A peaceful yet pugnacious theologian

New Moves: A Theological Odyssey by J. Denny Weaver (Cascadia, 2023)

I first met j. Denny Weaver at a Mennonite theology conference in the late 1980s. It was my first such conference. Having recently com­pleted graduate school, I was apprehensive about entering a world I felt like an outsider to. Before the conference started, Weaver came up to meet me. He wanted to talk about the book I had just written on Revelation. He thought it made an important contribution. We needed a peaceable reading of Revelation, he said.

I was delighted. I told him I appreciated his book, Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of 16th-Century Anabaptism. Weaver was an insider in the guild I aspired to join. He was a writer, a professor at Bluffton College and a prominent voice at the conference. 

What I didn’t know until I read Weaver’s new memoir, New Moves, was that he was feeling apprehensive, too. He had a teaching job and was a published writer but was entering a new arena of scholarly work — doctrinal theology — after focusing mainly on the history of Christianity in his early career. He successfully engaged in this new em­phasis and became one of the most influential Mennonite theologians of recent years. 

New Moves is an engaging and inspiring account of Weaver’s work of articulating a peace-oriented approach to Christian theology. I would have appreciated even more reflection on the dynamics in the Mennonite world and the broader Christian context that have, in recent years, made peace theology more difficult.

I have continued to be in conversation with Weaver. We have talked about most of the moves he has made in his theological development. But I still learned a great deal about the context that has shaped his intellectual efforts, including his early years in a traditional Mennonite congregation (albeit in a somewhat urban setting in Kansas City), his early educational interests in mathematics, his marriage to Mary (daughter of the Mennonite theologian J.C. Wenger), their experience serving with Mennonite Central Committee in Algeria in the 1960s and his turn toward Anabaptist history and theology in his graduate studies.

The telling of Weaver’s theological moves is straightforward and even spare. I think the book could have provided more detail on these projects. However, the cumulative effect of reading about Weaver’s interests — in Anabaptist history and theology, late 19th- and early 20th-century Mennonite views of salvation, the relevance of postmodernism to theology, atonement theology and views of God and violence — is to reveal his impressively productive intellectual energy. He has articulated a peace theology that provides an important resource for people of faith far beyond the Mennonite world.

As would be expected with this challenging approach to theology, Weaver’s work has elicited quite a bit of disagreement. New Moves tells of the ways many Mennonites have taken issue with Weaver — and of how he has found numerous theological allies outside of Mennonite circles. 

I appreciate Weaver’s willingness to risk conflicts with his fellow Mennonites as he has sought to pursue his vision for peace theology. One would not expect a memoir to reflect on the excesses of the author’s own pugnaciousness. And we don’t get that in New Moves, though there is a brief, unrepentant acknowledgment of this dynamic on page 227. But we do get the sense that peace theology according to Weaver can be confrontive and countercultural. 

I admire Weaver’s clarity and accessibility in laying out his ideas. Being so plainspoken is not a strategy for having a harmonious career. But it is a great method of helping others understand the implications of Jesus’ way.

Weaver’s quest for a nonviolent ­understanding of God and salvation has been controversial in part because he acknowledges Christianity’s complicity in war and violence. This complicity, he argues, makes a radical rethinking necessary to recover Jesus’ message of peace. But the Christian tradi­tion is not known for welcoming a rethinking of its core theology. 

I appreciate Weaver’s efforts to face the gospel’s challenge to go to great lengths to embody the way of Jesus, even when that means being in conflict with one’s received religious traditions. New Moves helps us get a better sense of how those efforts have been shaped.  


Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University.

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