Jesus and Pacifism: A Correspondence (Pt. II)

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



It seems to me that any negative moral knowledge we have, regardless of source, ipso facto implies positive knowledge. If we know, e.g., that it’s not good to be faithless, we know just by reflecting upon the meaning of those terms that it’s good to be faithful. I assume that this is what you’re getting at by the “some clarity” about positive obligations. Paul, anyway, suggests the Gentiles perceive some (positive) truths about God that have moral consequences, and are guilty because they contradict those moral consequences in their thought and behaviour. The issue of infallibility in means of knowledge is interesting, but I’m not sure it makes much of a difference here. That is, unless you’re implying that the infallibility of knowledge received through Jesus should overcome the fallible knowledge the Gentiles receive apart from special revelation (indeed, through conscience and reason, though we also receive special revelation through the operations of our minds). But that isn’t relevant when we already acknowledge that the Gentiles have real knowledge, regardless of the fallibility of the source of knowledge, since truth can’t contradict truth, and God won’t deny in his special revelation what he has revealed through the created order.

But, returning to the content of Jesus’ teaching, I think the dilemma that has been set up here is a false one, because I don’t see a convincing reason to think that Jesus gives commands that contradict the content of the natural law. Nor do I think that he gave commands that would contradict those of Moses that repeat the content of natural law. I tried to discuss the apparent counter-evidence to this claim in the book, including evidence from the Gospel of Matthew. But to sum it up, I think Jesus’ statement that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets entails the truth of my perspective. The Mosaic covenant has been brought to its climax, but the the Torah in its descriptive force, including its record of what God did in fact command Israel through Moses, is as authoritative as ever. And insofar as the Law meant to protect the original created order, its commands still reflect the natural law, and are valid summaries of it. It’s for this reason that Jesus said “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”




I think it’s more accurate, in the case of Jesus’ teachings, to say that Christ perfects the natural law, to crib from Aquinas. This seems to be the force of Matthew, but not in the way that Aquinas argues. For in “perfecting” the natural law, Jesus teaches in a way which at times counters our sensibilities about what is “natural” to us. To be sure, Jesus does not come to destroy the Law, but to complete it—but we find that to complete the Law does not mean to maintain it! If the Law was meant to be a fence, a teacher, a guide, then to be sure it does not countermand the ordering of creation, but it also does not speak to the fullness of what it means to live well as God’s creature within creation either. This is what I meant in my opening statement with respect to Christ restoring to us our “natural” sensibilities, in ways which I think are obscured by recourse to certainty about natural law as our baseline: if Christ names what is truly natural, then some of our ways of thinking about natural requirements surely do not square with Christ’s teachings. There are any number of examples that we could name here (family obligations, financial prudence, Sabbatical practice), but at stake in our discussion particularly is the question of violence by followers of Christ.

To turn our discussion in a different direction: in your book, you specifically name John Howard Yoder and Richard Hays as pacifist exemplars. In Nigel Biggars’ In Defense of War, his opening chapter “Against Pacifism” takes the triumvirate of Yoder/Hays/Hauerwas as the stand-in for all Christian pacifist practice (I have criticized him on this very point in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics in 2015). Do you take them to be exemplary of what you mean by Christian pacifism, and if so, what specifically do you find wanting in their arguments? The “neo-Anabaptist” trajectory is to be sure the most prominent stream of Christian pacifism, but not the only one which offers a cogent theological account.




Regarding the relation of Jesus’ teaching to natural law: this seems to me to bring us full circle back to my first reply. You (I believe, rightly) want to preserve the existence of natural law independent and prior to Jesus, but also contend that in effect, our knowledge of it is so unreliable that we have to know what Jesus teaches before we can rightly know much of its content. My original reply moves in the opposite direction: the NT teaches not only that there is a natural law, but that even unbelievers know it, at least in basic principles and general outline, though undoubtedly not perfectly in every application, prior to the revelation of Jesus. So there can be a baseline of naturally revealed ethical principles prior to someone coming to faith. Now, it’s possible that people can misunderstand the implications of nature, but then it’s also possible that they can misunderstand what Jesus meant (as our conversation itself shows, as one of us is by necessity incorrect about Jesus’ teaching in relation to pacifism). It further seems to me that in, e.g., Romans 1:32 Paul assumes people know they are worthy of punishment for their sins, so special revelation confirms not only the knowledge of natural law in general, but natural knowledge of the the moral licitness of retributive justice in particular.

That being said, dialectically we are unlikely to advance as interlocutors, or as representatives of longstanding traditions, without engaging with the other pole of the disagreement: i.e., the teachings of Jesus which are purported to correct our natural “sensibilities”. Of the three you allude to (familial obligations, financial prudence, and Sabbatical practice), I see nothing in what Jesus said that contradicts what could be discovered about morality from rational reflection upon human nature and the structure of the cosmos. Perhaps you could elaborate on why you think otherwise.

Regarding what represents pacifism: I do take that triumvirate as the strongest representatives of the most prominent stream, but I tried to be careful not to take the Yoderian position as the only possible one. This was the main reason I tried to talk about various possible rationales (I gave seven in the book), rather than specific thinkers, and this approach was motivated by Yoder’s own careful delineation of the various kinds of pacifisms that have appeared in history. Though my knowledge is less direct about what we could call “classic” peace Anabaptism, it seems to me that at least some of that tradition relies more heavily on what I would call a divine positive law rationale for non-violence. That is, it’s a tradition that (at least in some proponents?) accepts violence as morally legitimate, but believes that God has given an additional law to believers that says they may not participate in what is an intrinsically morally legitimate type of action. In other words, I tried to consider as many different kinds of reasons as could be given, though still in general types (as opposed to, say, engaging with every possible theological argument for pacifism). But perhaps I’m still missing a significant option, in which case I would certainly appreciate correction.


Continue to Part III

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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