Blog

Did John Calvin Invent Penal Substitution?

Because I was raised in a tradition that boasted its anti-Calvinist stance, in four years of Bible College and three years of seminary in a variety of institutions, it did not occur to me that the doctrine of atonement taught in all of these institutions was that of John Calvin. As one of my teaching colleagues put it, “I was not aware that there was more than one theory of atonement.” Calvin’s doctrine of penal substitution is the understanding of the atonement most evangelicals were raised on, whether they consider themselves Calvinist or not, and for many this doctrine is so central to their faith that, like prominent pastor John McArthur, they would claim that to relinquish this doctrine is to abandon Christianity. But the reality is that the doctrine is not the teaching of the New Testament nor of the early Church but the conscious invention of John Calvin.

That is, in Book 2 Section 16 of the Institutes, we can pinpoint where Calvin acknowledges his departure from the Apostles’ Creed, the Church’s accepted standard of biblical understanding, and proposes the innovation he claims sums up the gospel. There are elements Calvin borrows and builds upon, such as the Augustinian notion of original sin (based on a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate – see here), the notion of nominalism (that God in his essence is disconnected from his earthly representation), Anselm’s legal abstractions, and notions of substitution, but Calvin consciously innovates a new reading of that most obscure of passages, I Peter 3:18-22.

 In a sense the biblical reference, taken up in the Apostles Creed and understood to be his descent to the place of the dead, is only the occasion for Calvin to suggest that the true work of Christ pertains, not to death or the grave, but to the place of future punishment (Gehenna or the Lake of Fire). He acknowledges that the Creed refers to the place of the dead to which Christ descended between the crucifixion and his resurrection. He is suggesting that the gradual appearance of the doctrine (he realizes it is not a common teaching in the early church) in the Creed must have significance: “There are some again who think that the article contains nothing new, but is merely a repetition in different words of what was previously said respecting burial, the word Hell (Infernus) being often used in Scripture for sepulcher.”[1] But the question is, why would this peculiar passage with its obscure interpretation find its way into the Creed. He is attaching supreme significance to its gradual appearance and its obscurity.

The argument from incomprehension may not strike modern ears as convincing, but Augustine had made sin inaccessible to explanation with his doctrine of inherited guilt (due to his misunderstanding of Ro 5). The acronym TULIP (summing up Calvin’s theology), beginning with Augustinian total depravity, is logically interconnected but built upon this openly embraced incomprehension. Sin is a mystery in its manner of transmission and it creates its own darkness which admits only enough rationality to know one is a sinner but not enough understanding to do anything about it. Thus, TULIP is an explanation of why humans can do nothing and God does everything. Philosophical nominalism is the atmosphere in which this innovation occurs, and it had become commonplace and expected that the things of God are beyond comprehension.  So, Calvin will reference and depend on, throughout his argument, “incomprehensible vengeance” which implies an incomprehensible payment.

Calvin fully acknowledges he is innovating on the slippage between hell as the place of the dead or the place of eternal torment (in Latin it is descendit ad inferos). The Creed is clearly referencing hades or the grave (as Christ descended to the place of the dead after his crucifixion), but he is going to provide a logical/legal argument for this innovation which appeals to incomprehension. Calvin’s first point is that the very obscurity of I Peter, as it is gradually taken up and explained in the Apostles Creed, speaks to a significance hidden beneath the obscurity. If it were simply a matter of saying Jesus descended into the place of the dead why “illustrate it by clothing it in obscure phraseology?” And here he means the phraseology of the Creed, as I Peter 3:18-22 does not directly reference either hades or hell but speaks of the prison in which the generation of Noah was contained. (I Peter 4:6 says he preached to the dead, not the damned, and it does not reference any place.) Whatever Peter’s argument might be referencing, his primary point is to argue that “baptism now saves you” like the Ark saved the eight from among the generation of Noah. The passage is already obscure and then the Creed, in trying to clear up the obscurity, confounds it, which is Calvin’s point.

The confounded obscurity must contain a significance (an inspired obscurity?), and so Calvin will now clear up what is hidden in the clouds of Peter and the Creed. “When two expressions having the same meaning are placed together, the latter ought to be explanatory of the former. But what kind of explanation would it be to say, the expression, ‘Christ was buried,’ means, that ‘he descended into hell’?”[2] Calvin is presuming a divine pointer in the Creed’s explanation equating the burial of Christ with descent into eternal death.

 It can’t be that the Creed is saying the same thing twice (burial and hell) and though we may not be able to immediately discern the meaning, “the improbability that a superfluous tautology of this description should have crept into this compendium, in which the principal articles of faith are set down summarily in the fewest possible number of words” is itself an argument that something profound is taking place in this obscurity. If hell here, just means the place of the dead, then it is a “superfluous tautology.” He presumes that hell must be taken to convey a different meaning than the grave and that in this obscurity resides a meaning he will now reveal.

In reference to Peter’s Pentecost sermon Calvin notes, “He does not mention death simply, but says that the Son of God endured the pains produced by the curse and wrath of God, the source of death.”[3] What it actually says is that “godless men put him to death” and there is no reference to the wrath of God. Nonetheless, he defends the notion that part of this curse involved a descent into hell, or the place where infernal punishments are carried out:

 Here we must not omit the descent to hell, which was of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption. For although it is apparent from the writings of the ancient Fathers, that the clause which now stands in the Creed was not formerly so much used in the churches, still, in giving a summary of doctrine, a place must be assigned to it, as containing a matter of great importance which ought not by any means to be disregarded.[4]

He does not simply fuse Gehenna (the place of future punishment) and Hades (the place of the dead), however, he argues that eternal punishment should also be fused with the chastisement of Isaiah 53 and then both of these passages should be moved to the context of the trial and punishment of Christ.

The incomprehensibility of the doctrine, in Calvin’s own description, pertains to how Christ could bear eternal punishment in his suffering and death. He concludes that death alone cannot explain what it was that Christ bore on the Cross, so it must be the case that it was eternal suffering in hell or the place of future punishment which he actually bore.

Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.[5]

Calvin acknowledges that this creates a certain disorder in the sequence of events, with Christ suffering eternal punishment in hell prior to his own death (and one might point out, prior to the inauguration of this category) but Calvin doubles down.

It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.[6]

Calvin here subverts the received understanding of the Apostles’ Creed. Up until the sixteenth century, Christians had always confessed Christ’s descent into hades or hell as his victory over the grave. Calvin sets aside the conclusion of the Creed and has Christ descending into eternal torment (Gehenna) while he was still alive. “It was requisite,” he says, “that he should feel the severity of the Divine vengeance, in order to appease the wrath of God . . . necessary for him to contend with the powers of hell and the horror of eternal death.” According to Calvin, even while Christ suffered visibly before men, he also experienced “the invisible and incomprehensible vengeance which he suffered from the hand of God.” In other words, the actual death of Christ comes to mean very little in this system, as it is eternal spiritual suffering which Christ undergoes in his soul which is the reality behind death. (At this point Calvin defensively notes that he makes no scriptural appeal, but even his appeal to the ancient theologian Hilary, is dependent on the ambiguity of the term hell. “The Son of God is in hell, but man is brought back to heaven.”)

One wonders if this spiritual sort of suffering required the incarnation at all – if payment could be made through a pure soulish suffering. But Calvin presumes that it could not have been an ordinary death that Christ feared, as this would reduce him to an effeminate sort of figure.

How shamefully effeminate would it have been (as I have observed) to be so excruciated by the fear of an ordinary death as to sweat drops of blood, and not even be revived by the presence of angels? What? Does not that prayer, thrice repeated, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” (Mt. 26:39), a prayer dictated by incredible bitterness of soul, show that Christ had a fiercer and more arduous struggle than with ordinary death?[7]  

He effectively reduces the object of the fear of death to fear of eternal punishment and makes the real event of the Cross an inward spiritual event. “Thus, by engaging with the power of the devil, the fear of death, and the pains of hell, he gained the victory, and achieved a triumph, so that we now fear not in death those things which our Prince has destroyed.”[8] Though in the popular imagination hell is the place of the devil, the biblical depiction is that death and hades are destroyed in the Lake of Fire. The equation of death (hades), Gehenna (which came to be called hell) and the devil is an odd alignment and one that never occurs in conjunction with the Cross in Scripture. 

In the popular imagination, largely due to Calvin and his various disciples, such as Jonathan Edwards, the idea developed that God punished Jesus the equivalent of an eternity in hell and the primary rescue that he effected was no longer equated with the actual historical events surrounding the Cross but with categories of future and eternal punishment, inward or soulish suffering, and divine wrath. As one of my former professors states it (in spite of his purported Anti-Calvinism), “He bore the equivalent of an eternity of hell for us all. His suffering was much greater than the physical torture of crucifixion. Since God’s wrath is spent on Christ, God is now free to forgive sins without violating His own justice.”

Though we may have all become used to the conjunction of the Cross and eternal punishment, there is nowhere in Scripture that the Cross addresses the category of Gehenna or eternal punishment. Calvin’s choice of, what may be the most obscure passage in the New Testament, and then his examination of the confounding of this obscurity in the Apostles Creed, and then transporting this fusion of the place of the dead with the place of eternal torment to the Cross is, by his own account, an innovation (meaning it is not the received understanding of the New Testament).

Penal substitution subsumes salvation into a problem with God’s anger, as the righteous anger brought on by transgression of God’s law (Calvin depicts the entire transaction as law based) is only satiated by Christ’s soulish suffering. It is an infinite anger, provoked by an infinite offence, satisfied by an infinite payment which, relates to the finite hardly at all. It is an exchange exclusive to the persons of the Trinity, pitting the Father against the Son, and fails to address the finite human circumstance. The exchange between Christ and God is complete in and of itself. Infinite satisfaction for an infinite offence has been made, but it completely bypasses the lived reality of human experience.

The conclusion: John Calvin, by tying the place of the dead to eternal punishment and then linking this with the punishment inflicted on Christ on the Cross so as to achieve forgiveness, invented the doctrine of penal substitution.


[1] Calvin, Institutes 2.16. 8.

[2] Calvin, 2.16.8.

[3] Calvin, 2. 16. 11.

[4] Calvin, 2.16.8.

[5] Calvin, 2:16,10

[6] Calvin, 2.16.10.

[7] Calvin, 2. 16.11.

[8] Calvin, 2. 16.11.

“Vote for Tiberius?” Asked Jesus. “Never!”

This is a guest blog by Allan Stuart Contreras Ríos

“We use violence to get peace and wonder why it isn’t working. That’s like sleeping with a football team to try and be a virgin.”

– Tom MacDonald

Karla and I used to have a neighbor who was a drug dealer – Güero. Everybody around here knew this, although nobody talked about it, especially around him. One night, a few days after New Year’s, Karla and I were buying some tacos at a taco stand on the corner of the street we live on.

Right next to us was Güero buying tacos as well. Everybody felt nervous around him . . . but one learns how to try to ignore this and “act normal” around people like him. Suddenly his phone dinged. It was a text message. We do not know what it said, but we think we do because of what happened next. He got nervous. Yes, as nervous as we were around him. Who was he afraid of?

As fast as he could, he paid for his tacos in advance saying he would come back for them in a few minutes. He walked behind Karla, then behind me, then he turned around the corner. At the same time Karla started adding cilantro to her tacos and salsa to mine I heard gunshots. I looked to the left and there was a Jeep parked right next to me with two guys shooting Güero from the windows. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Güero was dead before he hit the ground.

Although this was a scary situation, it was also a relief for our neighborhood, the bad guy was dead. We could all feel better, safe . . . . until some people moved into Güero’s house.

It was a couple of years later, during the pandemic (July or August of 2020 I believe), that Karla and I woke up, went to the kitchen to make some breakfast, and saw that our house was surrounded by the military.

I opened the door and asked one of them, “Can I help you?”

He said, “Do you know your neighbors from that house?” and pointed toward Güero’s house.

“No.”

“Then you cannot help us.”

A few days later, we heard from other neighbors that somebody snitched on those who lived in Güero’s house, and the police found drugs, guns, and several mutilated bodies. It has been almost an entire year since then and we still have cops basically living on top of our roof to keep watching Güero’s house (they actually made a little grill on our roof and have several chairs).

Day and night, Güero’s house is surrounded by cops. And, because of that, mine too. All this to say, we know the violence of our world. We have experienced it firsthand. And although this worries us, of course, this type of violence is expected from those who do not know God. You know what is troublesome? Violence also happens from those who claim to know God.

When I was a student at CCCB I was a supply preacher. One Sunday I was sent to a small church to deliver a sermon. I got there 30 min. before the church service started, but there was no parking lot. I parked at the end of the road, right next to the church. I opened my Bible and went over my notes repeatedly (I used to get more nervous preaching in English than Spanish). Suddenly I heard a metal knocking on my window. As I looked through my window, I saw the barrel of a shotgun looking back at me. I raised my hands, and the angry guy holding his gun asked me to roll my window down, slowly. I did. He asked me what I was doing parking on his lawn. I explained why I was there and asked him to allow me to park somewhere else, my intention was not to disturb him, and to stay alive, of course. Thank God, he let me go.

A few minutes later, people started walking into the church’s building, I could not get out of my car and into the church fast enough. As I walked in and started greeting my Christian siblings, I started feeling peace again. I was able to breathe a little bit better. They probably could not tell, because of my skin color, but I am sure I was pale. Unfortunately, as soon as my heart calmed down, I saw the angry man walking into the church’s building with two kids, my heart stopped.

He was a church member. Not only was he a church member, but he was also one of the church’s leaders.

You might think that this is one isolated situation. Unfortunately, this is one of several times in which I feared for my life in a church. See the incongruency?

A. W. Tozer once said that “Christianity is so entangled with the world that millions never guess how radically they have missed the New Testament pattern. Compromise is everywhere.” For example, there is a tendency within churches in the Restoration Movement to ignore Church history. It is assumed that from Constantine until the rise of the Stone-Campbell Movement the Church compromised with the world. The Church rejected the Lamb to marry the Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, they fail to see that they have made the same compromise.

Many Christians fight over the “right” side of political disputes, or which amendments or rights need protecting. As Greg Boyd asks, “Where in the New Testament are we taught to rally around anyone other than King Jesus? Where do we find any hint of a suggestion in the New Testament that part of our job as followers of Jesus is to weigh in on the political disputes of the country we happen to live in? We certainly don’t find such a hint in the ministry of Jesus, whose example we’re repeatedly commanded to follow.”[1] When Jesus was tempted by Satan, one of the temptations had to do with political power. As Christians we are to aspire to overcoming, as Jesus did, the archetypical wilderness temptation of gaining political power.

Consider that nationalism teaches us to hate other people, even people that we have not met, and then it teaches us to feel pride in our hatred. At a Christian camp in the USA, we gathered to pledge allegiance to the American flag, and then to the “Christian” flag (which was a little below the Stars and Stripes). I did not pledge allegiance to the American flag for obvious Mexican reasons, and I did not pledge allegiance to the “Christian” flag because that was totally new to me. What was shocking was that some people were offended by my actions, or might I say inactions. But what was even more shocking was that they were offended, not by my not pledging allegiance to the “Christian” flag, but by my failure to swear allegiance to the American flag.

Tony Campolo repeats a story Philip Yancey told him concerning a friend during WWII. This friend was part of a special unit during the Battle of the Bulge that was sent out every morning to kill wounded German soldiers left on the battlefield the night before. One morning he came across a German soldier who was not wounded, he was only tired. His friend raised his gun at the German, and the German asked him to give him a moment to pray. Yancey’s friend lowered his gun and asked the German if he was a Christian, to which he replied “Yes.” “I am a Christian too,” responded Yancey’s friend.

They sat together under a tree. They prayed together. One of them had a Bible and they both shared Bible verses with each other. They showed each other their family pictures and prayed for each other’s families. After all this, Yancey’s friend stood up, looked at the German brother in Christ and said, “I guess I will see you again in Heaven one day,” and shot the man in the head.[2]

The devotion to a nation justifies acts of violence, even against Christian siblings: something Jesus would never condone. This justification comes in all shapes and sizes: crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, etc. The Church has been guilty of all of these horrors. This is not simply the problem of a portion of the church, as many Christian groups have fallen into Satan’s temptation of political power.

Gandhi said, “I don’t reject your Christ, I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” The early disciples understood Jesus was the head of the Church, but over time “the institutional church seems to have been severed from its head, and as a result became one of the most violent religions in history.”[3] While many might point to this violence as grounds for rejecting Christianity, the violent history of the Church contradicts Jesus’ teaching. As G. K. Chesterton said, “The way of Jesus has not been tried and found unfruitful. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” In other words, the problem is not in what Jesus taught, the problem is many Christians are not doing what He said.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” is without ambiguity – it cannot involve violence. It is impossible to murder the enemy you are supposed to love without disobeying Jesus or betraying his Kingdom. No war is a just war, it is just war.[4] To engage in violence means to reject the eschatological hope of the peaceable Kingdom – the New Creation in Christ.

It saddens me that many of my Christian brothers and sisters seem unaware of the basic teaching of Jesus. They stand by, like the unrepentant Paul at the stoning of Stephen, approving of various forms of violence.  Not only that, they join in the killing by joining the military. This is no surprise, as they are heeding a violent gospel preached with a national flag as backdrop. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in war so that peace may increase?” (Rom. 6:1). Of course not! Jesus Himself taught us differently when He said, “Put your gun back into its place; for all those who take up a gun shall perish by the gun.” (Matt. 26:52).[5] Can you imagine what the Church and its history would look like if those who claim to follow Christ actually lived like Him?

The story that sums up Jesus’ political dealings occurs when Jesus was confronted by the religious leaders and they asked Him, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” This is not only a political but a religious question, since Caesar considered himself a god. In other words, they are asking, “Should we pledge allegiance to the Roman god or not?” If Jesus said “Yes,” He would be a traitor to the Jews and God, and if He said “No,” He would get in trouble with Rome.

Jesus asked them for a denarius. “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” He asked them. “Caesar,” they replied. Tiberius image, the Roman Emperor during Jesus’ crucifixion, was on the coin along with the inscription, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.” (Perhaps they are in danger of falling into idolatry, since they are carrying Caesar’s image in their pockets.) “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” Jesus said. Another way of saying this is “Give to Caesar what is made in the image of Caesar. Give to God what is made in God’s image.”

Many Christians live in the hypocrisy Jesus is exposing. To ask questions about how much violence we can use, which wars are justifiable, how much nationalism contradicts Christian belief, is to edge toward idolatry. It is as if the Jews were asking Jesus, “How much of this idolatrous metal can we carry around without breaking the Law?” As Greg Boyd says, “Since it all bears Caesar’s image, give it all back to him! The only important question we ought to be wrestling with is whether or not we are giving back to God all that bears his image—namely, our whole self.”[6]

Jesus did not compromise. He did not say, “Let’s vote for Tiberius and hope for the best. Let’s Make Israel Great Again.” Like the prophets of old (who were killed for their words), Jesus exposed idolatry without compromise. His life was a witness to God’s Kingdom and in direct opposition to worldly kingdoms – an opposition for which he was killed. As Christians, participating in the world’s violent ways, in any shape or form, is to conform to the world which killed him. It is to exchange our vocation as God’s image-bearers for the world’s image. It is to give to Caesar what is God’s.


[1] Giles, Keith,. Jesus Untangled (p. 13). Quoir. Kindle Edition.

[2] Tony Campolo – WWII Story: Christians vs. Christians? – YouTube

[3] Bruxy Cavey, The end of religion: encountering the subversive spirituality of Jesus (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2020).

[4] Roland H. Bainton; Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. p. 222

[5] I am aware Paul and Jesus did not use these exact words, I am updating them to drive the point home. Nobody goes to war with swords anymore.

[6] Giles, Keith,. Jesus Untangled (p. 14). Quoir. Kindle Edition

Cosmic Meaning Versus the Cosmic Christ

What does an illicit romantic affair have to do with war? How does slavery pertain to human psychology? The psychoanalytic and biblical claim is that all share the same structure and they each generate meaning through this structure. All depend upon a split or divide which generates a struggle or drive in which the imagined goal of love, peace, power, or success, is equated with resolution to the struggle.

“True love” cannot be obtained through the law as the deep core of the self is, by definition, that which is beyond the law. I cannot possibly be equated with or captured in something so prosaic as a norm, a law, or a covenant. Deep within me resides the essence of who I am and this essence is in excess of the law, beyond the human symbolic order. The relationship to one’s spouse is the prototypical social obligation, but how can this obligation, this contract, this burden, capture my true essence. Social life consists of an externally imposed law in which I cannot possibly recognize myself. This bind in no way captures the fullness of my capacity for love or more precisely, for being loved; instead, it curtails the depths of my desire which pertains to my true self. Strangely, I experience this depth of love most completely when I feel the imposition of the law. When I feel the forces of society and law as an opposition to my love, then I know that the precious treasure at my core can only be loved without being submitted to the rule of law.

In turn, the very definition of peace is the resolution achieved through war. There is no peace apart from the war which defines it – it would be unrecognizable in itself. Just as perverse love depends upon its opposition, war is not only the means to peace but a symptom of an ever-elusive peace. Just as love is dependent upon the logic of exception (that which exists as an exception to the law) there is a notion of peace that is a symptom of war; more an exception creating the rule of continuous warfare than any positive entity in itself. The contradiction of achieving peace through war seems to pose itself even more directly than the notion that love is necessarily transgressive, yet the path to peace through total war and obliteration seems inevitable.

So too, there is only one way to be a master and that is through the slave. Apart from this enslaved other the subject of master cannot exist. The slave may have the advantage in freeing himself from dependence on the master (at least in Hegel’s depiction) but he cannot pass beyond the dialectic. He potentially reaches its core in recognizing the master represents fear of death and does not, within himself, contain enslaving control. One must still tarry with the negative or face the reality of death and the fear of death to come to this core realization. (Hegel simply exposes the nothingness at the core of the system, but his is a reified nothing that would still keep the dialectic up and running as the subject is this self-antagonism. The dialectic of the subject is the subject.)

The contradiction clearly shows itself when the slave/master relation is reduced to a psychology in which one must play the role of both master and slave. Only continual self-punishment will bring either the pleasure found in ultimate control or the overcoming of that control. Pain and suffering are the very substance of domination and power. As in the wars of the 20th century, only total war – the war to end all wars – will bring bring an end to suffering (peace as obliteration). When it is a dynamic reduced to an individual the pain is the pleasure and the suffering is the power, but each system, individual and corporate, consists of the same twisted logic.

The drive to gain life, peace, love, and substance is turned into a simultaneous drive toward death, war, transgression, and annihilation. The ultimate subject is gained through a final overcoming. The illusion is to imagine the goal (the object giving rise to desire) can survive beyond the struggle. In every instance the subject which would be obtained is simultaneously generated and made impossible by the system of its creation. That is, the lure of the system is to imagine the transgression, the conflict, the subjugation, is a means to an end when it is the means which is generating the imagined end.

If this is the problem of sin, what difference might it make if this system goes unrecognized and the work of Christ is made to fit the problem rather than to defeat it? This explains the various forensic explanations of the work of Christ in which God is the subject gaining satisfaction from his own self punishment. God is reduced to a dialectic struggle, with the Father deploying evil men to kill his Son so that he might have the satisfaction of his suffering and death. Eternal suffering in hell is equated with the suffering of the Son on the Cross, so that no distinction can be made between those that torture the Son in the passion and the Father who requires that they carry out this torture – only he requires eternal torture as part of who he is as eternal justice.  

Knowledge of God, in this understanding, cannot be separated from the dialectic of the law. Through the “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” according to Tertullian, the vision of God is made possible. According to Thomas Aquinas, “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed.” Oh, happy day when we can delight, along with God, in relishing the torture of the majority of the human race, knowing that God’s justice and human will (particularly in the unrepentant) continue to exercise ultimate power. The law bringing about this punishing God is the means and end of this God. Life, God, and truth are folded into law, and the power or sovereignty of God (God as master) or the free will of human beings become the primary subjects of theological discourse.

Hegel and Calvin represent the culminating point of this God, with God either taking death and nothingness up into himself or being directly equated with evil. Atheism and fundamentalism are near equivalents – with leftist Hegelians presuming God disappears and makes room for a corporate (Marxist) spirit (incarnate will) and fundamentalists equating all that happens, good and evil, with this God. In this system evil is a means to the good, death is the means to life, love is consonant with hate, and sin is the occasion for grace. There is no truth beyond the dialectic. Even the resurrection gains its meaning as part of a dialectic with death and sacrifice. Resurrection becomes a footnote – sacrifice accepted – rather than death defeated.

No part of the work of Christ need challenge the contradictory nature of the system. Revelation is not the revealing of a new truth exposing the lie of sin, but is an establishment of the law. The law is not mitigated, corrected, or suspended but it becomes the economy for explaining the work of Christ. Rather than the work of Christ exposing the meaning systems of this world, his meaning is subsumed into this world order. This explains why the name of Christ has been invoked for justification of holocausts, inquisitions, crusades, war, and the worst of human horrors. Christ is incorporated into the dialectic which supports sexual transgression, war, and slavery, and which aggravates and does not cure the human disease.

Christ as revelation, exposing the lie of this world’s violent wisdom, establishes an alternative truth, peace, love, and subjectivity. Christianity as Revelation exposes a world order built upon the death-dealing orientation of dividedness and dialectic. Christ as God, as the Cosmic Christ, as the full openness of God, is not an addendum, a proviso, or a fulfillment (in the way this is normally understood). Christ is revelation in a two-fold sense: his work is an exposure of the lying dialectic generating this world’s meaning and he serves as foundation to an alternative world of meaning and truth. Christ is the structuring order or the inner ground of creation and it is in him that creation’s purpose is revealed.

Salvation in Christ is not simply a negation of sin, or an effect of the Fall, but the goal of creation. A Christianity focused on the Fall is of the same order as love that needs transgression, peace which requires war, and self-mastery which includes self-enslavement. Sin becomes the essence of salvation where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation. So too every doctrine is reduced. In this failed system predestination is not about cosmic purposes but about who is in and who is out; the incarnation is not a revealing of the essence of God but a secondary manifestation; the resurrection is not about the defeat of death but about a payment accepted; and redemption is not about participation in the Trinity but about going to a disembodied heaven. The mission of Christ, reduced to payment for sin, misses the incarnation as the principle and purpose behind creation. It misses the fact that creation’s purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man), that redemption is cosmic completion, and that the Church’s part in a continued incarnation is a fulfillment of creation. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). In Christ, love, peace, and identity are not an effect or symptom of the law and sin but, in the words of Athanasius, an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the fundamental hurdle to a sin-based notion of Christ is the attachment to human decision, human history, and human time as the controlling factor in the purposes of God. The work of Christ is depicted as necessarily subsequent to sin, rather than as who and what has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). In Scripture there is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9). The will of God does not reside in some dark transcendent council as his will has been revealed in Christ.

Love, peace, and human wholeness cannot be adequately grounded in a salvation geared to deliverance as they will continue to be grounded in a failed cosmic order. Only by recognizing Christ as the foundation of a new order of meaning can we escape the cycles of transgressive love, war, and oppression. Salvation is the overcoming of sin but it accomplishes this overcoming only in a positive fulness and return to Christ as the completion of creations purpose. God’s plan in Christ is beyond human meaning as it is an outworking of love, peace, and identity as participation in the very essence of God.

Reinhold Niebuhr as Archetype of Failed Peace due to Inadequate Atonement Theory

In my previous two blogs I have traced a nearly all-inclusive array of churches in the United States that began as peace churches and which gradually and nearly completely repudiated this original stance. In this final blog on this topic, I trace the thought of what many would consider the premiere American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, as he too begins as a pacifist and then becomes the 2oth century’s most famous anti-pacifist. In my conclusion, I suggest this history of failed pacifism can be traced to a specific and shared cause. The failed peace churches all focused on a forensic notion of the death of Christ, and though Niebuhr had his own view of the atonement, it too focused on a narrow understanding of an achievement of forgiveness. The stark difference found among early Anabaptists and those who maintain a commitment to peace, is a return to the Christus Victor understanding of atonement and notions of a real world transformation.

The most important individual American example of the rejection of pacifism is Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian which Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Obama, admired and who may have done more to define a generation than is normally allotted a mere theologian. He follows the pattern I traced (here) among indigenous churches in the U.S. of relinquishing his original peace stance due to circumstance, but he names the “realism” which is the controlling factor in his thought, admitting that the correct understanding of the New Testament and Jesus is nonviolent resistance. His point is that one can follow Jesus’ teaching and be nonviolent and irrelevant. To be nonresistant means one must check out of the realities of this world and be consigned to being inconsequential. Due to his experiences with the poor, with the labor movement in Detroit, and then the rise of Hitler, the one thing he wanted was to confront or resist evil, something he presumed Jesus did not do and did not allow for. For him, to resist evil would necessarily entail violence.

His genius was to relate and fit the evils, with which all are familiar, to the biblical notion of sin. Sin arises due to the tension between our embodied social location and the sense that we are meant for more. The lure of transcendence can give rise to pride or it can, due to the inherent inability to get beyond our situation, lead to a turn to the sensuous and a relinquishing of transcendence. As Niebuhr describes it:

“When anxiety has conceived it brings forth both pride and sensuality. Humanity falls into pride, when it seeks to raise its contingent existence to unconditional significance; it falls into sensuality, when it seeks to escape from its unlimited possibilities of freedom, from the perils and responsibilities of self-determination, by immersing itself into a ‘mutable good’, by losing itself in some natural vitality.”[1]

Creatures made for divinity are torn between the extremes of this tension giving rise to sin.

The best part of us individually and corporately is still sinful, but the social or corporate magnifies the sin, so that while we might individually do better than those around us, the corporate and social of which we are a part drags us all down. Sin is the reality we must adjust to. It is the universal human condition and not even Christ has done much to change it other than to secure forgiveness.   

Niebuhr’s analysis of the human condition was an unflinching recognition that people are prone to evil and pride, and that though they may appear sophisticated or educated these were simply means of deploying pride in more creative ways. Some might, given the right circumstance, improve themselves incrementally but the evil condition of human nature is universal and mostly unchangeable, which explains how it is that the realities of war and violence would shape his theological life. This former pacifist had come to see reality for what it is and he adjusted his religion to this grim realism.

Niebuhr’s picture of sin accounts for capitalism and the oppression of workers and the rise of Nazism. These things, though, will have to be dealt with on their own terms, terms which Jesus did not engage. Christianity may help one negotiate the inherent sinfulness of individuals and the social structures, but it does not do this by challenging these structural evils. Christ teaches us that God loves us, in spite of our sinfulness and moral failing and our best hope is to receive his mercy.

The law of Christ teaches us, like the Old Testament law, that we are sinners. Christ tells us to love the enemy, and we need to take this in its full pacifist context, and realize this is an impossibility. Jesus taught we are not to accumulate wealth, but what Christian pacifist even attempts to do this? We cannot hope to follow the Sermon on the Mount, we can only know Jesus forgives us for our incapacity to do so.

 If we do not face the reality of sin, as pacifists are inclined to do, we will only repeat the mistakes of those who let our Nazi enemies get out of hand, then we will be thrown into the other extreme. Like Woodrow Wilson, who pacifist like wanted to resist joining WWI, then concludes the United States must join the war to end all wars so as to obliterate the enemy, the pacifist is in danger of becoming the next crusader who feels obligated to annihilate the enemy he has allowed to get out of control. Like the jail house patsy reduced to being a sex slave and then requiring a shiv to extract himself from abuse, the pacifist must, like Niebuhr, relinquish nonviolence and resist evil from the beginning so as to contain it. God will forgive the necessities thrust upon us, and the goal is to get through life doing as little damage as possible, but committed to trying to do the right thing.

The Bible needs to be submitted to the authority of this modern understanding. Jesus, after all, was no realist as he had no worldly responsibilities, no wife and family, he held no public office. His was an unattached life that did not engage historical reality and his is a spiritual nonresistance not meant for earthly practicality.

Jesus’ ethic might work at an individual level or in a face-to-face confrontation, but it is impossible to turn the other cheek when being slapped from multiple people in every direction. One might carry a single Roman pack, but it is impossible to carry the burdens of multiple soldiers going in different directions. I can only give away my cloak to the first person who asks.[2] There are limitations and inherent impossibilities posed by picturing Jesus’ ethic as applying beyond a very limited and individual condition.

Jesus as “the way the truth and the life” would have to be fit to Niebuhr’s realist frame. He may be a way and truth for another world but his is an ill-conceived way and truth in this world. What Jesus and the early Christian’s wrongly presumed was that this world was about to end, and so we are left with an ethic inadequate for a realist of this world.

Niebuhr limited the work of the cross to a shattering of pride, as we witness in the death of Jesus the human pride which caused this ultimate tragedy. His death is a point of despair which calls for contrition and repentance by which we can receive forgiveness. As he describes it, the Atonement wrought on the Cross is “the good news of the Gospel . . . that God takes the sinfulness of man into Himself and overcomes in His own heart what cannot be overcome in human life.” God suffers sin and forgives it but there is no overcoming of sin, apparently even for God.  

Perhaps Niebuhr’s serenity prayer best captures his theological attitude: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The changeable middle part of the prayer may be quite small, as the primary need is acceptance of an unchangeable world of sin and the wisdom to recognize it is unchangeable.

 Niebuhr, the best and brightest of his generation, illustrates the limited frame within which the work of Christ often continues to be conceived. What Niebuhr could not conceive is the questioning of the socially constructed nature of the “truth” by which he would judge the work of Christ. What his narrow realism could not conceive is that truth itself was being changed up in the person and work of Christ. A different realism is being established in the kingdom of Christ. Jesus’ victory over death, the power which controls us, is absent in Niebuhr as is the notion that Jesus is an example to follow. Niebuhr, like other American based pacifists loses his pacifism, as it seems to have never been deeply grounded in a holistic notion of the depth of peace Christ establishes.

This is the difference that Frances Hiebert finds in the enduring nature of early Anabaptist notions of peace. Though they did not reject Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory, they saw it as incomplete and inadequate. “For early Anabaptists, atonement was the transformation of the believer’s life, an ontological change brought about by the work of Christ and the faith of the believer.”[3] Anabaptists develop a unique cultural ethos, an enduring holism surrounding peace, and a suffering patience, flowing out of a return to a Christus Victor-like atonement theory.

Their notion that one responds to the work of Christ is grounded in the understanding this work directly engages and defeats the evil of the world. Peter Ridemann, spoke about sin as chains by which people are bound by the devil. He wrote that Christ had “come to destroy the work of the devil”; had “destroyed the power of death, hell and the devil”; and had “overcome the devil and death and had risen again.” The Christus Victor motif is evident as Anabaptists had a sharp sense of conflict with the world, the flesh, the devil, and the religious-political structures of their time.

It seems, independent of the Eastern tradition, they too develop a notion of divinization. Balthasar Hubmaier’s picture of God-human relations was explicitly synergistic. As he describes it, the soul is awakened, “made healthy,” and given freedom to again choose the good. It must therefore cooperate with God for the work of Christ to be effective. It must allow itself to be reconciled to God. Salvation, he stressed, does not take place without human cooperation. They came to call this participation in the life of God “divinization.” The gospel was not only the good news of salvation but also a series of directives for the Christian on how to live, how to follow Christ the example, and in following Christ, humanity could be brought back into the life of God.

There is a common thread in the relinquishing of the gospel of peace. It is that atonement as a holistic realization of a socio-political-personal new life is missing. Even where, as in the various holiness movements and restoration movements, Jesus is at first recognized as an example to follow, with an inadequate understanding of the atonement this is lost. Niebuhr is representative of an American Christianity inadequately grounded in an understanding of how Christ’s work is a real-world defeat of evil, death, and the devil and the establishment of a deep and abiding peace grounded in God.


[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: 2 vols. (voL I: Human Nature: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941; vol. II: Human Destiny, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943) 178-179.

[2] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 294). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Yoder nicely sums up Niebuhr in this chapter.

[3] Frances F. Hiebert, “The Atonement in Anabaptist Theology” in Direction, Fall 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 2 · pp. 122–38 https://directionjournal.org/30/2/atonement-in-anabaptist-theology.html

A History of Lost Peace

The history of the church can be told as a process which starts with nonviolent peace as central and which is then lost. This is the historical reality of the church, not just in its first 400 years, but often repeated wherever the attempt has been made to restore New Testament Christianity. The pattern is one of return to the centrality of peace and nonviolence in the teachings of Jesus, an initial acceptance of this teaching and an attempt to live up to this reality, and then a gradual obfuscation, fudging, and loss of commitment to nonviolence. This can be demonstrated not only with the Restoration Movement (as I showed last week here), but with a host of restorationist movements in which restoration of the original church and the authentic teaching of Jesus entails focus on nonviolent peace, and then a weakening of this commitment. So, if the Constantinian shift and the acceptance of violence is the “fall of the church,” the church can be said to have fallen many times.

Of course, this is a conclusion Christian “realists” of every brand would resist. Violence and war loom too large, in this estimate, to be defeated publicly and corporately by the church and it is doubtful that even the private individual can make much headway in overcoming personal self-directed violence. Masochism, neurosis, sadism, violence, and war are the given reality, and not even the intervention of God in Christ can be expected to defeat this evil, except in some future estate wiped clean of the present reality. The problem is taken to be so intractable that there seems to be a relinquishing of peace as any sort of real possibility, corporately or individually. Realism, history as we know it, the muck and mess that is the human condition, all weigh too much. To call commitment to peace a rediscovery of the gospel (the depiction peace groups attribute to themselves) will, of course, irritate those weighed down by the heavy robes of tradition and institution. Everyone knows peace is there in the Bible, but some are savvy enough, world-wise enough, grounded enough in history and institutions, to have concluded to the inevitable nature of violence.

Which explains when and where there are renewals of commitment to the peace of the gospel. As John Howard Yoder has noted, “Pacifism arises where people are trying to be Christian without too much rootage in history.” The North American frontier provides a sample proof of the case that wherever there is a frontier culture (Yoder provides exhaustive proofs with worldwide peace movements) or wherever there is a fresh reading of scripture, there is a conclusion that pacifism is central to the gospel and then a commitment to live in this peace.[1]

There is no particular hermeneutic that is rediscovered, but simply an opening, a renewal, or what might be disparagingly referred to as naivety or ignorance. Some situations allow for a fresh start or at least a fresh reading. Maybe every child, like I did, encounters the nonviolence of the teachings of Jesus as raw datum. Then, through education, acquaintance with more sophisticated doctrine and history, one learns better. What is clear is that where a fresh reading is a possibility, the presumption is that violence and war are not part of the authentic Christian life.

In North America, this was not simply the conclusion of an anti-intellectualism, as the age of John Locke gave the sophisticated the sense that, being part of the age of reason, they certainly need not return to the dark ages of medieval theology or the encrusted obscurities of tradition. The Bible is clear and people can reason out its meaning without the aid of priest or church.

On the other hand, revivalism, pietism, Pentecostalism, and just the sense of being on the edges of a new frontier would foster the same confident approach to the biblical text. The United States afforded the rediscovery of nonviolence, or what, as part of a newly founded peace society Adin Ballou (1803-90) would call “nonresistance.” As I described it, part of the impetus for peace was combined with the drive to abolish slavery. David Lipscomb and Barton W. Stone, in their advocacy of nonviolence and the abolition of slavery were following the same course as William Lloyd Garrison, who founded both an abolitionist society and a peace society, each with their own journal.

However, as I also noted in regard to the Restoration Movement, this was not an enduring phenomenon. There was a rediscovery of the words of Jesus, but not usually a deep-seated willingness, as with the Anabaptists, to die for this cause. As Yoder notes, “they lacked a deep sense of the problem’s long history. They did not have an awareness of a suffering community through the ages or of a peace church tradition.”[2]

Maybe for that same reason, the fresh non-threatening condition, there was a mass rediscovery of peaceful nonviolence. The new world was so rife with peace movements, peace societies, peace churches, and utopian communities, that Ralph Waldo Emerson could forecast that “War is on its last legs: a universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism, of liberal governments over feudal forms. The question for us is only How soon.”[3]

Starting with the late developing Pentecostals and working our way backward, we find both those groups indigenous to the United States and those groups that started over in the United States initially embrace doctrines of nonviolence. Though Pentecostalism develops in the 20th century it is the culmination of 19th century Wesleyan revivalism, which had shown Pentecostal-like manifestations at the Cane Ridge Revival in the previous century. Where Cane Ridge, hosted by Presbyterian Barton Stone’s church (but including Methodists and Baptists), would feed into the headier movement of Stone and Campbell, 20th century Pentecostalism was free of the rationalizing tendency and was geared toward a literal interpretation and obedience inclusive of the obedience of pacifism. As Yoder describes it, “In the first generation it became rather directly and simply pacifist, for the simple reason that adherents took the whole Bible straight.”[4]

Though there was a strong sense of being against the world, the world was not anything as complicated as American Nationalism. In my experience in the Assemblies of God, I remember a Philippine national describing his encounters with demons among the headhunters. He gave me a name card in which he described his long list of spiritual gifts, including exorcism, discernment, and other means of dealing with the devil. The demons were always hovering nearby, it seemed. The preacher would sometimes preach, not from preparation but through a directly inspired message. It was more intense and entertaining than the worship at my Disciples church, if a bit confusing for a teenage boy. The reigniting of the gift of the Holy Spirit is a rebeginning of the church, so as with their restorationist cohorts, what happened between the first Pentecost and new Pentecost is irrelevant. History, theology, and Church structure are of little importance in light of the movement of the Spirit.

The story of the upward mobility, success with the implementation of Donald McGavran’s Church Growth theory, and a reversal of integration (Pentecostalism started with poor whites and blacks mixing freely), marks the demise of the commitment to peace. The website of the Assemblies of God, though it is not providing a sequence of this demise, captures an intense, initial focus on peace and then it is rendered irrelevant with provisos. Historically, the need for a seminary degree for qualified chaplains leads to greater focus on education and eventually to a quelling of the strong sentiment of peace. Then in 1967 they relinquished their formal opposition to Christian participation in war, and they gave up their status as a peace church. I assume it would be hard to reduplicate my teenage experiences with the Pentecostals. On my last visit to an Assemblies of God Church, they were indiscernible from other evangelicals.

Methodism in the United States follows a similar pattern of initial embrace of a strong pacifist stance and then a relinquishing of this position (as in the statement put out by the United Methodists allowing for participation in war). Methodism is in many ways the predominant cultural influence on the American frontier. The revivalism of Dwight L. Moody, and his pacifism (little talked about now), were typical of the ethos of the times and a by-product of a long history. Moody was fostered by the Chicago department store magnate, John Farwell, one of the wealthiest men in the country. Farwell would organize the largest corporate ranch in the world, the XIT ranch, and it was run along strict Methodist lines. No guns, no swearing, no drinking, and no private horse ownership for the cowboys on the ranch.

American Methodism, true or not to Wesley, came to emphasize a full-sanctification or ability to keep the ethical commands of Jesus, inclusive of nonviolence. The impetus behind temperance, abolition, and women’s rights was connected to an embodied notion of nonviolent peace. Moody’s description of himself would fit early American Methodism: “There has never been a time in my life when I felt that I could take a gun and shoot down a fellow being. In this respect I am a Quaker.” Instead of joining the Union to fight, Moody would spend the war preaching to both Union and Confederate troops.

Contemporary with Moody, Methodist General Ulysses S. Grant represents the versatility of Methodism in regard to violence. Ironically, Wesley’s most famous namesake in the United States is the most prolific killer of the West. The son of a Methodist minister, and himself a Sunday school teacher to his fellow inmates, John Wesley Hardin killed at least 21 men. The pacifism of American Methodism always contained an unstable element.

The restorationism of Churches of God closely resembles that of Christian Churches in their non-denominationalism and camp meetings in place of a denominational headquarters. They began with a strong pacifist stance and statement: “She [the Church] believes that all civil wars are unholy and sinful, and in which the saints of the Most High ought never to participate.” [5] This stance lasts through the Mexican War and the American Civil War but by WWI it had mostly relinquished nonviolence. The one Church of God minister I knew was also one of the most patriotic people I have ever met. During a tennis game, when the local high school played the National Anthem on a field we were well removed from, he halted the game to hold his hand over his heart.

So too Seventh Day Adventists, who maintained their pacifism through the Second World War and Korean War but now hold loosely to this stance. A Seventh Day Adventist minister and friend depicted to me a church in contention with its own history on both pacifism and the role of women.

My conclusion in this brief informal survey, is that no peace church with its roots in the United States has maintained its peace stance. I would be happy to hear that I am wrong and to hear of the exception. The closest exception, which my daughter pointed out, is the Catholic Worker. It is indigenous to this country and has maintained a strong pacifist ethic. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin may have generated suffering and persecution enough to mold their own unique culture, which survives in the Catholic Worker Movement. Peter, in his Easy Essays sounds very much like a restorationist, but of course they had the sense of simply being true to Catholic social teaching and never considered themselves a church.

Traditional Anabaptist groups and various groups of Brethren, perhaps due to their long history and persecution have been more faithful to pacifism. Their rootedness in history, the example held up of pacifist martyrs, their often distinctive culture, and their sense of long suffering, has surely played a role. Those Mennonite churches I have visited and the short time I spent at one of their seminaries confronted me with a distinctive sense of culture and mission. Though, even among these groups the North American experience has created a rift. The problem for Mennonites, for example, is no longer persecution but acceptance into mainstream culture, which has proven more corrosive than persecution. As long as the world demonstrably hated them there was no problem remaining separate from the world. Subsequent to WWII the peace stance has become not only accepted but admired, so that some Mennonites would now attempt to influence government and there has been a shift in the understanding of the church/world relationship. Meanwhile, some Mennonite churches have been lured by Church Growth Theory and evangelical like success.[6]

By the original standard of these groups, that violence is sin, peace groups indigenous to this country now meet their own criterion for fallenness. If violence is indeed sin, if it is the sin that that Christ came to defeat, then they demonstrate a Constantinian-like failure. The inaccessible nature of this reality, its implausibility, may be an effect of the temptation to violence. We could extrapolate from the notion that “the first casualty of war is truth” to conclusions about the inherent falsehood human violence entails. “Violence is our surest means of securing ourselves. Subduing, suppressing, oppressing, the other is the way in which we obtain safety.” The commitment to making things right through violence and war is already deceived. As in war, truth is already a casualty in commitment to violence. Those who turn to violence have come upon the scene too late, as the course is already determined and the path of violence is already set. Too much water under the bridge or roots already set have predetermined how things must be settled. This is a historical reality but also a psychological reality, which if drawn together can provide explanation as to why peace is a frontier condition – a place of supposed naiveté or a place outside the city gates – continually threatened with realism and settlement.


[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 269). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Yoder, 254-255.

[3] “War” by Ralph Waldo Emerson; quoted in Yoder, 275-276.

[4] Yoder, 262.

[5] Churches of God in North America [Winebrenner] From The Faith and Practice of the Church of God, 1829. http://www.pentecostalpacifism.com/home/services/holiness-pacifist-groups/church-of-god-gc/

[6] See the Mennonite publication Direction and the long lack of unity as regards nonresistance. https://directionjournal.org/47/2/complicated-history-of-anabaptist.html.

The Restoration Movement: The Failed Peace Movement

Faith and I both have deep roots in the Restoration Movement, with her family going back some five generations to the founding of the Movement and mine going back at least to my grandparents. But as far as I can remember, I never heard anyone in our realm of family and friends in the church explain the nonviolence of the gospel and, so far as I am aware, I never met a pacifist before I became one. Yet, the Restoration Movement was, in the beginning and for several generations, theologically Anabaptist. The key leaders in the original Movement held to a nonviolent reading of the New Testament, and this at a time when it caused them a great deal of trouble. But it may be that the same attitudes that gave rise to the Movement, and the recognition of the inherent peace of the gospel, also contributed to its virtual disappearance as a distinct group.

While the group repeated the theological turn to adult baptism, separation from government institutions, the recognition of the Church as the Kingdom (other than baptism this may sound strange to contemporary ears), which seems to be the shared understanding of peace churches, this gradual innovation was based on their own reading of the New Testament in the circumstance in whey they found themselves. The shared theology was not due to any historical connection to other peace churches but was due to, what might now be perceived as a naïve presumption, that the original text of Scripture can be understood through reason. Revelation and reason are not contradictory and one only has to set aside traditions, councils, and creeds, which divided the early church, and return to the text of the Bible. Given John Locke’s rationalism, one needs to simply clear out all of the misguided attempts of the church fathers to understand the Bible and take it for what it is obviously saying.

This was partly aided by a clear demarcation between Testaments, so that one need not be overly concerned with reconciling the Old and New Testaments. The same method was applied to post-Constantinian Christianity. It was presumed the church had fallen and it would only take a clearing of the decks and then a restoring of the original church, as it is described in the New Testament – thus the name “Restoration Movement.” The combination of being on the frontier in a new country in which the old country, with its “backward” traditions and hierarchy, was actively repudiated, and being part of an intellectual shift that no longer relied on authority and tradition, the early innovators in the Restoration Movement came to many of the same conclusions as other peace churches, both prior to and subsequent to the Protestant Reformation. Unlike previous peace churches, the Restorationists were figuring out their relationship to the world with a clean slate, absent the old world weighing down upon them. As the situation of slavery, the Civil War, and the Spanish American War, impinged upon them, they would adjust accordingly. This flexibility would be both the strength that gave rise to a repudiation of slavery and violence, but perhaps this same flexibility would eventually wipe out much of the distinctiveness of the original effort.  

This is to make it all sound too naïve and simple, as the Campbell’s and Stone were true intellectuals. John Howard Yoder, a neutral judge in the matter and no lightweight himself, concludes: “Other people were doing intellectually brilliant things in the nineteenth century, but in the realm of critical perspective on Christian social ethics, rooted in any kind of theological and scriptural accountability, these nonresistant Christian thinkers were the most serious intellectual phenomenon of the century.”[1] Alexander Campbell would engage key intellectuals and thinkers of his day in debate and proved himself to be a formidable intellect in several arenas, which partly explains the exponential growth of the Movement he more or less fostered.

In the first issue of the Christian Baptist (theological journals were key in the Movement) Campbell wrote of the vulgar contradiction of Christians creating orphans and widows in war so that they might manifest their purity of religion by providing for them:

Christian General, with his ten thousand soldiers, and his Chaplain at his elbow, preaching, as he says the gospel of good will among men; and…praying that the Lord would cause them to fight valiantly and render their efforts successful in making as many widows and orphans, as will afford sufficient opportunity for others, to manifest the purity of their religion by taking care of them!

In his “Address on War” he asks whether one Christian nation (defined as any nation with a Christian in it) has a right to wage war on another Christian nation (rendering the notion of “Christian nation” absurd). Then he asks whether one part of the Christian Church in one nation should wage war on another part of the Church in another nation? His answer is clear:

With this simple view of the subject, where is the man so ignorant of the letter and spirit of Christianity as to answer this question in the affirmative? Is there a man of ordinary Bible education in this city or commonwealth who will affirm that Christ’s church in England may of right wage war against Christ’s church in America?

Campbell also suggests there is no such thing as a just war as those being killed are not those who are guilty and those who fight are not responsible for declaring the war. He concludes,

War is not now, nor was it ever, a process of justice.  It never was a test of truth-a criterion of right.  It is either a mere game of chance or a violent outrage of the strong upon the weak.  Need we any other proof that a Christian people can in no way whatever countenance a war as a proper means of redressing wrongs, of deciding justice, or of settling controversies among nations?

Like Campbell, Barton Stone would come slowly to nonviolence, but the tipping point came when he first encountered the extreme cruelties of slavery. He describes visiting with some professed Christians in South Carolina and being repulsed at their treatment of their slaves.

But in the midst of all this glory, my soul sickened at the sight of slavery in more horrid forms than I had ever seen it before; poor negroes! Some chained to their work— some wearing iron collars— all half naked, and followed and driven by the merciless lash of a gentleman overseer— distress appeared scowling in every face.[2]

The impact slavery would have for Stone and many in the Restoration Movement is paralleled in the depiction of Frederick Douglas, who describes the repulsiveness of a faith that could tolerate this sort of violence.

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. . . . It is . . . a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there, and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation— a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.[3]

Douglas claimed there was a difference so wide between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of this land “that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.”  What was absolutely clear to a run-away slave was also clear to Stone who was inundated with the same images, such that he too came to conclusions like those of Douglas. The “slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land,” was precisely the impetus for Stone’s participation in reform.

Stone not only turned against slavery but against the laws and values of the United States and it would be the beginning of his theological journey toward an apocalyptic reading of Christianity.

We must return to the government, laws, and ordinances of our rightful king, the Lord Jesus, before we shall be ever gathered together and become worthy subjects of his kingdom. We must unite our energies, advance the government and kingdom of our Lord, and meddle not with the government of this world, whether human, ecclesiastical, or political, or civil; all others aside from that of heaven will be put down by a firm decree of our Lord before the end come.[4]

Stone would hold true to this ultimate conviction of non-participation in the affairs of this world (at great personal cost), as Christians must focus on the government, laws and ordinances of Jesus in order to obtain unity, and they must not meddle in the government of this world.

David Lipscomb, also due to the institution of slavery, developed an even clearer demarcation between the church and the world. He compared all human government to the Babylon of revelation. What marks this universal Babylon of human government is that it always rests “upon the power of the sword.” This authority of the sword and its “mission” of “strife and bloodshed” marks all government, other than that of Christ. “The fall of Babylon is the down fall of all human governments” and the establishment of the Kingdom of God will entail “the destruction of human institutions and authority, and the reinstation of God’s rule and authority on earth.” One can either serve God’s rule or the principalities and powers of this world, but each realm is controlled by its “own peculiar spirit that abides in it and animates each of its members.”  The government one participates in and supports is determinative of what one worships.

God, through his gentle, meek, loving, self-sacrificing Son established the Church of Christ, and imparted to it his spirit to dwell in, animate, guide, and control that body and every member thereof. Whoever puts himself under the guidance or control of a different spirit ceases to be a member of the Church or body of Christ.[5]

As with the book of Revelation, Lipscomb pictures the final judgment as involving “the complete and final destruction, the utter consuming of the last vestige of human governments and institutions.”[6] Though located in Nashville, which would be consumed by the Civil War, Lipscomb wrote to both sides in the conflagration outlining his and his churches position, so that Churches of Christ in the South were the largest group recognized as neutral conscientious objectors. As Lipscomb explained,

In the beginning of the late strife that so fearfully desolated our country, much was said about “our enemies.” I protested constantly that I had not a single enemy, and was not an enemy to a single man North of the Ohio river. I have never been brought into collision with one— but very few knew such a person as myself existed. . . . Yet, these thousands and hundreds of thousands who knew not each other . . . were made enemies to each other and thrown into fierce and bloody strife, were imbued with the spirit of destruction one toward the other, through the instrumentality of human governments.[7]

The mission of Christ’s kingdom “is to put down and destroy all these kingdoms” built on the shedding of blood and “to destroy everything that exercises rule, authority, or power on earth” other than Christ. Christ’s servants cannot enter into league with the very kingdoms which he is set against and set to destroy. Christians should have no role in government and need only submit to the degree allowed by the first and highest obligation to obey God.

The question arises as to what happened to this core belief of the early Restorationists? For the most part, the contemporary majority have succumbed to evangelical beliefs and the gnostic tendencies of a privatized religion. Some would link the problem to Campbell’s and Stone’s rationalistic approach to Scripture and the succumbing to the shifting sands of “common sense.” The contextual nature of their nonviolence shifted with the context, and with their heirs was contextualized into oblivion. The feeling of antagonism with the world would soon diminish, with one Restoration preacher even serving as President of the United States. With the ending of slavery, perhaps the repulsion of the world was not so obvious (a strange conclusion in these racist times). The two world wars would impact all three branches of the movement, with peace churches disappearing and a theology of peace hanging on mainly in a few key academic institutions of the Churches of Christ. Clearly, the theology was inadequate. Perhaps the intense focus on the form and structure of the church failed to preserve the unique content. Whatever the cause or causes, the sense of restoring the peaceable Kingdom of the New Testament Church, the thing which defined early Restorationists, has been mostly abandoned by the Restoration Movement.


[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 268). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Thanks to Tom Evans for his lecture notes and the Campbell references.

[2] Barton W. Stone, “A Short History of the Life of Barton W. Stone, Written by Himself ” (Cincinnati: J. A. & U. P. James, 1847), in The Cane Ridge Reader, ed. Hoke S. Dickinson (Cane Ridge, KY: Cane Ridge Preservation Project, 1972), 27– 28. In John Mark Hicks, Resisting Babel: Allegiance to God and the Problem of Government (Kindle Locations 442-444). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Frederick Douglass, “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” in Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787– 1900, ed. Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 262– 63. Quoted in Hicks 447-449.

[4] Quoted in Hicks, 152-155.

[5] Lipscomb, Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny, and the Christian’s Relation to It (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1913). 23 quoted in Hicks 778-779

[6] Lipscomb, 27

[7] Lipscomb, “Babylon,” Gospel Advocate 33, no. 22 (June 2, 1881): 340. Quoted in Hicks, 433.

.

The Shift from Love to Freedom is the Turn to the Law that Kills

If the church fell with Constantine, as medieval scholastics describe it, I presume this fall is like the first. The love of God is traded for the law/knowledge of good and evil in which death will become the means to life. The Constantinian corporate version of the Fall imagines peace and harmony will be achieved through war, death, and violence. With Constantine, Caesars, princes, and soldiers, in spite of their killing, were permitted into the church under the legal provisions of just war, which though it was an exception to the rule, would result in a theological shift. The main stream of thought continued to forbid priests to be soldiers, and penance was required of princes or their soldiers who participated in killing. Shedding blood continued to disqualify a potential priest for ordination. Nonetheless, with Augustine’s neo-platonic notion that one could both kill and love their enemy, allowing not only for just war but for the use of the sword against heretics, the equivocal nature of common vocabulary was made to float around the hidden counsels of God. God determines what is good so that his will is the good, and this turns out to be quite arbitrary. As the biblical writer says, “Who oh man are you to question God?” So, if God wills it, by definition it is good.

 The shift in ethics that is occurring in the Constantinian church comes at a steep price, as this requires focus on God’s essence as freedom or will.  Rather than presuming the love of God as primary, the shift in ethics implicitly requires focus on the will of God. This may have been an unconscious necessity, but the point as outlined by Augustine, is to make it clear that God acts “beyond any external necessity whatsoever” so as “to shape the destinies of all creation and the ends of the two human societies, the ‘city of earth’ and the ‘city of God.’”[1] As Brad Jersak sums it up, “Augustine begins with God’s freedom to love and forgive and save, in which he is accountable only to himself. . . But Augustine is quick to add that it works both ways. God is also free to judge and condemn and damn.”

As Ron S. Dart depicts it,  

Augustine took a position at times quite at odds with the Alexandrian Christianity of Clement and Origen. It is in Augustine that notions such as election, double-predestination, God’s sovereignty, just war and God’s willing and choosing reach a place and pitch that has much in common with the God of Biblical Judaism. . .. [We see] in Augustine the return to a willing, choosing sovereign God, not bounded by goodness or justice. Such a God could and would use his freedom to elect whom he willed for salvation and whom He willed for damnation. This is not a god [we can] truly trust.[2]

This focus on sovereignty will continue in the Voluntarism of medieval theology, which will be definitive of the Protestant Reformation. Voluntarism also places God’s will prior to his goodness in an effort to protect God’s freedom, and it is particularly concerned to explain God’s complete freedom. God’s own nature is thought to be at stake and so there is a primary emphasis on God’s sovereign will as the primary attribute of God. His will is absolute, even beyond good and evil, so that it is not good or evil which constrain God, but that which is good is good because God decrees it. God’s will is a singular absolute, as this is thought to be the only way to preserve God’s freedom. Nothing constrains God, so that he can forgive or condemn as it pleases him, and to try to say why he does anything is to endanger his freedom with something other than pure, unadulterated, will. God is God, law is law, power is power, or will is will, and to suggest that any finite category, such as goodness, love, or evil, might impinge upon this absolute freedom of the will is to degrade God’s sovereignty.  

Calvin goes where all before him had hesitated, and suggests that all events, even evil ones, take place by God’s sovereign appointment. There is no difference between God’s permission, God’s purposes, or what God allows or what he commands. Calvin turns to Romans 9, and the example of Jacob and Esau, to argue that what God does depends upon nothing other than God’s will:

You see how he refers both to the mere pleasure of God. Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit in mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will.[3]

Calvin makes it clear, God’s mercy and his condemnation are purely gratuitous: “the covenant was gratuitous at first, and such it ever remains.” While one might momentarily think David bases God’s favor “according to the cleanness of my hands,” Calvin points out that God’s unfathomable pleasure precedes this favor. “In commending the goodness of his cause, he derogates in no respect from the free mercy which takes precedence of all the gifts of which it is the origin.”[4]

Calvin concludes:

The devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as He commands; that they are not only bound by His fetters but are even forced to do him service.[5]  

So, the evil of the devil and the evil of wicked men cannot be permitted to somehow exist apart from the volition of God. As Jersak concludes, “Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name.”[6]

Another way of understanding focus on pure freedom and will is as a turn from the person of God (defined by love) to a focus on impersonal power. Personhood does not really figure into the discussion of freedom, as the normal constraints of personhood are set aside. To say that one’s choices are unconstrained – unconstrained by circumstance, unconstrained by time or place, etc., – in the case of a human is clearly contradictory. Someone constrained by nothing would have to be dead or nonexistent, but of course this is the ultimate constraint. But the same thing holds true for God – to say that nothing constrains his will would mean that his personhood is sublimated or overridden by his arbitrary choices. This is not a description of a person but is a description of pure arbitrary or “gratuitous” power (in Calvin’s words).

I would suggest that the Constantinian shift is a repetition of the Fall – as with all sin. The turn from love to freedom, as definitive of the divine essence, is simply a return to the law. To imagine that there is life in the law is synonymous with the reduction of God to raw power. In this system, one does not speak of relationship, covenant, and love prior to the law, but one begins with the law itself as if it is its own reason. “The law is the law – yours is not to question but to obey.” This primary focus on the law is definitive of the sin which the writers of the New Testament are putting to rest.

Paul explains that the law – the law of sin and death – is the power that has been unleashed on the world and which is being defeated by Christ. The Mosaic law per se, Paul explains, was not the problem, but we can follow what was done with the Mosaic law to perceive the problem. This law was grounded in a promise fulfilled in Christ, but the Jewish inclination is to forget the love, to forget the covenant, and to focus on the marker of the law.

John explains that the law was not an end in and of itself. The law is not grace, the law is not truth, as this is the place of Christ (Jn. 1:17). Jesus corrected, reinterpreted, completed, and suspended the law as he is the final and full revelation of the loving truth of who God is. “God’s essence is not pure will. His essence is selfless love. God’s primary attribute is not freedom. God is first of all good.”[7] We know who God is through Christ, and to presume otherwise is to return once again to the law.

As David Bentley Hart has put it, “It is a sort of ‘oblivious memory’ of Paul’s message that all the powers of the present age have been subdued, and death and wrath defeated, not by the law – which, for all of its sanctity, is impotent to set us free – but by a gift that has cancelled the law’s power over against us.”[8] The sovereignty of man (the man Constantine) and the will of humans are playing the decisive role in the turn from love to freedom. God’s sovereign purposes are thought to reign supreme in the Sovereign Constantine, so that all the benefits of law and freedom seem to be accruing, through history, by a different means than the love of Christ. As is always the case with law – there are advantages to those who wield this weapon. God willed, it was thought, that some be rulers, some be powerful, some be on top. God willed it, that settles it, bow before this casuistry. In Western history the devolving focus on pure will makes it obvious that one can take hold of this force and wield it – should he be uber-man enough. The will to power, the will to freedom, the will to throw off all constraints, except as those constraints accrue to my benefit, describes the modern end of the turn to freedom.  

Throwing off the constraints of tradition and religion and turning to the “I am that I am” of the cogito, founds the absolute law of reason and of the individual. This “thing that thinks” is as mysterious and unapproachable as the God who wills. This autonomous, isolated, immortal, entity, is dependent upon no contingency. There is only the free movement of the will, as neither body nor thought impinge upon this mysterious automaton.  The problem is that this thinking thing is as removed from thought as the council of the sovereign God is from history, from Christ, and from love. The curse of this power is that it operates beyond reach, beyond reality, and beyond love. This thinking thing is constrained by nothing – and this death and nothingness is its curse – the curse of the law.

With Paul we might cry out, “but who will deliver me from this law of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 7:25, 8:1).


[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions of Saint Augustine, (Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC., 2008), 7. Quoted from Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (p. 314). CWR Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Jersak, 64.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 3.23.6. http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Calvin%20Institutes%20of%20Christian%20Religion.pdf

[4] Calvin, 3.17.5

[5] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 3.17.11. Reference in Jersak, 315..

[6] Jersak, 66.

[7] Jersak, 79.

[8] David Bentley Hart, The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 319. Thank you Matt for this gift that keeps on giving.

The Gospel Versus Constantinian Commonsense

Resurrection marks the end of the inevitability of death and the commonsense strategies for gaining life based on death and violence. That is, nonviolence is not simply a footnote in Christian understanding but it is the recognition and realization that the death and resurrection of Christ opens up the possibility of a new reality which is no longer controlled by death. What people can know about God and humanity, apart from resurrection, turns out to be profoundly mistaken due to the very specific way that the logic of death constrains this understanding. As James Allison points out, this involves more than a mistaken understanding, but is wrong as it is actively involved in death.[1] If the fullness of the gospel necessarily involves freedom from this mistaken logic of death what are we to make of a Constantinian Christianity which betrays this core value of the gospel?

Apparently, it never occurred to anyone to challenge Constantine with the fulness of the gospel, and suggest that he sell everything, stop being the emperor, acknowledge King Jesus and lay down his sword. No one seemed to have pressed Jesus words upon him about hating his own life in order to become a true disciple. No one apparently taught Constantine about the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and being a servant to all. No one explained to him that for its first three hundred years the church had so repudiated violence that Christians were not allowed to serve in the army. Perhaps the opportunity was too great and so the harder part or the core of the gospel was set aside, not just for Constantine, but for the church in general, so that a new sensibility arose and even a new way to interpret Scripture (one can turn their cheek spiritually while doing otherwise bodily, one can both love and kill their enemy, according to Augustine, as inward spirituality is not thwarted by outward violence, and attitudes are more important than acts).

 The church began to accommodate evil practices so as to achieve a greater good. Violence, power, and worldly empire became a vehicle for the gospel and what went unnoticed is that the gospel became a vehicle for violence, power, and worldly empire. The willingness to accede to the necessity of evil as a tool in bringing about righteousness brought about a new neo-platonic reading of the Bible, in which it is presumed God is establishing his Kingdom by utilizing the political power of this world. Where early Christians had recognized Rome as the evil empire, they were now part of Rome, and it seemed impossible to pose the possibility that “we ourselves have become evil.” Yet, isn’t this the required entry point into Christianity. It is not simply that we begin with recognition of personal sin and evil but recognition that our entire world – religious, political, and moral – needs to be changed up in order to enter the Kingdom of God.

For example, Saul went through all the requirements, religious and legal, so that he might arrest and bring bound to Jerusalem any who were teaching the insurrectionist religion of the Way. It was not only legally clear, but it was common sense that this new religion was dangerous both religiously and politically. This was the consensus of all the leading Jewish authorities, as is evident in their arrest and persecution of the first Christians. The first lesson of Christianity is that common sense, even that based on religious and legal conviction, is subject to common delusion. The presumption that the good guys and bad guys are easily discernible is the first challenge Christianity poses. Yet, this original challenge to commonsense was overwhelmed by the Constantinian shift.

Where we find the Bereans searching the Scriptures to test even the apostolic word (Acts 17:11), the Constantinian shift would include the notion that what is known by a shared commonsense must coincide with the Bible. It was presumed that God was now placing Christianity in a new position in regard to earthly power. Isn’t it clear that it is God’s work in history to use Rome as his instrument to propagate the gospel? It might have seemed indelicate to point out that Constantine may have been using the Christian religion for his own political purposes, and it is still apparently a sort of indelicacy to suggest that the Donatists and Arians were not simply a heretical challenge but an ethnic and political challenge to the Empire. To raise such issues endangers not simply the political decisions of Rome but the choice of the church to accede to Rome, to hold councils and make theological as well as structural decisions for the church, only as Constantine and Rome allowed.

No one needed to go to their Bible to justify the Constantinian shift and it seems not to have occurred to anyone to challenge Constantine. No one told him that if he wanted to be a Christian, he would have to undergo the same repudiation of the world as everyone else. No one thought to say, if you want to be a servant of Jesus this must be your first priority and being a politician, a warrior, and using violence are ruled out of court. No one suggested he might consider relinquishing the throne so as to serve the true King, and by not challenging Constantine the church became Constantinian. The church accommodated Constantine and not the other way round. Instead, it was presumed the evil empire had become the good empire and all any good Christian needed to do was be a good Roman. The questioning of common sense, which Christianity originally demanded, became a near impossibility and with this impossibility commonsense trumped the Bible. But this was only made possible where it was presumed there is a natural revelation, a commonsense intelligibility, which became the new frame through which the Bible was interpreted. No one needed to go to their Bible to justify abandoning nonviolence, the view held for centuries. Likewise, cooperation with state purposes was exchanged for a radically subversive relation to the state (a radical subordination which challenged the legitimacy of the state through martyrdom), such that a new ethic (neo-platonic dualism) and new epistemology (commonsense understanding – truth by consensus) displaced the fairly straightforward notion that Jesus provides an alternative knowing.

Of course, this new ethic and epistemology is actually the old way. The ethic of empire is the ethic of the city state is the ethic grounded in nature is the ethic grounded in the self. The knowledge of good and evil, natural epistemology, what we know to be obviously true, became synonymous with a totality of culture which was presumed to be biblical. Or to state it more precisely, what was biblical was presumed to fit into a totality of understanding. Jesus was inserted into an already existing understanding and interpreted accordingly, rather than founding a new understanding. This may have been so gradual and so overwhelming as to have been unconscious. For Augustine the just war tradition and Roman legal tradition constituted something like a natural understanding. He was caught up in the current of history which seemed to be, if only for a short period, the new way God was making himself known.

Retrospectively we should be able to question this “natural legacy” which has been handed down to us, not simply to reject it, but to recognize something radical happened.  For something as basic as the shift from a near complete rejection of military service for Christians to the requirement that all Roman soldiers must be Christian, and the accompanying shift from a rejection of violence to its acceptance, reflects a completely different reading strategy. It was not that suddenly it was understood that Jesus allowed for violence and military service, but commitment to Jesus’ teaching was now mitigated by stronger commitments and his teaching was relegated to a different plane or a different dimension (spiritual, future, etc.). The circumstance which could turn killing, stabbing, shooting someone in the face (in more recent terms), into work fit for a follower of Christ, clearly reflects that an entirely different epistemology is at work with a different set of overriding commitments.

To suggest that these new stronger commitments are not reflected in the focus and decisions of the early church councils, without question, is simply more Constantinianism. The church that takes the decisions of the councils as an unquestionable authority is, without reflection, accepting the commonsense approach which was assumed and which guided the councils. To equate the decision of the councils as Holy Spirit guided, as is done in mainline churches, may or may not be a swallowing of mistakes in the details but the larger question is if it is a blunder in regard to the way God works in the world. Are the councils guided by the Spirit of peace if they have relinquished a basic commitment to peace? Even should the answer be yes, isn’t it the case that certain subjects are foreclosed for debate if perceived to challenge the empire (pacifism, the role of power, the church and the sword, etc.) while other subjects will be open for debate because they may indirectly serve the purposes of empire?

Roland Bainton notes that there were no less than seven contestants for the throne which Constantine finally acquired, but part of this acquisition was at the same time through the manipulation of the empire through religion. The various candidates were utilizing policies of persecution or toleration for Christianity as a political instrument, and inevitably the Christians gravitated to their champion, Constantine. “He could the more readily be accepted by the Church because already in the popular mind a fusion was taking place between Rome and Christianity as over against the barbarian and the pagan.” In this struggle no one questioned or perhaps felt the impropriety of Christians themselves taking up arms and of the cross being inscribed on instruments of war. Constantine even counted himself a successor to the martyrs in assuming that the martyrs had commenced with their blood what he had completed with his sword. The Roman peace, the Pax Romana, was equated with Christian peace and it was assumed that the prophecy that swords would be beaten into plowshares was now fulfilled by dent of the Roman sword. “The religion of the one God and the empire of one ruler were recognized as having been made for each other” and one empire and emperor could now be added to the confession of one faith, one lord, and one baptism.  A unified empire will function around a unified religion, and isn’t it noteworthy that the enemies of the empire, even if Christian, were also deemed heretics and classified with the barbarians? Bainton notes that theological divisions fused with already existing rifts within the social structure so that in the West the Donatist controversy in northern Africa pitted the Berber and Punic against the Latin elements and in the East the Christological controversies set the Copts, Syrians, and Armenians against the Greeks.[2]

To imagine it was only theological considerations at play in the early church councils would seem to overlook the fact that the overwhelming theological consideration – ethics, the role of church and empire, the role of violence, was not up for debate. At a minimum, might one consider along with J. Denny Weaver, that the image of God that emerges from the councils, by excluding nonviolence, might have a skewed image of God. “Recall that the formula of Chalcedon proclaimed Jesus as ‘fully God and fully man.’ With awareness of the nonviolent character of the reign of God made visible in the narrative of Jesus and expressed in narrative Christus Victor, I simply ask, ‘What is there about the formulas of Nicea and Chalcedon that expresses the character of the reign of God, in particular its nonviolent character?’ ‘What is there about these formulas that can shape the church that would follow Jesus in witnessing to the reign of God in the world?’ Answer: virtually nothing.”[3] He concludes, it is only “the church which no longer specifically reflected Jesus’ teaching about nonviolence and his rejection of the sword that can proclaim Christological formulas devoid of ethics as the foundation of Christian doctrine. The abstract categories of “man” and “God” in these formulas allow the church to accommodate the sword and violence while still maintaining a confession about Christ at the center of its theology.”[4] Anselmian theology, Calvinist theology, transactional theology, substitutionary atonement, to say nothing of notions of a violent God endorsing violent Christians, would seem to be the direct result. A result not so much, perhaps, of what the councils included but of what they excluded.

This exclusion served the purpose of allowing for the return to a “natural theology” or a commonsense understanding. But as Allison points out, “The resurrection of Jesus was not a miraculous event within a pre-existing framework of understanding of God, but the event by which God recast the possibility of human understanding of God.”[5] The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus exposed this pre-existing commonsense understanding as profoundly wrong. It was and is wrong in its involvement with death and it proves itself wrong in a return and continued involvement with this death dealing logic.


[1] James Allison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), pages 115-119.

[2] Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation (Nashville: Abingdon Press,1990), 85-100.

[3] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, Second Edition (Kindle Locations 1592-1593). Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1604-1606.

[5] Allison, op. cit.

Resurrection and Relativity: The Defeat of Absolute Law

The world reflects a mathematical like order, which is a fact that could easily be turned around to say that the world is constrained or produced by this order. The same thing is true in every area of human endeavor, such that the law or order of any system can be confused with the system and its existence. Theories of progress attached to the Enlightenment, for example, came to see progress as a product of history. The world is improving, in this theory, and the trajectory of this improvement might be traced in every field – science is progressing, culture is progressing, the human species is progressing, and this progress is not simply a description but is a law which is driving this progress. Human progress in the sciences, in the accumulation of knowledge, in the improvements of medicine, is propelled by an immanent force called progress. The descriptor “progress” becomes its own cause. This was reified in a Newtonian world in which the laws of time and space were not mere descriptions of the way things are but they became the only possibility, such that even God works within these laws productive of reality. Biological evolution can be read as a product of the Enlightenment notion applied to the life sciences. Political science, social science, physics, or simply the advancement of human culture, each seemed to follow the same law. The law of progress is a drive that presumes perfection, utopia, justice, morality, is the end product of this law. In short, life and life more abundant is to be found in the law of progress.

Intrinsic to the idea of progress is the idea that human society had to progress to the point where it discovered the idea of progress. Just thinking the idea is already a sign that we no longer have to do with ancient thought, Christian thought, or unenlightened thought. Only those who have been enlightened by the thought of progress – the key thought of enlightenment – have thought the greatest thought that can be thought (to mix periods if not ideas). This is the most cherished idea of the enlightenment and the thought itself is a sign of what it speaks. Only a true modern could have conceived of this idea as it is only now, in this modern period, that the ideas of fate and of the fall have been defeated in notions of a real world (as opposed to other-worldly) progress.

 All of which is, of course, simply untrue, as Ludwig Edelstein provides us with The Idea of Progress in Antiquity, filled out by W.K.C. Guthrie, in his In the Beginning and E.R. Dodds, The Ancient Concept of Progress, and F.J. Teggart’s, Theory of History, each of which inform us the idea of progress is an ancient notion. As Edelstein sums it up, the ancients “formulated most of the thoughts and sentiments that later generations down to the nineteenth century were accustomed to associate with the blessed or cursed word progress.” The modern idea of progress, the central achievement of the enlightenment, a proof that proves itself, turns out to be an ancient idea traceable throughout human history.

My point here is not simply to point out the self-refuting, tautologous, or absurd nature of the idea of progress, but it is to suggest that this idea is a manifestation of a form of thought which endlessly repeats itself. Life is in the law, philosophy contains the truth, I think therefore I am, God is the greatest thought that can be thought, and progress is an idea that gives us itself, are all manifestations of the same tautologous system. It is a closed form of thought which presumes thought, or the symbolic order, or the law, or philosophy, can deliver life, truth, or God. In this understanding, truth is a method that simply has to be applied to confirm the method as it produces the truth. The law is the law, or progress is its own proof, or, as Anselm will describe it, do what I am doing now in thinking the greatest thought. Each is an irrefutable proof made irrefutable on the terms of having the thought, believing the idea, or sharing the insight.

 As Thomas Kuhn demonstrates, normal science cannot challenge the paradigm of normal science (with its notion of progress), because the paradigm is itself equated with the scientific method. Normal science, as he describes it, is written in texts uniquely exemplified by the observations, laws, and theories described in their pages (what we are doing now). Science is a constellation of facts, theories, and methods collected in current texts and scientists are those who do the collecting. Scientists are those who apply the method and have added to the ever-growing stockpile of scientific knowledge and if one would challenge the method or stockpile, by definition this person is not a scientist. There is no backward movement in science as science is a method that deploys progress as part of its method. Kuhn’s introduction of the false starts and backward movement of history and humanity into the sciences is a challenge to normal science, which presumes these are somehow excluded. The method is, after all, the truth.

The Einsteinian revolution not only revolutionizes physics, but in Kuhn’s telling, it is a key example of the new understanding of paradigms and of science, which Kuhn is developing. Einstein revolutionizes science by incorporating humanity into the method – time is relative to an observer. Though the popularization of this notion makes of it more than what Einstein meant in his theory of relativity, this is the significance Kuhn links (but does not necessarily attribute to Einstein) to paradigm shifts and their grounding in the human condition. Einstein’s fusion of space/time and his notion that this continuum bends, that the universe has a beginning, and that time is relative to an observer, changes up the meaning of scientific law and scientific method. The law as productive of order has its limits, whether we are speaking of the laws of the universe or the method of science. Einstein does not refute Newtonian laws, but he suggests that they have a limited application, which is a refutation of their absoluteness. Non-absolute or relative law was not, however, a thought that even Einstein was comfortable with; a discomfort he expressed with quantum mechanics.[1]

I presume that the key biblical insight, repeated in a variety of forms, is a refutation of any system which would fold in on itself and continually reproduce itself. The notion that the sacrificial system of the temple is an end in itself is refuted by the prophetic witness which culminates in the claim “sacrifice and burnt offering I (God) never desired” (Heb. 10:8). Whether it is the food laws, the sabbath laws, or simply the law per se, the biblical witness is that there is no life in the law. To presume that the scriptures or the letter of the law contains life or that it is an absolute, is equated with death. The Sabbath was made for man and not the other way round. The letter of the law, or the scriptures, or the law of the mind, or the law of the body, are relative, finite, created, and limited. The law of sin and death describes the absolutizing of the law and it is this all-encompassing law which Christ overturned in his resurrection.

Strangely, and as its name implies, contractual theology presumes the law is absolute. The law is a perfect expression of God’s righteous character and human failure to live up to the law is definitive of sin. The punishment for sin is a balancing of the books, as God’s honor has been impugned and his legal/righteous requirement is set right through punishment. In a contractual reading of how we know God, it is assumed we can know all we really need on the basis of a natural (law) understanding. God is known as omnipotent and omniscient from the cosmos through reason and conscience and this knowledge makes all people legally culpable. God’s ethical demands are clear to Jews through the law and innately (the law written on the heart) by everyone else, so that reward and punishment are determined on the basis of keeping the law. Humans are sinful and everyone violates the law or fails to meet its ethical demands, and honest introspection reveals this fact so that everyone knows they are damned (all rational people are afraid and want a way out). Luckily, Christ offers a resolution to the double problem of knowing God in his omniscient justice, knowing the law, knowing of one’s incapacity to keep the law, and being afraid of one’s deserved punishment. He provides the legal balance in his death. Believing in his death, somehow adds the legal benefits he accrues to the believer. (In this system one knows just enough to be legally culpable and yet cannot know or do enough to be legally exculpable.)

The alternative to this misconstrued legal knowing is what Paul describes as resurrection knowing. As he describes in both Romans and Philippians, there is knowing grounded in the law and this is contrasted with what he describes (in 2 Cor 3) as resurrection knowing. Apart from knowing the resurrected Jesus one is bound by sin and death (the law of sin and death) in which state one has believed a lie (Ro 1:18ff, 7:7ff; Php 3:10-11).  This lie is the lie which contractual theology repeats, but which every system which would make the law absolute repeats. Paul’s proclamation is that there is no available light (natural law adequate for righteousness), there is no possibility of arriving (through the law) at absolute truth as one is given over to a lie (the lie that the law, made absolute, contains life). Resurrection knowing (knowing by the power of resurrection) is guided by the Spirit and Paul contrasts this with knowing according to the letter of the law which kills (II Cor. 3:6).

In contractual theology God is known as a just, law giving, angry judge such that a theodicy (the answer to the problem of evil is that God causes it) is extrapolated (by Calvin) as flowing out of the character of God. Paul says, the death and resurrection of Christ is the vindicating act of God (Rom. 4:25). It is not simply that he is making things legally right but he is bringing about justice and righteousness in the world. God’s justice in this understanding is not focused on application of law but deliverance from death (as the orientation to death is what is wrong and what needs to be made right). God is the one who delivers from the punishing effects of sin and death, and this is his righteousness (Ro 8:1).

The contractual form of the Christian faith poses the wrong problem (God’s anger), gives us the wrong answer (law is satisfied through the death of Christ – law being the main thing), and concludes death and resurrection are secondary to the main problem (God’s wrath due to the transgression of the law). It divides out ethics and says righteousness is a legality (on the part of God and in the answer), as it does not bring about a real or necessary change (it is legally imputed).  A religion which imagines God must punish the sinner as the law requires it, which then says he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead, and then attributes his righteousness to the sinner, is working in the very abstract legal fiction which the New Testament consistently refutes. Paul describes himself as perfect in regard to the law and the chief of sinners. Jesus ministry is a continual challenge to the law – “you have heard it said, but I say unto you.” He points out that the sick need a physician, the blind need to see, and the point of the sabbath is not to obstruct human need but to serve it. The law is a death dealing instrument where it is not relativized by love, as this is its true purpose which Jesus fulfills in the law of the Spirit. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Ro 8:2).

Where resurrection is understood as the answer to the problem, law is not a primary category but the focus is on the misorientation to the law resulting in a living death. The system that imagines life is in the knowledge of good and evil, life is in progress, life is the symbolic order, is called the law of sin and death. Law in the lie that is sin, is thought to be a means to life and this “life in the law” sort of life is a living death. Yet the economy of salvation in contractual theory is presumed to operate on the basis of this lie in regard to the law.

Paul says that apart from the resurrection of Christ you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:17) because sin reigns through death and death no longer reigns only where Christ’s death and resurrection have defeated the orientation to death. Without the resurrection the redemptive, liberating effect of Christ’s death remains ineffective, for his death and resurrection are two sides of the redemption from the bondage to sin and death. New life (resurrection life) is the direct correlate of this delivery from bondage to the slavery of fear of death.

So, whether it is the law of progress, the laws of physics, or the law of Moses, the failed human tendency is to make this symbolic order absolute. Language or law is made to serve in place of life. The resurrection relativizes every law, pointing to the one who is above and over the law and who holds the power of resurrection life.


[1] Faith and I recently watched the National Geographic dramatization of Einstein, which depicted Niels Bohr quoting Einstein to Einstein, who had challenged the absolute nature of Newtonian law. Bohr suggested he was not willing to apply his own critique to himself in his refusal to believe that physical systems have only probabilities and that specific properties are a by-product of being measured. Einstein’s relativity theory is stretched by quantum mechanics, as it not only incorporates the human observer into the equation but makes his observation a determining factor in the outcome. This was too relative for the Father of relativity, as Einstein argued that entities such as electrons have an independent reality. He summed up his view with, “God does not play dice,” and as he would later explain, “What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is.”  

Killing Unveiled

In Japan, sacrificing a woman at a rushing river would placate the spirit who lived there, allowing for the construction of bridges and the safe passage of boats. In Greek myth, king Agamemnon kills his daughter in exchange for a favorable wind on the way to Troy. The Egyptians buried their pharaohs with dozens of servants when they died, ensuring they would be well served in the afterlife. Bodies entombed in bogs across Europe were probably slain as gifts for higher powers.[1] Hernán Cortés describes Aztec priests slicing open the chests of sacrificial victims so as to offer their still-beating hearts to the gods. A conquistador, Andrés de Tapia, describes two towers made entirely of thousands of human skulls. In 2015 and 2018, archeologists working at the Templo Mayor excavation site in Mexico City discovered the skull towers and skull racks that conquistadors had described in their accounts. Human sacrifice seems to have been a universal practice, yet modern warfare has outpaced every form of religious sacrifice leaping from deaths in the thousands to death in the hundreds of millions.

In the New Testament, mythos is exposed by truth – aletheia and the logos of the world is countered by the Logos of Christ. Aletheia comes from the root letho, which is the verb “to forget.” The prefix a is the negative, giving the literal meaning for the Greek word truth, “to stop forgetting.” It is the opposite of myth and it is the exposure, through the Logos of Christ, of the forgotten victims of myth and murder. Biblical truth is the exposure of killing and the history of killing, and this is the way Jesus describes his work – to expose the history of killing (Lk 11:51). Jesus’ teaching in Luke, as with his own death, is not focused on the tomb or on the dead, as this is declared empty, but it is on the killing. Jesus is indicating that it is the act of killing that produces guilt and which needs exposure.

The cross is an exposure of killing, as Christ life and death and his teaching lift the veil of myth surrounding murder. His was a murder carried out by the state in which it was presumed his death was necessary to save the nation, but at a very basic level his death exposes what is always obscured in killing. Killing, whether it is a sacrifice to the gods, a sacrifice in war, or simply a personal killing, tends to be obscured by religion, by the justifications of war, or through personal justification, so that the act itself remains hidden. Prior to the advent of Christianity religious myth was effective in scapegoating and then sacralizing the victim so that every victim somehow satisfied the gods. In the modern period, the rise of nationalism and the nation state have required nearly endless sacrifice, but I believe Christ also lifts the veil on the reality of every form of killing.

Colonel Dave Grossman has written the definitive work on killing in war and his conclusion, that of all the factors which go into causing long term psychiatric damage, it is not fear of being killed, it is not simply exposure to danger and death or even slaughter, but it is the act of killing which is psychologically unbearable for most humans. After examining the percentage of soldiers that were not actually firing their weapons in battle (75%-80% in WWII), indicating most would rather be killed than to kill (confirmed throughout history and in a series of studies), he concludes that the great overlooked factor of the battlefield and of human nature is the intense resistance the vast majority of humans have to killing.

Overcoming this resistance is possible but it is inevitably accompanied by severe psychological damage. Richard Gabriel maintains that “in every war in which American soldiers have fought in [the twentieth century], the chances of becoming a psychiatric casualty— of being debilitated for some period of time as a consequence of the stresses of military life— were greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” In one study quoted by Grossman, it was determined in World War II that after sixty days of combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties and the two percent able to endure sustained combat showed a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” While there have always been psychiatric casualties associated with war, war before the modern period was not a sustained period of combat, and it is only in the twentieth century that the logistical capability to sustain combat broke the capacity of the majority to endure it. As Grossman points out, psychiatric casualties were being discharged, at one point, faster than new recruits could be drafted in. “Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form one of the most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrences of war.”[2]

 The effort that goes into creating those that will kill is nothing short of the creation of a national myth in which instinctive human values are overturned so as to create systems of honor, bravery, and value, as part of a narrative that goes against the fundamental human disposition. The truth about killing and what it means to one’s humanity is a fact that is hard to arrive at as it contradicts the ethos or logos our culture thrusts upon us. “If a professional soldier were to see through the fog of his own self-deception, and if he were to face the cold reality that he can’t do what he has dedicated his life to, or that many of his soldiers would rather die than do their duty, it would make his life a lie. Such a man would be apt to deny his weakness with all the energy he could muster.”[3]

Every effort is made to reshape the act of killing into something other than what it is. Soldiers do not simply kill, “instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Kraut, Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, slope, or raghead. Even the weapons of war receive benign names— Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, and Thin Man— and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.” The language is full of denial and an attempt to depersonalize and separate oneself from reality. The soldier is shaped by a culture built upon the lie that killing is necessary to life, freedom, bravery, and nobility and this lie must be given a grammar so as to shape his mode of language and thought.[4]

The necessity of killing comes with the narrative weight of the national myth reinforced by countless forms of entertainment in which killing is glorified as the business of heroes. There is such resistance to ascertaining the truth about the impact of violence that, “Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on those who fought it.”[5] Grossman quotes the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to articulate a realization of many soldiers: “Every individual dispensation is one of the causes of the prosperity, success, and even survival of That which administers the universe. To break off any particle, no matter how small, from the continuous concatenation— whether of causes or of any other elements— is to injure the whole.” As one Vietnam veteran described it, he “came to see the young Vietnamese they had killed as allies in a bigger war of individual existence, as young men with whom they were united throughout their lives against the impersonal ‘thems’ of the world.” In other words, “in killing the grunts of North Vietnam, the grunts of America had killed a part of themselves.”  The recognition of the basic inhumanity required to overcome the resistance to killing brings home a deep sense of shame. As one World War II veteran put it, “I, too, belong to this species. I am ashamed not only of my own deeds, not only of my nation’s deeds, but of human deeds as well. I am ashamed to be a man.”[6]

It is this shame associated with killing, more than any other factor, which produces long term psychiatric effects. Those exposed to war time conditions, such as medics or civilians subjected to bombing raids, prisoners of war, sailors on board ship during combat, soldiers sent into the most dangerous situations behind enemy lines, and officers, who are not called upon to kill do not become psychiatric casualties. It was discovered that prisoners of war experienced a strange peace as they were not in a position to do anything about their situation, while their guards, who still had a capacity and responsibility to fight, suffered greater psychological harm – though they were all exposed to the same incoming artillery. As Grossman concludes, “In most circumstances in which nonkillers are faced with the threat of death and injury in war, the instances of psychiatric casualties are notably absent.”

During World War I, in which there was greater risk of becoming a psychiatric casualty than being killed by the enemy, it was assumed that civilians exposed to bombing would produce vast numbers of “gibbering lunatics.” This became part of the justification for attacking civilians as it was assumed this would prove demoralizing and it played a key role in Germans in World War II bombing Britain and the Allies doing the same to Germany.  The presumption was that there would be mass psychiatric casualties resulting from bombing civilians. In spite of the horrors visited on these populations the psychiatric casualties remained similar to that experienced in peacetime. The Rand Corporation study of the impact found “there was only a very slight increase in the “more or less long-term” psychological disorders as compared with peacetime rates.”[7]

Grossman’s conclusion: “The dead soldier takes his misery with him, but the man who killed him must forever live and die with him. The lesson becomes increasingly clear: Killing is what war is all about, and killing in combat, by its very nature, causes deep wounds of pain and guilt.”[8] For the guilt to be dealt with, for the sickness of killing to be addressed, it must be exposed for what it is.

To memorialize the dead, according to Jesus, runs the risk of hiding their killing: “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs” (Lk 11:47-48). Tomb building and memorializing the dead, whether those prophets killed by the Jews, those sacrificed to the gods, or those killed in war, can cover over the reality and futility of killing. In Jesus description, those who build the tombs shared in the guilt of those who do the killing, apparently because this memorializing obscures the reality. Jesus sees himself as the exposure of the reality of the blood “shed since the foundation of the world” (Lk 11:50). Blood guilt will now be charged from the generation that heard his teaching, presumably into the indefinite future, as the reality of killing is demythologized, unforgotten, disentombed.

Gil Bailie opens his book Violence Unveiled with a story told by Whittaker Chambers. Chambers tells of a conversation he had with the daughter of a former German diplomat in which she was trying to explain why her father had become disillusioned with Stalin’s regime. “She loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her,” Chamberlain writes. She said, “He was immensely pro-Soviet – you will laugh at me – but you must not laugh at my father – and then – one night in Moscow – he heard screams.” That’s all, simply “one night he heard screams.” Chambers remarked: “She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night she heard screams.”[9]

Christ has forever countered the logos or logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, and the myth that would hide the victims. Now we can hear the screams, the blood shed from the foundation of the world cries out and the guilt is now laid at our feet. But with that guilt comes the possibility of hearing the healing words meant for each of us, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”


[1] See the article in the Washington Post, by Sarah Kaplan, “The ‘darker link’ between ancient human sacrifice and our modern world” (April 5th, 2016) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/04/05/the-darker-link-between-ancient-human-sacrifice-and-our-modern-world/

[2] Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (p. 55). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid. 57

[4] Ibid. 104

[5] Psychologist Peter Marin quoted by Grossman, Ibid, 59.

[6] Ibid. 61-62

[7] Ibid. 74

[8] Ibid. 105

[9] Whitaker Chambers, Witness (New York: Random House, 1952) 14. Quoted in Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 35. Thank you Leigh for the recommendation.