Sorry it took so long to get to this entry, Gentle Readers. I was interrupted by the move..
I argued that Jesus does not teach impossibly hard ideals in the Sermon on the Mount. Despite the New Moses typology in Matthew’s Gospel (Jesus goes up on a high mountain to deliver the new teachings), this is not “new law” in the sense of new burdens, harder rules to keep. It is, as I argued in the section on the Beatitudes, grace–the delivering love and empowering grace which enables faithful discipleship. The Beatitudes describe the virtues, the character traits, of disciples living into the Kingdom/Rule of God which Jesus brings. We aren’t burdened with this “hard teaching” as a way to earn divine favor, but are invited into the adventure and joy of the in-breaking Rule of God.
After the Beatitudes, the Sermon can be diagrammed as 14 (twice the holy number 7) triadic statements in which the first part of the statement gives a traditional moral rule or principle (all but one of them drawn from the First Testament), the second part describes the “cycles of bondage” or “mechanisms of enslaving sin” that keep us from following that moral rule or principle, and the third part (Jesus’ commands) shows the process of deliverance out of those sinful cycles of bondage. In this exposition, I am closely following my teacher, Glen H. Stassen and will also draw from the work of NT theologian Walter Wink. (See Stassen’s full exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount here which reproduces an article he first published in the Journal of Biblical Literature.)
Now, scholars have often been misled at this point. They haven’t seen 14 Triads, but 7 antisthenes or contrast statements (“You have heard it said of old/But I say unto you.”) But this view sets Jesus in opposition to the First Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that were his own Bible and the Bible of the earliest Christians. But that cannot be right because Jesus constantly affirms the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed, in the very Sermon on the Mount, he rebukes those who would claim that he comes to replace the Torah or Law instead of fulfilling it (Matt. 5:17-19). Also, in the phrases following Jesus’ “but I say to you” refrain there are no commands–no imperatives. What follows instead are participles and gerunds–i.e., forms of speech showing continuous or ongoing action (the cycles of bondage). The commands, the Greek imperatives, come later–showing the way of deliverance. So, we have a three part structure in which Jesus does not contrast the traditional Jewish teaching, but rather affirms it, shows why it is often hard to keep, and then shows a way of deliverance than goes beyond the older teaching but does not contradict it. The following chart shows the entire pattern from Matt. 5:21-7:12.
THE FOURTEEN TRIADS OF THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
|TRADITIONAL RIGHTEOUSNESS||VICIOUS CYCLE||TRANSFORMING INITIATIVE|
|1. You shall not kill||Being angry,or saying, You fool!||Go, be reconciled|
|2. You shall not commit adultery||Looking with lust||Remove the cause of temptation (cf. Mk 9:43ff.)|
|3. Whoever divorces,give a certificate||Divorcing involves you in adultery||(Be reconciled: I Cor 7:11)|
|4. You shall not swear falsely||Swearing by anything involves you in a false claim||Let your yes be yes, andyour no be no|
|5. Eye for eye,tooth for tooth||Violently/revengefully resisting by evil means||Turn the other cheek; Give your tunic and cloak; Go the Second mile; Give to beggar & borrower|
|6. Love neighbor & hate enemy||If you love those who love you, what more is that than the Gentiles do?||Love enemies, pray for your persecutors; be all-inclusive as your Father in heaven is|
|7. When you give alms,||blowing a trumpet like hypocrites||but give in secret, and your Father will reward you|
|8. When you pray,||making a show like the hypocrites||but pray in secret, and your Father will reward you|
|9. When you pray,||babbling like Gentiles, thinking the wordiness will be heard||Therefore pray like this: Our Father….|
|10. When you fast,||appearing gloomy to others,like the hypocrites||but dress with joy, and your Father will reward you|
|11. Do not pile up treasures on earth (cf. Luke 12:16-31)||Where moth & rust destroy, and thieves enter & steal||But pile up treasuresin heaven|
|12. No one can serve two masters||Serving God & wealth, worrying about food & clothes||But seek first God’s reign and God’s justice/righteousness|
|13. Do not judge, lest you be judged||By the measure with which you judge, you’ll be judged||First take the log out of your own eye|
|14. Do not give holy things to dogs, nor pearls to pigs||They will trample themand tear you to pieces||Give your trust in prayer to your Father in Heaven|
The items in bold show places where Jesus’ teaching is paralleled elsewhere–in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, in Luke 12, in Mark. There are also partial echoes in Paul’s writings, in the Epistle to James, and even in Revelation. These echoes are seldom in the sections describing the cycles of bondage (which some have viewed as impossible teachings or new rules) but either in the first section (reaffirming the Hebrew Scriptures) or in the third section (describing the way of deliverance and new life)–thus showing where Jesus was heard to place his emphasis.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t say, “You have heard of old “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you “Don’t be angry.” Who could never be angry? Jesus was moved with anger (at the way that ritual rules harmed the sick) when he healed a man with a withered hand (Mark 1:41) and he demonstrated anger at the moneychangers in the Temple (an incident we will revisit later in this series). Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt not Commit Adultery,” but I say to you, “Don’t ever lust.” Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Whoever divorces must give a certificate,” but I say to you, “Never divorce.”
Instead, Jesus says, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you that nursing anger (the Greek is the verb for holding onto –the way some people treasure grudges) and calling people “Fool!” leads to judgment. ” So, how to get out of this bondage to anger than leads to various forms of judgment and sin–including, often enough, killing? Here comes Jesus’ gracious command! “If your brother has something against you GO TO HIM and seek to be reconciled.” This is so important it must take precedence even over worshipping God (leave your sacrifice and go). Now, THAT we can do! We cannot guarantee that the brother will want to make peace (Jesus’ audience would surely have remembered Cain and Abel). But we don’t have to wait for him to come to us. We can take the initiative, no matter who was at fault. We can seek to repair the breach in fellowship (“brother” was probably also heard by Matthew’s readers as referring to “fellow church members”) instead of nursing our anger or calling names or congratulating ourselves on our self-righteousness.
And nations can do this, too. One government offends another. Can we ask that a government not be angry? No, but we can ask that it not nurse that anger or refuse to speak to the enemy nation or congratulate itself on its own righteousness. We can ask that one government go to the other and seek to make peace. After all, when you speak of the grievance between you it may include hard words of truth that the other might not want to hear–so we should be prepared to hear such ourselves. Will this guarantee peace? Of course, not! But REFUSING to speak almost always guarantees strife and war–vicious cycles of violence and judgment.
Likewise, we avoid committing adultery by removing the causes of temptation that lead us to lust. Here, Jesus uses typical Hebrew hyperbole. We should not literally pluck out our eyes (I can lust with both eyes closed) or cut off our hands (I can lust without any hands!). But we should remove ourselves from temptation. If working late nights with a beautiful colleague alone is tempting you to break your wedding vows, then don’t work with that one alone–always meet where there is plenty of light and crowds. If you have to, get another job. Don’t troll the internet for pornographic sites. Don’t do things which are likely to lead to your lusting (“committing adultery in your heart”) which will all too often lead to actual adultery. Walk away from the conditions or people or contexts which tempt you.
In order to keep this post brief enough, we will skip several of these to go to another that bears directly on our topic of Christian pacifism. The 5th Triad (5:38-42) gives the traditional teaching, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Even in the First Testament, the intent of this rule was to limit revenge. The common pattern in the ancient world, and today, is for unlimited revenge. You take my eye, I take both your eyes. You take my tooth, I just may take your life. You take my life, my brother wipes out your family. This is the “morality” of the Mafia or the Japanese Yakuza. It is the “morality” of street gangs–and of most nations during wartime. To this, the Hebrew Scriptures tried to place a break: All you may take in revenge for a lost eye is the enemy’s eye. All you may take for a tooth is the enemy’s tooth. But Jesus knows this is not sufficient. If we seek revenge, we get caught in escalating cycles of vengeance and violence.
Now, most English Bibles are not helpful here. Verse 39 is usually translated as “Do not resist evil” (KJV) or “Do not resist an evildoer” (NIV). The first is ridiculous. Jesus resisted evil every time he cast out demons or confronted the Scribes and Pharisees. “Resist the Devil,” we are told, “and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7). The NIV translation is grammatically possible, (taking ponero as a substantitive dative) but it doesn’t fit much with Jesus’ own actions, either. As Clarence Jordan and others have noticed, ponero is most likely an instrumental and so should be translated as either with evil or by evil means. Further, as Walter Wink’s exhaustive search of secular Greek shows, antistemai doesn’t mean any kind of resistance, but VIOLENT resistance–it is the term used for rebellions and armed insurrections. So, 5:39 should be translated something like, “You have heard it said of old, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you “Do not resist violently or by evil means.” Rather, if someone strikes you on your right cheek. . .
Now, many people read the Sermon at this point to be teaching a “doormat” approach to life. In fact, in popular speech, “turn the other cheek,” is code for “let people abuse you–even invite their abuse.” Even many who see a positive dimension to these teachings often view them as “surrending one’s rights” for the sake of God’s Rule. Instead, I follow the work of New Testament theologian Walter Wink in seeing Jesus’ transforming initiatives here as teaching nonviolent resistance to evil, a “third way,” other than surrender or violence. Wink urges the reader to pay close attention both to the language of the text and to the historical and cultural background in first-century Palestine. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek. . .” In Jesus’ culture the left hand was reserved for “unclean” acts (it was an age before toilet paper) and the cultural taboo against touching someone with the left hand was very strong. In fact, one could be fined heavily for touching someone with the left hand. So, we are to imagine that the striker used his right hand. But the only way to strike the right cheek with the right hand is to use the back of the hand. So, this is not a punch, but a backhanded slap across the face. But this immediately tells the audience that this is not a fight between equals, but the abuse of a social inferior by a social superior. One does not backhand someone except to humiliate him or her, to publicly put the inferior in his or her “place.” Equals do not backhand each other. Masters backhand slaves or servants; the rich backhand the poor; abusive husbands backhand wives; tyrannical fathers backhand children (maybe even an adult or nearly adult son who is being deeply humiliated). In such a situation, the social inferior usually does not dare to strike back. The rich man who backhands his servant has guards or can get them. The wife, in a culture where divorce can only be initiated by the husband and where restraining orders for domestic abusers are unheard of, must live in the home. Does the inferior nurse resentment and plot revenge in the night? Does s/he instead simply “take it” and cooperate with her or his own oppression and self destruction? No, Jesus says, “turn to him the left cheek also!” But the social superior cannot backhand the left cheek without using the taboo left hand–which would humiliate the oppressor and leave him open to court action! If he strikes with the right hand, he has to punch the inferior, which involves treating him as an equal!” In “turning the other cheek,” the abused person refuses to be a victim, but also refuses violence and revenge. Instead, the “victim” confronts the abuser with her or his full humanity and demands to be treated as an equal–inviting repentance from the abuser. If the humiliating slap was public, the tables have been turned. Like the nonviolent activists of the civil rights movement, the abused one is told by Jesus to refuse to cooperate with evil or to respond with violence–a way of deliverance from the cycle of abuse–culturally specific–is demonstrated.
Jesus’ next example of this “third way” involves corrupt law courts. “If anyone would sue you for your coat. . .” The basic attire in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, as it had been for centuries, was two long robe-like garments, a lightweight inner robe and a thicker, heavier, outer robe. If someone was so poor (homeless) that they needed a loan and had no other collateral, the Law of Moses, allowed the lender to take the outer garment in pledge. But, the outer garment or cloak had to be given back at every sundown because, of course, the poor man would need to sleep in it. Without it, he could die of exposure in the desert air. But courts can become corrupt and side with the rich against the poor. Centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had condemned those whose corruption was so great they were copulating on “garments taken in pledge,” (Amos 2:8). This may have been hyperbole, but it shows the prophet’s anger at the abuse of the poor and the rejection of the protections for the poor in the Law of Moses.
Jesus shows similar anger at the courts of his day who were letting lenders actually sue homeless people for their outer garments–in effect condemning them to death by exposure! So, Jesus says, “give to him your tunic also.” In other words, strip butt naked in the courtroom! Now, remember, that while Jewish society had strong nudity taboos, the shame fell mostly on those VIEWING the nudity rather than on the nude person. Thus, drunken Noah’s curse on son Ham and grandson Canaan for laughing at his drunken, naked old body. And thus, the faithful sons walk backward to cover Noah. (Gen. 9:20-27). So, Jesus is again advocating a nonviolent protest that could shame the court (literally EXPOSING its lack of justice) and of the lender! (Jesus’ original hearers were probably dying of laughter at the imagined scene.) Of course, this move probably would result in getting the nude protester thrown in jail, but he would at least not die of exposure. And it probably would result in some new rule against nudity in court or something. Jesus is not giving hard and fast rules, but trying to teach a METHOD of confronting evil and oppression without violence. Thus, he is also inviting his hearers to use their own liberated, sanctified, imaginations to think of continuous similar examples in ever-knew situations as one lives the Third Way of the in-breaking Kingdom in the midst of this still-Fallen, often oppressive, world order.
Jesus’ third example comes from the Roman occupation of Palestine–which, like all occupying armies, was hated by the locals. But Rome was a smart empire that liked to limit the times it needed to use the Legions to suppress local uprisings. So, Roman law had limits placed on the oppressive actions of the occupying troops and strict penalties (usually death) for breaking them. One of those rules allowed for any Roman soldier to grab any local in a conquered territory and force him to carry a burden, such as the soldier’s pack, for the soldier. (When Jesus is crucified, this is what happens to Simon the Cyrene, who is forced to carry Jesus’ cross. See Mark 15:21) But the local could be forced to carry such a burden only one mile. After that, the soldier had to take back the burden or get another carrier. The Roman roads were marked throughout the empire with mile markers for many reasons, but they made it easy to check that this rule was carried out.
Now, even though this was limited, naturally locals hated ANY forced labor by occupying troops. It reminded them that they were not free. Specifically in Palestine, it reminded faithful Jews that the Holy Land was occupied by godless, pagan, Gentiles who could, like Egypt of old, treat God’s people as slaves any time they felt like it. Imagine the anger, the resentment that could build up, the cycles of bondage to violence that could result. (Note to American readers: Then imagine how the local Iraqi or Afghan people, EVEN IF THEY FIRST WELCOMED THE U.S. TROOPS as an alternative to Saddam or to the Taliban, respectively, feel about the occupying troops. The longer those troops stay, no matter how noble they believe their mission, the more hated they will be. Think how the average American would feel if foreign occupying troops paraded down our cities and towns! Back to Scripture.)
In that situation, many Jews associated with the resistance movement (later called Zealots) advocated assassination of Roman soldiers. By contrast, the Herodian puppet government and the Sadducees and Temple elites, urged cooperating with the Romans no matter what they did. Jesus does neither. Instead, he says, go a second mile. The enemy soldier wonders what’s going on. Is this Jew trying to get him in trouble with his commander? Is he leading him into an ambush? Is he insulting his strength, saying that the mighty soldier is too weak to carry his own pack? Imagine him begging to get his pack back or ridiculously knocking down the pack carrier to take it back! On the other hand, the second mile, provides the pack carrier time to confront the soldier with the injustice of forced labor and of the occupation at all. It gives time to sow seeds of repentance and peacemaking. At any rate, the pack carrier is transformed from a forced laborer–an object–into a volunteer–a free moral agent. Here is the pattern. Jesus teaches not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent, creative, transforming, resistance to evil that can deliver both oppressors and oppressed from cycles of destructive anger and revenge.
The 6th triadic statement reinforces our theme. The traditional teaching is to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:9) and, in Jesus’ day, many interpreted that to mean also “hate your enemy.” There is no command to hate enemies in the First Testament. But that is how the command to neighbor love was understood in Jesus’ day–Love your fellow Israelite. Much as contemporary Americans seem to think they are to love only other Americans (or only “REAL” Americans) and hate people in other countries–a view surprisingly found in many U.S. churches! The second section, the mechanism of bondage, is given as a rhetorical question, “If you love only those who love you, what more are you doing than the Gentiles?” Even the pagans have THAT much morality! By giving this as a rhetorical question, Jesus calls into question the supposed moral superiority of God’s people and reminds them of how often they have failed to be a “light for the nations,” and fell under God’s judgment. He invites them to remember the destructive cycles just described as the results of just loving those who love you.
The way of deliverance is to love your enemies. (This command of Jesus, to love enemies, is quoted throughout the New Testament and throughout early Christian literature. Nothing else Jesus said was remembered by the early church as being so central as this command.) And Jesus tells how one is to love enemies: praying for them. This will show that one is “perfect” (i.e., perfect in compassion) as God is–giving rain and sun to both the just and unjust.
Here is the heart of Christian pacifism because one cannot love an enemy by killing him or her. Notice how practical Jesus is–he assumes his hearers, including his disciples, will have enemies. This is not pie in the sky naivete. Too many Christians think they are too “nice” to have enemies. Jesus is more hard-headed and practical. He often is matter of fact about how following him will give one enemies. But the key to Christian living is how one deals with enemies–loving them and praying for them. Working to make peace. One may have to confront their evil actions as the previous triadic teaching showed. One may need to confront massive evil with massive nonviolent direct action. But one must hold out hope for the repentance of the enemy, for their conversion. One must not respond with violence that continues the cycle of revenge.
We’ll stop here for this post. The biblical case for Christian pacifism, for gospel nonviolence, is much broader, but nowhere is it clearer. This is the heart of God’s call in Jesus to a new life, a new way of life, which shows a new pattern to the world. The church, as the disciple community of Jesus, is to be the first fruits of the in-breaking Rule of God–and this is what that fruit looks like. The heart of Christian living is love of enemies.
The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded. For our purposes, it does not matter whether or not Jesus gave the Sermon at one point or whether Matthew has arranged various of Jesus’ teachings into this current form, as many scholars believe. (A wandering preacher would most likely repeat many teachings in different forms before different audiences.) Many have believed that Jesus’ here gives incredibly hard teachings–counsels of perfection–that only saints can live (the Medieval Catholic view) or that no one can fulfill and which drive us to the sheer grace of God (Reformer Martin Luther’s view). I contend (with others) to the contrary that the Sermon is full of grace and shows us the God’s gracious way of deliverance from bondage to mechanisms of sin. (I will give a small bibliography on the Sermon on the Mount in a separate blog posting, but I will say that I am drawing strongly from the work of Walter Wink and Glen H. Stassen for much of what follows.)
First, to help us see the empowering joy of the Sermon on the Mount, we need a better definition of grace. Too often we understand grace only in terms of forgiveness, of “God’s unmerited favor on sinners.” But grace is not only forgiveness, but empowerment to follow God. Grace enables our faith to be lived out in faithfulness. Of course, we are never perfectly faithful. We fail and need forgiveness. But to use that as an excuse for continuing in disobedience is simply wrong–and leads us back into the bondage from which Jesus delivers us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor who defied Hitler, ran an underground seminary for anti-Nazi pastors, was marginally involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler, and whose work to smuggle some Jews out of Germany led to his arrest and execution, called this kind of thinking “cheap grace.” He contrasted that with the costly grace of the gospel. Likewise Miraslov Volf, a theologian from war torn Croatia, says that to accept the comfort of the Crucified One while rejecting his Way to advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology in place of the gospel. So, let us approach the Sermon on the Mount prepared to hear it as a Word of empowering grace, delivering us from the mechanisms of bondage to various patterns of sin, enabling us as Christ followers to live by a new pattern, a way of life profoundly different from the world-system we know.
The Beatitudes (Matt. 5: 3-12). The Sermon is given to Jesus’ disciples/followers and to crowds who are potential followers. The crowds are not just any non-believers, but are those who have heard of Jesus (maybe even heard him directly) and are interested. They may even be half convinced that he is the Messiah, God’s agent for the redemption of Israel. In presenting it in his Gospel, Matthew is saying that the Sermon is to be of continuing guidance for his Christian community–and the Church’s decision to include it in the New Testament is their recognition that Jesus continues to intend this Sermon to guide disciples and potential disciples, now.
The Sermon begins with words of grace, of blessing for those who are citizens of the Kingdom or Rule that Jesus brings. Building on themes from Isaiah 61, these “beatitudes” are not commands or rules. They proclaim God’s blessing or joy on those who display the grace filled virtues of the inbreaking Rule of God. Because the characteristic of joy is so strong, Glen Stassen translates the beatitudes this way:
Joyful are the humble poor who know their need of God, for theirs is the very Reign of God.
Joyful are those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.
Joyful are those whose wills are surrended to God, for they will inherit the earth.
Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for restorative justice, for they will be filled.
Joyful are those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.
Joyful are those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will see God.
Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Joyful are those who suffer because of working for restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.
Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you, because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.
The “poor in Spirit,” are called simply the physical poor in Luke 6:20 (which we’ll examine more fully in our chapter on Luke) and are contrasted with those who are “rich now.” So, who does Jesus bless, the poor or the poor in spirit? The problem disappears when we realize that Jesus is referring to Isa. 61. The anawim in Hebrew are traditionally the “humble poor.” They are economically poor but they also, perhaps because of their poverty, realize their need of God. The rich often believe they have no need of help from God or anyone. They trust in their riches. But if you are poor, one lost paycheck can lead to hunger; one serious illness can lead to foreclosure and homelessness. One divorce (perhaps even against one will), one catastrophe, is enough to turn their lives from barely liveable to disastrous. So, many poor more naturally turn to God. Luke emphasizes the Old Testament theme of God’s care and protection for the economically poor (e.g., Ex. 22:25-27; 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 15:7-11; 2 Sam. 22:28; Ps. 72:2, 4, 12; Isa. 26:6, 49:13, 66:2; Zeph. 3:12). Matthew does not exclude this, but he puts the emphasis on their empty hand of faith before God.
The 3rd Beatitude is usually translated “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake,” but the same Greek word (dikaiosune) means both righteousness and justice. And today’s English tends to mean by “righteousness” what the Bible means by “self-righteousness.” They make it about ourselves, about a personal quality of righteousness. But Jesus wants disciples to be other directed, to seek to set right what is wrong. He wants us to hunger and thirst for the kind of healing justice that tends the wounds of individuals and societies.
I skip the details of the other Beatitudes for brevity’s sake. I note that they all fit together. Life in the Jesus Way is characterized by poverty of spirit (knowing one’s need of God), by mourning/grieving the things that grieve the heart of God–so much that we are moved to action; by wills completely surrendered to God. The Jesus Way people hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful (practicing compassion in action), by purity of heart, by suffering for the sake of justice, by being persecuted for the sake of Jesus (just as the prophets were persecuted). In this pattern are the peacemakers–not the warmakers–who are called the children of God. Again, at this point, there are no commands. The Beatitude does not command us to be peacemakers in order to earn status as God’s children. Rather, Jesus’ followers are God’s children and joyfully make peace because they are God’s children. In describing this vision in the Beatitudes, Jesus is not heaping burdens upon his listeners and potential followers, but describing a vision of JOY and INVITING us to participate. This is the pattern of participation–a pattern that includes joyful peacemaking.
Of course, while all of us disciples and would-be disciples want to live a pattern of life like this, full of joy displaying the joyous virtues of the Way of Jesus, but we also know that we often find ourselves trapped in other, more destructive patterns. In our next installment we will see how the main body of the Sermon address these forms of bondage in 14 Triads that present a traditional moral teaching, describes the mechanism of bondage that make holding to that teaching nearly impossible, and then presents transforming initiatives–Jesus’ new commands that show us the way out of the destructive cycles that bind us–empowering grace, indeed.
There are numerous ways that Christians claim that Jesus is Lord, but still manage to evade his teachings and examples as claims on their lives as disciples. I was first alerted to this by John Howard Yoder, who describes many of these evasions early in his The Politics of Jesus. Later, my teacher, Glen Stassen presented a similar lengthy list of ways people evade taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. (Since the Sermon on the Mount is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded in the Gospels, how we treat it is a strong indication of how we’ll treat Jesus altogether.) If we name and describe (briefly) the various ways we dodge Jesus (while swearing loyalty to him), it will help us avoid falling into the same traps.
- The Dispensationalist Dodge: Jesus’ teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were not meant for the “Church Age,” but for the future Kingdom of God. My disagreements with Dispensationalism, even “progressive Dispensationalism,” are legion, but now is not the time to rehearse them. Suffice it to say that I find it extremely unlikely that when the Kingdom or Rule of God comes in all fullness that we we will still have enemies to love, that anyone will backhand us on the right cheek, sue us for our cloaks, or any occupying troops will force us to carry any packs even one mile. In the fullness of God’s Rule (whether in heaven or on earth), will we still have relationship problems that require us to stop our worship, go to our sister or brother and talk to them, seeking peace? All these teachings seem very much for this world. And at the end of the Sermon, Jesus tells the parable of the houseowner who built his house on rock (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and puts them into practice) versus the one who built his house on sand (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and doesn’t practice them.) The idea that Jesus never intended his teachings to be for the “Church age” is falsified by the very words of Jesus in the text.
- The “Preterist” Dodge: Jesus expected the Rule or Kingdom of God to Come either in his lifetime or shortly after–and his teachings were only meant to be an “interim ethic.” He did expect his disciples to practice his teachings, but they are so heroic that they could never be practiced for long–and the ongoing centuries required a different ethic for the Church. This view was made popular by the New Testament scholar, Albert Schweitzer, in his classic The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer had much right, but this seems off. Why would the ongoing centuries make Jesus’ ethic less normative? It is true that many Christian pacifist movements throughout the history of the Church had, at least initially, a heightened eschatological feeling, but the resurrection and the Holy Spirit give an empowering grace for Jesus’ ethic. When Schweitzer later adopted his own spirituality of “reverence for life,” I wonder that it did not lead him to reconsider his “interim ethic” view.
- The public/private split dodge. Jesus’ teachings are only for individual Christians in their private lives, but if they hold a public office requiring violence (e.g., soldier, judge, executioner, head of government) they must be governed by some other ethic. This dodge was a favorite of the Reformer, Martin Luther and many Lutherans (and others) since then. The problem with this is that there is no evidence for this in the New Testament texts. Nowhere do we find Jesus saying, “In your private lives, if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also, but as a member of the Sanhedrin it’s okay to condemn people to death.” The problem with such “two kingdom” thinking was shown most graphically in the German Third Reich–with many Christians reserving their Christian behavior for private lives, but as guards or doctors at death camps they used a different morality. We cannot limit Christ’s lordship to the church; Christ is cosmic lord and if that is still hidden in the world (to finally be revealed at the End–Phil. 2), it is to be manifest throughout all aspects of the lives of Christians.
- The “inner attitudes” dodge. This one was popular with John Calvin. Jesus’ teachings are about our inner attitudes more than about our outer actions. We can love our enemies even if, in war, or execution of criminals, we must kill them. There are attitudinal dimensions to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus wants us to renounce the nursing of anger and holding grudges rather than just avoiding killing people. But Jesus has plenty of instruction for actions, too. He tells us that we love our enemies by praying for them, seeking to do them good, stopping our worship to make peace. We confront those who backhand us (an act of humiliation) by turning the other cheek, so that they are forced to acknowledge our human dignity; we confront those who who would sue us poor for the very coat on our backs by stripping naked in the court of (in)justice; we react to the occupation troops who force us to carry their packs one mile, by carrying them two miles. None of those commands are simply about our inner attitudes.
- There is the dodge that simply ignores Jesus’ teachings and example because, supposedly, the only that counts is Jesus’ atoning death. Historically, one strand of Lutheranism took this view–even concentrating on justification to the exclusion of sanctification. (I’ll never forget how stunned I was when one Lutheran theologian defined sanctification as “getting used to your justification!”) But this view is becoming more popular with a broad range of American evangelicals–especially the resurgent 5-point Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention. But this makes Jesus into a cipher–so that he was just marking time until the crucifixion. It also reduces the cross and resurrection into a divine transaction–not asking what the human motives of the Romans and their Jewish puppet leaders were for killing Jesus (something this series will discuss). While it is true that the Apostle Paul could say that he determined to know nothing “but Christ Jesus and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2 ), but even Paul could paraphrase Jesus’ teachings (e.g., Romans 12) and was quick to say that Christ was also an example for his disciples. The Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan mocked this view by saying that American Christians “will worship the hind legs off Jesus, but not do the first thing He says!” The debate in the ’90s among some American evangelicals over whether or not Jesus could be someone’s savior without also being Lord gets into this, too. The answer is clear: Jesus called out disciples, that is followers and in the Great Commission commanded them to make disciples from among all the nations and part of that disciple making would be “teaching them to practice all things that I have taught you.” (Matt. 28:18-20). Following Jesus’ example and teachings is not an optional add on to Christian salvation–but part of the very definition of the term “Christian.”
There are other evasions, other dodges, but these are the most common, especially among lay Christians. Readers can bring up others in comments. Naming and rebutting these dodges, these ways we evade Jesus’ claims even while calling him “Lord, Lord!” puts us on guard against the evasive tendencies of our own unfaithful hearts. For, as John Calvin rightly noted, the human heart is an idol factory. We seek to root out these evasions and to be able to take Jesus’ teachings seriously as describing a distinct way of life for Christians who embody a foretaste of inbreaking Rule of God.
In beginning our examination of Holy Scripture on the questions of war, violence, nonviolence, and peacemaking, we will begin with Jesus, as presented in the 4 canonical Gospels, then turn to the rest of the New Testament before examining large sections of the Hebrew Scriptures or “Old” Testament. Why are we taking this approach? Why begin with Jesus?
We begin with Jesus (and, in a different sense, end with Jesus) because, for Christians, Jesus is the ultimate authority on matters of faith and practice, of doctrinal and ethical convictions and living. The earliest Christian confession, found repeatedly in the New Testament, is “Jesus is Lord!” That is the ultimate title of authority in the first century Roman empire in which the NT was written. The Romans proclaimed that Caesar was lord–was supremely sovereign. For the early Christians to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” was to say “Caesar is NOT lord! NOT supreme! NOT our ultimate authority!” It should carry the same political weight today. No Christian can give ultimate authority to anything or anyone else than Jesus. There have been many attempts at political or religious or other Powers and Authorities to try to usurp that authority. In the days of the Third Reich, the Nazi ideology claimed by the “German Christian” movement argued for “Christ for the Church, Hitler for the Fatherland!” They proclaimed that considerations of “Blood” (racial-ethnic identity), “Soil,” (national land ownership, but also implying cultural superiority), and “Volk” (Peoplehood, a term having far more racist overtones in German than the English equivalent of “Folk” carries) could be valid revelations of God alongside biblical revelation. This is what led the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to reject the ancient tradition of “general revelation” of God through nature and reason, along with the particular revelation of God in and through the unfolding history of Israel and the Church recorded in Holy Scripture. The Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church (which arose to combat the heresy of the German Christian movement), written by Barth declares in Article I, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we must trust and obey in life and in death.” Then along with this affirmation, it gave a denial, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and and truths, as God’s revelation.”
In considering a biblical case for Christian pacifism, we do well to heed the lessons of Barmen. I am not claiming that any particular government is “another Hitler,” (a charge that is flung about by both Right and Left far too quickly). I am saying that governments make idolatrous claims and they want obedient subjects whenever they want to wage war. Even liberal democracies like the U.S., which allow for conscientious objection to military service, prefer that the numbers of conscientious objectors remain small. They give out propaganda campaigns through military recruitment commercials and military recruitment in public school classrooms and this seeps into the minds of churchmembers almost by osmosis.
In the 1990s, I was slightly irritated with the U.S. evangelical fad of wearing “WWJD?” (for “What Would Jesus Do?”) on bracelets and T-shirts and other paraphanelia because I didn’t think that this was accompanied by any serious examination of the Gospels to see what Jesus did in his time and place as any kind of guide to what the Risen Christ would have his disciples do here and now. The question WWJD? was not, it seemed to me, being answered by serious Bible study, but by mere guesswork–informed no doubt by sermons and praise songs, etc., but not tested by serious NT study. Yet, immature as that fad was, it was onto something. It could have led to a great reformation of the Church in these United States. It at least understood that Jesus’ life, teachings, and death are a model for Christian discipleship (1 Peter 2:20-22). But since the attacks on the U.S. on 11 Sept. 2001, these have all but disappeared. Most ordinary American Christians are not asking themselves anymore “What Would Jesus Do?” certainly not in responding to terrorists (or suspected terrorists), to Muslims, to immigrants, to treatment of “detainees.” These ordinary Christians are not asking, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” or “Who Would Jesus Torture?” but are taking the name of Christ as a totem in all out war against declared national and religious enemies. (I remember how shocked I was when newspapers ran a picture of a tank in Iraq with the words “New Testament” painted on it. See below.)
See also my previous post on the “Military Bibles” with accompanying quotes by George Washington, George W. Bush, General Patton, etc. designed to remake Christianity into a religion of war and conquest.
Beginning with Jesus, and reminding ourselves via Barmen, of how crucial it is to begin with Jesus, and to expect that the gospel message of Jesus will be one that other Powers and Authorities don’t quickly welcome, is a helpful corrective to the many insidious ways that rival messages try to pour Jesus into their preexisting molds: Jesus as CEO of a Fortune 500 company preaching a gospel of capitalism; Jesus as Therapist, preaching a gospel of self-actualization; Jesus as Self-Help Guru; Jesus as Super-Patriot (forgetting that Christians are a global community, called out “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9); Jesus as Warrior and not the Prince of Peace.
This brings us to another problem: If we “begin with Jesus,” whose Jesus? That is, what view of Jesus guides our interpretation? The “politically correct” Jesus of the so-called Jesus Seminar is very different from that planned by the folks at “Conservapedia.” The Jesus of Rod Parsley stands in great contrast to the Jesus of Jeremiah Wright; the Jesus of Rick Warren is vastly different from the Jesus of Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis. Whose Jesus? How do we keep from making Jesus over into our own image? Well, as the late theologian H.Richard Niebuhr said, we have the “Rosetta Stone” of the original Gospel portraits. There are no absolute guarantees against misinterpretation, but we will consult a range of contemporary New Testament scholarship, and the Gospel portraits resist attempts to fully distort Jesus into an idol of our own making–as often as that has been tried.
An objection to this method of beginning with Jesus is that God’s revelation begins with the First or “Old” Testament–with Abraham and Sarah and Moses, with the faith and history of Israel, and the critique of the prophets. This is true. One does not fully understand Jesus apart from his context and heritage–his teaching in parables paralleled the teaching style of the sages of the Wisdom tradition (as found in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job ) and he stood deeply rooted in the tradition of the prophets of Israel/Judah. Those not familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures miss all the “Old” Testament quotations, paraphrases, themes, and allusions throughout the New Testament and especially in the Gospels and on the lips of Jesus. We also misunderstand Jesus by not understanding the rival factions within first century (i.e., Second Temple era) Judaism–rivalries so sharp that some scholars speak of the rival Judaisms of the Second Temple era–prior to the “normative” rabbinic Judaism of the 2nd C. We will have to situate Jesus (and the Jesus movement that became the early Church) within the rivalries of the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots (or proto-Zealot revolutionaries and social bandits), Essenes, or Hellenized philosophical Judaism like that of Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE). And it is important to note that what we call the “Old” Testament was the Bible of Jesus and the early church.
But we must still learn to read the Hebrew Scriptures as Jesus did. For us, all these centuries later, there is often a tendency to develop our theology from a particular reading of the Old Testament and then decide to fit Jesus in and be sure he says or does nothing to disturb our view of biblical revelation. Yet Jesus was constantly surprising both his rivals and his disciples–who read the same Scriptures. Flat Bible approaches end up subordinating Jesus to a doctrine of biblical authority or a reading of Scripture derived apart from Jesus. They end up becoming religions “about” Jesus that stand in contrast to the faith of Jesus. The NT writers resist this tendency. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is they that speak of me.” John 5:39. Or, as the writer of Hebrews put it, “Long ago at many times and in various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, but in these final days God has spoken to us supremely by a Son.” Heb. 1:1.
Christians throughout history have reacted to previous moldings of Jesus into mistaken shapes by affirming the supremacy of Jesus himself as revelation. Thus the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, in 1925 and 1963 said, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
So, we will begin with Jesus, with the portraits of Jesus and his teachings found in the 4 canonical Gospels. In our next installment, we will consider ways in which people try to avoid or water down Jesus–often without realizing that’s what they are doing. And we will argue for reading the “Old” Testament as Christian Scripture, as the Bible of Jesus and the earliest Christians.
Note: My approach is not the only way to present a biblical case for pacifism. One could read the entire Scripture through lenses shaped by Jesus but present such a reading in a “Genesis through Revelation” canonical order. That is the approach taken by Church of the Brethren scholar Vernard Eller in his classic, War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation (Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2004). It’s also the route chosen by Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud on his website, PeaceTheology.net in a blog series that will become a book, The Bible on Peace. I recommend both works strongly. But I have seen so many recent attempts to remake Jesus and distort Jesus’ message (see the picture above for an extreme example) that I am taking extra precautions that, in the words of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, “We Do See Jesus.” (The phrase comes from the essay, “But We Do See Jesus”: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth” reprinted as chapter two in Yoder’s The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985). )
We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism. To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem. First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture. There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case. This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.
Second, this is a biblical case. Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members. Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters. Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon. Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church. But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.
For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity. I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal: understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.
Defining some key terms in this study:
- Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ. “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.]. So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up. “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims that Jesus Christ makes on their lives. It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
- Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.” Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study. But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence. For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, ed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Update: Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right. But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc. Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil. Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong. We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong. The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism. There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear. Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.” But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
- As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion. Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion. Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires. Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence. If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.” However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent. Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
- These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important. Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children. That is not so. Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome. Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car. I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm. So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
- Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue. Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent. Nor are intentions everything: If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence. The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
- Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence. It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent. Examples of such practices include: strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc. We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
- Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence. These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
- Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.” In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking. For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter). (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention. See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005). This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
- Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice). This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles. Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking. I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.
I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow. The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions: “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.
Today is Pentecost Sunday in the Western version of the ancient liturgical calendar in Christianity. (In Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecost is NEXT Sunday.) The Believers’ Church/Free Church tradition which includes my own Baptist heritage is not big on liturgical calendars, but I find that if Christians do not shape themselves by theological events as we move through time and space, then we will shape ourselves by secular ones (e.g., churches which celebrate nationalist or military-related holidays in their home countries–which have the effect of reducing the God of All Nations to a tribal deity).
When the Day of Pentecost came, they [i.e., the followers of Jesus] were all together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now, there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment because each one heard them speaking in their own language. Utterly amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia [probably meaning the Roman province called Asia–roughly today’s Asia Minor], Phrygia, and Pamphilia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism) ; Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked each other, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them, saying, “They have had too much wine!”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem! Let me explain this to you–listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk as you suppose! It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams;
Even on my bond-slaves, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious Day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowlege; and you, with the help of wicked men, did put him to death by nailing him to a cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. . . . [Skipping the rest of Peter’s Semon]
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–all whom the Lord our God will call.” [Acts 2: 1-39 NIV]
Differing groups of Christians put the emphasis of this day (and Acts 2) in differing places–all with good basis in the text:
Evangelists and missionaries stress the global mission of Christianity that began at Pentecost. From the approximately 3000 who were saved that day to the numbers added daily that followed.
Some emphasize Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church,” i.e., when the broken followers of Jesus of Nazareth became a distinct entity called the church–even though not yet called “Christians.”
Those who stress the rootedness of Christianity in Judaism point out that this came on Pentecost (the 50th day after Jesus’ resurrection) during the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot (“Festival of Weeks”) which celebrates the giving of the Torah from God to Moses and is commemorated 50 days after the Exodus. (This is why Jews from throughout the Diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem.)
Those who put extra emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit (i.e., “Pentecostals and Charismatics”) focus on the speaking in tongues.
Eastern Orthodox and Holiness groups focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit as empowering to new lives of faithful discipleship.
Liberation theologians focus on the breakdown of barriers between various racial and ethnic groups and classes (bond and free) and even the healing of ageism and generation gaps.
Feminist theologians focus on the “sons and daughters” and “both men and women” –the equality in Spirit-guided service to God predicted by Joel and proclaimed by Peter as happening with this outpouring of the Spirit.
Trinitarians focus on the way the Spirit is given by God the Father and bears witness to the salvific work of Christ the Son.
Those who concentrate on small group formation for discipleship note that the empowerment of the Spirit came when the disciples were gathered all together and the continuing empowerment took place in continued daily breaking of bread together, prayer, and attention to the apostle’s teaching (today, Bible Study).
There are doubtless other emphases. All that I have mentioned are legitimately rooted in this day. I think any one emphasis without the others is unbalanced.
Happy Pentecost Sunday. And, to Jewish friends, Happy Shavuot!
Last year I wrote a brief series of Christmas reflections: an historical-critical affirmation of the virgin birth and 2 posts on the theological emphases of Matthew and Luke’s birth & infancy narratives. These proved very popular and more than one person urged me to run them again. I had thought that I would update and improve them, but I am not prepared to do so at this time. So, comment away and maybe by next year I’ll be ready to give a 2.0 version of these posts. Thanks for your continued interest.
As my biblical and theological readers probably ALL know, Nicholas Thomas (Tom) Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham (U.K.) and a renowned New Testament scholar. He is a prolific author of both scholarly works and popular works for laity. (He also has a secret career of dancing a silly dance over at Chrisendom, thanks to the superb technical skills and bizarre humor of biblio-blogger, Chris Tilling! If your life would not be complete without seeing an Anglican bishop dance a silly jig, you can find it here.)
Not being Anglican, I have no thoughts on how good or poor Wright is as a bishop or priest. However, I have been fascinated by how controversial he is in certain circles as a New Testament scholar. In some circles he is widely admired and in others viewed quite negatively. In Pauline studies, Wright is either praised or disrespected for being one of the proponents of the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which holds basically that Paul was not a Lutheran-before-Luther and that “justification by faith” is more of an ecclesiological concept than one about individual salvation. Paul remained far more Jewish in his thinking than is usually credited. I don’t find this very controversial, and I am mostly surprised that this perspective is thought so “new.” Surely it dates back at least to Krister Stendahl (Dean of Harvard Divinity School in the ’60s and later Lutheran Bishop in Sweden) and his famous essay, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Judaism, and James D.G. Dunn have also promoted this view. When I went to seminary in the mid-’80s, I understood it to have become nearly a consensus. So, in this area, Wright seems to me to be neither a brilliant pioneer, nor some kind of arch-heretic. He has, I believe, consolidated the arguments for this perspective and, in his What Saint Paul Really Said, has popularized a view that had not previously “trickled down” from scholars to the pew. Perhaps that is what makes this aspect of Wright so controversial.
But Wright is not only a Pauline scholar, but a Jesus scholar, part of the so-called “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.” He is controversial here, too. Liberal scholars like John Dominic Crossan (and, to a lesser extent, Wright’s friend, Marcus J. Borg) believe that Wright is basically a “scholarly fundamentalist” who defends far too much of the Gospels’ materials as historical, including the bodily resurrection. For this reason, many evangelicals have become major fans of Wright, but others have assailed him, because his interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels is far more Jewish (and political!) than many evangelicals find comfortable. And many are furious at Wright’s realized eschatology (following his teacher, G. B. Caird, and, before him, the legendary C. H. Dodd), which revels in apocalyptic imagery, but reinterprets it in ways that rule out a literal end of the world or even, apparently, a literal Return of Christ. (So, although the Crossans of this world continue to dismiss Wright as just one more evangelical, it is not your average evangelical whose hero in Jesus studies is Albert Schweitzer!)
Here, I agree with about 90% or so of Wright’s work. I find his description of the Jewish milieu of Jesus’ day convincing, and his rooting of Jesus in it spot on. I find his “politics of Jesus” similar to the perspective of John Howard Yoder (except that Wright seems to hesitate to draw the full pacifist conclusions of his view, as Richard B. Hays has pointed out) and, with quibbles over details, highly persuasive. I share an amillenial outlook, but I demur at being as completely preterist as Wright is. Both Jesus and the N.T. writers clearly speak of a close to history when the fullness of God’s Rule will be established at Jesus’ parousia (future return–literally “unveiling”). Wright says that he prefers to call his eschatology “inaugurated,” to “realized,” but the former usually leaves room for a future dimension that he seems to omit. I can’t follow him there.
In short, I find Wright’s work significant and helpful, but I can’t be counted either in the camp with those who think he hung the moon, nor with those who dismiss his fans as adherents of “Wrightianity.” I find him to be more original and creative in Jesus studies than in Pauline studies and such creativity risks making large errors in order to make real advances. Those content to simply add a few footnotes to scholarship risk less, but make less progress. Anyway, that’s my $.02 worth.
Update: 1) Thanks to Jonathan Marlowe for reminding me to link to N.T. Wright’s webpage here. It contains much information about Wright, but also many of his sermons, lectures, papers, etc. on a variety of topics. 2) In places of agreement, I forgot to mention that Wright’s overall approach to Jesus’ studies (and to NT and early Christianity generally) is based on two principles that I share (and had adopted before I ever heard of Wright): A. A commitment to historical evidence and to realizing that, for Christianity, historical research is important–and not unconnected to faith. Thus, Wright and I (along with many others) completely reject the semi-gnostic attempt to secure faith by sealing it off from historical research which, in different ways, is done by fundamentalism, by some followers of Rudolf Bultmann (it’s an open question as to whether or not they are reading Bultmann himself right at this point), and some followers of Karl Barth (again, whether Barth himself is implicated is debatable), and by the conservative Catholic scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson. B. However, Wright just as thoroughly rejects the extreme historical skepticism (in the principles set out by Van A. Harvey in The Historian and the Believer) and methods of the Jesus Seminar types, even in the less-extreme versions represented by Wright’s friend, Marcus Borg.
3) Confession-time: Unlike many evangelicals, I find much of value in Borg’s work. As I discussed here, Borg is one of my favorite liberal scholars, though I do not consider myself “liberal,” theologically. (Politically, I am, for a U.S. context, very liberal, although I prefer the term “progressive” because of my identification with the early Progressive movement.) I love the book co-written by Borg and Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, not least because it is a great example of how two Christians can disagree strongly while remaining friends. Overall, I am more in sync with Wright’s portrait of Jesus than with Borg’s, but there are a number of places where I thought Borg had the better of the argument.
4) I found out this past Advent, that an argument I constructed in seminary in the ’80s for the historicity of the Virgin Birth has much in common with a recently published defense by Wright. (This is what happens if you don’t publish quickly and often. Later, everyone thinks you’re just cribbing from a more famous person!) HT: Darrell Pursifal (Dr. Platypus) for calling this to my attention last Advent. My argument came more from thinking through hints and clues in the work of the late, great, Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, but if Wright has made similar arguments then maybe I was onto something and not just having semi-fundamentalist holdovers from my past. 🙂 As I pointed out here and here, however, I do not think the emphases of the NT birth/infancy narratives have much to do with the question of whether or not Mary was physically a virgin when Jesus was born. The tendency of evangelicals to focus on that question and miss the major themes of these narratives may be very close to straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
5) The resurrection is a different matter. I have not yet read Wright’s book on the resurrection (It’s on my birthday wish list to be posted this weekend. Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.), but the description in several reviews shows an overall approach that I would approve–one I learned from such diverse sources as the late G. E. Ladd, my teacher, Gerald Borchert, my teacher, Frank Tupper, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. I cannot agree with Marcus Borg that the resurrection is wholly “history metaphorized,” instead of “history remembered.” There do seem to be legendary or metaphorical details, as well as contradictions on details between the Gospel accounts (and the attempts of someone like Craig Blomberg to harmonize every one of those details do not persuade me). But the underlying event happened in our history–in space and time–even though it changes the nature of history, is eschatological, and is not just another event like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I cannot agree with those like Crossan who believe that the body of Jesus was thrown in the garbage dump (Gehenna) and eaten by dogs and, with the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15), I hold that if Jesus was not raised, Christian faith is vain–an illusion. The spiritualized resurrections that people like Borg, Crossan, (or Bultmann?) embrace strike me as dualist, gnostic, and, more to the point, something that no first C. Jewish writer would have described as a “resurrection.” So, if the reviews are correct in their description, I expect that I will agree with Wright’s book on the resurrection, and like it as well as Jesus and the Victory of God.(Now, the question is, will Wright understand, with Barth, and Moltmann, and Pannenberg, that Christ’s resurrection is the “prolepsis of the future?” That is, will he/does he see what the resurrection of Jesus means for the future dimensions of the Christian hope? I’ll have to wait and see.)
Because so many blogs have posted excellent scholarly responses to the Discovery Channel’s hyped up claims to have discovered the family tomb (actually ossuary) of Jesus, including Jesus’ own remains, I had originally planned to say nothing about this. But, I do not know which people may read my stuff who do not know about the good responses to these wild claims. So here’s a guide: British New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham gives a very careful response as a guest post on Chris Tilling’s blog, Chrisendom. See also Mark Goodacre, Darrell Bock, Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington, Michael Pahl, Byron Smith, and my former teacher, Craig Blomberg.
I’m not usually one to whine about skeptical attacks on Christian faith. We worship one whom we claim died and then was raised from the grave. That’s a pretty amazing claim and I do not blame folks for skepticism. What annoys me is the recent trend of the last few years to hype “alternative theories” that are at least as far-fetched as traditional Christianity. Further, these claims are rushed to print and (increasingly) film without any serious scholarly inquiry. If you watch these “documentaries,” you see the same fringe scholars recycled in almost every one of these projects: Karen Armstrong (ex-nun with an axe to grind), Elaine Pagels (an expert on the Gnostics–who is trotted out about all sorts of other things of which she is not qualified to comment), Burton Mack, & someone from the “Jesus Seminar.” If they include Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan, they think they’ve generously included some “conservatives,” (NOT hardly!). A friend of mine noted the lack of serious evangelical scholarship in these specials and that is, of course, true. But it’s worse: they don’t even include mainstream liberal scholarship. When is the last time one of these specials on a “shocking discovery about Jesus” consulted such mainstream Jesus scholars as E. P. Sanders,
Raymond Brown (deceased), John P. Meier, James Charlesworth, Bruce Chilton, Morna Hooker, Richard Horsley, Luise Schottroff, Jane Schneider, William R. Herzog or even Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza? If they aren’t going to look at such center-left scholarship, then center-right scholarship is out of the question–it simply isn’t “shocking.”
So, I am not going to hold my breath for one of these channels consulting the likes of Richard Bauckham, Craig Evans, Ben Witherington, Craig S. Keener, N. T. Wright, or Markus Bockmuehl, Sharyn Dowd, or others with basically orthodox views of Jesus.
And I am getting very cynical about why these kinds of programs always seem to air in Lent or at Eastertide.
Serious skepticism that does its homework should be expected, even welcomed, by Christians and we should expect skeptics to challenge us very thoroughly. But these tabloid-like stories of how “the church covered up the truth about Jesus,” are insulting to the intelligence–but they seem to find a ready audience every time.
I first read the following story in seminary in the ’80s.:
They don’t call Holland “the Low Countries” for nothing. Flooding is a regular problem. One year things were particulary bad. On a certain Sunday morning in Amsterdam, the police knocked on the parsonage of a Christian minister very early. “The river is rising,” they said, “And your church is directly in the path. Rouse your flock and get them to start filling sandbags to shore up the levees if you don’t want to be swept away.”
Good advice, no? Well this was a fundamentalist church which was focused on strict obedience to the LAW OF GOD as they understood it. The pastor couldn’t decide whether it was moral to break the Sabbath and do WORK even to keep the church from being swept away. So, he convened an emergency early meeting of the church council. The council had no doubts: God is Sovereign and omnipotent and can easily save the church by miracle–if that is the Divine Will. The job of the church was to hold worship as normal and either live or die to God’s glory–not sin by breaking the Sabbath.
The pastor was a little squeamish about this conclusion. He asked, “Did not even Jesus break the Sabbath laws from time to time? Did Jesus not say the Sabbath was made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath?” An old deacon immediately got up and said, “Pastor, I’m glad you mentioned that. It allows me to bring up something that has troubled me for some time. I cannot shake the feeling that our Lord Jesus is just a little bit liberal.”
Told originally by NT scholar Ernst Käsemann in Der Ruf der Freiheit (Mohr, 1968). Published in English as Jesus Means Freedom (Fortress, 1969), p. 16.