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.

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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.

Christ Has Abolished War – The War Within and Without


Whether we have in view violence on the largest scale such as war, or on the smallest scale such as the struggle within the individual, I would argue the same basic structure and dynamic is at work. For example, it is often said the first casualty of war is truth, and the presumption is that once lives are sacrificed in fighting a war, it will be difficult if not impossible to declare the war a mistake. The sacrifice of life would be betrayed by this truth, so the lie that the war was justified will serve in place of the truth. The narrative of patriotism, laying down one’s life for friends (see here), makes sense of war and this sense comes with its own morality and something like its own religion. But isn’t the same thing true on the individual level, that the self-punishment involved in guilt, masochism, or the intrinsic self-harm of addiction is its own justification? The life sacrificed is one’s own, but it too is a self-justifying system in which the sacrifice creates its own order of meaning and reality.

War creates a liturgical character on the order of ancestor worship in which the ultimate, eternal obligation, is to those who have died on behalf of the nation, so that to speak of the nation in any but absolute terms is to dishonor the dead. The society built on death, on the sacrifices of war, are bound together by the felt necessity to repay those sacrifices in a religious sort of patriotism. The survival or eternalizing of the state is implicit, as Dorothy Day indicated, in the “God talk” (e.g., phrases such as “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God”) which realpolitik exposes as fundamentally atheistic. “It has become expedient that we murder” and “that we ignore the precepts of Jesus Christ laid down in the Sermon on the Mount. . . .as Christianity has been reduced to a rule of expediency” serving the state. She pronounces the unthinkable or the ultimate secular blasphemy, “it is better that the United States be liquidated than that she survive by war.”[1]

But there may be something even more immediate in the justifying power of death, as studies of those who murder produce the same results: the killer sees the murder as justified and necessary (inevitable) and the act itself is viewed as righteous wrath.[2] It is not simply that one lies to others about the efficacy of violence, but the violence becomes the foundation of “truth” so that one is blinded to an alternative possibility – reality or truth. To state it within the perspective of war, the sacrifice of life in war creates a self-justifying system which generates its own ground or truth, but the same system can function at the individual level.

 It may be that the life of the state, on behalf of which the dead soldier is memorialized, seems to be a more tangible reality than the life, gusto, or being, sought in hedonism or addiction but it seems to be a matter of scale. The state builds concrete monuments to its war dead and the cult of the dead has its own uniforms, special salutes, and parades, but individual desire is no less tangible and it too is memorialized in compulsive repetition and it is no less life consuming in extracting life from the self. The individual has her own self-justifying sacrifice which creates personal rituals and “truth” of the same logical order as the sacrifice of war. The compulsion to repeat is the logic or economy at work in both instances – the investment of life is not just the assurance that this order is real – but it is the reality to which life is dedicated. So, we might say it is not just that truth is the first casualty of war, but an alternative truth is generated by both corporate and individual violence. In both instances the sign/significance is compulsively repeated as its circulation is the meaning.   

The deceit of the system is in plain sight in what is memorialized – the dead soldier represents life, freedom, and his ultimate sacrifice is what makes life possible and worthwhile. The concrete memorial or tomb literally reifies, eternalizes, or makes death an infinite value foundational to the life of the state. This bad infinite grips us personally when the concrete tomb of our own imaginary sense of self (the ego) becomes the foundation and energy behind all that we do and are. We would cadaverize (to coin a term), or memorialize our self on the order of a concrete object which is equated with life. We would establish the self as an object in the misperception that the image of the self or others (the bodily image) is the self.

Clearly the tomb and the self as object mark the same deceit, in which death is presumed to be life. In this sense, to call this a desire for death or death drive does not get at the mistaken presumption that to follow this drive or desire it is presumed that one is gaining life, whereas it is only the acquisition of death. This language may not be exactly accurate, as it is picturing a synchronous desire which folds all of this thought into an experience as if it is diachronic. Cognition or time does not necessarily figure into it. Thus, the Bible will refer to the deceit of desire as a first order experience of the lie. Idolatrous desire is pictured as a prostitute luring her customers to the grave. It is presumed or felt that to follow this desire is life itself – it is the life force or all that makes life worth living but it is only a force for death.

The idol or the concrete object for which one might sacrifice everything illustrates the psychological move as it occurs in the individual. The tomb/idol or the war memorial is a sign or the bearer of the sign in which the body of the soldier is completely covered over, so much so that the tomb or memorial need not contain any physical remains. For the individual, the body becomes the bearer of a sign and what is written over the body has displaced the body or any significance which it might have had in itself.

This “body of sin” or “body of death” is not simply the physical body but it is the body as ego – as in the bodily ego or the notion of the self as object. Here, all of the processes of the body take on an eternal weight of meaning. Food for the stomach and the stomach for food (I Cor. 6:13) can become an eternal circulating system of signs in which eating and digesting is its own justification. Sex can take on an eternal weight of meaning – its own mysticism – where it is presumed the body is the means to life. In this way the “flesh,” in Paul’s description, becomes a principle unto itself, a principal for death which he equates with immorality. As Lacan will describe it, desire is related to the ego which is imaginary (like an object or on the order of the physical body), so desire is the desire to establish the being of the Subject on the order of an object. The physical body is written over with a significance which obscures or transforms natural drives and desires. According to Paul this is immorality, and what it forgets or loses is that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body (I Cor. 6:13).

The body of state might become the same sort of self-justifying closed entity – and ironically with the absolutizing of the state with the Constantinian shift this process is Christianized or baptized. Just as the body becomes the container of the soul, the state is identified with the millennial kingdom, as it is made to bear an eternal weight of meaning. Just as the physical body is the empirical bearer of the soul amounting to a refusal of the body and its mortal contingencies, the state becomes divine or God-like as infallible judge, creating its own hell and dispensing its own heavenly rewards. According to Ernst Kantorowicz, the kings two bodies consist of his “natural body” rendered insignificant, as it is simply the bearer of the “body politic.”  Any idiot or any body can serve as the marker of this exalted sign of state. What is of enduring significance is the letter or sign and not the body per se (the king and state – like the individual now have two bodies), as the body is the incarnation of the sign written over or made possible by the sacrifice of its empirical bearer.

Given this singular genealogy for the war without and the war within, if Christ has established peace, then not only the individual but the world has been freed from the lie giving rise to the necessity of personal and corporate violence. My claim is that sin and war depend upon the economy of a lie which Christ has exposed and abolished. It is hard to say which claim may be harder to believe – that Christ has freed us corporately from the necessities of war or individually from the struggle of sin. If the internal struggle giving rise to sin cannot be conceived of as defeated in the peace of Christ, it may be a leap too far to understand how Christ has abolished the logic and necessity of a world which requires war. On the other hand, if it can be understood how individually we can be liberated from the principle of the flesh, it may be easier to conceive how the defeat of this same principle might apply to war. If the war within and the war without consists of the same sort of violence or sin, then redemption from sin is both an individual and corporate or world-wide possibility.

The gospel calls us to live lives of peace as an accomplished fact, and this means that the world that God loved and is redeeming is already the resource and reality out of which we live. We might speak of two worlds, if it is understood that there cannot be two orders of reality or two created orders anymore than there can be two bodies. We might refer to the world of the flesh or the world of darkness but this is not an actually existing world but it is a world written over with a lie. The lie might seem to have obtained world-wide traction (wiping out its empirical bearer) but its “size” does not mean that it is of a different order than the lie which takes hold within the individual. In fact, apart from the one the other cannot exist. The individual is given over to the same lie no matter if he encounters it in his tribe or state or within himself. The world given over to the lie is simply a support for the individual and the individual is a support of the corporate lie.

By the same token, the individual living in peace presumes that he witnesses to an alternative order to which the world can respond. The recreation of the world or the culmination of creation portrayed throughout the New Testament means that the Christian lives in a world freed of the seeming necessities of sin. It is not a world we could or need to create as Christ has created it. As Stanley Hauerwas has indicated, Christians need not work to create a world free of war as the world has already been saved from war. The Christian lives in a world in which war has been abolished and the manner of his life is a testimony that this is a first order reality which exposes the unreality of the world built on the lie of violence.

This cosmological shift is the message of the Gospel of John in which the light is now shining on all the world. The Prologue opens with a new-creation narrative which at every turn exemplifies, as with Nathaniel, the possibility of living without deceit. Here the wedding feast of the lamb, the cleansing of the cosmic temple, and the abode with the Father, are already established realities. Where darkness and light and life and death might appear to make up a cosmic dualism, John is proclaiming the end of the struggle. Life has defeated death and the light has penetrated the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The book of Hebrews declares an end to a similar sort of cosmic order, in which it seemed God was only available through angelic mediators and a sacrificial system condemned to comprehending God in shadows. Christ, the complete representation of God, has assumed within himself the role of both priest and victim and has brought an end to the seeming necessity of sacrifice and death: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:14-15). The god (whether the god of state or the world or the individual) who held out “satisfaction” through sacrifice and death is dethroned. The community of the saved testify to this end of sacrifice.

 As Hauerwas puts it, the church is an alternative to war. “The sacrifices of war are no longer necessary. We are now free to live free of the necessity of violence and killing. War and the sacrifices of war have come to an end. War has been abolished.”[3] The church sets forth an alternative ethic, no longer under the constraints of sin and war, as peace is established.


[1] Dorothy Day, “We Are Un-American, We Are Catholics,” Catholic Worker 14, no. 13 (April 1948), 2. Cited in John Mark Hicks. Resisting Babel: Allegiance to God and the Problem of Government (Kindle Location 1650). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] See Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “Ten years and counting: Christianity and the end of war,” ABC Religion and Ethics – https://www.abc.net.au/religion/ten-years-and-counting-christianity-and-the-end-of-war/10101158

If the Victors Write History Where is the Authentic History of the Losers Called Christians?

While it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, to assume that it is fully traceable historically or institutionally would seem to be a category mistake. It would be to assume that the victors are capable of writing a history of losers (those who take up the cross). At the same time, to presume Constantine or the Dark Ages or American Evangelicalism wiped out any trace of the authentic gospel, presumes Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Protestantism, with their various institutions and formulations, are the sole purveyors of the gospel. I am not suggesting the gospel is to be found in a retreat to human interiority or individuality, though interiority is not excluded, but I assume that the word of the cross is, as Paul describes it, a suspension of the symbolic order in which the law and its oppressive force is rendered inactive. The symbolic order is that place where things are thought to endure, where history is written, where people make their mark, where institutions reign, and it is where order is maintained through an established hierarchy (the arche of this world), but this is precisely what the gospel is not.

The symbolic order or the law cannot be reduced to commands or instructions but includes, in various N.T. illustrations, the institutions and history of Israel but institutions in general (the institution of marriage, ethnicity, social class, etc.). Paul will equate the human struggle on both the cosmic and the individual psychological level as a struggle with the law or the symbolic. In short, the symbolic order is an order of reality which the gospel challenges. This may seem to be an implausible statement, which I want to show to be the case, but then I want to suggest that given this truth, the history of the church will have to be written and read from beneath this suspension of the “given” order of reality. In the case of the American church, this place beneath is exemplified by black experience under the prevailing “white” symbolic order.

 Jesus (in Luke 13:7) uses the same word as Paul in suggesting that the fig tree, representing Israel or the institutions of Israel, should be cut down or rendered inactive (καταργέω). Paul uses a gentler image in depicting childhood as suspended or rendered inactive by maturity (I Cor. 13:11) but he depicts the suspension of the law as on the order of the suspension of a marriage due to death (Ro. 7:2). One order of life, childhood or married life, may hover behind or overhead but it is suspended in the past or in midair by another order. The constraints of childhood or marriage, the limitations – inclusive of rules but also pertaining to vision and capacity, are lifted.

 Paul uses a different expression that gets at the same idea, in suggesting that the Christian identity should not be tied to marriage or society but one participates in these things “as if not” (I Cor. 7). The law is an all-inclusive category for Paul, but it is not the law per se that is the problem, any more than it is marriage or singleness or slave or free that is the problem. It is the arche or principalities and powers of this world which stand behind the symbolic structures, and it is the constraint or oppression which the arche deploy through the symbolic order that is suspended. Paul says that for the Christian these things are rendered powerless (I Cor. 2:6) through the wisdom of God. One cannot escape law and language any more than one can escape marital status or social status but the point is not escape but suspension of the oppressive hold these things can have.

 Ironically, Luther aggravates the problem of the power behind the law by conflating the law with this power and creating a religion that would empty itself of any remnant of law – thus creating the law of no law – or the empty faith in faith of modern Protestantism. The point is not to obliterate or destroy any of these categories but to not let them bind identity. One is not primarily a law keeper or a law breaker (circumcised or uncircumcised), married or single, Jew or Greek, male or female, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, Protestant or Anabaptist. None of these categories can bear the weight of prime identity and when they are made to bear that weight, they deal out death in the same manner as those who crucified Jesus (I Cor. 2:8). The Lutheran reaction to the Anabaptists (slaughtering them) makes the point – where the law is the thing, death reigns. Pharisees, no matter if they are of the Lutheran, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or American brand always make the mistake of identifying the sign, the law, or the symbolic order, with the thing itself. This consistently proves deadly.

The “as if not” identity and lifestyle does not concern itself with dispensing with this order, it simply sidesteps its power (through Christ) and does not let it play a determinative role. This suspension of the law, the cessation of its continual condemnation, is as broad and all-inclusive as the symbolic order itself, but now this order no longer oppresses and condemns. The N.T. exposes the pursuit of power as being possessed by power, the pursuit of wealth as an idolatrous succumbing to a poverty of spirit, the attempt to control chaos as being out of control. Or as Paul will depict it, the attempt to conquer the agonistic struggle within is the origin of this struggle. Jesus models a relinquishing of power and control in his lifestyle of poverty, of turning the other cheek, and ultimately in submitting to crucifixion.

Key, in both the N.T. and in the radical reformation, is the presumption that Jesus models the peaceful, suspended sort of life. It is his choice of identifying with the poor that imparts wealth to those who follow him (2 Cor. 8:9) and it is his disempowering cruciform identity which Mary’s song proclaims, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty'” (Luke 1:52-3). Jesus can walk through the barriers put up by the symbolic order as easily as walking through doors or as permanently as being raised from the dead. One can move through this matrix with him, something like Neo, as it is only binding upon those who imagine it is absolute. The resurrection life-style of “as if not” suspension is captured in a series of images in the N. T. but I presume they are all focused on the same experience of peace, freedom, and unity, which breaks down the walls of hostility definitive of the symbolic order that enslaves and deals out death.

The Hutterites will refer to this experience as Gelassenheit, a term carried over from mysticism which means “having-let-go-ness.” As with Paul’s “as if not” there is an abandonment of self-concern or self-affirmation and a relinquishing of the desire to be in charge or to rule over things.[1] It directly correlates with the situation in Corinthians in which Paul is dealing with rivalries among members at the same time as the church is submitting to the authoritarian super-apostles, who seem to be literally slapping them around. These leaders would extract obedience through shaming or public humiliation and Paul is offering a counter to this illegitimate authority. The Corinthians have yet to completely extract themselves from the illegitimate authority of their culture and Paul is both demonstrating in his own life and telling the Christians that coercive authority is illegitimate. To secure oneself through these coercive principles and powers (arche) is the natural human disposition and Paul is putting into place anarchic Christian communities of those who would resist the powers or arche.

With this understanding in place, that there is both the symbolic order with its all-inclusive structures and there is the gospel’s suspension of the condemnation of this symbolic order, the question is raised as to how to find the church and how to understand its history? Is the Constantinian shift and the empowerment of popes, bishops, and councils to be identified with the church or with its near disappearance? Is the Protestant Reformation a recovery of what was lost? Or as I stated above, while it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, is it a category mistake to assume that it is traceable through “normal” historical and institutional channels?

As I have previously shown, the Protestant Reformation normalized the Constantinian ethic (e.g. just war), the Constantinian relation of church and state (the sword of the prince protects and decides for the church), the Constantinian sense of history (God is at work through the principalities and powers), and the Constantinian ethos (the dualism(s) aligning church and state in the same goal from different directions – the left hand and right hand of God). Prior to the Protestant Reformation there was a concession to Constantinianism which, nonetheless, left intact, at least among the majority of common people, the sense that killing is sinful and the understanding that the core of the church is a realm apart from the violent and oppressive necessities enacted primarily by those at the upper level of society. Though we mainly know of the top of the hierarchy from those who would tell this story as if a singular thing is happening (from their view as enforcers of the symbolic order), if the story could be told from the bottom, or from within the place of the gospel suspension of power, I presume that tales of popes and councils, bishops and kings, would hardly figure into the history at all.

This is the sort of narrative that we encounter throughout the Bible. The history of a people of no consequence culminating in a tale of a crucified carpenter’s son, is meant to cause us to identify with the dispossessed and outcasts, just as Jesus did.  If we read reality and history from the biblical perspective, we understand that the rise and fall of earthly kings, or of the presumed people of importance, are only blinders to the real story culminating in the cross. Perhaps due to pervasive Constantinianism we have trouble discerning the biblical perspective in our own context.

In the American experience it is not Jew/Gentile or male/female so much as white/black which grounds the symbolic order. As James Baldwin describes it, “I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others.”[2] The dominance of the value system of the ruling culture emptied the gospel for Baldwin. “I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.” Baldwin describes a Christianity that “has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty” as it has identified itself with “the realm of power.” He describes this Constantinian form of the faith as “more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness.”[3]

Baldwin is left under the crushing weight of the symbolic order thrust upon him, but James Cone describes the cross as enabling the lifting of the anger and pain entailed in black oppression. “The more I read about and looked at what whites did to powerless blacks, the angrier I became. Paradoxically, anger soon gave way to a profound feeling of liberation. Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.”[4] The countless acts of violence enacted on black bodies in lynching and murder brought Cone to a definitive choice: “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. [5] I believe the liberation Cone describes is not unlike the suspension of the law, the “as if not,” or Gelassenheit in which oppression can be thwarted and freedom and peace realized in the face of death through the work of the cross.

In this understanding, the true history of Christianity can only be written or told by those rendered invisible by the symbolic order. This is not the invisibility Augustine proposed, an otherworldly and indiscernible group of the chosen. This is a form of symbolic blindness in which the suffering are invisible to those who are stepping on their necks. The cross is a means of erasure, a means of rendering insignificant, so that if the history of those who take up the cross is to be written, by definition it cannot be authored by those who crucify. Those who exercise power and violence, whether that of the state or church, may speak with the loudest voices, but they cannot speak for those who witness to an order suspended by the cross.

This history has yet to be written, and perhaps it can never be written, but it is a perspective that must presume the blindness of church history revolving around power and a present church experience that presumes the powerful determine significance.


[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 198). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time (Kindle Locations 247-250). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Baldwin, 376-380

[4] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 16). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[5] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

Beating the Cross into a Sword: The Modern Reversal of the Gospel

A literal marker of the distance between the religion of the New Testament and the religious nationalism that passes for Christianity is to be found on war monuments bearing the words, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 13). This was a popular verse for WWI monuments, the bloodiest and most senseless war of the century, fought primarily between “Christian” nations. The implication is that the dead soldier fulfilled Jesus words, that they too sacrificed their life for their friends. In fact, all that Jesus did can now be attributed to the dead soldier: he took up a cross of sacrifice, laid down his life in love, so that we might have freedom. We remember and honor him, memorializing his death. In Japan, at Yasukuni Shrine, the war dead, along with war criminals, are literally venerated or worshiped. Though Americans might feel uncomfortable “worshipping” the war dead, in songs like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” every element of war is baptized, so that the whole movement of war is made holy.

The Lord’s wrath and truth march on through the power of the sword which bears his glory. The fires of an army encampment are an altar built to ensure his “fiery Gospel” will be “writ in burnished rows of steel” and this is equated with the work of Christ on the cross, “crushing the serpent with his heel.” This violence is equated with the glory of God and more or less worshiped in the refrain, “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” Throughout the marching of the troops is directly identified with “God marching on.” Christ “died to make men holy,” and this should spur on the troops, so “let us die to make men free.” Finally, the honor of killing in war is directly deified as “He (God) is honor to the brave.”

The soldier going out to kill, to lay down someone else’s life so he can return home, is equated with Jesus laying down his life. Freedom requiring the slaughter of the enemy is equated with freedom from sin, death, and violence. The memorializing or remembrance, as with the Lord’s Supper, is the equivalent of an act of worship, but now there is a reifying or memorializing of killing and death. Where Jesus’ death was aimed at defeating death, this remembrance makes death itself the means to freedom. In “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” war is equated with God. His truth, His Gospel, His wrath let loose on the enemy and his mercy shown to the victor, takes each element of war and Christianizes it. It is not just the slippage of a few words but the religion is rendered equivocal. The original meaning is lost as the cross is turned into a sword (literally, at the U. S. Air Force Academy Chapel) and violence is made redemptive. The question is, what happened to bring about this undoing and reversal of the faith?

The Constantinian shift, which I traced last week (here), is not explanation enough, as there is no period prior to the Reformation, other than the crusades, in which this direct equivalence between war and Christianity is so firmly drawn out. Even with the rise of Constantine and the development of just war theory, killing, even in war, called for penance, though the level of guilt was presumed to be something less than outright murder. Clergy were banned from killing or bearing the sword and those who had fought in a war, including the prince who might have declared it, were required, subsequent to the fighting, to do penance. Killing was considered evil, even in a just war, and in turn nonviolence was the standard equated with a committed Christian spirituality. While just war permitted the prince and his soldiers, usually mercenaries or professional soldiers to fight on a limited scale, this would still require penance and came with a fundamental guilt. Knights and mercenaries understood, through the sermons they heard and through the imagery on church portals depicting grinning devils dragging the violent into hell, that they were living in a perpetual state of sin. The increase in the monastic orders in the Middle Ages is attributed in large part  to knightly guilt.[1] The church remained normatively pacifist, though concessions were made for rulers and soldiers engaged in war, but it was recognized this was not the rule but the exception. Just as many or more (monastics, priests, penitents) were committed to a life of nonviolence.

It was only with the Reformation and its notion of works righteousness that nonviolence was no longer considered normative. As John Howard Yoder puts it, “The Reformation said that all the penitential stuff and all the monastic stuff had to go, because those constitute works righteousness. Such practices get in the way of salvation by faith.”[2] Special acts, which emphasized the normative nature of Christian nonviolence such as penance, confession, pilgrimage, or committing one’s entire life to being a monk or priest, were considered counterproductive to the Protestant message of justification by faith. In getting rid of these visible signs which indicated the fuller, peaceable way of the Gospel, Protestantism rid itself of any vestige of nonviolence.

It had once been universally understood that priests, monks, monasteries, churches, cemeteries, and even libraries were not to be pillaged. There were holy days, such as Good Friday, in which all fighting would cease. With the Reformation the primary focus was no longer on a real-world enactment of the way of Jesus, or even on a remnant of symbolism of an alternative peaceable order, as primacy was given to internal faith in God’s grace. One cannot do anything to be saved, and so the emphasis in Catholicism on holy times or holy places was traded for faith alone. All are priests and every profession is divinely ordained, a sphere unto itself, so that even the remaining small islands of nonviolence preserved in Catholicism vanished.[3]

Where the Medieval prince had once been nominally subject to the church, Luther presumed that the affairs of state were not to be interfered with by bishops and priests. The bishops should stick to the sacraments and the princes should run the country and there is no overlap of religious authority in civil accountability. Christians, as set forth in Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican creeds, may fight in just wars – which simultaneously give a religious imprimatur to a notion acknowledged in Catholicism but never formally endorsed or instantiated as part of the faith. Christians may now serve Christ as civil magistrates, as businessmen, or as soldiers engaged in war, as the economy, the civil government and the church, were declared autonomous realms, each accountable directly to God. The priesthood of all believers would come to mean that every profession constituted its own kind of holy office with its own set of values and goals. The businessman who earned a profit, or the statesman who rendered justice, or the soldier who served in a just war, were each given the due sign of God’s blessing in terms of their field of service.

According to the Augsburg Confession (penned by Melanchthon for Lutherans), “Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, be married, etc. Condemned here are the Anabaptists who teach that none of the things indicated above is Christian” (Augsburg Confession, article XVI, 1530). Note that to be Lutheran is to be against, according to the creedal formula, the peace of the Anabaptists. As the creed of the Church of England states it, “It is lawful for Christian men, at the commaundement of the Magistrate, to weare weapons, and serue in the warres” (Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, English Edition of 1571, article XXXVII.) Or, according to the Westminster Confession, “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called thereunto; . . . they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasion” (Westminster Confession, article XXIII/ II, 1646).[4] Thus, one can “read a fiery gospel writ” not in humble self-sacrifice but with “burnish’d rows of steel.”

In the three major Protestant traditions, for the first time, just war and participating in violence takes on creedal status. To be Lutheran, Anglican, or of the British free church or Puritan and Presbyterian or Reformed tradition, means one is officially committed to just war and state violence. Prior to the Reformation, the church, popes, and bishops, and a broadly shared Christian sensibility had tended to curb war, which resulted in many instances of conflicts being arbitrated. The theory of just war functioning as a restraint, as it had done in the Middle Ages, has ceased as national leaders will be the final arbiters of the justice and necessity of war. Now the only real deterrent and mitigating factor in war will tend to be pragmatic possibility.

Nationalism and capitalism are both a product of the Reformation in that the nation and the economy, like the church, constitute their own realm of morality and internal accountability. A businessman may amend Gordon Gecko to say, “Greed for God is good.” As Yoder describes it, too much moral scrupulosity is a bad thing. “Christians can do whatever they need to do,” according to the realm in which they serve. Whether it is politics or business or engaging in killing in legitimate wars, one’s morality needs to be fit for the realm of service. “Don’t be picky about living morally; after all, we are all sinners! What really matters is the message of salvation by grace.” Sin is inevitable and the message of the new religion is to live by grace. To do so is to recognize one need not suffer guilt, though incapable of doing the good and avoiding the evil. “The whole idea of morality is not meant to exercise restraint. That is an un-Protestant idea. Morality is for positive guidance, to give us a good conscience and motivation.” [5]

The Christian religion, rather than prohibiting or curbing violence as it had done for its first 1500 years, can now assuage any possibility of guilt as the violence of war is now justified as service to Christ. The stage is set for the total wars of the 20th century, in which there is no overriding consideration to pope or church. This opens the possibility for obliteration of civilian populations and no end to the limits of destruction, both of which are accommodated by new weapons of mass destruction which can meet this new theological vision.[6]

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[1] The New Yorker Book review – “Holy Smoke: What were the Crusades really about?” December 6, 2004

[2] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 119). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Yoder, 120

[4] John H. Leith, ed. Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3rd ed. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 72– 73, 280, 220 respectively.  Quoted in Yoder, 23

[5] Yoder, 124-125.

[6] As I have described it elsewhere (here) in regard to the dropping of the Atomic bombs on Japan, there is a form of the faith in the West that seems to require that it enact violence. An all-Christian bomber crew from an all-Christian administration guilty of vaporizing, incinerating, annihilating tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including a disproportionately large number of Japanese Christians, and choosing a/the Church for ground zero, shows up the meaninglessness of this form of religion. Of course, the Christian faith as it was practiced by these men seems not to have figured into the decision. Christianity did not cause Truman the Baptist, Byrnes the Catholic and one of Truman’s closest advisors, or Charles Sweeney (pilot of Bock’s Car) a devout Catholic, or any of the long list of Christian advisors and actors to pause or refuse. Truman reported sleeping soundly and never having a second thought. The faith simply served, it seems, to ease the consciences of its adherents. Though the image of Christian slaughtering Christian in genocidal proportions, as in Nagasaki, forever exposed the emptiness of the predominant form of the Western religion, it was precisely their faith that blinded many to this conclusion.

A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift

“The accession of Constantine terminated the pacifist period in church history.” Roland Bainton

If peace of the pacifist kind, as defined by Jesus and as taught by the church for its first 300 years, is central to the gospel, in what sense can it be said that Christianity survived the Constantinian shift? Roland Bainton traces small remnants of pacifism throughout church history, but the overwhelming sense is that the flame of the true teaching of Christ flickered only slightly, if at all, for long periods of church history. Since we are located on the other side of this shift in a period as Constantinian as any other, it may be difficult to recognize the contrast between Christianity before Constantine and the Christendom that came after. But as many are turning from the church in protest at the ugliness of the Christian religion it may be the opportune time to point out that the religion and teaching of Christ have been all but erased by the Constantinian form of the faith. Here in summary fashion is a delineation of the difference Constantinianism wrought upon the Christian faith. (While the shift brought about by the man Constantine is partly in view, the shift begins prior to his conversion and some one hundred years after his death.)

1. A different authority: Church councils came to bear a new authority which continues in both East and West. Constantine called himself the bishop of bishops and he applied his pagan assumptions about the place of priests in the empire. Not yet baptized, Constantine determined the phrasing and was the decisive voice at the Council of Nicaea in determining questions surrounding the Trinity. As John Howard Yoder points out, his primary concern in determining doctrinal issues, as with later emperors, was what was best for the empire. The presumption was that the church must speak with a unified voice on doctrinal questions and the council presumed to be that voice. The rise of the centralized leadership vested in the pope can be attributed to the unfolding of the same Constantinian logic in which there is a singular head and voice for each realm of power and this singularity is presumed to be unifying.

2. A different ethic: Where Christians refused military service prior to Constantine, subsequent to Constantine Christians were not only favored but it was required (by 436) that soldiers be Christians. There was not only an abandonment of nonviolence but there was no longer the resource in the New Testament for ethics, as this was a new situation, so there was a turn, by Ambrose and Augustine, to the Roman heritage, especially Cicero, to work out a new form of the Christian ethic for those serving Rome.

3. A different worldview: Augustine’s Neo-Platonism and the rise of Constantine would cement the duality that presumed God was using the emperor to do some things and Christians to do other things. There is the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana, and the peace of Christians, which were thought to complement one another. It is from this period that a notion like that of Robert Jeffress arises, that Jesus in not fit to be Caesar or president. Should the ruler be Christian he must employ something other than the ethic of Jesus to rule, as the world is split and Jesus’ ethics pertains to the private portion of that world. The soul/body split necessary for a violent Christianity became the norm.

4.  A different definition of Church: Under Theodosius, who became emperor in 379, an edict defined the one true Catholicism as Trinitarian believers in communion with the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. The Council of Constantinople confirmed that those who were less willing to forgive the apostate (the Donatists) or those with an alternative view of Christ (the Arians) did not have the support of the state and therefore were not part of the church. Augustine believed that the state had to force the heretics (he quotes Jesus, “Compel them to come in”), the Donatists, to comply to the edict and eventually their property was confiscated and their meetings banned. State support determines the boundaries of the church through state power.

This clear delineation of who was counted out was aggravated by the fact, that unless you were a Donatist or Arian or a barbarian, everybody was Christian (except a few Jews) no matter the level of objective commitment to Christianity. So, Augustine declared the true church was now invisible as the visible spectacle offered no hint of a subjective commitment. This leads to the notion that most people counted as Christians were not considered saved.  The church is to be found primarily among the priests, authorized by other priests, so that the sequence of ordination coming down from Jesus through the bishops and through those authorized to perform the sacraments, most clearly demonstrated the presence of God. Even priests and bishops though, may not be elect as they can be hypocrites and so the invisibility of the church is nearly complete. This means that the visible form of Christianity can be described in non-New Testament ways, as Neoplatonic dualism divides the visible and invisible realms nearly completely.

5. A different definition of state: Rome became a “Christian state” as it transitioned from the persecution of Christians to the imperial requirement of one Christian norm for all citizens. People were still free to be non-Christians but they would suffer disadvantages and they had no alternative public worship. This would have subsidiary effects on most every aspect of Christian doctrine, as being baptized and remaining in communion involved both church and state.

6.  A different understanding of church/society relations: The story is told that Pope Sylvester and Emperor Constantine agreed to split between them the realm of the empire and the realm of the church so as to work in support of one another. The practical result was that church government fell into the hands of civil government, and the one who bore the sword would determine who became a bishop.

7. A different meaning of baptism: Because of the new relationship of church and state becoming a Christian and becoming a citizen were fused, so that infant baptism (historians cannot agree upon its origins) became universal – no citizen should be left unbaptized. Neither citizenship nor church membership were voluntary.

8. A different set of rituals: To accommodate the 90 percent of the population who had not been Christian prior to Constantine pagan rituals, such as spring fertility celebrations, could be celebrated under the auspices of Passion and Easter. Christmas is usually considered to be the best example, though its origins are more obscure, of an incorporation of a pagan celebration into the church. The cult of the dead, seemingly the universal religion presuming the dead hear and answer prayer, was given a Christian flavor. These new celebrations arose with Constantine as an attempt to take in what was already being observed and celebrated.

9. A different theology: The church would undertake a reinterpretation of troublesome parts of the Bible inveighing against violence (the sermon on the Mount is for the individual acting in private) and would focus on obscure passages to illicit the possibility for violence (the cleansing of the temple, Jesus command to get a sword, etc.) and there was a relinquishing of notions of the possibility of perfection (not possible as government would always be necessary to constrain sin), and sin is inescapable and Original and thus infects all upon conception, and gradually a new meaning would be given to the death of Christ (divine satisfaction rather than Christus Victor – the implications of which were less than flattering for the emperor – Satan’s earthly representative). Augustine’s notion of the church invisible came with a new doctrine of election, he presumed about 5% of the population of Rome might be elect and saved. No one could be sure who might be included in that 5%, as God’s election is secret (we are not far from Calvin’s double predestination).

10. A different idea of history: Prior to Constantine the singular fact for Christians was their life and experience of the body of Christ, while after Constantine they would have to take it on faith that there is a church (as it is invisible). Before Constantine it was presumed that God is at work in history but it was not clear how, while after Constantine it was a fact that God governs history through Rome and the emperor. As Yoder concludes, the eschatology of the New Testament had been turned upside down.[1]

Protestantism is not going to escape the Constantinian shift, but if anything, aggravates it in its dependence upon particular princes and city states to preserve the new form of the faith. As a result, notions of just war, the role of church and state, especially with Luther’s notion that God is doing one thing with the hand of state and another with the hand of the church (clarifying Augustine’s two cities), will accentuate the problem of violence. Augustine’s Constantinian faith created a dualism that continues in Protestant notions that perfection is for another world and what counts now is the inner faith. While there is a reaction against the authority of the pope and a turn to the authority of the Bible, the Bible will be made to serve, in an unbalanced manner, as the corrective to the authority invested in pope and emperor. At the same time, the continuation of just war theory indicates that the New Testament is still relegated to a limited role: Jesus did not command or permit the sort of moral understanding entailed in the theory. Common sense, natural theology, human reason, in spite of Luther’s protests against the theologians of glory, will continue as a parallel authority.

Sign up for our next class with PBI: THE 301 Living in the Kingdom of God: A study of peaceful Christian traditions in light of the Constantinian shift with a view towards eschatology. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings  

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[1] Throughout I am following John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (pp. 57-65). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A Hermeneutic of Peace: The Spiritual Reading of the Old Testament Through Christ

What difference would it make to our theology if Jesus had died in bed of old age or if he had been killed as an infant? If his death is primarily a sacrifice of appeasement, then an infant sacrifice might be quite fitting. If he is a model for right living, then modeling dying in old age would be most fitting. What is missing in old age dying or infant sacrifice, and a theology which might accommodate such a death, is the political nature of his death. He was a political prisoner killed by imperial power on an instrument designed to reinforce the subjugation of slaves and noncitizens. His was a political death brought about by human violence. The point is not to isolate the political, but to recognize that the violence that is accentuated and exposed on the cross (which is political) pertains to every human sphere. The political along with its violence is not isolated from the religious, the social, and the personal. Each of these spheres are addressed in the New Testament, but not discreetly or separately. The New Testament uses battle imagery, legal imagery, family imagery, or psychological imagery, so as to describe the form of universal enslavement and emancipation (another image). There is no singular way of describing the problem and solution as both are pervasive and pertain to everything, while overlapping in a central nexus. It is, in the language of the New Testament, of cosmic proportions, pertaining to the word and world, so that we speak it and live in it. If the problem is violent (dealing in death throughout) then the danger is that we will miss it. More than a danger, the interpretive frame focused on the cross as a religious sacrifice or Jesus as a moral example, demonstrate the violence remains. This interpretive frame is demonstrably subject to an overlooked pervasive violence, which means a peculiar hermeneutic is necessarily part of the answer.

The incarnation tells us the answer is worked from the inside out, and this pertains to our hermeneutic strategy. As Paul describes, Jesus came “from a woman, coming to be under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). A sacrificial theology “satisfied” with a dead Jesus, or an ethical theology content with a moral Jesus, or even a political theology focused on a revolutionary Jesus, all suffer from attempting to contain the solution in the problem. In Paul’s language, they make Christ fit the Law. They all suffer from fitting the answer to a facet of the problem. By the same token, if we fit Jesus to the frame of the Old Testament, he might be taken as another sacrifice, another prophet, or another revolutionary. This explains the interpretive strategy demonstrated in the New Testament in its reading of the Old Testament and the predominant hermeneutic of the church fathers. The presumption is not only that Christ is the interpretive key to the Old Testament but this key entails suspending a literal, flat, violent, reading.

Paul, in explaining the significance of Mount Sinai says, “These things are told allegorically” ((Gal. 4:24) in David Bentley Hart’s translation). As Hart explains in a note to his translation, “Again, one should not assume that Paul does not mean precisely what he says, and does not take the tale to be essentially (not merely secondarily) allegorical. His interpretive habits are rarely literalist.” Paul is explaining the significance of the Law, but in his explanation, he is also making it clear that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, were enslaved to the fundamental elements or principles of the cosmos (τὰστοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου in 4:3) which included the Law. These “elementary things” might entail any number of things and there is a sense in which the obscurity and plural valence of the term gets at its inescapable nature. According to Hart, the “Stoicheia” might refer to material constituents of the world, the elementary aspects of language, or they might refer to idols. Paul may be likening the religions of the world to children’s earliest lessons prior to Christ, much as he describes the Law as a schoolboy’s tutor or custodian. Perhaps it is something like the deep grammar which religion and language share (in a Girardian sense) with the Law.

His argument in verse 8 is, if Galatian Christians return to the law this would amount to returning to idols or the impoverished Elementals which formerly enslaved. All religion, and particularly the Jewish religion, in Paul’s explanation, suffered from this deep grammar or this elementary way of talking that enslaves all religionists prior to Christ. To read the Old Testament and the law literally, as of equal weight and as a guiding prefix to Christ, would be nothing short of “turning again to the weak and impoverished Elementals” and to once again be enslaved (4:10). Paul is teaching the Galatians that the Law, including the story of Hagar, Jacob and Esau, and the story of Sinai, have a role on the order of a maidservant. To treat the maidservant as if she is the freewoman is to mistake freedom for bondage. “Cast out the maidservant and her son, for by no means shall the maid servant’s son inherit along with the freewoman’s son” (4:30). The allegorical interpretive strategy puts the container of the Law in its proper place. It was a tutor, a maidservant, a part of what is now counted as among the impoverished Elements.

In Corinthians Paul explains that to miss the allegorical sense in which Christ was present in the Law is to miss the true spiritual food and true spiritual drink for “the rock was the Anointed” (I Cor. 10:4). Paul makes the point throughout that in light of Christ, “Now these things have become typological figures for us, so that we should not lust after evil things, as indeed those men lusted” (10:6). To take the letter of the Law as an end in itself, or as Christ says, as if it contains life, is to fall under the same principal under which the Israelites lusted and which caused them to be idolaters. In both Galatians and Corinthians, Paul is describing a fundamental desire connected with the Law and elemental principles which caused them to “go whoring” after idols (10:7-8). He once again emphasizes that the correct reading is the spiritual understanding which reads Christ as the end of the lesson: “Now these things happened to them figuratively, and were written for the purpose of our admonition, for whom the ends of the ages have arrived” (10:11).

A spiritual or theological reading will find Christ in the Old Testament, so that the focus is not on the text per se (or the intent of the author, etc.) but on Christ. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians, God is the authority in whom we should have confidence due to Christ (3:4) and not the words of scripture. It is God, “Who also made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of scripture but of spirit; for scripture slays but spirit makes alive” (3:6). A text-based faith or a letter-based competency is a “ministry of death” (v. 7) but the spirit and the spiritually based hermeneutic lifts the veil of the Law, in Paul’s simultaneous explanation and demonstration of this interpretive method. This spiritual reading is not focused on the historical events but on the lesson to be drawn, allegorically, for the admonition and edification of contemporary readers.

As Hebrews puts it, God has spoken in the Old Testament through a multiplicity of sources and in a variety of ways. This plurality of words and messengers is contrasted with the singular message and messenger in which this plurality is overcome (Hebrews 1:1-3). Hebrews, like Galatians, argues that the former word or Law from God was imperfect because it came by way of secondary mediators – angels, or prophets, or Moses – and the message did not come directly from God. The implication is that the human mediators marked/marred the quality of the message and this is in contrast to the perfect representation of Christ. This imperfect message shaped by imperfect messengers resulted in its hearers perishing in the desert, missing both the promised land and the promised rest. They were bound to death by the imperfection of the message but now the full message has resulted in freedom from bondage to the former message.

As Romans states it, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died wherein we were imprisoned, so that we slave in newness of spirit and not in scripture’s obsolescence” (7:6). It is not that the Law or the scriptures are abolished but their punishing effect, or the idolatrous desire which they accentuate and aggravate, have been suspended. “For when we were in the flesh the passions of sin, which came through the Law, acted in our bodily members for the purpose of bearing the fruit of death” (7:5). Paul’s cumulative description of this Law includes Moses, Sinai, Jacob, Esau, and the various commands subsequent to Abraham. The Law and scriptures (or the gramma or word) must include much of the Old Testament, but it is also connected at a deep grammatical level (the elementary principle, the childish language, the idolatrous inclination) with the universal law of sin and death. At points in Romans, it is not clear what law he might be referencing (the prohibition in Genesis, the Mosaic law, or some sort of natural law) and it no long matters, as all law is the law of sin and death.

Origen draws out his allegorical hermeneutic from this Romans passage (7:1-3) but his larger point is to bring about peace, inclusive of peace between the Old Testament and the New.

The word ‘woman’ doubtless stands for the soul that was held fast by the Law of Moses, and about which it is said, ‘so long as her husband lives, she is bound by the Law.’ But if her husband, doubtless, the Law, has died, he calls her soul, which seems to be bound, ‘released.’ Therefore it is necessary for the Law to die so that those who believe in Jesus should not commit the sin of adultery.

 He concludes that Moses is dead and the Law is dead “and the legal precepts are now invalid.” He patterns his claim, an allegorical hermeneutic rightly handling the Law, after the Apostle and with an appeal to Jesus. “Do you want me to bring forth proofs from the Scriptures that the Law is called Moses? Hear what he says in the Gospel: ‘They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them.’ Here, without any doubt, he calls the Law Moses.”[1] The woman, according to Origen, stands for every soul bound by the Law and thus drawn into adulterous desire. The dead husband stands for a Law that no longer rouses adulterous desire. And all of this in a series of sermons on Joshua.

His point is, like this woman defined by the Law and subject to desire, now that we understand Joshua is Jesus (the same name in the Hebrew) we can also understand the true enemy. What is slain by Joshua is this adulterous sin that afflicts the soul:

You will read in the Holy Scriptures about the battles of the just ones, about the slaughter and carnage of murderers, and that the saints spare none of their deeply rooted enemies. If they do spare them, they are even charged with sin, just as Saul was charged because he had preserved the life of Agag king of Amalek. You should understand the wars of the just by the method I set forth above, that these wars are waged by them against sin. But how will the just ones endure if they reserve even a little bit of sin? Therefore, this is said of them: “They did not leave behind even one, who might be saved or might escape.”[2]

The battle the Christian has joined with Jesus/Joshua is against sin. Both the surface (the wars and carnage) and deep violence of the Law (sinful desire) are suspended in Christ as hermeneutic key.  In this sense,  one can agree with the refrain to “sanctify war,” as it is a war to become holy in body and spirit by destroying “all the enemies of your soul, that is “the blemishes of sins.” The battle is one in which you “mortify your members” and you “cut away all evil desires” and you are crowned as a victor by Christ Jesus – our true Joshua.

Origen’s point, as he states it plainly in Homily 12, is “that the wars that Jesus/Joshua waged ought to be understood spiritually.” He references Hebrews to make his case that the entire Mosaic system, inclusive of the tabernacle, the sacrifices and the entire worship are a “type and shadow of heavenly things,” and so too the wars that are waged through Jesus, “the slaughter of kings and enemies must also be said to be ‘a shadow and type of heavenly things.’”[3] He defends this allegorical suspension and transformation of the Law by appealing directly to Paul: “All these things, which happened figuratively to them, were written for us, for whom the end of the ages has arrived” (I Cor. 10:11).[4]

Origen expands on Paul’s argument (referencing Corinthians and Romans) to make the case that one who clings to a fleshy reading or a literal circumcision also clings to wars, the destruction of enemies, and Israelites seizing kingdoms. This literal sense mistakes Joshua the son of Nun for the son of God.[5] The one who is an outward Jew and who insists on circumcision, in Origen’s explanation of Paul’s allegory, is committed to reading the violence of Joshua literally and in the process misses what it means to be a Jew secretly and to receive the circumcision of the heart. This fleshly reader of scripture misses Jesus’ casting out and destroying those powers ruling our souls so as to fulfill his word, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

This violent non-allegorical or non-Christocentric hermeneutic of the original readers will only increase the violent work of the Law and will not achieve peace:

Then that Israel that is according to the flesh read these same Scriptures before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, they understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood, from which their spirits, too, were incited to excessive savageries and were always fed by wars and strife. But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is “our peace,” he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies—sins and vices—are expelled from it. And therefore, according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we indeed read these things, we also equip ourselves and are roused for battle, but against those enemies that “proceed from our heart”: obviously, “evil thought, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other similar adversaries of our soul. Following what this Scripture sets forth, we try, if it can be done, not to leave behind any “who may be saved or who may breathe.” For if we gain possession of these enemies, we shall fittingly also take possession of “the airy authorities” and expel them from his kingdom, as they had gathered within us upon thrones of vices.”[6]

Origen concludes that apart from this non-violent allegorical reading of scripture it is questionable that “the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ.” Christ “came to teach peace so it is only by transforming these tales of “physical wars” into figures of “spiritual wars” that these books are made worthy of being read in the churches. “For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, ‘My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you,’ and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, ‘Not avenging your own selves,’ and, ‘Rather, you receive injury,’ and, ‘You suffer offense’?”[7]

It comes down to a choice between the violent, fleshly, inheritance of the Law and Moses or the peace of Christ, and to cling to the fleshly reading, according to Origen, is disqualification from the inheritance of Christ. “If, therefore, you wish to be made worthy to pursue the inheritance from Jesus and if you wish to claim a portion from him, you must first end all wars and abide in peace, so that it may be said concerning the land of your flesh, “The land ceased from wars.”[8] Origen’s Christocentric allegorical hermeneutic has the peace of Christ as its continual aim and only the defeat of sin and violence are worthy of Christ. He suggests that the primary enemy of Jesus is the root of “bitterness” (the meaning of “Amorite”) that continues to dwell in those who continue to “strike out violently” (the meaning of Edom) and may linger on even in those who dwell in peace (the meaning of “Salamin”) but the lesson is clear:

The ones who strike violently are those who, placed in contests, endeavor to overcome devilish abodes and structures. But peaceful ones are those who produce peace for the soul after overcoming fleshly desires. Nevertheless, a hostile power, bitterness, steadfastly continues and strives to persist in both.[9]

Origen extends the reading of Paul, in what he describes as a cruciform hermeneutic applied to Joshua.

To what then do all these things lead us? Obviously to this, that the book does not so much indicate to us the deeds of the son of Nun, as it represents for us the mysteries of Jesus my Lord. For he himself is the one who assumes power after the death of Moses; he is the one who leads the army and fights against Amalek. What was foreshadowed there on the mountain by lifted hands was the time when “he attaches [them] to his cross, triumphing over the principalities and powers” (Col. 2:14-15).[10]

This allegorical reading, far from unusual, is the hermeneutic that prevailed in the apostolic period, the early Church, and it was the approach of much of Judaism in the first century. It is the approach of Hebrews, Galatians, I & 2 Corinthians, and Romans. As Hart points out, “Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways.”[11] 

The literal interpretation, with the peculiar meaning it will take on in the modern period (literalism) is a development arising only with the Reformation, prior to which the spiritual reading was normative. “From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority.”  Hart’s conclusion seems to echo Origen, “Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read ‘spiritually.’”

To read the Bible as if it encourages violence or as if God is violent is to miss Christ, the New Testament, and the predominant witness of the church. To read the Bible through the hermeneutic born in the sixteenth century is, according to Hart, “at once superstitious and deeply bizarre.” This late Protestant invention is “not Christian in any meaningful way.”


[1] Origen, The Fathers of the Church: Homilies on Joshua, vol. 105, Translated by Barbara Bruce, (Washington D. C. The Catholic University America Press) p. 29. This blog is the product of a discussion with Matt Welch who prompted me to read Origen, provided me the text, and then pointed me to the key passages which I have deployed above. Matt has also pointed me to Hart and provided me with his translation of the New Testament. Matt’s friendship and dialogue through the years have been a key demonstration to me of Christ’s peaceful hermeneutic.

[2] Origen, 94

[3] Origen, 120

[4] Quoted as the opening to Homily 13.

[5] Origen, 125

[6] Origen, 130

[7] Origen, 138

[8] Origen, 168

[9] Origen, 204

[10] Origen, 29

[11] David Bentley Hart, Good God? A Response, a post in response to Peter Leithart on his blog at https://theopolisinstitute.com/leithart_post/good-god-a-response/ All the Hart quotes are from this blog.