We have already discussed how natural law rules out any type of moral or transhistorical pacifism. But now the foregoing analysis of the varieties of pacifism provides us with the ability to measure the consistency of pacifism with the OT. The survey of the OT data above shows the Hebrew Bible contradicts these arguments for pacifism. “Cycle of violence” arguments contend that violence never solves anything, but only provokes more violence. But the OT believes that the death penalty for idolatry will deter people from continuing to practice it. It affirms the efficacy of state coercion to control the behaviour of subjects. The “limitation of knowledge” approach contradicts the OT’s affirmation that people can actually adequately determine the facts of the matter regarding infractions of the law. Ubiquitous laws punishing various crimes (even to the point of saying, in some cases, that people should not show pity to the condemned) obviously opposes the attitude that punishment and retaliation are intrinsically immoral or barbarous. The fact that God acknowledges the need for vengeance, and promises to provide it himself, 1 confirms this point.
While the Law commands Israelites to love their neighbour and even their enemies, it simultaneously directs them to carry out various kinds of coercion against criminals. It thus does not see any contradiction between the general virtue of seeking the good of the other (love), along with such unqualified commands to love, and using violence in some specifically defined situations (i.e., where the magistrate is delivering justice for the community and God). The objection that violence is “utopian” fails by OT standards because it imputes a logic to the law which the law rejects. That is, it does not use violence out of a sense of utopianism, that simply inflicting state punishment could literally recreate an Edenic paradise. It recognizes that the root cause of crime is the fallen heart of man, and that only the grace of God can solve this problem. 2 The law also commands the Israelites set up judges to render decisions, and assumes a family structure of elder rule. This demands hierarchy, and contradicts anarchistic reasons for holding to pacifism. Finally, the OT clearly does not require pacifism along divine positive law lines; it rather does the opposite, requiring state punishment by this type of law. Along with the reality of natural law, then, the Old Testament stands opposed to any “natural law” type of argument for pacifism. Conversely, any pacifism which says the transhistorical “nature of things” requires non-violence would have to teach the OT was in error. We will return to the significance of this point in part three of the present series. However, before getting to Jesus’ teachings, we will survey the closest foreground context of his words: the New Testament.
The documents of the New Testament provide the earliest foreground for Jesus’ teachings, as well as the earliest interpretations of his words. Surveying the corpus of the NT one finds that writers continue to assume as true the background of Jesus’ words. To clarify how this is so, the following will recapitulate the four aspects of background the previous post discussed.
The NT assumes and explicitly appeals to natural law in several places, as I demonstrated on a previous occasion. At this point, we should make clear that this affirmation of natural law gives us reason to assume the NT authors would disagree with “moral” pacifism. It may allow, however, a “divine positive law” or “ceremonial law” pacifism. The burden of proof would be on advocates of pacifism to show that the NT provided such a positive law.
The context Dr. Craig Keener noted persisted applies directly to the NT texts, for the context of Matthew’s Gospel is the same as Paul’s epistles, historically speaking. Thus the NT writers would continue to assume that general rules could be stated with unmentioned exceptions, both in wisdom and in legal contexts. And in fact, they clearly did assume this. For example, Paul could write in 1 Cor 13:4-7 that:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Here Paul writes that love “believes all things,” which expresses the hermeneutical “principle of charity,” the principle that people should be given the benefit of the doubt. Yet elsewhere he can write in Gal 5:7-9 and 6:12:
7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.
The apostle clearly regards the Judaizers as untrustworthy and deceivers. Certainly, he does not want the Galatians to “believe all things” these men have been teaching them. But unless we are to charge Paul with inconsistency here (clearly not a fair charge), we must understand his words in 1 Cor 13 to have a general applicability, but to allow for exceptions. So the NT provides evidence it affirms the hermeneutical principles that Dr. Keener mentions.
Paul explicitly confirms that the church was mostly made up of powerless individuals in 1 Cor 1:20-30:
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written,“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.
Paul takes for granted that, in general, the church of his day is made up of those who are “low and despised in the world.” This conforms to statistical likelihood: most people do not have power, and thus it is always most likely that individuals joining a movement will not have power. Given these points, it is natural to assume the apostle would craft his guidance primarily for this class of people, since they were his primary audience.
Providing a definitive explanation of the NT’s use of the OT is of course beyond the scope of a single blog post. However, we can argue for a few broadly significant points. Firstly, the writers of the NT affirm the descriptive authority of the OT scriptures. 3 Clear examples of this affirmation appear in Rom 3:31, 2 Tim 3:16-17, and 2 Pet 1:19-21. The first one is most pertinent for our purposes: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” Ten verses earlier (v. 21), the apostle had written: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it…” And that text echoes the beginning of the letter, Rom 1:1-2: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle of God, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures…” Rev. Tim Gallant provides the most likely interpretation of 3:31 in his useful work, These Are Two Covenants: Reconsidering Paul on the Mosaic Law:
With regard to 3:31, the most important thing to notice is that already in 3:21, Paul has drawn attention to the distinction between being under Torah, and receiving its witness: “But now apart from Torah the righteousness of God has been revealed, borne witness to by Torah and the prophets.” As we have already seen, Paul sometimes plays with nomos, alternating the sense of Mosaic covenant and Torah as Scripture. That this is the primary issue in 3:31 is rendered probable by how Paul “establishes the law” in what follows (a point frequently lost because readers give too much weight to chapter breaks). In 4:1, Paul asks, “What therefore shall we say that Abraham our forefather according to the flesh has found?” The entirety of chapter four is an exposition of the narrative portion of Torah, with illustration from a psalm of David: thus, “the law and the prophets” which bear witness to the righteousness of God (3:21). Consequently, when Paul establishes the law, he is far from securing the continuing validity of the Mosaic covenant. To the contrary, in this very context, he insists that those who are of Torah cannot be heirs of the promise (4:14). Thus, Paul’s purpose is to show that the witness of all Scripture has come to full fruition: this is how he establishes the law. 4
In other words, the apostle affirms the continuing authority of the OT as scripture, though not of Mosaic covenant law as such. In a previous post, I argued that Girolamo Zanchi provided the correct rationale for understanding how the NT appeals to the OT on the level of law (not just as scripture, but for directly binding ethical rules). Zanchi asserted:
How great is the iniquity, then, if Christians want to subject people today, Gentiles and magistrates, to Judaic law? As long as those laws were handed down to the Israelites, they did not apply to the Gentiles. It is only when they coincide with natural law and were confirmed by Christ himself that they apply to all people. 5
When we look closely at the discontinuities in rules between the Old and New Testaments, it becomes apparent that the kinds of laws that no longer bind God’s people are symbolic and ceremonial in nature: Sabbath laws, kosher laws, the mandate of circumcision, priesthood and temple rules, and the obligation to perform literal sacrifices. In place of these, the NT gives two ceremonial commands: Baptism and Holy Communion. However, the vast majority of NT commands are not of this kind, but are rather expressions of natural law, summed up in the directives to do good, to love, and to act wisely. This has direct relevance for the issue of pacifism, for as we noted above, the overlap between natural law and the OT on the morality of pacifism is complete.
Given all these aspects of the NT, we would expect to see them speak in the same way as the OT. And in fact, we do see the apostolic documents contradict the rationales given for “moral pacifism.” Once again, these are:
Reasons 1, 2, and 5 (at minimum) directly contradict Paul’s words in Rom 13:
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
God has appointed governments to enact his vengeance. Paul takes for granted that, in fact, those who resist the government will come to a bad end, and that this provides them sufficient reason to submit. This means, however, that a “cycle of violence” argument– suggesting that government violence will simply provoke equal and opposite counter-violence, solving nothing–is not a successful argument. The apostle assumes that government violence is usually definitive. Secondly, by assuring Christians that evildoers will usually suffer for resisting the government, he assumes that the government will be able to detect the evildoing. Moreover, since at the time Romans was written unbelievers composed the government, Paul must assume they could determine guilt even without the benefit of the Holy Spirit, regeneration, prophetic gifts, or special grace. Rather, what he likely assumes is that kings do this by means of a gift available to all: wisdom. Shortly after stating that wisdom cries aloud in the streets to the children of men (8:1-6), Proverbs writes:
8:12 I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion. 13 The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. 14 I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength. 15 By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; 16 by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly.
Thus Paul contradicts the idea that human beings, including unbelieving kings, are incapable of determining the guilt of others. Thirdly, while Paul writes the above about magistrates, he clearly cannot be charged with thinking the state can immanentize the eschaton through its political judgment. No one with common sense living in the real world, as the apostle did, can suggest that human beings with political power can create the New Eden, for they are sinful and fallen just as every other person. And further, since he teaches that God himself has appointed governments to carry out justice, and everywhere contradicts the idea that God intends thereby to usher in the New Creation, Paul cannot possibly be suggesting in this text that political violence will do so. So, assuming Paul was sensible, we must take this passage from Romans to be about a limited, imperfect justice, the only kind of justice a government composed of human beings can ever produce. And this means that Paul denies the premise of reason 5 for pacifism: he teaches that God intends violence to bring in imperfect, but valuable and real, justice, and so contradicts any argument which says using violence must always be accompanied by utopian pretensions. Other texts eliminate the other rationales for “moral pacifism.” Paul describes excommunication, which he 6 commands churches to perform in various cases, 7, as “punishment” (Gk. ἐπιτιμία) in 2 Cor 2:5-8:
5 Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. 6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.
It is impossible that Paul would condemn punishment as intrinsically immoral while at the same time commanding Christians to do it. So Paul must also disagree with 3 insofar as it asserts punishment is always wrong. Further, the apostle affirms in Rom 12:19 the OT teaching that God will take vengeance; this implies, of course, that vengeance per se is not wrong. Further still, the NT nowhere condemns the desire for vengeance per se; what it rather condemns is “taking” vengeance, which at minimum is an act, not a desire. 8 Yet, we cannot even say that Paul condemns vengeance as an act in itself. Rom 13 clearly rules such a position out. And a further problem arises for this view when we recognize that vengeance and punishment are not really distinguishable on an essential level. As Thomas Aquinas says (ST II-II.108.1): “Vengeance consists in the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned.” In this case “evil” has an ontological, not a moral, significance. It refers to removing a natural good (such as a lack of bodily or emotional pain, or else such as life, or property) from a person as a penalty. So “vengeance” as an act is simply the same thing as enacted punishment. But we have seen that the apostle describes excommunication as a punishment, and he clearly means it, for he recognizes that shunning someone causes them pain (2 Cor 2:7). Thus we cannot think that Paul means all taking of vengeance is wrong, absolutely speaking. And thus he disagrees with reason 3 for moral pacifism.
The practice of excommunication also squarely opposes reason 2, in that it assumes normal Christians are capable of detecting guilt in offending church members. Further, it would seem to contradict reason 1, insofar as the “violence never solves anything” principle bases itself on the natural desire for “getting even” in the human condition. But this desire arises when we are shunned or insulted verbally just as much as it does when we are physically harmed. Yet, nevertheless, Paul commands Christians to excommunicate, to punish, on some occasions. He therefore cannot believe that all punishment inevitably solves nothing. Reasons 4 and 6 remain, and the latter is simple to dispatch as plausibly supported by the NT. For the NT everywhere contradicts the idea that hierarchies are intrinsically immoral. It does this by affirming hierarchy in the family (e.g., Col 3:18-25), in the state as we have seen (Rom 13:1-2), and even in the visible church (e.g., 1 Cor 16:16; Phil 1:1; 1 Pet 5:2; Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Tim 2:12-3:7). This leaves only reason 4, that inflicting violence is a violation of the command to love. Yet we have already seen that the OT does not understand the command this way, and that the apostles affirm the truth of the OT. So we have prima facie reason to consider the NT as opposed to this logic. Further, we have seen that Paul regards excommunication, an activity the apostle knows to cause harm to the receiver of it, as a good activity in some circumstances; he cannot therefore think that harming someone per se is a violation of the command to love, or even the command to love one’s enemy. The NT as a whole does not support moral pacifism, and ultimately undermines it. If the NT is supposed to support pacifism, then, the only other way it could do so is via the divine positive law approach.
I will confess at this point that I am unfamiliar with any NT text alleged to support pacifism which also does not seem to express natural moral law. The most commonly cited texts to support pacifism are those that command love, and yet these seem to obviously be moral commands, not merely symbolic ceremonial ones. And the relative rarity of commands to perform ceremonies in the NT, compared to commands to perform natural duties like love, makes it more likely than not that any given NT command will be an expression of natural law, rather than a diktat to perform a symbolic act. There is one possible ceremonial rationale that can be rule out, though. The NT affirms that there needs to be both magistrates punishing people in the polis, and communities punishing their members in the ekklesia. Whatever else this means, it forces the readers of the NT to recognize the present Age is not a total reversion to Eden. Unlike the original state, the present age contains sin, and requires retributive response from human beings. Thus, there can be no positive law rationale for pacifism that presupposes the present age is exactly like the original, sinless state, for it is not. It is unlike Eden both in the presence of sin, and in the assumption that punitive acts, acts which harm others by definition, are good and necessary things.
This brings us to the end of our survey of the NT. We have now shown that the background context of Jesus’ teaching, and the immediate foreground, which provides the earliest interpretation of Jesus’ words, do not express pacifism. Rather, the natural conclusion to draw from both sets of data is wholly in line with a magisterial Protestant approach to violence, personal virtue, and the state. This provides strong prima facie grounds to assume Jesus did not mean to teach pacifism, whatever he did mean. Yet, it would be inappropriate to conclude the argument at this point. A positive explanation of what Jesus did mean cannot be avoided. The next post will take up this challenge.
Andrew Fulford is currently studying for a PhD in Reformation history.
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