Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

More historical context for loving enemies…

One of the main alternatives to the pacifist reading of Jesus’ command to “not resist an evildoer” is Robert Guelich’s interpretation, which puts the command in the context of litigation. In my reading, both Oliver O’Donovan and Craig Blomberg have appealed to this interpretation. This has the effect of eliminating any relevance this command might have to a (potentially) Christian magistrate in their occupation.

But this interpretation ultimately fails, I think; Richard B. Hays has this (among other things) to say:

(3) The larger argument falls apart if verses 41-42 cannot be integrated into the theory about forgoing legal defense. Guelich is forced to acknowledge that these illustrations (going the second mile and giving to all who ask) have nothing to do with his construal of 5:39. He can only say of the illustrations that “their presence here is… indicative of Matthew’s faithful use of tradition even when only tangentially related to his primary redactional intention.” If that can be said of verses 41-42, however, why not of verse 39 also? A reading of Matthew’s redactional intention, in order to be persuasive, must account for all the material that is present in the text.

In fact, the loosely connected sayings of verses 39-42 all serve as illustrations of the peaceloving and generous character that the teaching of Jesus seeks to inculcate. Jesus’ disciples are to relinquish the tit-for-tat ethic of the lex talionis and live in a way that eschews retaliation and defense of self-interest… .

The teaching of Matthew 3:39, then, is about nonviolence, even though the passage as a whole has a larger vision of the kingdom of God in view. The admonition not to strike back is one of several “focus instances” that figuratively depict the Matthean vision for the community of discipleship. It is not simply a rule prohibiting a certain action; rather, it is a symbolic pointer to the character of the peaceful city set on a hill.

[Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 326]

Love your enemies, in the OT?

Benjamin and I left this discussion at one of his challenges: if the OT could be shown to teach that loving one’s enemies is compatible with killing them, I would concede that the command to love one’s enemies in the NT would not require non-violence.

I’ve been thinking a bit about this, and the one verse that I can find that might indicate the love of enemies was consistent with killing them would be Exodus 23:4-5. Here Moses says:


The commands of Jesus and the public/private stuff

Part of the reason I’ve been (perhaps too) subtly alluding to the fact that Jesus was forming a new nation with his commands is that this also militates against reading a public-representative exemption into Jesus’ commands.

Consider: the lex talionis was a command given to the nation. The nation of Israel, through its representatives, was commanded to take the life of murderers (for example).

But consider just the context of the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus is firstly standing on a mount, giving a discourse about the law. This immediately alludes back to Moses giving the law to the nation of Israel. Thus we have one indication that Jesus is forming a new nation with a new law in this passage.

Secondly, Jesus says those listening to him that they are “the light of the world”; but it the OT this was the calling of the nation Israel. Thus we have a second indication that Jesus is not speaking to just a sector of society (“private citizens”), but to a nation as a whole.

Thirdly, Jesus calls 12 disciples, signalling that he is remaking Israel. This is another indication that Jesus’ message is about re-creating a nation, not just a sector of a nation.

Further, outside of even Matthew, there is the consistent NT teaching that the church is a nation-state unto itself: look at the Petrine epistles and Revelation, just as obvious examples.

If this general point is correct, however, we have an interesting implication about pacifism: it was the nation of Israel, through its public representatives, which was to carry out the lex talionis. But it is to the nation of Israel that Jesus’ prohibition of the lex talionis is directed. In ages past the public representatives of Israel were to kill murderers, now they are not to resist them.

This means that within the new Israel there can be no killing. But there’s another possible way of getting around this point: Christians could be the representatives of another nation, e.g., America or Canada, and thus kill for them, but not for the church.

But this misses a major point: God has restored Israel (plus the Gentiles now enfolded into her) to be a light to the nations. It is precisely in living not according to the lex talionis, but the law of non-resistence and love of enemy, that the church is an example to the state of how it ought to act. Rulers of the world ought to become like rulers of the church; excommunication ought to replace capital punishment. For the opposite to happen is not an example of a Christian being faithful to their calling, but rather a failure to do so.

Leithart on the law

Relevant to Dan’s point here, Peter Leithart, my favourite supporter of Christendom, had these interesting observations about what the Law cannot do

In addition to my argument about the change in relation to the powers, perhaps this is another reason for the shift in ethics between OT and NT: truly, “if a law had been given which was able to give life, then justice would indeed have been based on the law…” (Gal 3:21)

Love your enemies part IV

Hopefully this will be the last installment in this series I started without thinking about it…

One of the things I learned most deeply from NT Wright (who does not see Jesus as a pacifist) was about the actual historical environment of Jesus and Paul.  I’ll quote him extensively here to try to convey the historical picture that I’ve learned to interpret Jesus in. The following is from The New Testament and the People of God (more…)

Love your enemies part III

Well, what about the first alternative? Is there a canonical reason to assume Jesus’ command to love our enemies would have the implicit qualification that magistrates didn’t always have to obey this command?

I think there are several considerations which give the answer in the negative.

Firstly, in the OT, the Law was considered an entire system, and organizing principle, a unified whole. The later divisions of moral, civil and ceremonial laws were just that, medieval Christian divisions. They might have some use, but we certainly can’t assume OT Jews (or Second Temple Jews) would have read the law in that way. They wouldn’t.

Secondly, Jesus undeniably alters the significance of the law for those in the age of the church. For example: he (arguably) makes the Sabbath law different than it was in the OT, makes festivals no longer obligatory, changes the relations of Jews and Gentiles, makes circumcision no longer obligatory, makes the temple obsolete, makes the Levitical priesthood obsolete, and reshapes our image of God (the only one we are allowed to give glory to) into the Trinity. There are probably more examples, but those are off the top of my head. In addition, we have strong Pauline language to the effect that we are no longer under the law, and that we are part of a new covenant. On the other hand, Jesus reasserts the authority of the creation order, though also not without modification (marriage is no longer an obligation). Together, I think these things make clear that that the specific significance of the laws of the Torah may not be same in NT era as they were in the OT era. We ultimately need to see what the NT teaches us about the OT before we can know for certain how it applies in the NT era.

This means there is no prima facie reason to assume that God’s support of violence in the OT carries over into the NT, and thus there is no prima facie reason to read that into the context of Jesus’ words.

Love your enemies part II

Another way that the pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount has been countered is to say that Christ was not referring to enemies of the public, but rather private enemies.

But: just because you become the enemy of a criminal because you are a magistrate, does not make them any less your enemy. That is, the private/public distinction does not really work in this case, as magistrates are doing harm to people (by the nature of the case, or at least by convention), and that makes those people de facto their enemies. The reason they are their enemies, that they are representatives of the public and thus take upon themselves the behaviour of avenging the public (as opposed to, say, being enemies because someone directly attacked the individual who is the magistrate), does not change the fact that they are their enemies.

Thus, one can’t say that magistrates avoid breaking Christ commands because they are not doing harm to their enemies, but someone else’s, because they have made someone else’s enemy their enemy.

This means that, basically, one can only avoid the pacifist reading by saying that Christ implicitly meant that magistrates were allowed to hate some of their enemies, while everyone else could not hate any of their enemies. As this significant qualification is not on the face of the text of Matthew, it must come from the context, i.e., in necessary truths, in the canon (for those for whom the Canon is authoritative), or in the historical context of Christ’s words. I doubt that the first context can provide that qualification, so that leaves the latter two: either this qualification must be justified on the basis of the canon, or because of the historical context of Christ’s words.

So here’s the challenge for non-pacifists: either show that the canon says that magistrates will, for all time (prior to the parousia, presumably), have to hate some of their enemies (so that Christ’s command could not possibly rule that out without contradicting this), or else show that some part of Jesus’ historical-linguistic context would have implied that when Jesus said “love your enemies”, he meant “love your enemies, unless you are a magistrate, then love your enemies in some situations and hate them in others.”

Love your enemies

Sorry, I promise this is the last one… for tonight…

One response to the pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount in the history of Christian ethics, especially the command to love our enemies, has been to argue that doing violence to our enemy can actually be a form of love.

But I have to be honest; I don’t think anyone would honestly believe this if it were not for the need to shore up a justification for war. Consider: what is the Christian argument against wife-beating? There’s no verse that explicitly says: “And thus saith the Lord: ‘Thou shalt not beat thy wife’.” Rather, the best and strongest argument against spousal abuse is that it is not loving to beat one’s wife. In fact it is exactly the opposite of love to beat one’s wife.

But the instinct that opposes love to wife-beating a fortiriori opposes love to killing.

A bad argument against pacifism

Sorry for the theme here, but I’ve got it on the brain…

One common argument against pacifism is: “If we actually took that position, much more evil would be perpetrated against innocents than if we didn’t.”

An example often is WWII: what would have happened to the Jews if the Allies hadn’t fought the Nazis?

The problem with this is that classical Christian theology, expressed perhaps most strongly in Calvin, teaches that all human actions are concurrently caused by God, as well as being caused by human agents. This means that while we can look at history as (containing) a series of human actions, we can also look at it as the outworking of divine providence.

This means that the Allied defeat of the Nazis is not just a human act, but a divine act. And this means that, at least in some sense, God did step in to stop the Nazis.

The basic point of this reply to the argument is to point out that a) the consequences of being a pacifist are not necessarily worse than not being a pacifist, and that b) one can condemn human actions (violence) while simultaneously seeing them as being used by God to prevent worse evils (as, e.g., a pacifist would perhaps see the Allied defeat of the Nazis in WWII).

This means, I think, that one cannot mount a consequentialist argument against a biblical pacifism; one will have to show that there is no good reason to believe God wants us to be pacifists, and to do that one would at minimum have to refute biblical arguments that God does want us to be pacifists.

A tentative biblico-theological thesis about pacifism

I think I’m the only one who would agree with the following, but, really, I’m just writing this to keep a record of it and see what kind of reaction it gets. So here goes nothing.

For a while I’ve been what I call a “tentative pacifist”, in that I think it’s the best of the options about social ethics as a model of what Scripture says, though I still have my questions in some areas. One of those areas is about the way in which this ethic would relate to the OT. For many Christian pacifists the answer has essentially been to write off the Old Testament as not authoritative, but with a high view of inspiration I don’t see that as an option.

A few different strands of biblical theology have presented themselves to me as a possible option for reconciling pacifism with the OT. They are essentially this:

  • The Bible presents the age of the OT as an age ruled by angels, or as the NT calls it, powers/elements/principalities; notably, in Galatians, Paul says that Israel under the Old Covenant was under these powers in being under the law (which should make clear that the powers are not inherently evil)
  • The Bible also presents violence as acceptable for the people of God in the OT (and even commands it on some occasions)
  • In the NT, the church is said to no longer be under the elementary principles/powers, but rather fighting/working against them to get them to submit to Christ the King

Perhaps the answer for the move from non-pacifism to pacifism is found in this change: in the OT, the people of God were under the powers, and thus rightly used the methods of the powers, which included violence. They were not at war with the powers, but totally under them; at most, they made war with human instruments of other powers. But now that the church is itself in conflict with the powers, it no longer makes sense to use their methods; rather, cosmic and carnal powers must be overcome with divine power.

Again, I’m sure this won’t convince anyone here, but I wanted to write it down before I forgot it! :-)