Learning to See God’s Character
A Review of
A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostles’ Creed
Sharon L. Baker Putt
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2021
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Systematic theology books should be daunting. They should be massive tomes, ideally in multiple volumes, full of jargon and paragraphs of a size that would make a liberal German proud. Sharon L. Baker Putt, though she describes her latest work A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostles’ Creed as an introduction to theology, quickly develops a strong foundation for systematic thought. She also, importantly, does so with a clear vision of why, recognizing the value of theological work in spiritual formation. Although her book can be challenging and surprising, she gets through the meat of her thinking in an orderly fashion, providing both history and debate along the way.
The title of A Nonviolent Theology gives away its focus. “Students of theology,” she writes, “need a fresh glimpse of the love, mercy, and redemptive power of God through Jesus” (xv). Her writing aims to develop peace theology, and to help readers experience again (or for the first time) the loving nature of God as revealed in the Bible. Some of that work resists more traditional theology, and she always writes with a sense of questioning and exploration. Rather than simply writing rebuttals or general musings, Putt hangs this book on an old and widely accepted hanger: the Apostles’ Creed. Each chapter develops an element of the creed’s confession, resulting in a text that introduces most of the foundational topics of Christianity.
In each chapter (modeled on a phrase like “the Father almighty” or “creator of heaven and earth”), Putt introduces us to a new element of theology, traces some of the historical thinking on it – often with an analysis of or objections to the viewpoints presented – and finds the importance of how these doctrines depict a nonviolent God. Putt’s organization focuses on the contents, and her ability to cover difficult topics with lucidity nearly hides the depth of her research. Looking at just one of her topics illustrates how the book functions.
Putt spends a significant amount of time on theories of salvation and the atonement in a section that proves to be the most challenging portion of the book. In unpacking some of the major atonement theories, she covers much ground quickly, and although her clarity continues to be an asset, the denseness of the material leaves it as more of a starting point than anything else. As she moves from traditional Western theories into Eastern Orthodox and hybrid theories, she moves toward successful nonviolent thinking, but it requires more steps than such an introduction can contain.
Even given the challenges of that section, the work rewards diligent reading. Putt’s shift of focus to a more Eastern model may challenge traditional Western readers, but that challenge is central to her work. Abelard, for example, may have fallen out of favor in mainstream evangelical thinking, but Putt’s ability to contextualize him in a different framework gives more power to his work and further develops her own thinking. While a final model of the atonement may remain out of reach, Putt’s shifted emphasis creates space for us to look less at individual models and more clearly at God, recognizing the benefits and the effects of salvation, sanctification, and atonement, even if the difficulties of articulating the processes persist.
That focus of vision drives Putt’s work. She writes, “Christian theology is always about showing others the love of God as revealed in Jesus” (15). Putt’s mastery of her academic material never falters, but the end goal of theology, as she makes clear, isn’t to write the best article or pass a particular test. The goal, instead, is transformation (13). The objective in this work is to let us understand God better through our theological system so that the Holy Spirit can shape us into something more like Christ. We should be “praying that God will use our knowledge and beliefs to transform us into the image of Christ” (15-16).
In that process, our hermeneutical work remains ongoing. Putt doesn’t find the Bible to be flawed, but recognizes the challenges we face as humans reading it. She says, “[A]s soon as we opened the text and began to read, the idea of inerrancy would not make any difference whatsoever to determine meaning and practice. Why? Because we are finite beings who make mistakes, not inerrant readers or interpreters, and we must interpret the Bible” (27). Recognizing our limited perspectives means we tackle our theology with humility, always open to growing and to knowing God better. It may always be an asymptotic process, but understanding that idea makes our serious study more, not less, important.
Putt clarifies two of the ways that our interpretive abilities are limited simply through our context. Following Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard, Putt calls the first one “thrownness.” This idea describes the effects of the contexts we are born into – location, economic class, historical moment, etc. The other factor, our presuppositions, describes the preconceived ideas that we bring to our reading. These concerns should make “us realize we must maintain a steady awareness that we are embedded in a culture that profoundly influences our culture…. Awareness of our preconceived ideas is the key to responsible hermeneutics” (21). Understanding these sorts of issues allows us to develop our theology through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, always working for a clearer view of God and a fuller transformation.
The book makes for a valuable introduction to theology by working to see God’s character instead of simply figuring out whether which long dead thinker’s Substack list we should subscribe to. It also makes for a little bit of a puzzle over who her ideal reader would be. A Nonviolent Theology of Love functions well as a textbook; committed students of theology should enjoy both the scope and the book’s resistance to well-worn ruts of thinking. Putt’s work is more demanding than its description as an “introduction” would suggest. Readers somewhat familiar with these topics might be at some advantage. Going over atonement theories as a refresher probably works better here than arriving at them cold (though those excited by this chapter could benefit by reading something like a multi-view book or The Mosaic of Atonement either before or after Putt’s work).
Ultimately, Putt’s readership might be less about where a person is in her own academic journey than about her curiosity into theologies of nonviolence. Putt’s finest work isn’t necessarily in organizing her mix of tradition and counter-traditional thinking, but in reminding us that God is a God of love, and that what we’re ultimately seeking is him. Seeing how theological approaches play out when examined in that framework can lead to unexpected and encouraging thoughts. Putt’s persistence in challenging presuppositions and in rethinking our positions comes through as her own curiosity and engagement, making the book a vital piece of systematic theology, even if the paragraphs are of a reasonable length.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.