Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 5)

Nov 16, 2013

First post: Nonresistance: A Personal Background Previous post: Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 4)

Having finished our survey of the Old Testament, we turn our attention to the New Testament. We will finish it up in one more post, and then work on a systematic description of what we’ve learned.

The Sermon on the Mount

For most Christian pacifists or proponents of nonresistance, the Sermon on the Mount is the immediate “go-to” passage to explain their position. They herald Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5:17–48 as a “daring manifesto” in which Jesus changed the commandments of the Torah.

Dean Taylor, for example, writes “Jesus’ radical call to nonresistance, loving our enemies, and even doing good to those who mistreat us seemed diametrically to contradict the idea of God being a warrior.” 1 He couldn’t reconcile the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5 with the ethic given in the Old Testament.

But this poses a larger problem for him than he thinks. Among the things he has trouble reconciling with the God of the Old Testament are “loving our enemies” and “doing good to those who mistreat us.” But isn’t that exactly what the Old Testament teaches? Let’s look again:

Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles,
lest the Lord see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from him.
Proverbs 24:17–18

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.
Proverbs 25:21–22

It seems the concepts Dean has trouble reconciling with the God of the Old Testament are found in the Old Testament. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that Jesus was “incontestably making significant changes in lifestyle” in this area, perhaps Dean would do better to spend a little more time reconciling these teachings in the Old Testament. He would then be better equipped to answer the question of how Jesus’ teachings relate to the Old Testament.

And, having done so in the last few posts, let us ask the question ourselves: Is Jesus teaching different principles than are found in the Old Testament? Does the Old Testament look favorably upon anger, lust, or returning evil for evil? To the contrary, the Old Testament is in agreement with Jesus’ teachings. So to what was Jesus referring when He said “You have heard that it has been said”?

Let’s go back up to the beginning of the passage. The thesis, the premise Jesus expounds upon in this section, is to be found in verse 20: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In many other contexts, we learn that the teachers of Israel - the scribes and Pharisees - had taken it upon themselves to “soften” the Law, to make it apply to the visible parts of their lives while saying nothing of their hearts.

So when the Pharisees say “You shall not murder,” they left it at that - they said nothing of the heart attitudes, the anger that was the root of murder. When they say “You shall not commit adultery,” they mean only the physical act - lusting after a beautiful woman was fair game. Jesus continues down through this passage, giving examples where the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees fell short of the righteousness of the Law.

As if to seal this interpretation as the correct one, again at the head of the passage, we find Jesus’ promise: “I have not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them.” Jesus doesn’t change the Law or the Prophets; He reaffirms them.

Peter’s Sword

Gethsemane may be the second most popular prooftext for nonresistance. When the soldiers arrived to take Jesus away, Peter drew his sword (which Jesus had directed him to purchase) and struck out to defend his master. Jesus rebuked him and told him to put his sword away, so that the prophecies of His life and death would be fulfilled.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus also gives another reason for His command: “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Dean Taylor quotes from Tertullian: “The Lord… in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” They take Jesus’ command as a general principle, forbidding Christians everywhere to take up the sword. But it’s far from clear that this is what Jesus intended.

First, as has already been observed, Jesus’ main reason - the one given in the other gospels - is that He chose to submit to His captors willingly, and was telling Peter so. He had the ability to summon legions of angels in His defense, but opted not to.

Second, this reason isn’t given as a moral imperative; it doesn’t forbid violence per se. It merely says that those who wield the sword will (generally) die by the sword. Their occupation is by definition more hazardous than, say, farming. Rather than a moral imperative, this could be Jesus showing his care for Peter’s well-being.

Given the lack of supporting passages elsewhere, it hardly seems plausible to construe a general prohibition on soldiery from this one verse.

These are the two primary passages that come up in the discussion of nonresistance. For the sake of space, we’ll pause here and finish up with the rest of the New Testament passages in the next post. Stay tuned!

Next post: Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 6)

  1. Dean Taylor, “A Change of Allegiance”. Radical Reformation Books (2008)