Was Jesus a Pacifist? An Exercise in Missing the Point

Andrew Fulford has published an article over at The Calvinist International on the question of whether Jesus was a pacifist. Now, I should note at the outset that I am not a pacifist (though I would be just about as close as you could get without being one). My point in engaging Fulford’s comments has less to do with arguing in favor of Jesus’ claimed pacifism and more to do with his hermeneutical approach.

Appealing to Martin Joo’s interpretive rule “Semantic Axiom Number One,” which functions as a sort of Ockham’s Razor for doing theology – the least number of premises and assumptions before reading the text, the better – Fulford appeals to four interpretive frameworks “in the air” at the time Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Having done a lot of work recently on the Sermon on the Mount (you can read my interpretations of the Beatitudes here), I thought Fulford’s article provided some fresh fodder for discussing it.

In the first place, I am suspicious of any hermeneutic which carries as its presuppositional premise that the “best interpretation is the least interpretation” is helpful for doing theology and interpretive work. The graveyards of academia are littered with the corpses of people who were convinced of this or that overriding reading was “the” way to approach the text, only to be left behind in the rubbish bin of history. Are we to favor someone’s reading of a passage of Scripture because they think there is only one framework that needs to be applied purely on the basis that their set of assumptions is numerically less than another’s? While this may work well with regard to scientific fields, interpretation is essentially a humanity. The Bible is complex and highly nuanced and attempting to reduce the number of elements allowed to intersect with any given passage will almost certainly have a deleterious effect on our overall approach.

Fulford begins with four considerations. We will start by analyzing each of them in turn, assuming for the moment that Fulford’s broader approach is correct.

First, he claims Jesus made use of natural law. Right away we see how far removed his approach is from mine. Following the Dutch Reformed and Cornelis van der Waal in particular, I reject natural law as a Biblical concept. While the Bible is not closed off from considerations outside of Israel’s own history and culture, it remains true that the New Testament in particular has little interest in the classical philosophers or in Greco-Roman culture beyond those points where it runs up against them. Following Peter Leithart and James Jordan and other scholars, I view the NT as radically Israel-centric. That is, the gnosticism addressed, the persecutors of the NT Church, the wicked, the “vain philosophies,” all address Israel.

Second, he argues that what Jesus says in the Sermon would have been understood as general claims rather than 100% binding laws against which there could be no exceptions. This is certainly true (the clause on divorce being a good example of this). Given that this is the case, it is up to Fulford to demonstrate where such exceptions to Jesus’ Sermon would be in the rest of the NT.

Third, Fulford argues that the poor and powerless make up the majority of the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount. Again, this is certainly the case. But Fulford must show us places where Jesus did not address the poor and the powerless. That is, he must show us cases where Jesus addresses the wealthy and the powerful in the same positive light. Jesus’ ministry is defined by the Jubilee (Luke 4), with the elevation of the poor and the overturning of the powerful (Luke 1:51-53). The Beatitudes themselves are oriented around the priority of the powerless and the poor. The poor will inherit the Kingdom, the mourners will be comforted, etc. He has a steep up-hill battle ahead of him.

Fourth, he argues that the Old Testament cannot be ignored. Of course this is true. The OT is of vital importance for understanding Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Following the intertextual links between the OT and NT has been a standard approach for a few decades now. He spends the remainder of his article pointing to various passages in the OT that would imply the OT was not pacifistic.

This brings us to the most important observation of all. Fulford has approached the Sermon on the Mount as though it were addressing nation-states, that it is a cultural ideal to be implemented by, say, the United States or the EU. His assumption is that the Sermon speaks to the justice or injustice of the various wars of the nation-states of the world. His third point, about the audience of the Sermon being poor and powerless, has to do with the fact that they are not those in power, they are not the cultural and political leaders of either Israel or of Rome.

This has typically been the problem with approaches to the Sermon on the Mount (and the rest of Jesus’ earthly ministry). We approach it as though it were something to be implemented by various cultures (American, European, Asian, etc.) or to be implemented by the individual himself. Ultimately these two approaches amount to the same thing, and reveal our confusion between Kingdom and Christendom (I have addressed this confusion here). Both views assume that Jesus is not addressing the Church alone. Partly this is because we have not understood that the Kingdom and the Church are the same thing, and have thus confused the Kingdom with Christendom.

I have proposed an understanding of the transition between the Old and New Covenants that sees the national state of Israel transferred to the Church. That is, the Church is as much a “city” or polis as Athens or Rome was, with its own economy and communal life. The Church, simply by being the Church, is a political entity, not because it “gets involved” in projects connected to the nation-state and voting in their elections, but because by virtue of simply being the Church, the Church is an alternative city, a political rival. As is perfectly clear when you look at the intertextual passages for the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is addressing the Kingdom-Church, not the nation-state, not the “broader culture.” All speculations about just-war and whether Jesus’ audience was the Jewish or Roman politically powerful misses the point of the Sermon in the most profound way. Those concerns, while perhaps important to consider elsewhere, have nothing to do with what Jesus is doing in the Sermon. He is constituting around Himself a New Israel. The laws of the old national Israel will be transformed and become the laws governing this new polis. Capital punishment will become excommunication, and so on.  Jesus is laying out the covenant by which His Church will be lived, and those who enter into His Kingdom-Church will be made into the rulers of the earth and of the nations. The powerless will be elevated, and those thought powerful in the old order will be thrown down.

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Kingdom and Christendom

Following up on my previous post, which argued that Christians ought to get over their messianic attempts to “transform the culture” and simply live in the Church as God has required them to do, I began to mull over the difference between Kingdom and Christendom. Are they identical? If they aren’t identical, what is the difference?

It is a common thing to hear Reformed people say things along the lines of “The Kingdom is wider than the Church.” The implied message of these comments is that Jesus rules over the whole earth and not just the Church. But, of course, the Church is the place in which this reign is manifested. Saying “the Church is the nursery of the Kingdom” gets closer to the truth, but it doesn’t quite get us there.

Because Scripture identifies the Kingdom and the Church. To speak of the Kingdom is to speak of the Church, and to speak of the Church is to speak of the Kingdom. Revelation makes this point clearly, where the Church-Bride is identified with the “Kingdom of priests,” (Rev. 5:9). It is also clear from Israel’s Messianic expectation, and the sort of Kingdom Jesus was establishing in His earthly ministry. He traveled over Israel pronouncing the imminent arrival of the “good news of the Kingdom.” But what did He and Israel expect? The establishment of a new community, with a restored priesthood. As I have extensively argued, the Sermon on the Mount is an announcement of the way of life in the Kingdom, which Jesus intended to be understood as the announcement that He was organizing a New Israel around Himself as the New Temple, a New Priesthood to serve in the eschatological Temple. All of that has to do with a new community of the people of God, a new priesthood, the establishment of the Church.

This isn’t to say that Jesus’s session on the throne in heaven does not have cosmic reach or cultural implications. But it means that the Kingdom is the place where this reign is exhibited, and the Kingdom is the Church. That is, Jesus’s reign is seen in the Church, not in the wider world.

So where does this leave us with regards to Christendom? Christendom, in contrast to the Kingdom-Church, is not the Kingdom at all, but rather an implication flowing from the Kingdom. The rivers of Eden flow out of the Garden into the world. If Christians live together in community long enough, they will begin to influence their non-Christian neighbors. They will establish a “Christian culture.” Over the course of generations, this culture will become a civilization – Christendom.

So far I have no problems. Where Christians are faithful, rulers will attempt to rule, and people attempt to live, under generally Christian laws and cultural expectations. This is to be expected, and this is not the problem. The problem is when the Church becomes accustomed to this cultural situation and begins to mistake those wider, general cultural institutions for the Kingdom. The trouble starts when the Church begins to confuse this wider situation with the Church and the Kingdom itself. To be supportive when a culture wants to more closely adhere to God’s vision of justice is fine. To mistake these wider cultural laws and customs as identical with the life inside the Kingdom-Church is not fine.

Because nation-states are not the Kingdom-Church and are made up of both those within the covenant community and those outside the covenant community, they can never perfectly and identically reflect the faithfulness of the Church. That much is inevitable. To become the chaplain of such a culture, however good some of its reforms might be, is to cease to be the Church as an alternative polis and to become just another well-intentioned support for the well being of the nation-state.

It seems to me that most of the issues facing the evangelical Church today stems from this fundamental confusion. The idea of a conflict between liberals and conservatives within the Church is nothing but a confusion, the misapplication of modernist categories on a situation that does not fit those categories.

What we’re actually dealing with is a conflict between those who have assumed that Christendom is identical with Kingdom and those who believe they are not identical. The conservatives who rush to “reclaim the old traditions” and “restore the foundations of Western Christendom” are the ones guilty of confusing Kingdom with Christendom. Their work is not so much an effort to preserve the Kingdom as it is an effort to resist the loss of Christian privilege in our culture. They have become so accustomed to having the wider culture as an ally that they have forgotten what it means to be the Church on her own, a Church-Kingdom without the inherent privilege of being favored by law and custom.

The job of the Kingdom, however, isn’t to resist the loss of Christian privilege in the wider culture. The work of the Kingdom is to be an alternative polis, a rival city to the city of man, a community that lives and reveals the reign of Jesus. This does not mean fleeing the world, but it will mean rethinking the Church’s strategies.

Perhaps if we did what Yahweh required instead of trying to save the world and restore Christendom, we would possess a life the wider world might want to imitate.

Stop Trying to Save the World, Please!

Stop trying to save the world and just do what Yahweh requires. Let Him do the saving.

If recent theologians like Peter Leithart, Stanley Haurwas and others are correct (and I believe they are) in understanding the Church to be an alternative polis, a rival city to the city of the world, an alternative community comprised of the baptized, then this has far reaching consequences for how the Church behaves in the world.

Most Christians in America today are only all-too aware that the Bible has political consequences and implications, and many pages have been written on how Christians should behave in the world. This cottage industry has mostly been framed by the question of what Christians should oppose in our culture. This has naturally led to an invisible assumption that the problems with the Church and with the culture are entirely (or mostly) external. So we close ranks, we insist more and more vehemently that Christians look or talk or dress like this and not like that, and true Christians think this and not that. The net result has been that we see those who disagree with us as our enemies, people to be “countered” and “refuted” logically and rhetorically. Bury them in footnotes and quotations and propositional analyses.

In short, all of these issues are caused by our need to save the world from itself. We’re supposed to have a “cultural impact” and straighten them out. A position which naturally allows us to believe we’ve got it all together (after all, we’re the ones helping them shape up) and that we must fix the world.

But understanding that the Church is an alternative polis, a city within the city, allows us to see the Church differently. It means, among other things, that the Church is independent from the culture. Not in a self-contained way, but in the sense of “sphere sovereignty.” A non-Christian is not under the jurisdiction of the elders of the local Church in the same way as a baptized member of the congregation. This implies that our laws are not for them. Christians spend so much of their time criticizing non-believers for not following the code of believers that it is a wonder this hasn’t occurred to any of them yet. The ethics of the Bible, and of the NT, are not for unbelievers or unbelieving culture.

But, some will counter with, doesn’t God want to see all the nations bend the knee to Christ and live that way? Of course. But those nations come into the Kingdom first. They become part of this alternative community, this rival polis before the way of life of that polis is applied to them.

What about the Old Testament? others will ask. Surely the Old Testament pictures Israel as a nation obeying God’s law and living according to His requirements. Why can’t we just apply those laws to our own cultural politics? Because, the OT polis becomes the NT polis. Those political requirements and penalties are transferred to the Church. Capital punishment in the OT becomes excommunication in the NT. The Church is Israel, a nation, a polis.

I think so many Christians get caught up in (to use Niebhur’s terms) “cultural transformation” that they develop a messianic complex. It’s down to us to save the world, to remake the world in our own image, to fight for truth, justice and the American way. This creates nervous, jumpy Christians, people who are hyper-critical, blind to their own faults and sins, and who turn unbelievers into targets. Add in an unhealthy dose of Enlightenment philosophy that focuses entirely on the life of the mind, on refutation and propositions, and you have perfectly captured the last few generations of evangelicals.

But if the Church really is a polis in any real sense, a city in its own right, then this is all wrong. If our ethical life is intended for us and not for the world, then we need to stop comparing the world to it, and stop trying to shove it down their throat without the requisite transformation by Christ. It is an odd irony that pursuit of “cultural transformation” results in the opposite, but the historical consequences of cultural transformation are fairly clear. This term means treating the Church as if she is not a polis at all, but an add-on, a nice addition to a culture that neither needs or wants it. It results in the pursuit of the levers of cultural and political power. We think we can climb aboard and drive the Mammon-mobile better than the Mammonites can. But this is all wrong. Jesus said to ignore the Mammon-mobile, and concentrate on driving the Church instead. You can’t drive a Gentile car without becoming like a Gentile.

But doesn’t this result in ignoring the world, letting it get worse and worse? Isn’t this some kind of gnostic retreat from the world and from influence? Some Christians, especially of the Reformed variety, are very fearful of this. But I don’t think so. To stop trying to save the world, to refuse to participate in the polis of Mammon in this way actually has good results. The sinner and the sick cease to be our enemies in a philosophical and worldview conflict, and instead become the wounded and the broken we are called upon to serve. It rehumanizes those people we have dehumanized. Instead of trying to fix the head alone, the Church would become a place that provides healing and care for the whole human person. It means that the Church would live like it was its own polis, a community of people living the way Jesus told us to, together in true community, practicing such radical sharing that there are many loaves and fishes left over for the broken and the hungry and the needy and the poor.

Maybe if we lived like the Church, we would be recognized as the Church by the world, as the Church once was known in her early days. Maybe the way to save the world is to stop trying to save it and just live like the Church. God will bring the nations in when He is ready.

Marx was Right (Kind of)

John Mueller (Redeeming Economics, p. 4-5) notes that when it comes to Adam Smith’s “labor theory of value,” Karl Marx did not, as conservative Christians are told, misunderstand the theory at all.

Karl Marx did not misunderstand this theory, but rather understood it very well, when he claimed that it had turned every exchange from the approximate equality of Aristotle’s “justice in exchange” into pervasive injustice in exchange, with workers producing all the value while capitalists skimmed much of it for their own profit.

It should be noted here that Mueller is no Marxist, but is instead a Catholic economist whose book was published by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Economics and the Parable of the Talents

As I continue to mull over the response to my reading of the parable of the tenants, I wanted to draw some attention to interpretive opponents for a moment. That is, when comments (both here and over social media) started coming in on the subject, the most common response was something along the lines of “This parable has nothing to do with economics, but rather faithfulness!” The implication being that to read the parable economically, either positively or negatively, is an unsound hermeneutical approach to the passage.

I would like to note at least seven major theologians within the Reformed tradition who read the parable in just the way my critics say “I don’t know anybody who reads the parable about the good of economic labor.”

1. David Hall and Matthew Burton, in their abysmal book Calvin and Commerce, take just this very approach to reading the passage – that it reveals God’s approval of the capitalist model for wealth growth (pp. 69-71).

2. Wayne Grudem also notes the parable’s implications for business growth in his equally misguided Business to the Glory of God (p. 51 and surrounding).

3. Calvin himself seems to have understood the parable as having economic implications for the growth of wealth in his comments on the parable in his Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels.

4. John Schneider also takes this interpretive approach to the parable in his equally problematic The Good of Affluence (pp. 186-192).

5. Jay Richards, in one of the worst and most misinformed books on the subject I’ve ever read (Money, Greed and God, pp. 155-156), also takes this approach to the parable.

6. Joel McDurmon also notes the economic elements of the parable and takes this same approach to reading the passage in his God vs. Socialism (pp. 138-141).

7. Gary North also takes this same approach to reading the passage (Priorities and Dominion, pp. 538-539 and surrounding).

All of these men have approached the parable in the same way, noting its clear economic implications. I still (strongly) maintain that they have gotten their interpretation of the parable 100% backwards, but they all utilize the very interpretation I have been critiquing and demonstrate that those responders who protested that “nobody” reads the parable in that way are dead wrong. Almost everyone they read and cite most often have taken precisely this approach to the parable.