs along these lines.  I interpreted his call as one to “confess” Jesus in a manner more faithful to the pattern of Jesus himself—a pattern where orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not separate entities, with the latter a result of the former, but two essential components of any faithful confession of Jesus in a pluralistic world.

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. ghettoblackify #


    October 19, 2009
  2. Ken #

    I sense that the battle over the atonement, or over which theory is given supremacy, is part of a power struggle for setting the political agenda of the church and for influencing the politics of the nation. Do you believe that is true?

    Coincidentally, I have been reading a book titled, “The Nature of the Atonement,” in which four evangelical theologians or Bible scholars debate which theory is primary. Four are considered: christus victor, penal sub, healing and kaleidoscopic. I had never heard of the healing one before reading this book and I found it very interesting. It is built largely on the passages in which Jesus healed diseases. In reading this book I realize that no matter which atonement theory a writer emphasizes that it is apparently possible to bend it or express it or use it support virtually any political theory.

    I have not heard of Yoder-Neufeld. It sounds like he and you prefer theologies that radicals describe as being “from the bottom-up.” It is a political view. To declare other theologies null, as he did, is not an easy way to get along in a pluralistic age.

    I agree with you to some extent on the connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, although I am not inclined to emphasize either or both. It is an old religious idea to believe that we should try conform our ways to the patterns of our gods or to the ways of the heavens, or, in modernity, to the ways of nature. In our time of acute awareness of hermeneutics it very hard to say what the pattern of Jesus is. We are aware now that believing is seeing. It is an uncomfortable awareness. It is frightening to accept the idea that there is no heavenly pattern. It is an idea we inevitably face in a pluralistic, small world. I think Christianity is, for the most part, engaged in its denial. Perhaps it has no other choice.

    October 19, 2009
    • Speaking from a Canadian perspective, I would say that the “battle over the atonement” certainly involves a struggle for setting the agenda for the church, but not for the nation. That combination seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon, at least to me.

      I’m not convinced it is that difficult to say what the pattern of Jesus is, at least not prohibitively so. While there are certainly passages that puzzle, the general idea seems reasonably clear: love God, love your neighbour. Sometimes we are so eager to deconstruct and “discover” all the agendas, biases, and limitations we think are a part of the gospels, that we miss the things that are clear. To say that we don’t see perfectly isn’t to say that we don’t see anything at all.

      I’m aware of the book you referred to, but have not yet read it. Perhaps its time to put it on my list 🙂

      October 19, 2009
  3. I love your image of a body with “giant mouth but atrophied arms and legs, hands and feet.” I think it’s exactly right – and mirrors Jamie Smith’s comments on our rationalist anthropology, so “fixated on the cognitive that it assumes a picture of human beings that look like bobble heads.” Perhaps part of what has happened is that we have spent so much time congratulating ourselves on keeping a consistently ‘counter-cultural’ message that we’ve overlooked our wholesale adoption of the modern medium – rhetoric divorced from action, hearing untangled from doing, speech divided from act, cognition separated from real, material bodies.

    Not, of course, that we simply need more willpower to do what we say, which is just mind over matter thinking, but that we need to incarnate our theology in social liturgies that train us to do what we say, and say what we do, and thereby learn truthfulness. But now I’m blabbering about my pet subject again…

    Anyway, great post.

    October 19, 2009
    • Thanks Michael. I like your phrase:

      we need to incarnate our theology in social liturgies that train us to do what we say, and say what we do, and thereby learn truthfulness.

      I think this is bang on. Truth goes beyond—far beyond—cognitive content. We need to (re)learn how to live truthfully. I think this is necessary at all times, but perhaps uniquely so in our postmodern, pluralistic context.

      October 19, 2009
  4. great post Ryan

    October 19, 2009
  5. Larry S #

    thanks for this post, Ryan; I had actually forgotten about the Conference.

    I enjoyed the oversized mouth image of the church – great word picture. I’ve heard the term ‘controlling metaphor’ but reading it again in your post got me thinking: if we are dealing with ‘metaphor’ which points to another larger reality isn’t it a mistake for one metaphor to ‘control’ other metaphors.

    October 20, 2009
    • Yeah, the term “controlling” metaphor evokes similar reactions in me. The sense I’ve gotten is that people are happy for other metaphors (Christus Victor, moral influence, healing, etc) to have a place in how we understand the atonement, but only underneath the big tent of penal substitution. As I’ve probably said too many times on this blog, this isn’t a position I agree with.

      October 20, 2009
  6. “our confession is null unless it is tethered to service of the other.”

    Amen to that brother.

    October 20, 2009
  7. Ken #

    Re: “the least of these:”

    Footnotes in the Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible say that the expression seems to refer to Christians, that “the least of these” are Christians – they were the ones naked, imprisoned and hungry. Similarly, in related passages the expression “little ones” appears to refer to Christians. It was apparently read as encouragement by early Christians that they had God on their side and that their tormentors would be punished.

    As you know, neither the NRSV, nor the Harper Collins Study Bible (HCSB) have a conservative tilt. Although the NRSV translators and HCSB editors generally have a liberal tilt, my impression is that for the most part the intent of the HCSB is historical transparency.

    I don’t think Neufeld reads this passage that way. I think the HCSB notes are likely to better reflect the historical meaning, the meaning to Matthew and the readers who made Matthew part of the canon. Neufeld’s exegesis has other roots. Perhaps the only thing similar in his reading with that of the early Christians is his conviction that God is on his side. (That is what he believes is his license to nullify other confessions.)

    His conviction has more support, perhaps, in Isaiah 58. But Isaiah 58 is part of all of Isaiah and there are many confessions in Isaiah, some of which I suspect Neufeld would nullify. And Isaiah 58 is not central to the book or the Bible or centuries of Jewish and Christian theology. Neither Isaiah 58, nor the book of Isaiah, nor the Bible is “tethered to service to others.” I would suggest instead that they are all held together by the idea of a covenant between God and Israel and, through that relationship, with all of humanity. The covenant does not reduce to any of its parts, including service to others.

    It is dangerous in a pluralistic world to believe that one confession nullifies all others no matter how benevolent we believe it is. That belief is especially dangerous when one believes that that one confession is divine.

    October 20, 2009
    • So do you think it is improper to extend the imperative beyond Christians? Do you think Jesus would have considered a more generic interpretation of “the least of these” an illegitimate/incorrect interpretation of his words?

      I don’t think Yoder Neufeld’s exegesis departs too drastically from the initial meaning (as interpreted by the HCSB). I think there is ample evidence throughout Scripture that God intends for his followers’ concerns to extend beyond their own group, whether that group is Israel or the church.

      I also don’t think he is trying to “nullify” other confessions. His concern is simply with the nature of Christian confession, not what it says about others. I think first-century readers (and those before them) would have found our hyper-cognitive approaches to the nature of confession/profession odd. As I understand things, it would have made little sense, on a Hebrew view, to see cognitive belief and lived expression of this belief as two separate things. That’s all I think Yoder Neufeld was getting at.

      October 20, 2009
      • Ken #

        Re: So do you think it is improper to extend the imperative beyond Christians? Do you think Jesus would have considered a more generic interpretation of “the least of these” an illegitimate/incorrect interpretation of his words?

        I am not sure how to answer. The note in the HCSB indicates that the concern was for Christians, rather than a generic concern. I think that the passage is largely a recycling of Isaiah 58, placing Christians in the place of the those who are naked, hungry and thirsty. I think it is unlikely that Jesus had the same concern that is associated with modern Christian pieties or moralities like the one Neufeld expressed. I don’t think we would recognize the historical Jesus if we encountered him.

        I think the passage in Matthew was intended to comfort Christians and condemn the people who treated them poorly. That is not at all how this passage is mostly read today in pulpits. Neufeld’s understanding of this passage is normal for our time, even if it is different from the original meaning.

        My understanding was that Neufeld was saying that confessions, Christian confessions, that are not tethered to service to others are null. I am suggesting that this is a hard position to sustain, especially in a pluralistic society with such diverse confessions, Christain and other. Few people would agree that the others are null. There are many confessions within Christianity. Neufelf appears to be saying they are null unless they are tethered the way he believes they should be. I am also suggesting that taking such a stand, that every other confession not so tethered is null, is dangerous. It is dangerous to the person taking such a stand and to those who do not agree. It is an all or nothing position. It is especially dangerous when a person has a conviction that taking such a stand is the will of God. I think peace depends on most of us not holding such convictions.

        October 20, 2009
      • Yes, but even if, in this particular passage, “the least of these” is meant to refer primarily—or even exclusively—to Christians (still a big “if,” in my opinion), I think my point remains. There is more than enough to go on throughout Scripture to establish that God intends for our concern to extend beyond ourselves and our group (this is leaving aside the issue that there were, strictly speaking, no “Christians” yet at this point in the story). The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most obvious examples that leaps to mind. If Jesus’ conception of who the neighbour we are supposed to love includes the Jews’ most hated enemy, presumably everyone in between would qualify as well. I don’t think this footnote invalidates Yoder Neufeld’s concern that our actions ought to match up—indeed, are a part of—our professed belief.

        October 21, 2009
      • Ken #

        Although I would not personally use the moral expression “ought to match up” to connect words and action here, I do agree that words and actions are normally related. It is his idea that confessions that are not tethered to service to others are null that I think is not easy to sustain within Christianity or outside of it and that is dangerous to self and others. In addition, I think that associating divine sanction with any political or moral idea, including benevolence, is dangerous to self and others in the way that Taylor described at the end of Sources of the Self and that Nietzsche and many others before Taylor have described.

        I have been reading Origen lately. He saw Christian life as tethered to another passage in Matthew. He mutilated himself for the kingdom.

        My confession, such as it is, is not tethered to service to others. While something like service or benevolence is certainly part of it, I cannot say that it is the center pole or its limit. I don’t think my own confession has a center pole, unless it is hope. And hope is not a limit; it is ultimately perhaps nothing other than the mask of despair. According to Neufeld, my confession is null.

        I once asked a Benedictine monk what was the mission of his community. He said that it was to praise God. I had been expecting an answer involving service to others. He said that some people criticize his community because service to others is not their mission. According to Neufeld, their confession is null. Within the Roman tradition, the prayers of the monks are a service to the Church and to humanity, but that is a defense rather than the underlying justification of the monastic tradition. Others in the Roman Church have a mission of service to others, or rather, charity. The center of the Roman tradition is, of course, the Eucharist. It justifies itself.

        My suggestion to Neufeld is to not nullify other Christians or other people or other confessions, but to say instead that the missions and confessions of various branches of Christianity and of individuals and groups within Christianity are complementary, something like Paul expressed in 1 Corinthians 12.

        October 21, 2009
      • I can understand how Yoder Neufeld’s words might seem harsh. On one level, it does sound like he is condemning all expressions of Christianity that are not “active” enough (for lack of a better word). Perhaps the word “null” would have been best avoided by Yoder Neufeld, although as always the context in which a word is used matters immensely. I think he understood his context well. From my perspective, we needed to be challenged to worry less about the precision of our verbal confession and more about how our confession was expressed in concrete action.

        I don’t think my own confession has a center pole, unless it is hope. And hope is not a limit; it is ultimately perhaps nothing other than the mask of despair.

        I don’t like the language of limits, but I do like your use of “center pole.” And I think that hope absolutely is the center pole of all our confessions. I think that the Christian hope is a big and wide and gracious space. I think it can be a mask for despair, a spur to serving others and everything in between.

        I like your last paragraph. I think there is room within Christianity to make room for different kinds of confession, or at the very least, to allow that people are at various stages along a journey to confess Christ in a way most consonant with the pattern of the NT (acknowledging that we only ever see “through a glass darkly).

        October 22, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Very lucid and loving post, Ryan. I look forward to reading your thought with regard to what, “on the ground” might look like.

    October 20, 2009
  9. James #

    Hi Ken
    I’m normally a lurker in this blog but I was at the Study Session so here are a couple of thoughts re: the matter of the need for confessions being tethered to service.
    1. This is not an arbitrary theological concept but is “tethered” to Biblical statements like James 2:17 “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Unambiguous, IMO.
    2. This is not an attempt to judge various branches of the Christian faith and their actions- merely the observation that Kingdom action is a vital to Kingdom faith. This is not a foregone conclusion.
    3. As Anabaptists the focus of our time together is the examination of our own community. The tethering of words to action is particularly poignant for academic study sessions since it seems to me that Jesus’ strongest invective was directed at academics. “Woe to you experts in the law . . .” [Luke 11:45-52]. As one, whom people consider to be an expert I came away with much the same reflections as Ryan. Splitting hairs is great fun for some of us but it must never to be an industry unto itself. It is a trap that those of us who are word smiths need to be reminded of.

    October 21, 2009
    • Ken #

      It sounds like Neufeld was saying something that seemed on target in the context of the Anabaptist tradition that both you and Ryan heard.

      I think that Ryan and I tend to have a different posture related to morality – a difference that neither of us quite understands, or that is mutually puzzling. That may also be related to our reactions to Neufeld’s statement about nullification. I imagine that I am hearing a harshness in Neufeld that he and you are not hearing. Similarly, Ryan and I react differently to Dallas Willard, a writer that I think sounds loving to Ryan and harsh to me. For the record, I do not hear that harshness in Ryan’s writing or in yours. Ryan has a fine analytical mind and fine heart and it is a pleasure to be able to discuss these points with him. And his postings always make me think.

      October 21, 2009
      • Thank you very much, Ken.

        October 22, 2009
  10. Dave Chow #

    Great post Ryan!

    I could be wrong on this, but I thought TYN actually said that our Christology has to be high enough, in order for it to go as low as Jesus did (see Matthew 25). That thought has really provoked some thinking for me.

    October 21, 2009
    • Hmm, well that’s not what I have in my notes. But I could certainly be wrong as well. I think either way his point remains. Our understanding of what a “high” Christology looks like has to be shaped by what Jesus actually did—by the “foolish” and “weak” way in which God chose to redeem his world.

      October 22, 2009
  11. James #

    Hi Ken
    The interactions between you, Ryan and Paul is one of the things that make the blog interesting. Anabaptists have a different epistemology than most of western society so that can make for some puzzlement and odd discussions. The matter of doing vs articulating touches that nerve- hence this exchange.

    October 22, 2009
  12. Ken Eastburn #

    “But the Jesus of the gospels seems less interested in people thinking exalted or precise enough thoughts about his identity or about the mechanics of what his death and resurrection accomplished than he is with them following the pattern of his life—a life devoted to the love of God and neighbour, to the breaking down of barriers between people, to suffering and weakness as the ironic and triumphant display of the wisdom of God.”

    Amen. I affirm this in every way. But…there are those who will read this and come away feeling as though actually speaking the Gospel message is not all that important after all which, clearly, is not true (the early Church’s witness should be indicative enough of that).

    We need to be careful when reacting to some of the abuses of the past to not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

    October 22, 2009
    • I appreciate the warning, Ken. There will certainly be some who would interpret this as you suggest. And I’m certainly not advocating ceasing to verbally proclaim the gospel! I guess I would continue to see the distinction between speech and action as something to be questioned. I think when we serve the least of these, we are proclaiming the Gospel.

      October 22, 2009
  13. “I guess I would continue to see the distinction between speech and action as something to be questioned. I think when we serve the least of these, we are proclaiming the Gospel.”

    I can definitely understand why that distinction is troublesome and to a certain degree, I feel the same way. They are two components of a singular whole. But, they are each distinct from one another, even if incomplete.

    The trouble is that our default is to focus on one or the other: serving or preaching. The former does good (and doing good is certainly at the heart of God), but doesn’t introduce people to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ who makes doing good of any value in the first place. The latter introduces people to Jesus, but leaves their physical situation unaddressed which God is adamantly opposed to.

    That is why, for the early church, they were never separated. For it to remain good news, it must offer hope/redemption for both our spiritual and physical condition.

    October 23, 2009

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