Jesus and Pacifism: A Correspondence (Pt. III)

This is the final part of a three part series. Parts I and II can be found here and here.

This piece was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Ad Fontes.



One more on natural law, and then to the next topic:

With respect to the natural law and pacifism, you’ve linked together two concepts that I think perhaps need not be linked, or at least not in the manner you do: the natural law and retributive justice. It’s certainly common among many pacifists to extend the pacifist critique to a critique of punishment as such, i.e. against capital punishment, incarceration, etc.—and while I have some sympathies with that family of commitments, I think it’s a mistake to link those two together. Pacifism is not first and foremost about a rejection of punishment, or an anarchic impulse against law as such, but as I’ve been suggesting, a reordering of life in a way such that war is not an activity in which Christians participate.

Here’s what I mean by this: in the 16th century Anabaptist writings, you find them holding together both the need for discipline and correction, and the refusal of killing for the same reason. To be a member of the body of Christ is to be a part of a baptized community which is not concerned first and foremost with public services, but with how those might cohere to one’s commitments as a Christian. They exercised the ban and communal discipline, and pacifism too, accordingly, without a contradiction. Modern pacifists most frequently locate the heart of pacifism as not commitment to Christ in baptism, but in opposition to violence, which means then that they balk at the parts about the ban and discipline, seeing those as violent. Accordingly, one can certainly be a pacifist and a fan of public order, without thinking than killing needs to be a part of promoting that order. What this means practically is a different part of the conversation which I’m sure we’ll get to, but to be clear: punishment and pacifism are only incompatible if you think that the heart of Christian pacifism is “not violence” instead of baptism.

By beginning with baptism, we begin to see that commitment to Christ means things with respect to family structure (“putting one’s hand to the plow and not looking back”, Jesus’ distinguishing between his family of origin and his disciples, etc.), and finances (“giving to them that ask”, “not thinking of tomorrow”, etc.) in ways which do not comport to natural impulses. I don’t know any way around that: Jesus himself was criticized for economic imprudence and family disregard. This is not to say that Jesus doesn’t take care of his mother from the cross, but he does so not by reifying the family structure (giving her to one of Mary’s other children), but to his disciple—again, that Christ reorganizes our understanding of natural goods, without destroying the good as such. With respect to conflict, the same holds: he addresses conflict as a given, but apart from recourse to killing.

With respect to the sources of pacifism, my worry with the Yoder/Hays/Hauerwas triumvirate as the representative edge of Christian pacifism is that it does some things well (reorienting our attention to our identity as people of baptism), but doesn’t attend well to other things, such as the role of violence in civil society. Hauerwas et al have largely been agnostic on this point, though Yoder in his later writings tries to show that pragmatically pacifism can provide a better basis for civil society than structures rooted in violence—but he’s only somewhat convincing on some of those attempts, in my opinion.

The plurality of Christian thought on pacifism is important here, and Yoder is only somewhat helpful on this score—his Nevertheless (1971) is an amalgam of too many humanist options and not nearly thick enough on contemporary voices, even in his own day. Case in point: he’s endlessly talking about Tolstoi, but does little with the Civil Rights movements or with Catholic options, as he sees them as “Constantinian”, as attempts to steer the ship of society rather than being faithful to Christ fundamentally.

The one thinker (whom Yoder largely ignores, apart from one chapter in Nonviolence: A Brief History) who seems to speak most to the concerns you’ve articulated is Dorothy Day, who in her writings directs us to the ways in which the person of Christ is the fundamental human, such that the full vocation of what it is to be human can only be fulfilled supernaturally in Christ. For her, this pertained not only with respect to the spiritual telos of humanity, but to everyday human participation in the world as well: Christ is the capstone and transfigurer of what we mean by “natural”. This is what drove her to be involved in agrarian movements, cooperative housing ventures, common purse, sharing of resources, and pacifism. In Day’s approach to the supernatural completing and transfiguring the natural, I think we find an approach to pacifism which satisfies some of your concerns about abandoning the natural law. Day was not unrealistic about conflict or the degradation which sin brings to the world, which is why she added to her vision of Christian practice notions of patience and suffering as necessary parts of our obedience, something Yoder rarely if ever writes about.




As far as I understand it, the rationale you describe for pacifism as different from the anti-punishment and Yoderian one, would definitely fall under my divine positive law category. In this case, “based on baptism” seems to mean based on commitment to Jesus and his specially revealed commands, and thus it seems that it’s his teachings that are the foundation of the practice; moreover, since you’re contrasting this with an anti-punishment logic, this view takes his commandments to be something beyond what human nature/natural law itself would require of us. That is, it’s not clear how punishment could be permitted but not capital punishment if we were just going by what we could perceive in human nature; but if the latter kind of punishment is prohibited based directly on a verbal command (and practical example of) Jesus, then it’s intelligible.

On the teachings of Jesus, a few thoughts. Regarding family structure, it seems to me his saying about putting “the hand to plow and not looking back” is not that radical in one way. Nature teaches us to seek to do God’s will above all else, even family obligations; Jesus gives us more specific content about God’s will, but that that could come to us is itself compatible with natural law. Further, his specific content does not require someone to disregard their family unless the family is requiring the disciple to sin, and in that case natural law would itself tell the individual to disregard the family anyway. He does distinguish between family of origin and disciples, but to what end? Not, I think, to override what we know about family obligations from nature. When you say Jesus is criticized for family disregard, I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to. But I’d ask: does nature itself support this judgment, or just the morally defective cultural customs of his time? And when he looks out for his mother, it’s not clear to me he’s really changing anything nature teaches about the family. Fictive kinship, most widely known in the practice of adoption, was already a reality before Jesus, and so was the wider community taking care of the needy. Further, Mary’s children already had obligations to her, so they can’t take over for Jesus’ obligations in the way that a non-family member could. Thus in a way one could see this as more fitting.

Regarding finances, especially from Jesus’ sermonic teaching, I do think we need to be care of the element of hyperbole here. I realize that people have used this point to skirt what Jesus meant, but for all the abuse it’s still undeniable that he does use literary figures in his teachings. And when it comes to “give to those who ask”, it seems unlikely he meant people to be ridiculous about it, especially since he thinks people have obligations to others. E.g., if you are supporting a fellow Christian, and then another Christian comes up and asks for all of your money, it would be harmful to the first person to just “give to them that asks” without any qualification whatsoever. It also does not seem that the early church took Jesus absolutely literally in this case, since people went on living fairly normal lives when it came to working daily jobs, having property, raising families, etc., even including the case of the Jerusalem church which did pool resources by giving them to the apostles to oversee. With regard to not thinking of tomorrow: it seems to me as in the previous case. Even the later epistles require people to take care of their families, which requires some foresight and planning, and when James discourages presumption on the part of his letter’s readers, he doesn’t directly condemn planning, just presumption. In Jesus’ case, it seems more like the point is against worry, not planning per se. Prudence is not regarded as immoral. And so when you say Jesus was criticized for economic imprudence, I’d ask what example you’re thinking of. Judas did this (indirectly, anyway), but Jesus gives a justification for his practice there based on his circumstance, and natural law requires people to do what is right given their specific circumstances. Further, special revelation can provide further knowledge about circumstances that nature alone might not, and yet the obligation in that circumstance can still follow from principles known by nature (such as the higher claim God and his will has on all property).

It’s interesting to have Dorothy Day as a case study; I’ll try to dig into her thought when I have a chance. Assuming you’re presenting something close to her views when you present your own, however, I think I would say to her largely what I have already said in response to your comments about the epistemic revisions of natural law that come in Jesus.

One further point. Though so far I’ve been arguing for the continuity of Jesus with the natural law, in many cases I could provide a just-war compatible argument based on the continuity of Jesus with the Old Testament. In many ways it would be easier, I think, especially with cases like those you gave above regarding family and finance. The Old Testament taught Israel to treat allegiance to God as higher than family (consider the laws about punishment for idolatry among family members), and to trust him for daily provisions (see the manna episode, Psalms, Proverbs, the promises of the law following obedience to God’s will/kingdom, etc.). But the OT was not pacifist for all that. If the only cases of Jesus apparently going “beyond” natural law are with him saying things the OT already said, and the OT is not pacifist, then there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that baptism entails pacifism. One could point to discontinuities between the OT and the NT, but one would then have to argue that these are what logically entail pacifism, and I’ve yet to see that persuasively done.




The ongoing challenge of interpreting the Scriptures on the question of violence is unlikely to be one which is resolved any time soon, as indicated by this exchange, for any number of reasons. In our particular exchange, the question of continuity and discontinuity in the Scriptures has come to the forefront, and so in conclusion, let me offer a brief case for (modified) discontinuity.

It seems without question that the hermeneutic of the New Testament authors is not necessarily of a unified voice with the Old Testament ones, though I do not take this to mean there is a simple irreducible “plurality” of voices in Scripture; rather, I take it to mean that there are subaltern threads of the Old Testament which are recognized fully in the New Testament. For example, in the Gospels, particular texts are lifted up as fulfillment of Messianic prophecy which, on their faces, do not appear to us as part of prophetic literature; this is not to say that these texts were not prophetic, as any words of Scripture, inspired by God, certainly have multivalent referents which may very well elude us. Accordingly, if Jesus lifts up elements of the Old Testament for his followers which are not the main teaching of the Old Testament with respect to the use of violence, it should not surprise us: there are many previously inconceivable things which emerge in the New Testament which are highlighted as in fact the very work of God: the inclusion of the Gentiles, the crucifixion of the Messiah, and the raising of Jesus from the dead. All of these things the New Testament defends on Old Testament grounds, using unlikely texts, rereading their Scriptures in light of Christ.

Such is the case with the Sermon on the Mount. In Jesus’ words, particularly on violence, we find Jesus appealing to an eschatological hope which has been made visible and present among them, a hope which Jesus then proceeds to enact. The earliest readers of Scripture—from France to North Africa to Egypt to Turkey—recognized this as a new norm of moral behavior which required them to reread the Old Testament, making sense of what appeared to be discontinuity. In doing so, they were not proof-texting, but following the very pattern of the apostles; when Origen, for example, argues that the wars of harem in Joshua are to be read profitably for the spirit, but not for the body, he is following Paul’s example in Galatians where the apostle rereads Abraham’s lineage as a teaching about the flesh and the Spirit. For Origen, and for nearly every exegete of the earliest church, there is no contradiction between saying that the Old and New Testaments speak of one God and of one divine economy, and saying that making sense of discontinuity means re-reading these things in light of Christ. This brings us back to the question of the natural law—for the ancients here, natural law was hermeneutically subject to Christ. To understand what was “natural” to us meant not only paying attention to the contours of creation, the dictates of reason, and the virtuous life, but preeminently, filtering these assumptions about our natures through the person of Jesus. If what we find in Christ is the image of God restored, the union of God with creation renewed, then what we find in Christ is what is most natural—most “fitting”—for us as creatures. This is, in the end, an appeal to faith, but not fideism: rather, it is an appeal to reason perfected by faith, the natural transfigured by the supernatural.

My thanks to Andrew, and to Ad Fontes for this great opportunity to think through some of these vitally important theological matters, particularly as they pertain to how we follow Christ as flesh and blood creatures.




I think it is right to focus on the issue(s) of continuity as crucial to this discussion. For my part, it seems to me the New Testament authors are concerned with completely upholding the authority and truth of the entirety of the Old Testament prophets. If one wonders where this sentiment originates, I think we need look no further than the Lord himself. On the road to Emmaus he exclaims “How foolish and slow you are to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” He did not castigate them for failing to see something that only became visible in light of his resurrection; he rebuked them for failing to see that his resurrection was in the text all along. And in the Sermon on the Mount, as I argued in the book, he makes sure to head off any misconceptions of his teaching as contradicting the Law of Moses (and thereby rendering him a false prophet): “Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” And then he tells us why these things are so: “For truly I tell you… not the smallest letter or stroke will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.” For Jesus, upholding the veracity and authority of every part of the OT was a non-negotiable foundation of his teaching, and those who might think that he was contradicting even a part of the scriptures were in significant error. This attitude toward the OT continues in Jesus’ disciples who wrote the NT, including the extended argument of Paul in Romans and Galatians, and the brief argument of James in Acts for the inclusion of the Gentiles, along with the numerous appeals to the OT to show why the Messiah had to die and rise again throughout NT literature. The conviction also appears in the willingness of the apostles to debate with the Jews in the fora of their day: they did not think that their interpretation of the OT was ultimately a function of an external principle that required a creative use of the scriptures. Rather, they thought they were arguing for what the prophets had always promised.

Similarly, insofar as they discussed natural law, as Paul does in Romans 1-2, the NT authors take it for granted that nature teaches people the will of God, and that the human race finds itself in the predicament of having disobeyed God’s known will. Further, the constant pattern of redemption, from healings to exorcisms to provision of goods to restoration of community, is one that restores the manifest goodness of things to the way God obviously meant them to be. It is a pattern where grace perfects nature, and does not destroy it. Even after the reception of grace, we can see how it is fitting to us given our manifest nature; it is for this reason that on occasion Paul can even appeal to what nature teaches as a way of giving Christians instruction on how to be Christians. The overall approach of the writers of the NT to the OT is not one of Jesus trumping the evident meaning of the OT; it’s a patient elucidation of how the OT really always pointed to Jesus. And similarly, the apostles assume that the will of God apparent both in nature and in scripture is harmonious if viewed humbly and honestly, rather than through the distorted lenses of sin.

There is of course discontinuity between the requirements of the Mosaic law and the order of the New Covenant (and I mentioned them and the reason for the shift in my book); but it seems to me not surprising that the Fathers had great trouble with theological revisionists like Marcion and the Gnostics. The trouble in part came from their sometimes cavalier attitude towards the grammatico-historical meaning and authority of the Old Testament (Origen being an example I note in the book). Once it could be allowed that the literal meaning of the OT, along with its moral teaching, was not binding for Christians, it is not surprising that Jesus’ teaching was misconstrued, abstracted from its native context. It is also not surprising that this misconstrued teaching then became a foundation for further error.

Nevertheless, I am grateful for the Fathers not because they were always right, but because they obviously loved God and were serious about obeying him and defending his teaching; moreover, they were sometimes the most noble exemplars for other Christians in their day. And I have fundamentally the same feeling about many from the Anabaptist tradition today. For this reason I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this perennial and important issue with you, Myles; and I thank Ad Fontes for giving us the space to do so.


Myles Werntz is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of Baptist Studies at Abilene Chrstian University, TX. He is the author of Bodies of Peace: Nonviolence, Ecclesiology, and Witness (Fortress, 2014) and co-author of A Field Guide to Christian Non-Violence (Baker Academic, 2022).

Andrew Fulford is a Ph.D candidate at McGill University, where he is researching the relationship of Richard Hooker’s thought to narratives of the emergence of secularity in the early modern period. He is the author of Jesus and Pacifism: An Exegetical and Historical Investigation (Davenant, 2016), and essays on John Calvin and Richard Hooker.


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