Jesus and Pacifism: A Correspondence (Pt. I)

Following the publication of Andrew Fulford’s Jesus and Pacifism: An Exegetical and Historical Examination (Davenant Press, 2016), Dr. Myles Werntz contacted Fulford with the proposal that the two of them undertake a correspondence on the subject. A theologian in the evangelical pacifist tradition, he had hoped for a critical and yet irenic engagement on relevant topics, and on the book, with a focus on identifying points of common ground.

This correspondence was first published in the August 2017 issue of Ad Fontes. Parts II and III can be found here and here.



Before we begin, I have to offer a word of appreciation for your book (and to Ad Fontes for the chance to have such an interesting kind of conversation!) While I don’t share all of its conclusions, it raises a number of important points concerning Christian reflection about war that I think are important to get out front. Most often when the “pacifism versus just war” conversation occurs, it’s forgotten that these positions share more than they don’t: the Scriptures, the presumption that God is at work in the world, respect for the role of prudential reason, commitment to care for the suffering, etc. To be honest, when the possibility of doing this came up, I was a bit reticent, as I’ve been on a number of panels as of late where the trope of divergence was assumed rather than critically engaged.

Rather than focus on your book, I’d like to start off by asking about one of the key premises of your presentation of just war: that just war coheres with the natural law, and that Scripture shares the assumptions of that natural law. As such, any teaching of Scripture which could be read as pointing toward pacifism must be refused on this basis: the natural law requires certain tenets of self-defense, the validity of punishment, and care for the suffering which do not comport with a pacifist reading of Scripture.

This is a portion of the conversation which, to be honest, pacifism has not often known what to do with. Certain modifications within pacifism in the 20th century, such as Glen Stassen’s “just peacemaking” movement, attempted to offer a realist take on the theme—that pacifism must attend to the need for public order, punishment of wrongdoing, and defense of the innocent. Stassen’s own work tends to rely too little upon theological assumptions and too heavily upon social scientific ones for my taste, but I think his instincts were correct: our theologizing about war must attend to concrete situations, or more properly, to the creaturely conditions of creation.

But allow me to put the question to you directly: what if the presumption that Scripture must comport to natural law assertions such as those of Cicero and Grotius (to name two figures from your book) is simply wrong? One of the key tenets of Christianity from the beginning is that, while Christ certainly is one of us—fully human and fully creaturely—what is restored to the world in Christ is a different kind of “natural” than we had assumed. Put differently, what we take to be the “supernatural” is in some real sense what is properly “natural” to us as creatures. Put differently, when Christ enjoins us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and the like, these are not teachings which must fit into our framework of what counts as natural; rather, Christ is restoring what is truly natural to us as creatures. As Christians have put it for centuries, sin is not properly “natural” to us, but the most unnatural thing there is: a corrupted twist on ourselves as originally intended by God. From one vantage point, then, the unbreakable assumption of natural law regarding self-defense, or in some variations of it, the inviolability of national sovereignty, are making virtues out of deficiencies. If, in Christ, we see what is truly natural to us as creatures, then the teachings of Christ which would point in the direction of pacifism are not teachings to be modified within a natural law framework; rather, they are the framework which calls into question what we assume on the basis of reason alone to be natural.





Thanks for your message, and the spirit in which it was given. I agree that pacifist and non-pacifist Christians have a great deal in common, and in the spirit of irenicism, I believe the differences are resolvable given our shared starting points. In fact, my book tried to focus as much as it could on common ground, rather than beg the question against the pacifist position (as, for example, arguments from consequences often do).

For the sake of getting the dialectic as far along as possible, I’ll just get right to it. Though I could go in different directions, I’ll stick to the main point you make as the place to start the conversation. Your main argument is to problematize not the existence of natural law, but rather our knowledge of it apart from the revelation of Christ. As a pacifist, you also regard this revelation as pointing to pacifism. Correlatively, you conclude that self-defense and the inviolability of national sovereignty are examples of sinful deficiency, and not natural order.

My first response would be to raise a question about one of your premises: that what Christ reveals and teaches is at odds with what we already know about natural law. It doesn’t seem to me that he does. What evidence would you suggest for that premise? Without a doubt there are many New Testament texts that suggest that Jesus is a unique and central mode of divine revelation (e.g., Heb 1:1-3). But this does not entail that nothing is known of natural law prior to his coming. Second, I would suggest there is some evidence against your thesis in Scripture, and even in Jesus’ own teaching. Paul in Romans 1:21 and 1:32 teaches that the Gentiles, without the revelation given to Israel or in Christ, know a number of things about God’s intentions for the human race, about natural law. Jesus, further, in many of his teachings seems to repeat the content of what Paul says the Gentiles already know: e.g., the Greatest and Second Greatest Commandments (Matt 22:37-40) do not seem to require anything different than does the created order according to Rom 1:21 and 32. I’d argue that all of Jesus’ moral teachings are actually just implications of these two commands, but maybe you would say otherwise. Nevertheless, it seems indisputable that Jesus assumes that people know at least some directives of natural law prior to receiving his revelation.

Looking forward to your reply,




With respect to the content of the natural law, and what of it humans know independently of divine revelation, I agree that there’s some universal (though I’m hesitant to make too much of that term) knowledge of Creator by creature, at least in a negative sense. For example, in your citations from Romans, the examples Paul uses are in the negative: what is to be avoided, what is to not be done (idolatry, murder, hating one’s parents, etc.). Unless we’re going to say that the knowledge of God is attained solely through conscience and reason (apart from revelation), the natural law indicates that which is to be avoided, and some clarity about what is to be done.

I don’t want to get too far afield in the discussion of natural law, so let me turn it back toward our conversation in this way: what is approved of by natural law are precepts built largely upon what is to be avoided, not infallible knowledge of what is to be done. This is why Jesus’ teaching in Matthew in particular is so extraordinary: even in the face of what seems to be very clear teaching (the Law of Moses and the received rabbinical tradition), Jesus provides his followers with very different instruction, which at times amplifies and at other times sets aside even that Law which seems to be crystal clear! I take it that this is in fact one of the main arguments of Matthew – that as crazy as the teachings of Jesus are, he is the one who is superior to Moses and who is to be followed as such. Whether in refuting Satan by the Law, or going into the wilderness, or going up on the mountain to teach, or in Moses confirming Jesus’ ministry in the transfiguration, the whole of Matthew does not seem to be pointed toward seeing Jesus as a fine-tuning of certain legislative commendations of violence, but restricting them further than Moses had done.

Put differently, in light of Jesus we cannot go behind Jesus but only forward from Jesus, the Law having been our teacher and keeper but not our present guide on this point.


Continue to Part II.

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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