A Thoughtful Critique of Pacifism

Next week, I will be ending my break from my review of Doug Jones’s Dismissing Jesus , by turning my attention to his sixth chapter, “The Way of Enemy Love.”  Although Jones himself explicitly stops short of full-blown pacifism, many of his arguments in this chapter closely follow typical pacifist lines.  Indeed, he goes somewhat further than the classic Anabaptist, which disclaims violence on the part of Christians while accepting its legitimate and God-ordained place in the non-Christian state.  For Jones, the rejection of violence basically involves a rejection of the office of civil authority and its coercive tools.  Although obviously I think that Jones goes too far, it is hard not to be drawn to the rhetoric of peace.  No one wants to position themselves as a defender of violence, particularly in a society for whom the just war tradition has long been prostituted to a militaristic agenda.

A full response to Jones’s arguments in this chapter would require some very extensive wrestlings with the relevant biblical teachings and natural law principles on violence, peace, justice, and punishment.  Thankfully, my task in the next installment of my review  has been eased by the fact that my friend Andrew Fulford has already undertaken this task over the summer, with a seven-part series at The Calvinist International entitled “Was Jesus a Pacifist?”  I would highly commend it to you as a patient and thorough consideration of the principles and presuppositions at stake, including careful exegesis of the relevant New Testament texts.  I will have occasion to refer back to several of Fulford’s points in the course of my consideration of “The Way of Enemy Love” next week.  Part 1 of Fulford’s essay seeks to establish the multiple layers of context that must inform our reading of the Gospels.  Part 2 seeks to disentangle what we mean by “pacifism,” and the various distinct sorts of arguments and rationales that are often used to generate pacifistic conclusions.  Part 3 establishes the assumptions that the first Christians would have brought to Jesus’s teaching, as seen in the Old Testament and other New Testament writings.  Parts 4 and 5 work through specific elements of Christ’s teaching and practice that are often appealed to as demonstrating pacifism or condemning all uses of violence force.  Part 6 explores why, if Jesus did not teach pacifism, so many early church fathers did.  Finally, Part 7 sums up how the magisterial Protestant doctrine enables a coherent interpretation of the biblical teaching on peace, enemy love, and violence.


“Obedience Without Cost”: The Necessity of Moral Thinking

I came upon another extraordinary passage from Oliver O’Donovan recently, this one in a lecture entitled, “What Kind of Communty is the Church?” (the 2005 Richard Hooker Lecture). It has considerable bearing, I think, on the ongoing review of Doug Jones’s Dismissing Jesus that I have undertaken here, and on what lies behind some of the concerns I have voiced.  It expresses, far more capably than I could, some of what I tried to express on this subject in reply to a comment on Pt. 1 of that review, and in a somewhat rant-ish post from earlier this year, “The Death of Evangelical Ethics“:  

“How is a true self-knowledge to be gained? Only when we place ourselves as practical agents and our situation as a practical calling in the light of Holy Scripture and allow it to illuminate and direct our practical reasoning by the truth. And that is when we acknowledge the authority of Scripture in earnest.

There is a danger that we may seem to take the authority of Scripture seriously while actually evading the challenge of this third stage. Practical reasoning can never be truncated by the reading of Scripture, as though we could arrive at our decisions without having had to reach them, merely by leaping from the quotation of a text. This danger is sometimes referred to as ‘literalism’, sometimes ‘fundamentalism’ – both quite inappropriate titles. What we have to do with here is a kind of hastiness: a quick glance that lights upon some moment in the biblical text, a quick glance that takes in some apparent feature of the contemporary situation, the immediate conclusion that this text and no other is precisely what this age needs. It is not an error confined to conservative Protestants, though we may think it typical of them; but there is justice-fundamentalism and inclusivist- fundamentalism as well as purity-fundamentalism, all of which have in common that they propose to evade the tasks of practical reason, which is actually cheating God. Scripture is given us to guide and to discipline our practical reasoning; it sets us free to engage in clear-sighted deliberation leading to decision.

Moral theologians, it sometimes seems to me, are in possession of a secret knowledge that is apparently concealed from all other theologians. They know that the most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, ‘What does Scripture mean?’, but, ‘What does the situation we are in mean?’ Those who have written about hermeneutics in terms of a fusion of two horizons, the horizon of the text and the horizon of the present day, have frequently conveyed the impression that we ourselves and our present situation are a perfectly known quantity, so that it only remains for us to go back to Scripture to pick out something relevant to what we already understand about ourselves. But Scripture proves its authority to us precisely by its capacity to shed light on ourselves and our situation at the points where we do not understand them, overcoming our preconceptions. The discernment through which we understand our own situation as agents is not given immediately in the text. It is given by the Holy Spirit as we frame questions under the illumination of Scripture about our situation. The Scripture tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbour; but whether this or that ambiguous statement we have it in mind to make to the next journalist who calls us up is false or merely discreet is something the Scripture, taken in isolation from our practical reasoning, will not tell us. We do not read about our own problems with the journalists directly in Scripture; yet it is from Scripture that we gain the categories of understanding that allow us to understand our situation and reach a judgment on how to handle our dilemmas.

To which I can imagine a certain resistance. ‘That is just another way’, someone will say, ‘of intellectualizing our relation with God. What ought to be a matter of immediate obedience becomes a rational exercise’. To which I answer. Yes, in a way; in another way, no. Yes, in that our obedience must be thoughtful obedience. Obedience without thought is obedience without cost; more exactly, it is not obedience at all, but disobedience. No, in that thoughtful obedience does not exclude the immediacy of encounter with the commanding God. On the contrary, it is as I give my mind to the witness of Scripture to God’s character and will that the Holy Spirit brings God near to me, convicts me of what God would have me do. Such moments of fear and trembling before the immediacy of the divine command may come to us, and we must be open to them. But they are not an alternative to reflective and deliberate thinking, the logike latreia, the ‘rational worship’ of Romans 12:1f., by which our minds are said to be renewed to dokimazein ta diapheronta, to ‘appreciate distinctions’.

A church living perpetually under the critical authority of Holy Scripture is protected from those hectoring voices that arise with shocking suddenness to propose radically new formal arrangements. Where such voices suddenly emerge with a terrifying and radical impact, it is a sure sign that the Church has slumbered, that it has not been attentive to its permanent task of self-reformation. For that task is a perpetual engagement in practical reasoning about the Church’s calling and mission, an engagement that has responded step by step to the new demands of its situation. A Church now waking up to find itself surrounded by fire alarms ringing on all sides must ask what it is about this task that it has been neglecting. And if we are ever to find our way out of the crisis in which we have come to be placed, it will only be by an intensive application to the tasks of thought more demanding than any that has been imagined by an intellectually complacent and sluggish Anglicanism that for generations past has squandered the once glorious legacy of reflection and interrogation that we have recalled gratefully in these two lectures.”