Review: A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostles’ Creed. By Sharon L. Baker Putt

[1] Dr. Murray Haar of Augustana University is famous among his religion department students for the bold warning posted on his office door. “Think…That you may be wrong.” This directive might feel out of place in many Introduction to Systematic Theology texts—the goal of which often involves preserving the interpretations and debates of Western European, classical, dogmatic theological ideas passed down through generations.

[2] Yet, Sharon L. Baker Putt’s volume, A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostles’ Creed, begins with the fresh and evocative idea that the practice, art, and skill of “doing” Christian theology—thinking, reflecting, and proclaiming truths about God and God’s work in the world—requires a modicum of humility. In this case, Baker Putt asks readers to find—both within scripture and within themselves—the humility to notice and think deeply about the ways classical theology has promoted violent characterizations of God and, by extension, justified violence carried out by Christians who bear God’s image.

[3] Influenced by the peace movement and troubled by the violent images of God in scripture, Baker Putt sets forth to discover what she believes lies at the core of God’s identity: love, restorative justice, and blessing. Most surprisingly, the text begins not with a chapter on God, but with concise, invaluable introductions describing how faithful self-examination brings humility and curiosity to the work of theology and hermeneutics. Boldly asserting that God’s action toward humankind is always nonviolent and aimed at revealing God’s love, shalom, and restorative nature, Baker Putt artfully asks readers to pause and reflect upon where our notions of a violent God actually emerge from. At the conclusion of each chapter, Baker Putt concisely describes how God’s nonviolent and loving nature contradicts what classical theology has taught about God and violence. The reader begins to realize that a violent God is the product of history, context, and a reflection of “spiritually ignorant” human ideals created in our image rather than the imago Dei.

[4] Establishing the “revealed” scriptural stories of non-violent Jesus’ teachings, life, death, and resurrection as the hermeneutical key for theological exploration, the volume then enters a more traditional systematic structure. Using the three articles of the Apostles’ Creed as a rather flexible framework, readers are welcomed into Baker Putt’s brilliantly concise process of review, reflection, and non-violent re-constructions of the Trinity and its persons. The author also engages in fruitful expositions on nonviolence within the theological concepts of creation, atonement, ecclesiology, anthropology (humanity), and eschatology.

[5] One of the novel ways Baker Putt pushes against violent understandings and interpretations of God and the crucifixion of Jesus is to include, in many chapters, the insights and wisdom of Eastern Orthodox theology. The Orthodox concepts of theosis and salvation (instead of atonement) not only further the thesis that God’s revelation to the world is nonviolent, but also add insights and concepts about God that are schismatically ignored by many other theological writings. Given the Lutheran roots of publisher Fortress Press, I was pleasantly surprised by the wider range of conversation partners with whom Baker Putt engages, including Peter Abelard, Rene Girard, J. Denny Weaver, Stanley Grenz, Daniel Migliore, John D. Caputo, Rebecca Adams, and Richard Rohr.

[6] Especially in the central chapters—on Jesus, salvation, and atonement—Baker Putt’s humble and compassionate professorial voice resounds. The reader feels guided by a compassionate author who understands the wide range of theological ideas carried in the faith experiences of undergraduate students. She serves as Professor of Theology and Religion at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Her ability to condense the Trinitarian controversies to a few understandable paragraphs and to respectfully critique the nuances of atonement theories without denigrating those who have held them makes this volume a lovely starting point for readers interested in exploring their own understandings of God. These accessible walks through the history of Christian thought make the book worthwhile for anyone who teaches or talks regularly about Christian faith. As a pastor now a decade removed from seminary education, I appreciate that this volume both refreshed my past learning and introduced new conversation partners into my preaching and teaching—especially those questioning the violence of theological interpretations and polemics.

[7] Baker Putt includes a postscript on kingdom ethics, where she posits a brief, conclusive challenge to readers on what it means to embody an ethic of love-informed action that speaks out and acts against both violence and violence-based interpretations of God. Given the recent acts of societal violence, protests in response to police brutality, continued militarization, and the acts of violence carried out at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, I yearned for a more relevant postscript about the impact of violent theology on American religious identity. Fortunately, the themes of the volume offer great potential for in-depth monographs on nonviolent theology and many social issues and conversations expounding on Baker Putt’s central thesis and interpretation. I would be eager to read the product of constructive theological conversations about nonviolence, humanity, and race between the author and her Messiah College colleagues Drew G.I. Hart and Emerson B. Powery. Baker Putt’s repeated inclusion of powerful quotes from James Cone stands out as an important liberation perspective and I would appreciate hearing from more African American and non-white voices.

[8] On a deeper level, A Nonviolent Theology of Love unintentionally poses ethical questions about how Christian interpretations of God as nonviolent continue to promulgate supersessionist readings of scripture. Baker Putt, as a Christian theologian, artfully uses Jesus Christ as the hermeneutical key to understand and describe God as love and the Trinity as non-violent. However, her willingness to “privilege some images of God over others” (p. 81) and “portray a non-violent God in ways that harmonize with the God Jesus reveals to us” (p. 81) appear dismissive of the pain and violence Christocentric interpretations can inflict upon Jewish peoples with whom we share holy scriptures. This is exacerbated by authorial footnotes defending herself as “not by any means whatsoever a ‘supersessionist’” (p. 81, n.39). Too often in the church, the false binary “Mean Old Testament God” and “Gracious New Testament Jesus” abounds. Baker Putt’s interpretation does little to challenge notions that assume violence in God’s character before the incarnation of Christ.

[9] Nonetheless, Baker Putt’s approach to systematic theology brings an important emphasis on approaching God-talk with a sense of humility, making this volume a valuable addition to any library. Helping readers ask questions about what God values, the author makes it plain that nonviolence is an important value to consider as inherent to the Godhead. This excellent introduction to theology would be appropriate for use in classrooms and it became the book I will buy and share with the friends and parishioners who are most dubious about God, the church, and its proclamation of God’s love active in the world. In re-thinking, perhaps there are many places we have been wrong.

Matthew Schlake-Kruse

The Reverend Matthew Schlake-Kruse serves as Pastor of Adoration Lutheran Church in Greenfield, Wisconsin and Synod Secretary of the Greater Milwaukee Synod.