Evangelical is an adjective which, by its literal definition, should apply to all Christians. Five hundred years ago, however, it became a popular way of identifying distinguishing one group of Christians, those who upheld the doctrines of the final authority of the Scriptures and justification by faith alone, from others. It became, in other words, a synonym for Protestant. Since that time, especially in the English-speaking world and particularly in North America, it has come to be used to distinguish a certain kind of Protestant from others. This is partially because some Protestants now deny the doctrines of justification by faith alone and the final authority of Scriptures but it is also because in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the meaning of the word evangelical changed. In these centuries an evangelical came to be distinguished from other Christians more by a particular experience – a conversion in which he has made a decision for Jesus – than by particular doctrines. Today, there are those who call themselves evangelicals on the basis of their conversion experiences who do not hold to the doctrines of Reformation evangelicalism.
What Does Evangelical Mean?
The word evangelical has two parts One of those parts is the suffix –ical. This suffix converts other parts of speech into adjectives, words which ascribe qualities to nouns, pronouns, and other substantives. An adjective formed with the suffix –ical, ascribes the qualities of the word to which the suffix is added, to the noun which it modifies. Evangelical, therefore, ascribes the qualities contained in the word “evangel” to the nouns it modifies.
Evangel is not a word we use in English, except as part of compound words like evangelical. It is the Latinized form of the Greek word euangelion. In euangelion, the prefix eu-, which means “good” is added to the word angelion, which means “news” or “message”, to get the simple meaning “good news”. It can refer to good news of any sort but it also has a more specific meaning, because it is the name given to the message of Christianity. When it is used in this sense, it is usually rendered in English as “gospel”. It is the Christian message, the gospel, that the evangel in words like evangelical and evangelist, refers to.
What is the Christian gospel?
Jesus of Nazareth, after being baptized by John the Baptist, went out into the wilderness to fast, pray, and be tempted for forty days, and when He returned began a ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. He called the message He preached “the gospel of the Kingdom.” The message was that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Later, after Jesus died, rose again, and ascended to Heaven, His Apostles also called the message they preached “the gospel”. St. Paul, in the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthian church identified the Apostolic gospel as the message that “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.”
While Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom and the Apostolic gospel of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection have different content, both messages are ultimately about the same thing – Jesus and the mission He came into this world to accomplish. That is why the first four books of the Christian Scriptures, each of which is an account of Jesus, His ministry, His teachings, and His death and resurrection, are also called gospels.
Jesus preached the gospel that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” to God’s covenant people, Israel. The way He formulated His gospel it would not have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. They were the ones to whom the promise of the Kingdom of God had been given. They were God’s people. God had made promises to their patriarchs, delivered them from slavery in Egypt, made a covenant with them, and then brought them into the land of Canaan which He had promised them. In that land and under that covenant, they entered into a cyclical pattern of rebellion and idolatry, followed by judgement, repentance, restoration, and then a falling away again from which they were not able to break free. Eventually, God’s prophets warned them of a judgement in which they would be removed from the land God have given them. These warnings were tempered with promises that God would restore them and that He would break the cycle Himself. He would send them a Saviour-King, from the line of David, Who would establish the Kingdom of God and rule in justice and mercy forever. When this happened God would make a new covenant in which He would write His laws on the hearts of His people rather than upon tablets of stone. When Jesus preached “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” He was telling God’s people that these promise were about to be fulfilled. That is why it was “good news”.
The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand because He Jesus, was Himself the promised Saviour-King, the Messiah, the Christ. At one point in Jesus’ ministry, He asked His disciples first Who men said that He was, and then Who they said that He was. In response St. Peter, speaking for the Apostles, said that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Jesus confirmed this and then began to tell His disciples that He was about to go to Jerusalem, where He would be put to death and would rise again on the third day. By telling them this after their confession of faith that He was the Christ, He linked His death and resurrection with His being the Christ. They had recognized Him as the Messiah, now He was explaining to them what it meant for Him to be the Messiah. The Christ was come to deliver God’s people from more than just the political oppression that was the consequence of their rebellion. He was come to deliver them from the sin which brought about the judgement in the first place. His death would be the sacrifice that would take away the sin of the world once and for all, reconciling man to God, bringing forgiveness, righteousness, and everlasting life.
Once these events had taken place, the Apostles had encountered the Risen Christ and witnessed His Ascension into Heaven, and the Holy Ghost had come upon them at Pentecost, they began to proclaim the “good news” of His death and resurrection, bringing remission of sins and everlasting life to those who believe. At first they preached this message to Jews in Jerusalem and the surrounding region. Then they took the message to the Gentiles as well. While “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” was good news to the Jews, the message that God had given His Son to be the Saviour of the world, through His death for our sins, and that He had raised Him from the dead to be a Living Saviour to all who put their trust in Him, was good news for everybody, and “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek”. (Rom 1:16).
If the evangel is the Christian gospel, the message that God has given the world a Saviour, His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, Who took away our sins by dying for us on the cross, and Who was raised from the dead to life eternal which we are invited to share through faith in Him, then evangelical should simply be a synonym for Christian.
Evangelical is not used as a synonym for Christian, however, but as a way of distinguishing one kind of Christian from another. This began five centuries ago at the time of the Reformation. There were many factors that contributed to the Reformation, including the rise of the nation-state in the late-medieval/Renaissance period which created a demand for national churches and the cultural divide between countries with more Germanic languages and cultures and those with more Latin languages and cultures, the former tending to become Protestant and the latter tending to remain Roman Catholic. Ultimately, however, the Reformation was a response to theological and ecclesiastical corruption in the late medieval church.
By this time the clarity of the gospel message had become obscured. The fathers of the Church had correctly understood the nature of the Church. It was not just a collection of individual believers, but an organic community, with a corporate identity, whose members were joined to one another to make a whole in a way similar to how the organs in a body work together to make a whole. It was even more than this, however, because it was, as St. Paul had written, the body of Christ Himself and thus the continuation of His Incarnation on earth. The Church fathers built their ecclesiology and indeed their entire theology around the doctrine of the Incarnation, which doctrine was under heavy attack from the false teachers known as the Gnostics in the early centuries of the Church. There was nothing wrong with any of this but by the sixteenth century, although the Church continued to teach that Jesus Christ had obtained salvation for fallen, sinful, man through His death on the cross and resurrection, Scriptural teaching on how that salvation comes to us personally had come to be neglected through the emphasis on the corporate, organic, Church. In that neglect, some rather horrible theology regarding personal salvation had developed.
In this late medieval theology, the sacraments of the Church were treated as steps on the road to salvation. The promise of heaven at the end kept people on the road, as did the threat of hell if they abandoned it. This theology offered a false hope to those who thought that by being members of the church and doing all the right things they would eventually make it to heaven and denied to others, under deep conviction of their sin and need for God’s forgiveness, the assurance of the latter available in the gospel to all who believe. To make matters worse, it told people that while they would go to heaven if they were baptized church members, who confessed all their sins and did the proper penance, regularly partook of the Eucharist and underwent the last rites, they would have to spend a period of time in purgatory first. There were ways of shortening this period, for oneself and for one’s deceased love ones, according to this theology, all of which were available in exchange for giving money to the Church.
On All Hallows’ Eve in the year 1517, an Augustinian monk, Dr. Martin Luther, nailed a document consisting of ninety-five theses, objecting to the sale of indulgences, on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, at the university of which Dr. Luther was a professor. Luther had become a monk, after being nearly struck by lightning in a storm. Under deep conviction of sin, he was unable to find peace through confession and penance. At the University of Wittenberg, however, where he was required to study and teach the Bible, he found assurance of his salvation when he realized that the Bible, especially the epistles of St. Paul, clearly taught that God justifies people, i.e., declares them to be righteous, not because they deserve it or have earned it with their works, but as an act of undeserved kindness, made possible through the gift of God’s Son to be our Saviour through His atoning death and resurrection, and that this justification is available through faith in Jesus Christ. Luther called this the doctrine of justification by faith alone, not meaning by the word alone – or sola - that faith justifies a man upon its own merits, apart from the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, but rather what St. Paul meant when he wrote “without works.”
Luther’s attacks upon the sale of indulgences – which Pope Leo X was using to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica – brought him into conflict with Church authorities. He defended his position with the teachings of the Scriptures and insisted that his opponents do the same, refusing to recant his teachings unless they could show him from the Bible where he was wrong. That the Bible, God’s own written Word, was the final and supreme authority over the teachings, traditions, and councils of the Church, became, alongside justification by faith alone, the doctrinal foundation of Luther’s theology and of the Reformation. Luther did not want to found a new sect but to reform the existing Church. In 1521, however, he was excommunicated by a papal bull and summoned before a diet of the Holy Roman Empire assembled at Worms. There he was asked to recant which he refused to do. The division between Lutheran and his followers and the papacy became permanent and grew into the largest division in Church history since the Great Schism which divided the Greek and the Latin Churches.
Luther and his followers were called Lutherans by the Roman Catholic Church, to Luther’s own displeasure. The term Lutheran came to apply to a more specific kind of theology after disagreements arose between Luther and the other Reformers and the term “Protestant” came to be applied to all the Reformation churches in general. The term Luther and the other Reformers preferred for their movement, however, was evangelical. This was the first use of the term evangelical to distinguish one kind of Christian from another. Used this way, as it still is in parts of continental Europe, evangelical is synonymous with Protestant.
The central tenets of evangelicalism, then, when it first emerged as a movement within Christianity, were the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures and justification by faith alone. Since the Reformation, especially in the last two centuries, many within Protestant churches have moved away from these two doctrines – although not necessarily back towards the late medieval theology the Reformers objected to. This is one reason why the term evangelical is now used to distinguish certain Protestants from others. The supreme authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone remain the central doctrinal tenets of evangelicalism. In the last half of the Twentieth Century, however, some who still call themselves evangelicals have compromised one or both of these doctrines. The reason they have been able to claim the label evangelical while compromising these Reformation doctrines is the other reason why the term evangelical now refers to some Protestants and not others. In eighteenth century England and even more so nineteenth century America, evangelicalism became a movement within Protestantism, a movement that still held to the final authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone but which now had a new emphasis on a certain kind of experience that distinguished it from other Protestants.
The Strength of Reformation Evangelicalism
Reformation evangelicalism’s biggest strength was its clear understanding of the New Testament’s teaching regarding personal salvation. In the Gospel of John everlasting life is repeatedly promised to those who believe in Jesus. The way these promises are worded, the interpretation “yes, it is necessary that you believe in Jesus, but if you don’t also meet these other conditions you will not have everlasting life even if you believe in Jesus” would violate the text. St. Paul repeatedly states that works do not play a part in our justification before God. “Therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Rom 3:20), “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom 3:28) “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5). In the epistle of Galatians, especially the third chapter, he makes it clear that this is not true only of initial justification but of the ongoing work of the Spirit in the lives of Christians as well. Nor can these plain meaning of these verses be escaped by arguing that they are talking only about the “works of the law”, that another kind of works, “the works of love” are necessary conditions in addition to faith, because making the “works of love” into conditions which must be met in order for us to be accepted by God eliminates any meaningful distinction between them and “works of the law”. Even the absence of baptism, the rite by which new believers publicly identified with the faith and were brought into the Church (Acts 2:41, 8:12, 36-38, 9:18, 10:47-48), which St. Peter associated with the remission of sins (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21) and St. Paul associated with the believer’s union with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4), is not an absolutely essential requirement in addition to faith in Jesus according to St. Mark’s account of the Great Commission (Mark 16:16).
This New Testament truth, and the related Johannine truth that by believing in Jesus Christ one can know that one has everlasting life (1 John 5:9-13), were made presented with absolute clarity in the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin, who taught that justification by faith alone, sola fide, was the article upon which the Church of Christ stands or falls, and that assurance was of the very essence of justifying faith.
If Reformation evangelicalism’s greatest strength was in the area of personal salvation there was a corresponding weakness in the area of the church as a collective body. The emphasis upon personal salvation led to the idea of Christianity as a private religion, a one-on-one relationship with God, and as a result Scriptural teaching about the church as a community of faith, as the collective object of God’s grace, began to suffer. The emphasis upon the Bible as the final authority led to the creeds, the writings of the Church fathers, and the church’s history of interpreting and applying the Scriptures, to be neglected and even dismissed. One result of this was that a heresy that plagued the early church returned in the nineteenth century to reshape evangelicalism.
The Evangelicalism of the Eighteenth Century
In the eighteenth century, revivals broke out in Europe, and especially in England and her colonies in North America. Out of these revivals, a new evangelicalism arose as a movement within Protestantism, rather than synonymous with Protestantism as sixteenth century evangelicalism was. Among the most important leaders in these revivals and the new evangelical movement were John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. The Wesleys and Whitefield were Anglican priests, but Jonathan Edwards was a minister in the non-conformist Congregationalist Church. John and Charles Wesley were Arminians, Whitefield and Edwards were Calvinists. What crossed the lines of these rather significant theological and denominational differences to create a distinct movement within Protestantism was a common emphasis upon a personal conversion experience.
This was a new emphasis. Not that previous evangelicals – or previous Christians in general – had denied the necessity of conversion. Nobody is born a believer so obviously to be a believer at some point one must be converted, i.e., become a believer. Earlier evangelicals, however, emphasized the content and object of faith, rather than the experience of conversion. The gospel, to Luther and Calvin, was not a set of instructions as to how a person can “get saved”, and both men would have considered that terminology to be an expression of damnable heresy. The gospel, was a message of good news, about how God has acted to save sinners, in the giving of His Son through His Incarnation, Atoning Death, and Resurrection. Jesus is the Saviour, it is by dying for us on the cross that He saved us. The benefits of this salvation come to us through faith, but faith is not our contribution to our own salvation. It is the appointed means of receiving salvation and is generated within us by the Holy Spirit through the means of the gospel message itself, as conveyed to us through the preaching of the Word and through the sacraments. The gospel directs our faith away from ourselves, our deeds, our experience, and even our faith itself, to Jesus Christ, His deeds, and His promises.
Reformation evangelicalism, in other words, whether Lutheran or Calvinist, had a monergistic doctrine of salvation. In salvation, God is the sole actor, the sole worker. Man contributes nothing to his salvation, he only receives it. Later, nineteenth century evangelicalism would depart from this entirely and embrace a synergistic view of salvation, in which God and man are co-workers, in which man makes a decision to be saved. Although the evangelical movement would continue to affirm “justification by faith alone”, its adoption of synergism stripped this doctrine of much of its meaning and power.
Eighteenth century evangelicalism had not yet departed this far from Reformation theology. It was a step in that direction both because it placed a new emphasis upon experience and because some of its leaders, the Wesleys, held to Arminianism which is a moderate form of synergism. John Wesley’s own testimony of conversion, however, is not of his having “made a decision for Jesus” but of going to a meeting where Luther’s preface to the Epistle of Romans was read where:
while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (1)
Charles G. Finney – the Father of Modern Evangelicalism
What we call “evangelicalism” today, is a movement that began in the nineteenth century. It’s most distinctive characteristic is the preaching, in vulgar language and style, of the gospel to mass crowds of people. It is the most fitting expression of Christianity for an era of cheapness, vulgarity, mass production, mass society, and mass democracy. Such a movement could only have been born in one place.
The father of modern evangelicalism, was an American named Charles Grandison Finney. As a young lawyer working in New York, Finney came under conviction of sin in 1821 and headed out into the woods determined that “I will give my heart to God, or I never will come down from there.” After undergoing an experience which he described as a baptism of the Holy Spirit in which “I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way” he returned to his law office the next morning to tell his client “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause and cannot plead yours.” After a brief period of training he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church – despite his contempt for the distinctive of Presbyterian theology – and became an itinerant evangelist.
Finney thought of the gospel more as an ultimatum than a message of good news about what God has done for us in Christ out of His love and grace. His sermons challenged his hearers to make a decision or take a stand for Jesus and provided them with the opportunity to do so there on the spot in the form of an altar call, an evangelistic method which he popularized.
While there is nothing wrong with prophetic ultimatums and calls to repentance, which in many cases are sorely needed, in Finney’s case his evangelistic methodology reflected deep theological error.
Finney was a professor of theology at Oberlin College, which he served as president from 1851 to 1865. His lectures on theology given at the college were later collected and published as his Systematic Theology. In these lectures there is the kind of emphasis upon God as law-giver, administrator, and judge that we would expect from a former lawyer. There are 34 lectures in the 1878 expanded edition, the first third of which pertain to moral law and government, and obedience and disobedience to it, in one way or another. The thirteenth and fourteenth lectures are about the atonement. The doctrine of the atonement taught by Finney is not that of orthodox Reformation evangelicalism.
Finney taught what is called the “governmental theory of the atonement”. In this theory, Christ’s death does not pay the penalty for the sins of the world or offer full satisfaction to God’s offended honour and justice. Indeed, Finney denied that Christ’s death could do either. He did not believe that either guilt or righteousness could be transferred from one person to another. He argued that Christ’s death could not have satisfied retributive justice against sin because “To suppose, therefore, that Christ suffered in amount, all that was due to the elect, is to suppose that He suffered an eternal punishment multiplied by the whole number of the elect.” (2) Instead, he wrote, “The atonement of Christ was intended as a satisfaction of public justice”. What he means by this, is that God was willing to pardon repentant sinners, but not if it created the impression that His law could be broken with impunity. The atonement was necessary to show that God did not pardon sinners lightly and without cost. In this theory, our sins were not imputed to Christ, He did not pay the full penalty for them, but He rather died as a representative of sinners, with this death being accepted instead of the full satisfaction of justice, to ensure that the pardon of sinners did not undermine God’s law and create anarchy.
The problems with this doctrine are multitude. It is a rationalistic doctrine, that draws its conclusions from human reasoning. It is also blasphemous. The reason, according to orthodox theology, that Christ’s suffering and death upon the cross could completely satisfy God’s retributive justice against all the sins of the whole world, is because the Person doing the suffering and dying is Himself eternal and infinite. To deny the infinite value of Christ’s atoning death is to deny the infinite value of His eternal Person. The orthodox doctrine of Christ’s atonement as penal substitution and satisfaction explains how God can save sinners without compromising either His justice and holiness on the one hand or His love and mercy on the other. Finney’s theory does not do so, but instead says that God out of His benevolence is quite willing to set aside the demands of His justice and holiness to pardon sinners, but requires an atonement for utilitarian, pragmatic reasons.
This doctrine suggests a weak view of God’s holiness and justice. A weak view of God’s holiness and justice usually goes hand-in-glove with a weak view of man’s sinfulness. That is the case with Finney. The sixteenth lecture in his Systematic Theology is entitled “Moral Depravity.” The term depravity, he says, “implies deterioration, or fall from a former state of moral or physical perfection”. (3) He distinguishes between physical depravity – disease – and moral depravity. The latter he says “is the depravity of free will, not of the faculty itself, but of its free action.” What this means, as Finney goes on to make clear, is that moral depravity means sinful choices and actions, not a sinful nature. “Moral depravity cannot consist in any attribute of nature or constitution, nor in any lapsed and fallen state of nature; for this is physical and not moral depravity.” (4)
This is a major heresy. Orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that man was created with a good nature in God’s own image but that when man sinned his nature was corrupted and that fallen, sinful, nature has been passed on to all subsequent generations of men. What Finney taught is virtually identical to the heresy of Pelagianism taught by and named after fourth-fifth century Celtic monk, Pelagius. Pelagius denied original sin and taught that man retains the capacity to reject sin and choose God by the power of his own will. Pelagius was opposed in his own day by St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and his doctrine has been consistently rejected by orthodox Christians. Finney’s Pelagianism was certainly a departure from Reformation evangelicalism. Luther and Calvin were both Augustinians and in their theology, as in St. Augustine’s, the fact that man since the fall is sinful by nature and unable, therefore, to produce anything from his own will that is untainted by sin and acceptable to God is connected to the fact that salvation is by God’s grace alone like the two sides of a single coin.
The evangelical movement has not followed Finney in his denial that man’s nature and the faculty of his will are corrupted by sin. The influence of Finney’s Pelagianism, however, is quite visible in evangelicalism. Indeed, it can be seen in the distinguishing characterstic of modern evangelicalism.
“Born Again” Christianity
The third chapter of the Gospel according to St. John begins with the account of how Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a religious leader, came to Jesus and was told “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus did not understand what this meant and asked Jesus how a man could re-enter the womb to be born a second time? Jesus answer was:
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (vv. 5-8)
Note carefully what Jesus says about the new birth here. The new birth which is necessary for one to enter the Kingdom is not a second physical birth but a spiritual birth. The spiritual birth is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Man can observe the effects of the spiritual birth but has no influence over when and where it occurs.
While the teachings of Reformation evangelicalism are consistent with what Jesus said here, the teachings of nineteenth and twentieth century evangelicalism are not. Contemporary evangelicalism is also called “born-again Christianity” but in its teachings, being born again is something you decide to do. There are countless evangelical books and tracts with titles like “how to be born again.” But “how to be born again” is precisely the question Nicodemus had asked only to receive the answer from Jesus, that being born again was not something he could do or have any control over, but was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit.
Many find this to be a threatening doctrine. If regeneration – theology’s technical term for the new birth – is essential to one’s entering the Kingdom of God, and is also a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit over which one has no control whatsoever, does this not mean that we are left with the uncertain hope that we will be among those God sovereignly choses to regenerate?
If that was where Jesus had left it that would be the case. In His response to Nicodemus’ next question “How can these things be?” He offers a certain assurance of salvation to anyone who is looking for one. He says:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (vv. 14-16)
This has been called “the gospel in a nutshell”. God loved the world, and showed that love by giving the world His Son Jesus, Who would be crucified in order that everyone who believes in Him will not perish eternally, but have everlasting life. This is a testimony of hope and promise, presenting people with a Saviour in Whom to believe, and assuring them of everlasting life if they do believe. Nicodemus, and anyone else who believes this gospel, has in the gospel God’s word that he as a believer has everlasting life in Christ.
Before He gives these assuring words, Jesus explains what they have to do with being born again. Believing is not something we do in order to be born again. Faith is not an act of the will. It is a conviction brought about by testimony – as St. Paul explains “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17) We can resist convicting testimony by the force of our will but we cannot generate faith at will. Jesus tells Nicodemus, that people find it difficult to believe Him when He testifies of things within their common sphere of experience – earthly things. How then will they be able to believe Him if He testifies of things outside of their experience, heavenly things, which only He as the One Who came down from heaven has firsthand experience of? The answer is that the Holy Spirit must convict people of the truth of His testimony. That is the only way they can believe. That is what the new birth is. The person who believes the gospel of Jesus Christ and in believing finds assurance of salvation has been born again.
The idea that the new birth is a decision we make comes from the Pelagian heresy of Charles G. Finney. In his lecture on “Moral Depravity” in his Systematic Theology, he says that the Bible calls upon unregenerate men to “repent, to make to themselves a new heart” and in his next lecture “Regeneration” he asserts that there are three agents in the new birth – the Holy Spirit, “the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference, or in changing from selfishness to love or benevolence; or, in other words, in turning from the supreme choice of self-gratification, to the supreme love of God and the equal love of his neighbor” (5), and other agents “one or more human beings concerned in persuading the sinner to turn.” Finney begins this lecture by saying that the reason orthodox theologians attribute the new birth to the Holy Spirit alone is because of their “dogma of constitutional moral depravity”, i.e., the Scriptural and orthodox doctrine of Original Sin, thus grounding his doctrine of decisional regeneration – the distinctive mark of contemporary evangelicalism – in his Pelagianism.
Shallow Conversions and Distorted Gospels
It has been observed from the beginning of the revivalist era that many who “make decisions for Christ” show little to no interest in any Christianity that goes beyond this initial experience. This is to be expected when the gospel message has been distorted. The doctrine that the new birth is a decision we make, an act of our will, is itself a major distortion of the gospel as we have seen. In evangelicalism that teaches this doctrine, a further distortion of the gospel has arisen in the evangelical lingo that has developed as a substitute for the Scriptural invitation to “believe in” Jesus Christ. Examples of this lingo include “give your heart to the Lord”, “invite Jesus into your heart”, “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour”, and “make a commitment to Christ.” While some of these expressions are loosely based upon Scriptural texts each of them calls for an act of the will, none of them clearly says to believe in Jesus Christ rather than in our own efforts to save ourselves, and the differences between these expressions generates endless confusion.
Many evangelical leaders have recognized that there is a problem here and that the gospel as presented by mainstream evangelicalism is badly distorted. Some of these have called the evangelical movement to return to the evangelical theology of the Reformation. Others however, have proposed solutions that make the problem worse and distort the gospel further.
A classic example of this was the book The Gospel According to Jesus which came out in 1988. The author of this book, John F. MacArthur Jr., is the pastor of the non-denominational, evangelical megachurch Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, a popular radio Bible teacher, and the President of Master’s College and Seminary. The book’s main concerns that today’s evangelicalism is not presenting the gospel accurately and is producing many false conversions are legitimate concerns. MacArthur correctly identified the symptoms of the problem:
Listen to the typical gospel presentation nowadays. You’ll hear sinners entreated with words like “accept Jesus Christ as personal Saviour”; “ask Jesus into your heart”; “invite Christ into your life”: or “make a decision for Christ.” You may be so accustomed to hearing those phrases that it will surprise you to learn none of them is based on biblical terminology. They are the products of a diluted gospel. It is not the gospel according to Jesus. (6)
He did not, however, diagnose the problem correctly. He did not attribute this diluted gospel to the shift towards an experience-defined evangelicalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but instead blamed it upon the theology of Dallas Theological Seminary founder Lewis Sperry Chafer, in particular Chafer’s distinction, based upon 1 Corinthians 2-3, between “spiritual” and “carnal” Christians.
Having failed to diagnose the true cause of the problem, he proposes a solution that is worse than the disease. He redefined faith so as to eliminate the Pauline distinction between faith and works. Traditionally, theologians have broken down faith, which in the Bible is an internal conviction of the reality and trustworthiness of God (Heb 11:1, 6), into three parts – notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia means understanding, assensus means agreement or assent, and fiducia means trust. MacArthur, however, redefined fiducia to mean obedience. He wrote that it is “a volitional element…which is the determination of the will to obey truth.” (7). Since obedience is the same thing as works, by redefining fiducia in this way, MacArthur smuggled works into faith, undermining the Pauline/Reformational doctrine of justification, and oblitering the Scriptural distinction between the way of salvation and the effects of salvation. Furthermore, by saying that fiducia is a “volitional element” he contradicted his own earlier assertion – on the same page –“that faith is not something conjured up by the human will but is a sovereignly granted gift of God” and essentially endorsed the Pelagian heresy of Charles Finney which is the true source of the problem he was trying to fix!
MacArthur is correct, of course, that the grace of God is transformational, that God is not content to pardon and forgive sinners while leaving them in bondage to sin. God’s grace transforms sinners into saints. This is a lifetime process, however, that is not complete until the believer enters the presence of the Lord. Furthermore, God’s grace operates in us by way of the means of His Word. His Word contains both Law and Gospel. The Law tells us what God demands of us, the Gospel tells us what God has freely given us. The Law shows us our sinful condition and our need of God’s grace. The Gospel tells us that God has given us everything we need in Jesus Christ. The Gospel tells us that everything God has given to us in Jesus Christ is ours through faith, which faith the Gospel itself is the means of generating. St. Paul in the epistle to the Galatian Church tells us that just as the Gospel and not the Law is the effective means of our justification – our being declared righteous by God – so the Gospel and not the Law is the effective means of our sanctification – the process whereby God transforms us from sinners into saints. What God demands of us in the Law, He gives us in the Gospel. While MacArthur accuses others of the heresy of antinominianism, by reading all of the demands Jesus made of His followers into the word “believe” in His Gospel promises, MacArthur is himself guilty of heresy of Galatianism, the mixing of Law and Gospel. Galatianism is a worse heresy than antinomianism because it compromises both the righteous demands of God in His Law and the freeness of His grace in the Gospel.
In The Gospel According To Jesus, MacArthur said little about assurance of salvation. What he did say is only half correct. He was right that contemporary evangelicalism may give many the false assurance that they are right with God because they have “made a decision”. He was wrong, however, to assert that “Genuine assurance comes from seeing the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in one’s life.” (8) This was the Puritans’ doctrine of assurance. (9) It is also the mistake of those turned away by Christ at the judgement in Matthew 7:21-23, of the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, and of the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14. Those who Jesus says will come to Him at the judgement saying “Lord, Lord” – clearly they believed in “Lordship Salvation”- will point to the works they did in Jesus’ name, the goats believe that they have done the works of mercy and are surprised to hear Jesus say that they have not, and the Pharisee attributes the ways in which he differs from the publican, not to himself, but to God.
There are two parts to assurance, an objective part and a subjective part. Subjectively assurance is the experience of being certain of one’s salvation, objectively assurance is that which that certainty is based upon. Objective assurance should not itself be something subjective. One’s experience, whether it be a one-time event such as conversion or a lifetime of good works, is subjective. Scripturally, the Gospel itself is our objective assurance. The Gospel tells us that God has given us a Saviour in Christ and promises everlasting life to everyone who believes. Scripturally, therefore, the subjective experience of certainty of salvation comes by believing the Gospel for ourselves. It is indistinguishable from saving faith, as the Protestant Reformers correctly taught.
Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and Scriptural Authority
When in the nineteenth century, the distinguishing characteristic of evangelicalism ceased to be the doctrines of the Reformation and became a conversion experience in which a person made a decision for Jesus, this prepared the way for the erosion of orthodox doctrine in evangelicalism in the late twentieth century.
In the nineteenth century, while North American evangelicalism was re-defining itself around the doctrine of decisional regeneration, the Bible itself and the orthodox teachings of historical Christianity were being challenged in European academia. In the universities, it had become fashionable to think of theology as an intermediate stage in the development of human knowledge, superior to primitive mythology and superstition, but inferior to a scientific materialism in which the world is explained without acknowledging any reality beyond what is immediately available to reason and the senses. In the nineteenth century this sort of thinking began to seep into theological seminaries where it brought about a rationalistic rewriting of Christian theology. According to this new rationalistic “Christianity” the Bible was not actual revelation from God but a fallible record of man’s thoughts about God, Jesus was “divine” in the sense that there is a spark of the divine in all of us but He was not the eternal, omnipotent, Son of God come down from heaven to save mankind, the Gospel accounts of His birth and miracles were embellishments of His life which the early Christians borrowed from pagan mythology to deify Him, His Resurrection was not a literal event that actually occurred but a literary way of describing His disciples’ feeling that He was still with them in their hearts, and that stripped of all this mythological accoutrement, the real essence of Christianity is that under the Fatherhood of God all men are brothers, who ought to love and be nice to one another and to seek an end to social injustice caused by an inequitable division of the earth’s resources. This new theology was called modernism or liberalism and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it spread throughout the Protestant denominations in Europe and in North America.
Orthodox Protestants resisted the influx of this unbelief disguised as faith into their churches. In 1910, the evangelical Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) published the first of twelve volumes entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth. Edited by A. C. Dixon and R. A. Torrey, these volumes consisted of essays by conservative Protestants defending the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures and the historical, traditional, and Biblical doctrines of the Christian faith concerning the deity, incarnation, Virgin Birth, miracles, atoning death, and bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and critiquing liberalism and various other modern isms that were then in conflict with Scriptural orthodoxy. The contributors included Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists from the United States, Britain, and Canada. The title of these pamphlets, later re-issued as a four volume hardback set, is one of the reasons why the cross-denominational, conservative Protestant movement in opposition to the growing liberalism in the early decades of the twentieth century came to be known as “fundamentalism”.
Fundamentalism was unsuccessful in its efforts to prevent a liberal takeover of the leadership of the mainline Protestant denominations and their seminaries. In fact the liberals became so powerful in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America that in the mid 1930’s they were able to defrock conservative theologian J. Gresham Machen. When Princeton Theological Seminary, the prestigious school at which Machen taught, began to move in a liberal direction in the late 1920’s, Machen protested and with several other conservative professors and students, left to found Westminster Theological Seminary. A couple of years later he organized the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions for conservative Presbyterians who did not want to support missionaries who were promoting liberalism instead of Christianity. At the next meeting of the General Assembly of PCUSA he, and all the other members of the IBPFM were stripped of their ministerial credentials. Machen then led a conservative separatist movement out of the PCUSA that formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
This began to happen in other denominations as well and in the 1930’s and 1940’s, fundamentalism evolved from a cross-denominational attempt to prevent liberalism from taking over the mainline Protestant denominations into a separatist movement. Not everyone who held to fundamentalist beliefs was happy with this new separatism, however, and in the 1950’s the separatists and the non-separatists went their separate ways. The separatists continued to call themselves fundamentalists while the non-separatists announced the beginning of a “new evangelicalism.” While this was the non-separatists own coinage, it was the fundamentalists who latched on to it as a term of opprobrium against the non-separatists. The “new evangelicals” themselves preferred to just call themselves “evangelicals”. (10)
The new evangelicals believed that fundamentalism’s separatism would make the movement increasingly isolated, self-righteous, and bitter, and the fundamentalists believed that the new evangelicalism would grow in its accommodation of liberalism to the point that the two would be scarcely indistinguishable. Each group was correct in its predictions about the other group.
It was only a few years after conservatives left the PCUSA to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that the conservatives themselves split, and a faction went off from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to form the Bible Presbyterian Church. This happened among other fundamentalist denominations as well. After the fundamentalists and the new evangelicals fell out with each other, fundamentalist debated the degrees of separation among themselves – and this had nothing to do with Kevin Bacon. Should a fundamentalist separate only from heresy or should he separate from those who are orthodox and do not themselves separate from heresy? The latter is second degree separation and the debate did not stop there but went on to third and fourth degree separation as well. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a younger generation of fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell that sought closer ties with the more conservative among evangelicals were dubbed “pseudo-fundamentalists” because they were not separatist enough.
Among the new evangelicals, however, doctrinal drift quickly set it. In the 1960’s and 19070’s, several evangelical leaders began to question the full inerrancy of the Bible. This became a significant enough problem that in 1984, in his last book published before his death later that year, Francis Schaffer described evangelicalism as a “house divided” on the watershed issue of Biblical inerrancy. Schaeffer wrote:
There is only one way to describe those who no longer hold to a full view of Scripture. Although many of these would like to retain the evangelical name for themselves, the only accurate way to describe this view is that it is a form of neo-orthodox existential theology. The heart of neo-orthodox existential theology is that the Bible gives us a quarry out of which to have religious experience, but that the Bible contains mistakes where it touches that which is verifiable—namely history and science. But unhappily we must say that in some circles this concept now has come into some of that which is called evangelicalism. In short, in these circles the neo-orthodox existential theology is being taught under the name of evangelicalism. (11)
This is only the beginning of evangelicalism’s doctrinal compromise and accommodation to an increasingly anti-Christian zeitgeist. In his fifth chapter, Schaeffer discusses how many evangelicals have adopted a “socialist mentality”, allowed humanism to seep into their thinking during their academic studies instead of insisting that Christ is Lord of all including the humanities, and accommodated to “the world spirit of this age” in the “whole area of marriage, family, sexual morality, feminism, homosexuality, and divorce”. (12). Evangelical compromise in these areas has gotten much worse in the almost thirty years since Schaeffer identified these problems.
What Schaeffer was decrying here, the acceptance of the ill-named neo-orthodox view of Scripture by those who call themselves evangelicals and the subsequent infiltration of evangelicalism by all sorts of unbiblical ideas was made possible by the shift in the nineteenth century away from defining “evangelical” by the doctrines of the Reformation to defining it by a conversion experience. If an evangelical is someone who has made a decision for Jesus then someone who can testify to having made such a decision is an evangelical even if he believes the Bible is not the Word of God but only contains the Word of God.
Evangelicalism began in the Reformation as a necessary response to the way Scriptural teaching about personal salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ had been obscured and corrupted in late medieval theology. Then evangelicalism’s focus shifted from doctrine to experience in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, evangelicalism became part of the fundamentalist movement that fought for the Bible and theological orthodoxy when liberalism began to sweep the Protestant churches then left the fundamentalist movement when fundamentalism adopted an unhealthy separatist mentality. Since then many within evangelicalism have abandoned Scriptural authority and orthodox doctrine a development made possible by the fact that evangelicalism is now largely defined by a shared experience – a decision for Christ – rather than by shared beliefs.
Why had Scriptural teaching about personal salvation become corrupted in the late medieval church making the evangelical Reformation necessary?
It had become corrupted through neglect because theology had focused for centuries upon the church as the collective object of God’s grace. The idea of the church as a collective object of God’s grace was not a wrong idea. It was and is a Scriptural truth. It was wrong, however, to focus so much on one truth that other truths are distorted or lost.
The evangelical Reformers recovered those distorted and lost truths. There is a tendency, however, when a movement is built upon the recovery of neglected truths for that movement to then emphasize those recovered truths to the neglect of the truth that was originally overemphasized. That has gradually happened in evangelicalism and it is one of the reasons the problems we have been looking at have popped up.
The Bible, as the written Word of God Himself, has authority over the traditions and institutional authority of the church. Church tradition, implicitly acknowledges this by its recognition of the Bible as the written Word of God. The Reformers were right to proclaim the supreme authority of the Scriptures. The Latin expression “sola Scriptura” however, had unfortunate connotations. Luther and Calvin had not intended to teach their followers that the ecumenical Creeds, the Patristic writings, and the canons of the church councils should be ignored. It was neglect of the lessons contained in these very things that allowed the Pelagian heresy to resurface and to have such an influence over the evangelical movement.
Salvation is the gift of God, given to us in the Person and Work of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which we personally receive by believing in Jesus. This is taught throughout the New Testament. Martin Luther was right to say that this is the article by which the church stands or falls. The church, however, is not just a collective term for individuals who have believed in Jesus.
The church in the New Testament has a corporate identity. It is an organic community, whose members are joined to one another to make a whole the way the organs in a body are linked to make a whole. Indeed, according to St. Paul it is the body of Christ Himself. The fathers of the church were correct to understand the church and its sacraments to be extensions of the principle of incarnation. The Incarnation was the miraculous event in which God the Son came down from Heaven and was born a Man, Jesus Christ. Through this miracle, God Who is Spirit, was manifest in the flesh. After Jesus ascended back to Heaven, the Father sent down the Holy Spirit to collectively indwell Christ’s disciples and unite them into His body the church, in which His presence on earth is continued. In the sacraments ordained by Christ – baptism and the Eucharist – God’s Word is joined to physical elements – water, bread, wine – which become vessels of the Word. As the invisible God was made manifest in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, so His Word is made tangible by being joined to the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Communion.
Unfortunately, much of evangelicalism, in its emphasis on personal salvation, has lost sight of these truths or even rejected them altogether, associating them with the errors of Rome. As a result, evangelical ecclesiology tends to show the strong influence of the liberal individualism of the modern age. Evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to separate the church as an organized institution from the church as the mystic body of Christ. The latter they tend to see as individuals who share a common faith in Jesus Christ (in Reformation evangelicalism) or who have made a decision for Jesus (in nineteenth century evangelicalism), and the former, the organized, institutional, church they tend to see as a human construction, created by individual believers to facilitate common worship and the spread of the gospel. Hence the willingness to separate from the organized, institutional church and abandon it to heresy among twentieth century fundamentalists. Prior to the evangelical movement separatist movements from the established church had generally been led by non-Trinitarian heretics.
What evangelicalism desperately needs is to abandon the influence of Finney’s Pelagianism, return to the Scriptural doctrines of the Reformation, and to balance these doctrines with a renewed emphasis upon those truths within the larger tradition of Christianity that it has neglected since its legitimate protest against the errors of Rome.
(2) Charles Finney, Finney’s Systematic Theology: The Complete & Newly Expanded 1878 Edition, (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1994), p. 219
(3) Ibid, p. 243.
(5) Ibid, p. 274.
(6) John F. MacArthur Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus: What Does Jesus Mean When He Says “Follow Me”?, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 21. At the time MacArthur wrote this book he denied the eternal Sonship of Christ. In 1999 he announced that he had changed his mind and now believed in the eternal Sonship. In his previous understanding he had distinguished between Christ’s deity and His Sonship. The problem with that view is that Christ’s eternal Sonship is an essential element of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternal, the Son is not created but is eternally begotten of the Father, whereas the Holy Spirit is neither created nor begotten, but proceeds (whether from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son is a point of contention between the Eastern and Western Church – the eternal Sonship of Christ is not). MacArthur, upon changing his views, still did not seem to appreciate how serious an error his previous position was.
(7) Ibid, p. 173.
(8) Ibid, p. 23.
(9) The Puritans were a group of English Calvinists who were not satisfied with the reforms in the Church of England and demanded that the episcopacy be abolished and that Anglican rituals and practices be stripped of everything coming from the Catholic tradition that could not be shown to be commanded by the New Testament. They were also republicans with a tendency towards sedition. In the seventeenth century they deposed King Charles I of England in the English Civil War, and installed the dictator Oliver Cromwell as regnant governor of England. Anthony M. Ludovici described the Puritans as a class of merchants, enriched in the sixteenth century with lands expropriated from the Church by King Henry VIII, who deposed King Charles because he opposed their plans to replace beautiful, rural, English villages with ugly, industrial, cities and turn their fellow Englishmen into wage-slaves in their factories. Anthony M. Ludovici, A Defence of Aristocracy: A Textbook For Tories (London: Constable and Company, 1915, 1933) pp. 103-236. According to Ludovici the reason the Puritans wanted church services to be free of liturgical beauty and to consist of long, boring, sermons, and sought to ban all entertainment on Sundays, was to make the day of rest so miserable that the workers would be glad to return to the factories. Calvinism, like the Reformer it was named after, placed a strong emphasis upon the doctrines of election and predestination – that God had chosen in eternity past whom He would save and predestined His elect for heaven. Calvin like Luther, had taught that assurance of salvation was to be found by looking away from oneself to the promises of God in Christ. He wrote “But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life”. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III:24:5. The Puritans, however, had abandoned Calvin’s teachings on assurance and taught that the Christian must seek evidence of his election through rigorous self-examination. Needless to say, this teaching generated more doubt that assurance and in many cases drove people insane (the poet William Cowper being a famous example of this).
(10) The history of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and their divergence from each other is told by historian George M. Marsden in his Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) and his Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminar and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). For the same history from perspectives within the fundamentalist movement see George W. Dollar’s A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1973) and The Fight For Fundamentalism: American Fundamentalism 1973-1983 (self-published, 1983) and David Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism since 1850 (Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1986).
(11) Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1984) pp. 49-50)
But unto the ungodly saith God, ‘Why dost thou preach my laws, and takest my covenant in thy mouth; Whereas thou hatest to be reformed, and hast cast my words behind thee? When thou sawest a thief, thou consentedst unto him, and hast been partaker with the adulterers. Thou does let thy mouth speak wickedness, and with thy tongue dost set forth deceit. Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother, and dost slander thine own mother’s son. These things hast thou done, and I held my tongue, and thou thoughtest that I am even such a one as thyself; but I will reprove thee, and set before thee the things that thou hast done. Psalm 50:16-21. (1)
Early in the sixteenth century, the Parliament of England under King Henry VIII passed a number of Acts which took the Church of England out from under the authority of the Bishop of Rome, i.e., the Pope. While this was done for base reasons – to allow the king to divorce a wife, whom he had no Scriptural grounds to divorce, and whom he had needed special ecclesiastical permission to marry in the first place – it had the effect of correcting, at least in England, the great wrong that had been done to the Western Church when the Bishop of Rome had, against the doctrines and traditions of the undivided early Church, asserted his supremacy over the entire Church.
This act of government contained much that is worthy of condemnation, as well as much that is worthy of praise, but it created for the English Church a unique opportunity, the opportunity to carry out the reforms that Luther and Calvin were calling for in continental Europe within a Church that had full organizational and organic continuity with that established by Christ and His Apostles in the first Century. She was not a sect or denomination started up from scratch, by reformers excommunicated by corrupt ecclesiastical authorities, like several of her counterparts on the Continent. She consisted of the same parishes, in the same dioceses, under the same bishops in Apostolic succession, after the Act of Supremacy that she had consisted of before. She administered the same sacraments, and recognized the same creeds – Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian.
Once she was removed from Roman control she gradually introduced some important and much needed reforms. The liturgy was translated into the beautiful English of the Book of Common Prayer, a series of official vernacular translations of the Bible culminated in the majestic King James Version of 1611, and, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, in which the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures was asserted, as was the Scriptural truth that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, without any help from our own efforts, was produced as the Church’s confession of faith. She became a Church that was both reformed and catholic, which asserted the great truths of the Reformation, while being part of the “One, Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic Church” in every sense, being in organic continuity with the undivided Church that had produced the Creed from which those words were taken, back in the fourth century AD.
The unique situation of the Church of England, made it possible for her to possess the strengths and enjoy the blessings of both Catholicism and Protestantism. It also made her vulnerable to the weaknesses and failings of both. Both the strengths and weaknesses of both the Catholic tradition and the reformed faith have manifested themselves repeatedly throughout Anglican history. She has experienced vast periods of spiritual death and dryness and often been plagued with Erastianism and simony but has also been frequently blessed with revival, including both the evangelical revival led by the Wesleys in the eighteenth century and the Catholic revival led by the Oxford Tractarians (2) in the nineteenth century.
Today there is a trend in the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, that violates both components of the Anglican tradition. I refer to the movement to reverse traditional and Scriptural teachings about homosexuality.
This movement is several decades old. The organization that, with an irony it does not recognize, calls itself Integrity Canada, (3) and which exists for the express purpose of promoting acceptance of homosexuality within the Anglican Church of Canada, was first organized in 1975 according to its website. Its American parent organization had been founded the year previously. My paternal grandmother received The Mustard Seed, the newspaper of the Diocese of Brandon, and I would read it whenever I visited her. I don’t recall exactly when I started reading these, just that it was in the eighties some time, but I do remember that the largest part of the letters to editor section always seemed to consist of arguments about homosexuality. More recently, a number of dioceses have passed resolutions at their synods asking their bishops to authorize the use of rites blessing same-sex relationships, despite a moratorium on the subject that is supposed to be in place, having been agreed upon at the national synod. Beginning in 2002 with Michael Ingham in the Diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia, several bishops have granted their concurrence to these resolutions. On November 1st of this year, our own Bishop Donald Phillips issued his concurrence to such a resolution, (4) which had passed by majority of over two-thirds a couple of weeks earlier at the 111th synod of the Diocese of Rupert’s Land. (5)
This problem is not limited to the Anglican Church, of course. It is present in many other denominations as well. The United Church of Canada, the denomination in which I grew up, began ordaining openly homosexual clergy back in the late 1980s and performs same-sex marriages. Same-sex blessings are available in many other mainstream Protestant denominations as well. The reasons that we will be looking at as to why this sort of thing should not be done apply to all Christian Churches.
One major reason for this is the influence of the surrounding culture upon the Church. In previous ages limitations and restrictions upon human desires were regarded as necessary for basic human survival as well as for any sort of higher civilization. The modern way of thinking is very different to this. In the modern age, human happiness came to be conceived of in terms of the fulfillment of the individual’s every desire and limitations upon those desires, even if those limitations were natural, came to be regarded as obstacles to be overcome. Modern science and technology were bent towards this goal of the elimination of limitations upon human desire. (6) In the period just before and after World War II, the intellectual foundations were laid for a revolution against traditional restraints upon human sexuality. (7) It did not take long for that revolution to materialize. In 1953 Hugh Hefner founded Playboy Magazine which would proclaim the message of sexual liberation to heterosexual males. Ten years later, the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique launched the second wave of feminism, the so-called “Women’s Liberation Movement” which had as one of its objectives the promotion among women of the same liberation from traditional restraints upon sexuality for women that the “Playboy philosophy” was promoting among men. Meanwhile, during the 40’s and 50’s, Marxist intellectuals had been at work in the universities, undermining their students’ respect for parental and other traditional authority by teaching that the traditional culture was hopelessly corrupt, hypocritical, based upon greed, and the source of injustice, oppression, and war, and planting in their students’ minds the seeds of rebellion. When these seeds produced fruit in the “counter-cultural” student rebellion movement of the 1960’s, one of the expressions of this “counter-culture” was the “free love” that the philosophical enemies of Christianity had been calling for centuries. The sexual revolution was underway, empowered by the technological development of effective and inexpensive birth control. (8)
The sexual revolution wrought a change in the prevailing attitude towards homosexuality in the secular culture. At first this new attitude was a liberal attitude of tolerance. Then it became a politically correct attitude. So-called political correctness refers to the late twentieth century phenomenon, in which the force of social and cultural pressure is used to the maximum degree to enforce the replacement of traditional ideas with modern, egalitarian, ideas. In this case the liberal attitude of tolerance towards homosexuality as an “alternative lifestyle” to the norm of heterosexual marriage developed into the politically correct attitude that full social and cultural acceptance of homosexuality is a basic human right of homosexuals, that to deny them that full acceptance is to perpetuate an historical injustice, and that the traditional idea that homosexuality is sinful must be driven from polite society and rejected as “homophobia”.
It is in this cultural context that the movement within the Church to reverse traditional and Scriptural teachings on homosexuality and have the Church bless same-sex relationships came into existence. It is regrettable that the decaying, surrounding culture would have such influence in the Church as to cause its leaders to seek to alter Church teaching and practice to conform to the decay in explicit disobedience to St. Paul’s injunction to the Church in Rome:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service, And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may truly prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)
In fairness to those pushing for this change, many of them feel that they are following Jesus’ example and simply practicing the love Jesus so frequently commanded His disciples to practice. Jesus, they point out, was harshly criticized by the religious people of His day, for “eating with sinners”. That is true, but they fail to acknowledge the difference between what they are doing and what Jesus did, a difference far larger than any similarity. Jesus did not shun the company of sinners, but He did not condone sin either, much less bless it. He called the sinner to repentance and forgiveness.
The leaders of the movement to have the Church institute a rite of blessing for same-sex relationships also see themselves as continuing the Anglican tradition of accommodation for theological differences. In the Anglican tradition, so long as one conformed to the Elizabethan Settlement and did not rock the boat, there was a great deal of leeway to interpret the tradition in either a more Catholic (High Church) or a more Protestant (Low Church) way.
The movement towards same-sex blessings, however, violates both sides of classical Anglicanism.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, Richard Hooker, the Master of the Temple Church in London and later the rector of St. Mary the Virgin in Bishopbourne, Kent, wrote a multi-volume treatise defending the organization, practices, and teachings of the Church of England against the attacks of the Puritans. The Puritans were radical Protestants, and in many cases republicans who used their religious zeal to cloak their seditious activities, who wished to see the abolition of the office of bishop, the reorganization of the Church of England along the model of the Church John Calvin had established in Geneva, and every ritual and practice that resembled those of the Roman Church abolished unless a clear text commanding them could be found somewhere in Scriptures. In Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker answered the Puritans by arguing that just because the Scriptures do not command something, does not mean that they forbid it and that in fact, it is the reverse of this that was the case. In making this argument, Hooker upheld the final authority of Scripture, but also gave weight to tradition and reason. Since then, the idea of an appeal to the three-fold authority of Scripture, tradition, and reason has been a basic element of Anglican theology.
The Catholic side of Anglicanism emphasizes tradition, the Protestant side emphasizes the Scriptures. These are complementary rather than contradictory emphases. Tradition is that which is handed down or passed on. In the Scriptures, St. Paul commanded the Church in Thessalonica to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” and described the Gospel as a tradition to the Corinthian Church when he introduced it with the words “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received.” The Holy Scriptures themselves are a tradition – we have them because the Church has faithfully passed them down to us through the centuries. The traditions of any organic community have, within that community, what we call prescriptive authority, that is authority backed by the weight of ancient use. This is true of the traditions of the Church which, as the Body of Christ, is the most organic of communities. The Holy Scriptures have a greater authority than that, however, for they are the written Word of God and therefore speak with God’s own authority.
Same-sex blessings, violate both tradition and Scripture. The movement to affirm and bless same-sex relationships is only a few decades old and the weight of two thousand years of Church tradition, from the Apostles to the present, is against it. It is not a matter of updating the tradition or bringing it into the twenty-first century. Some change is necessary, in any tradition, in order to keep the tradition alive, but that does not mean that a tradition can survive any and every kind of change.
The difference between a change that preserves a tradition and a change that destroys a tradition can be illustrated with the analogy of translation. In the Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer translated “Credo in unum Deum, Patrem Omnipoténtem, Factórem cæli et terræ, Visibílium ómnium et invisibílium”, the first section of the Nicene Creed, as “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” This translation accurately and faithfully expresses the essence of the Latin text in English. If however, we were to render it as “I feel in touch with a higher power or powers, that you can call God if you like, who is Father/Mother over our process of becoming” we would destroy its essential meaning altogether.
The introduction of same-sex blessings is the latter kind of change. It does not just introduce a new practice that had not previously been a part of the tradition, nor is it merely an updating of style, form, and appearance that leaves the essence of the tradition intact. If the Church blesses erotic relationships between people of the same sex it is blessing what the tradition up until now has condemned as sinful. Since this change also goes against the teachings of Scripture it should not be considered at all, but even were it not the case that it went against Scripture a change of this magnitude should only ever be considered when a case can be made that the change is absolutely necessary, should never be made with haste, and should only ever be undertaken after every factor has been reflected upon at length and with the utmost caution. (9) In this case, however, the cause of same-sex blessings has been aggressively pursued by activists determined to see the change happen regardless of what Scripture, tradition, and the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada have to say.
Of course many of these activists maintain that same-sex blessings are not really contrary to the teachings of Scripture after all. Let us now briefly examine the validity of the arguments they use to support this counter-intuitive idea.
In the Torah, God says rather plainly “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
Now those who wish to affirm and bless same-sex relationships will point out that this commandment is part of the Mosaic Code which contains plenty of things Christians don’t follow today, such as animal sacrifices, dietary restrictions that prohibit the eating such things as pork and shellfish, and the Jewish calendar of feasts, and argue that since we are not bound by these parts of the Mosaic Code we should not be found by this verse either.
There are several major flaws in that argument.
First, the Christian Church has New Testament Scriptural authority for not following these other parts of the Mosaic Code. The Book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament sacrificial system was given as an illustration of the one, ultimate, sacrifice, which would effectively take away the sins of the world, the death of Jesus Christ on the cross (Hebrews. 9:12-10:18). The tenth chapter of the Book of Acts records how St. Peter was given a vision in which he was commanded to eat animals that were unclean under the Mosaic Code but which he was told were now clean.
Second, the New Testament does not lift the commandment in Leviticus 18:22 but rather reinforces it. In his first epistle to Timothy, St. Paul identifies “them that defile themselves with mankind” as being among the “lawless and disobedient” who are the reason we need laws, in his first epistle to the Corinthian Church he says that “the effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” shall not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, and in his epistle to the Church in Rome he describes same-sex erotic relationships among both sexes as “vile affections” that God gives people up to once they turn from worshipping Him to worshipping idols (1 Timothy 1:9-10,1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Romans 1:26-27).
Third, when God gave the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law, His given reason for doing so was to make the Israelites a holy people, i.e., to set them apart from other peoples and mark them as belonging to Him. In the eleventh chapter of Leviticus, for example, where He says which animals are clean and which are unclean, He follows up the instructions by saying “For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves and ye shall be holy; for I am holy.” (v. 44) While we often think of holiness in terms of purity, the primary meaning of the word is “separateness.” He does not say that the other nations are doing wrong in eating the animals that He describes as “unclean” for the Israelites, and in fact in the ninth chapter of Genesis He told the human race after the Flood that He was giving them all birds, fish, and beasts to eat, and made no distinction there between clean and unclean.
This is not the case with the commandments in the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus. This chapter opens with God speaking to Moses and instructing him to tell the Israelites that they are not to do the things that were done in Egypt and Canaan but are to follow the judgements and ordinances of the Lord; then He lists several specific things they are not to do, after which He declares:
Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you. For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the LORD your God. (vv. 24-30)
This sort of language is never used of the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Code that are set aside as requirements for Christians in the New Testament. The Sabbath, the dietary laws, the holy days, etc. were enjoined upon Israel to set her apart and mark her as belonging to God. There is not a trace of condemnation for anyone outside of Israel for not following these commandments. When the Gospel is to be preached to the Gentiles, and the Gentiles integrated into the Church alongside Jewish believers, these commandments are set aside.
The practices forbidden in the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus, however, have defiled the Canaanites and their land, have brought God’s judgement upon these people, and will bring a similar judgement upon the Israelites if they practice them. Compare this chapter with the twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy. In this chapter God gives Israel His instructions as to how they are to conduct themselves in war. The Israelites are commanded, when they go against a city, to make overtures of peace and only to fight if the offer of peace is rejected. This rule, however, did not apply to cities belonging to the nations then living in the land God had promised to Israel. These were to be utterly destroyed to the last living soul in order “That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods.” The practices forbidden in the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus are these abominations, which are so abhorrent that God ordered Israel to annihilate the nations that practiced them lest they be tainted with them. (10)
Clearly, therefore, the acts prohibited in that chapter are not described in the Scriptures as being merely mala prohibita for the Israelites, i.e., wrong only because the law forbids them and subject to change in the law, but as mala in se, wicked in and of themselves. The only thing left to those who believe the Church should be blessing same-sex relationships and who don’t want to be perceived as casting Biblical authority aside, is to argue that the particular kind of same-sex relationships they wish to see affirmed and blessed are somehow different from those condemned in Scripture.
Those who make that argument, claim that the passages condemning homosexual acts in the Bible, are only talking about homosexual promiscuity, prostitution, rape, and ritual homosexuality in connection with idolatrous worship. They claim that committed, loving, monogamous same-sex relationships are not mentioned in Scripture and are therefore not condemned. This is a very dubious argument. Even if we accepted the questionable claim that the Greek words used in verses like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 have a narrow meaning that covers only specific types of homosexuality, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind” is rather clear and lacking in exceptions and qualifications. A much stronger Scriptural case than this should be required if the Church is going to make a decision to alter two thousand years of Christian doctrine and practice. (11)
The decision to bless same-sex relationships is a wrong decision. It goes against both Scripture and tradition, and indeed, indicates that for many in the Church the authority of Scripture, tradition, and reason has been replaced with that of emotion, popular sentiment, and what is socially in vogue. It is a major alteration of an ancient tradition, made without a compelling necessity or the prudence, caution, and restraint appropriate to changes of this magnitude. It is an assault upon the unity, holiness, Catholicity, and Apostolicity of the Church, since it is a divisive decision which conforms the Church to a rapidly decaying and corrupt culture, in rejection of the doctrine of the Apostles which has been taught and believed everywhere, in all times, and by everyone throughout the Church. (12)
After the Diocese of New Westminster became the first diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada to approve these same-sex blessings, Ted and Virginia Byfield, commenting on the event, noted that the Anglican Church has long consisted of what they call the "Establishment Church", which "represents anything conventional opinion happens to approve at the time", and the "Dissident Church", including both High and Low wings, which "represents Jesus Christ". "All of Anglicanism's great achievements--and there have been many--were the work of the Dissidents", the Byfields declared, and noted that whenever the Establishment party was in control, the Anglican Church declined, but when it was led by the Dissidents,"it invariably prosperes". (13)
For much of the last century, since the 1930 Lambeth Confrence where the Anglican Communion had the dubious distinction of being the first Church to break with the two thousand year Christian consensus against artificial contraception, the Establishment Wing has led the Church into making one stupid decision after another to conform with an increasingly anti-Christian, corrupt and progressive culture. It is time for the Dissidents to lead the Church again, before the Establishment Wing eliminates every last vestige of recognizable Christianity from her.
(1) From the Psalter in the 1962, Canadian revision of the Book of Common Prayer.The Book of Common Prayer takes its Psalter from the Great Bible of 1539, which was a revision of the Tyndale Bible intended for official use in the Church of England. As the official, authorized, Bible of the Church of England, it was replaced by first the Bishop’s Bible and then the King James Bible, long before the standard 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer was published, but the Psalter in the prayer book remained that of the Great Bible.
(2) John Henry Newman, John Keble, Edward Pusey, etc..
(3) The name comes from the way this organization translates Psalm 84:11. This verse states that God will withhold no good thing from “them that walk uprightly”. They replace the “walk uprightly” that appears in the Authorized Bible and most other translations with “walk with integrity”.
(6) Canadian philosophical conservative George Grant was a noted critic of modernity and technology. Influenced by the ideas of Martin Heidegger, Simone Weil, Leo Strauss, and Jacques Ellul, he argued that technology, the blending of science and art, was the means whereby modern man accomplished two questionable goals – casting off traditional restraints upon the passions and asserting imperial domination over nature, himself, and his fellow man. This pops up constantly throughout his writings and, in a CBC interview with David Cayley, later published in George Grant in Conversation (Concord: Anansi Press, 1995), Grant said, regarding Pope John Paul II, “I have some sympathy for him in what he is trying to oppose, something which is absolutely central to modernity: the emancipation of the passions”
(7) Beginning with Margaret Mead’s The Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928, the school of Cultural Anthropology founded by Franz Boaz began producing “studies” of tribal societies in which restraints upon sexuality were absent, resulting supposedly, in a peaceful, harmonious, idyllic, existence. In 1948 and 1953, Alfred Kinsey’s reports on human sexuality were published, the findings of which suggested that deviation from heterosexual monogamy was more widespread that previously thought. In 1955, Herbert Marcuse, a Frankfurt School neo-Marxist teaching at Columbia University, published his Eros and Civilization, a response of sorts to Sigmund Freud’s 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents, challenging Freud’s conclusion that restrictions on sexuality are essential to civilization, answering Freud’s unanswered question of whether civilization is worth the price with a no, and calling for the elimination of restraints upon sexuality. In recent decades, the methodology and the conclusions of both the Boaz school of Anthropology and the Kinsey Reports have been shown to be deeply flawed. See Dr. Derek Freedman’s Margaret Mead in Samoa: the Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, (Harvard University Press, 1983) and The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, (Basic Books, 1999) and regarding the Kinsey Reports, Dr. Judith G. Reisman’s Kinsey, Sex and Fraud: The Indoctrination of a People, (Lafayette: Huntington House, 1990) and Sexual Sabotage: How One Mad Scientist Unleashed a Plague of Corruption and Contagion on America (WND Books, 2010).
(8) This development empowered the sexual revolution, because it allowed the revolutionaries to argue that since technology had now made it possible to have sexual intercourse without the fear of an unwanted pregnancy, the old rules governing sexual conduct were obsolete and could be eliminated. The obvious flaw in this argument is that prevented inconvenient pregnancies was not the only reason for the old rules. Another flaw can be inferred from the fact that the demand for the lifting of restrictions upon abortion increased after the invention of the birth control pill.
(9) Richard Hooker wrote “For the world will not endure to hear that we are wiser than any have been which went before. In which consideration there is cause why we should be slow and unwilling to change, without very urgent necessity, the ancient ordinances, rites, and long approved customs, of our venerable predecessors. The love of things ancient doth argue stayedness, but levity and want of experience maketh apt unto innovations.” Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, chapter vii, 3. This can be found on page 90 of Volume 2, of The Works of Richard Hooker, the 2010 print-on-demand edition, arranged by Michael Russell from John Keble’s 1836 edition. If this is the case with regards to the customs and ceremonies of the Church, how much more so is it the case of her ethical teachings.
(10)The account of Sodom and Gomorrah, in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis, is not sufficient in itself to establish that same-sex erotic relationships are intrinsically sinful, because it was rape the men of Sodom were intent upon, and someone could always argue that it was only the intended rape and not the fact that it was same-sex that was deemed wicked. Although the counterargument could be made that if that were the case, Lot’s offer of his daughters as a substitute makes little sense, God did tell the prophet Ezekiel to say that the sin of Sodom consisted of pride, arrogance, greed, idleness, and neglect and indifference to the needy, as well as sexual perversion (Ezekiel 16:49-50). Nevertheless, when the account of Sodom is compared to the very similar account, at the end of the Book of Judges, of the Benjamites of Gibeah, a point can be made that reinforces what we have seen about the seriousness of the prohibitions in the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus. Sodom and Gomorrah, were cities in Canaan, judged for their wickedness in the days of Abraham. The Book of Judges, begins by telling how the Israelities failed to carry out God’s commandment regarding the nations of Canaan but had instead made peace treaties with many of them, and how as a result they were led astray into committing the abominations of these nations. This began a cyclical pattern of their falling into these abominations, being judged by God, repenting and being restored, and then falling again, which is well established in the Book of Judges and which continues throughout the Old Testament history. In the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Judges, there is an account in which a Levite, travelling with his servant and his concubine, enters the Benjamite city of Gibeah and accepts the hospitality of an Ephraimite who lives there. The men of Gibeah, recreate the sin of Sodom by besieging the house, and demanding that the Levite be turned over to them that they “may know him.” The Levite’s concubine is turned over to them and the incident results in a civil war in which the tribe of Benjamin is reduced to six hundred men. The point of this narrative, placed at the end of the Book of Judges, is that the Israelites, having been ensnared by the sinful ways of the nations they had failed to destroy, had become the new Sodom.
(11) I have said nothing about the third traditional Anglican authority, reason. This is not because I think the decision to bless same-sex relationships is reasonable. The decision was made to conform to a culture, in which “male” and “female” are regarded as malleable categories, to be defined by each individual for him/her/itself, in which a person’s sex is regarded as something that can be changed through surgery but his “sexual orientation” is an unchangeable destiny, fixed in stone from birth, in which those who express their belief that homosexual acts are sinful in an irenic fashion are accused of “hate” in words full of anger, vulgarity, and contempt by those who claim to believe in tolerance and love. That is hardly a rational choice.
(12) “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” is the canon of fifth century St. Vincent of Lerins, a traditional brief way of explaining how to identify the small-o orthodox or small-c catholic faith.
(13) Ted and Virginia Byfield, "As goes the Royal Bank, so goes Canada's Anglican Church, the slave of social conformity", Report Newsmagazine, National Edition, July 8, 2002, p. 51
The concept of just war has been an important part of the discussion of war and peace in the Western tradition of thought. The concept, stated simply, is that only under certain circumstances and conditions is it right to fight a war. Late in pre-Christian classical antiquity, the Roman senator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, inspired in part by ideas from earlier philosophers like Plato, gave a basic outline of these conditions. A few centuries later the influential Western church father, St. Augustine of Hippo, articulated a similar view from a Christian perspective. In the late middle ages, St. Thomas Aquinas drew upon St. Augustine, to present a systematic defense of the concept of just war in his Summa Theologica. To be just, he wrote, a war must meet three conditions – it must be declared and conducted by legitimately constituted authorities, it must have a just cause, and it must be fought with the right intentions of the heart. An idea common to all these thinkers, was that only those whose intent was to establish a secure peace, could fight a war justly. They saw the concept of just war, not as an instrument to enable and justify warmongers, but as a means of limiting and lessening the horrors of war.
The Augustinian and Thomistic concept of just war has not been universally accepted by all Christians. Indeed, many of St. Augustine’s arguments for just war occur in letters in which he is responding to the idea that the Christian religion forbids all wars, indicating that this idea was in circulation at the time. While it would be accurate to say that the Augustinian/Thomistic concept of just war has been the mainstream view of orthodox Christianity throughout history, the idea that war is always wrong, never justifiable, and always forbidden, has also had a strong voice within Christianity. It is has historically been a minority voice, an opposition voice, in the small-o-orthodox and small-c-catholic tradition (1) and the official, majority voice of some of the radical, but still Trinitarian sects. (2)
Which view is most consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and the Holy Scriptures?
I have framed the question in those terms deliberately, because I wish to discuss the conflict between the view that war is sometimes justified and the view that it can never be justified, as a disagreement amongst orthodox, Trinitarian, Christians. Of course this disagreement is not merely an in-house debate between Christians. It a broader ethical debate, that includes Christian believers, those of other faiths, and unbelievers alike. What orthodox, Trinitarian, Christians on both sides of the debate have in common, however, is a high view of the teachings of Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and the Holy Scriptures (3) and therefore, although the general principles over which the broader debate is carried out interest us, the question, ultimately, for the orthodox Christian is which side is Apostolic, Biblical, and Christian.
The answer to our question, ultimately hinges upon the interpretation of certain key New Testament texts and the consistency of either position with the general ethical principles taught in the New Testament. Before we look at these texts and principles, however, there are two other questions that we need to answer. What do the Hebrew Scriptures teach about war? What is the view of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanakh, found in the teachings of Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and the New Testament Scriptures?
The Hebrew Scriptures are not silent on the subject, and they were the sacred canon of the faith community to which Jesus and the Apostles belonged. Therefore, we need to know what they teach about war, and what Jesus and His Apostles thought and said about the Hebrew Scriptures, in order to make sense of their own teachings about war. Jesus Himself stated, that His view of the Tanakh is vital to our understanding of the passage in His teachings which is most crucial to the debate over just war v. non-resistance.
What does the Tanakh Say About War?
Let us consider what the Hebrew Scriptures have to say about war and then look at what Jesus and His Apostles had to say about the Hebrew Scriptures.
Jewish people call their Scriptures the Tanakh, a word formed from the acronym of Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, which are the three sections into which they divide the books that Christians call the Old Testament. The Torah, which means “the teachings” and is usually translated The Law, is the foundation of the Tanakh and the Jewish faith. It consists of the five books of Moses, Genesis – Deuteronomy. The Book of Genesis introduces the God of Israel as the Creator of the whole universe and all mankind, and then the patriarchs of the House of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom God made promises. It sets the stage for the book of Exodus, which tells the history of how God saved the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and made a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. The details of that covenant are recorded in Exodus and Leviticus. The book of Numbers tells the history of how the Israelites wandered in the desert under Moses leadership for forty years because of their disobedience and distrust. Finally, the book of Deuteronomy records the final speeches Moses gave to the Israelites, before his death and the beginning of their conquest of the land God had promised them.
In Genesis, the chapters before the calling of Abraham, include the account of the first murder, of Abel by Cain, and God’s judgement of Cain for this evil. Then it tells of how the world became full of corruption and violence, which God judged by sending a flood to destroy the world, saving only Noah and the inhabitants of the ark. After the flood, He declared that He would hold man and beast accountable, for the shedding of man’s blood, saying “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (9:6) A lesson the pre-Abrahamic chapters of the Book of Genesis appear to be teaching, is that God holds human life sacred (4), detests violence and bloodshed, but authorizes mankind to act as His agent in punishing violence with death. Is this lesson maintained throughout the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh?
The answer is an unmistakable yes. When God establishes His covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus, the first commandments He hands down are the famous Ten Commandments. These begin with religious duties, and end with civil duties. The first of the civil duties (5) is the commandment “thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). When, however, God shortly thereafter lists the punishments that are to be made, death is the prescribed penalty for murder, (21:12), smiting his father and mother (21:15) , kidnapping (21:16) and cursing his parents (21:17) (6). It is even the penalty for an ox owner whose ox gores someone to death if the owner knows the ox is dangerous and does not take appropriate measures to keep him from goring (21:29). It is the prescribed penalty for several other offenses as well.
It should be obvious, therefore, that the carrying out of the penalty of death for these offenses was not considered to be a violation of “thou shalt not kill”, for the penalty was prescribed by the very code which contained the commandment against killing. This was not regarded as a contradiction, because the commandment against killing was a general commandment, personal obedience to which was demanded of all, whereas the judgements of death were to be administered by those to whom God had deputized the authority to pass such judgements, i.e., the community, the Israelite nation, and its representative leaders (7). The judgements of death within the Sinaitic code are a specific example, of the general rule laid down by God in the Book of Genesis after the Flood – that “Whoso” – whichever person acting in his own capacity- “sheds blood, by man” – the community, in its existential representatives – “shall his blood be shed.”
Just war and the death penalty are closely related matters. Those who oppose the idea of just war tend to oppose capital punishment as well, and on the same grounds, just as support for the idea of just war and the death penalty tend to go together. This is so for a very logical reason – if the organized community, in its existential representative leadership, has the legitimate authority to use lethal force in the punishment of heinous crimes then it surely has the legitimate authority to use lethal force in conflicts with other societies in which its peace and security and the wellbeing of its people are threatened.
The Hebrew Scriptures would seem to agree with that logic. In the Book of Exodus, after God delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, before they arrived at Mt. Sinai they were attacked by the Amalekites. Joshua led them into the battle of Rephidim, which they won. During their forty year trek through the wilderness, they were attacked by Canaanite and Amorite kings, usually after being refused permission to pass through their territory, and each time they win and seize the territory of their enemies. These victories are attributed to God’s having been on their side, and at the end of the Book of Numbers, just before their arrival at the River Jordan, Moses received a commandment from God to attack and crush the Midianites, and he assembles a twelve-thousand man army to do so. The reason given for this war was that the Midianites had sent their prostitutes to seduce the Israelites into idol-worship bringing a plague upon them. It is clearly implied that God approved of Israel’s defending herself when attacked in the wilderness and it is outright stated that He ordered her to avenge herself against the Midianites.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, in Moses’ final speeches to Israel on the bank of River Jordan just before his death, he gives them two distinct sets of instructions with regards to war. One of these, which is found in the twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy, is a general set of instructions about how they are to conduct themselves in war. The first instruction in this set is that they were to go into war trusting in God rather than in their own strength or numbers. They were to demonstrate this faith in God by having their officers announce than anyone with any excuse for not fighting, even if it was mere cowardice, was to go home. Earlier in the Torah, they had incurred the anger of God by doing the opposite of this, by shrinking back from the conquest of Canaan because of reports of the strength of the peoples who dwelt there (Numbers 13-14). Their forty years wandering in the wilderness was punishment for this. Later in the Tanakh, King David would again incur the judgement of God for violating these instructions by taking a census (II Samuel 24, I Chronicles 21), and it is notable that the idea that Israel and her kings should trust in the Lord rather than in the strength of their fortresses and the numbers of their armies is a recurring theme in the Davidic Psalms. The second instruction in the general principles of war laid down in Deuteronomy, was that when they went against a city, they were to first make an offer of peace. If that offer was accepted, they were to abide by it, and accept tribute from the people of that city. If the offer was rejected, then they could go to war with the city. The third instruction was that they were not to use fruit-bearing trees in war, only trees that did not produce edible fruit.
The second set of instructions, pertained specifically to the conquest of Canaan that the Israelites were about to undertake. This was to be an exception to the second instruction in the general set. They were not to make peace with the seven nations on the other side of the Jordan – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. They were to show no mercy to them. They were to utterly destroy them, to cut them off from the land, to enter into no treaties with them, and to have no social interaction with them. This set of instructions is repeated several times throughout Deuteronomy, but in the twentieth chapter it is clearly identified as being an exception to the normal rule, and as such a reason is given for it. These nations commit abominable practices in the worship of their idols and God did not want His people to be tainted by these abominations. The Israelites are told that in doing this, they would not only be coming into possession of the land which God had promised them, but they would be the agents of the wrath of God against these nations for their abominable practices. (8)
The Israelites did not follow these instructions. The history of the conquest is told in the Book of Joshua and the first chapters of the Book of Judges which picks up the history at the death of Joshua. In Joshua, the Hivites of Gibeon, trick Joshua into signing a treaty with them by pretending they came from a far off land. In the first chapter of Judges it tells of how most of the tribes made treaties with the Canaanites and Amorites and accepted tribute from them, and at the beginning of the second chapter God pronounces His displeasure with this disobedience, saying that the survivors of these nations would become a thorn in the Israelite’s side, and that their idols would be a snare to them. The rest of Judges tells how in the period before the establishment of the kingdom, the Israelites were seduced into worshipping the idols of these nations, how God would send Mesopotamian, Moabite, Canaanite, and Philistine enemies to enslave them, and then, when they had repented, raise up judges, leaders who combined the role of magistrate and military commander, to fight these enemies and liberate the Israelites. God actively assisted the judges in war, as He did Joshua during the conquest.
The concept of war that the Hebrew Scriptures appear to teach, is therefore a complex one. From the prehistory in the Book of Genesis, and the promises about the Messiah, the New Covenant, and the Kingdom of God in the writings of the prophets, comes the idea that war, violence, and bloodshed are not ideal, that they entered God’s creation through the sin of mankind, and that in the Kingdom of God, they will be eliminated and peace and justice established. King David was forbidden to build God’s Temple because he was a man of war (II Samuel 7, I Chronicles 22:7-8, 28:3) and so the task fell to King Solomon, whose reign was an unusually long period of peace (I Chronicles 22:9-10). This has two sides to it. It was not an expression of divine disapproval of David’s wars. The wars King David fought, a continuation of the wars against the Philistines that had plagued Israel from the time of the judges through the reign of Saul, were the necessary means to the end of the established peace during the reign of Solomon, and David certainly had God’s approbation for fighting them. Nevertheless, the fact that the martial nature of his reign made it inappropriate for him, rather than his son who reigned in peace, to build the Temple, suggests that even wars that God approves or even commands, taint a person. They are not unjust, but they render a person unclean, an idea also suggested by the requirement in Deuteronomy for ritual purification after killing someone in battle. God’s people are not prohibited from fighting wars, indeed, they are sometimes commanded to do so, but rules are laid down for the conduct of war in the Deuteronomic Code, the first and foremost of which is that they are to trust in God for their victory, rather than in their strength and numbers, which is one expression of a major theme throughout the Tanakh, that God’s people are to trust in God for their safety, security, and salvation.
This teaching is clearly more compatible with the classical just war theory taught by Cicero than with the idea of non-resistance or pacifism.
What did Jesus Say About the Hebrew Scriptures?
This leads us to the question of what view of the Hebrew Scriptures is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. For if Jesus and His Apostles taught pacifism or non-resistance, as is sometimes alleged, then their teachings would seem to be inconsistent with the Hebrew Scriptures, and if that is the case the nature of that inconsistency will need to be explained.
There have been those, who have seen the teachings of Jesus and those of the Hebrew Scriptures as mutually exclusive and contradictory. Sometimes, those who see things this way prefer the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures over those of Jesus. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, approved of the Hebrew Scriptures as teaching a “master morality”, similar to that of the pre-Socratic Greeks, while He disparaged the teachings of Christ, as well as those of Euripides and Plato’s Socrates as “slave morality.” (9)
More often, however, it has been the other way around, with people who purport to be followers of Christ, rejecting the Hebrew Scriptures in whole or in part as being barbaric. This idea is not something that has just popped up in modern times, but has been around since almost the beginning of Christianity. Marcion, a second century bishop in Asia Minor taught that the God of the Old Testament was not the God Whom Jesus Christ spoke of as His Father, but was rather the evil Demiurge. This was a common doctrine among the Gnostics of the early Christian centuries, including Mani the third century Persian, whose teachings St. Augustine of Hippo was a follower of before his conversion to Christianity. Faustus of Mileve, a Manichean bishop, pointed to the wars of Moses as evidence of this claim (10).
While this idea has been around for a very long time it has been officially condemned by the Church from the very beginning. By the very beginning I mean the Apostles themselves in the New Testament. St. John the Apostle, in his first and second epistles, warned that deceivers, whom he called “antichrists”, had entered the Church, claiming to have been sent by the Apostles but denying the doctrine of Christ. (11) The “doctrine of Christ” which they denied, was that “Christ was come in the flesh”. Since the Gnostics believed that the material world was intrinsically evil, having been created, in their doctrine, by the evil Demiurge that they identified with the Old Testament YHWH, they taught the doctrine of docetism, that the purely spiritual Christ only appeared to be human, to suffer, and to die, i.e., they denied that “Christ was come in the flesh.” Therefore, the early Church was clearly in line with the teaching of the Apostles, when they excommunicated Marcion, condemned the teachings of the Gnostics, and began the Nicene Creed, that would become the standard of orthodoxy throughout the Christian Church, by declaring “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
The view of the Hebrew Scriptures that is found in the recorded teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels is very different from that of the Gnostics. After His baptism and before His public ministry, the Synoptic Gospels record that He went into the wilderness to fast, where He was tempted by the devil. His responded to each of the devil’s three temptations by quoting from the Tanakh. When He returned from the wilderness, He began an itinerant ministry in which He would travel, mostly through Galilee, preaching a message He called the Gospel, i.e. Good News, of the Kingdom. That message was that the Kingdom of God had come, and that God’s people Israel were to respond with repentance and faith. The Kingdom of God that He referred to was that predicted by the Old Testament prophets and throughout His teaching ministry it would become clear that what He meant by saying that the Kingdom was at hand, was that He Himself was the Christ, the Messiah promised in those writings. St. Luke records that towards the beginning of His ministry, Jesus went to the town of Nazareth in which He had been raised, and gave the Scriptural reading in the synagogue on the Sabbath. (12) He read from the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, and after the reading announced that “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.”
Jesus connected belief in the Tanakh with belief in Himself. St. John, in the fifth chapter of his Gospel records that after healing a man at the pool of Bethesda, He was persecuted for healing on the Sabbath. In His response to those who persecuted Him, He pointed to witnesses that would, in accordance with the Torah’s requirement that testimony be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses, bear witness of Himself. The witnesses were John the Baptist, His own works, and His Father. He then went on to explain that the Old Testament was the testimony of His Father about Himself:
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me… Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words? (vv. 39, 45-47).
In the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Jesus placed this same argument in the mouth of Abraham. In the parable, which Jesus addressed to the Pharisees at some point after the events recorded in the eleventh chapter of St. John’s Gospel (13), the rich man asks Abraham that Lazarus be sent to his father’s house to warn his five brothers and Abraham tells him “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them”, and when Dives pleads that they will repent if someone comes to them from the dead, Abraham says “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
Jesus treated the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative in His disputes with His enemies. He rebuked the Pharisees for abusing human tradition to circumvent obedience to the commandments of Scripture (Matthew 15:3-6), and told the Sadducees, who only accepted the Torah and not the rest of the Tanakh as Scripture and as a result did not believe in such things as an afterlife and the resurrection (14) that they “err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29) and went on to argue against their disbelief in the resurrection, on the basis of the tense of a verb in Exodus, one of the books they did accept.
Jesus unmistakably regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God and treated faith in those Scriptures and faith in Himself as inseparable.
Does the New Covenant Contain a Higher Standard Than the Old?
This is acknowledged in a number of traditions that are Trinitarian, orthodox about the Person and Work of Christ, but which teach that Jesus taught an ethic of pacifism or non-resistance. These traditions acknowledge the Hebrew Scriptures to be as much the Word of God as the Christian Scriptures but maintain that Jesus taught a higher ethical standard than that contained in the Law of Moses, that has superseded the Law of Moses, and that this higher ethical standard contains the principle of non-resistance.
The Christian Scriptures do contain a number of ideas that seem to lend weight to this teaching. The very name we traditionally give to the Christian Scriptures is one of them. “New Testament” means “New Covenant”, and we call the Christian Scriptures this, because Jesus, as He instituted the Holy Eucharist at His final Passover seder with His Apostles, on the eve of His Crucifixion, took the cup and said “this is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” This refers back to the promise in the Old Testament prophets that God would establish a New Covenant with His people, in which His law would be written upon their hearts, rather than upon tablets of stone. This New Covenant is based upon an act of salvation, which took place on the anniversary of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt, to which that earlier act of salvation pointed – the Son of God’s offering Himself up as the one, true, and perfect sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world and makes His people right with God.
This salvation is available, the New Testament teaches, to all people, Jew and Gentile alike, who will receive it by faith, and so, under the New Covenant, all believers comprise the people of God. It is not that God replaced His people of the Old Covenant with a new people as is taught in the doctrine known as Replacement Theology, or that He has two different peoples at the same time as is taught in the doctrine known as Dispensationalism, but that, as St. Paul explained in the eleventh chapter of his epistle to the Romans, God’s people is like an olive tree, into which God has grafted believing Gentiles like branches from a wild olive tree, while breaking off some of the natural branches due to unbelief.
The establishment of the New Covenant has changed some of the things God requires of His people. The ceremonial requirements of the Old Covenant – circumcision, dietary restrictions, the keeping of the Old Testament holy days are no longer required under the New. These requirements had been part of the Old Covenant, not because they commanded things which were intrinsically righteous or forbade things that were intrinsically sinful, but to distinguish Israel as being set apart from other nations for God. Throughout the New Testament, the fact that these are no longer requirements is connected with the integration of Jewish and Gentile believers into one Church with one faith, one Lord, one baptism. The dietary restrictions were lifted in a vision God sent St. Peter, in the tenth chapter of Acts, the vision that persuades him to preach the Gospel to the Gentile Cornelius. The Apostles ruled, in the first ecumenical council of the Church in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, that circumcision was no longer a requirement. The occasion that necessitated the calling of this council was the conversion of Gentiles and the need to incorporate them into the Church. In the second chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, he wrote about how the Jews and Gentiles had been made one in the Church, through Christ’s death, which has broken down the wall that divided them – the “law of commandments contained in ordinances”.
Yet it is also clear that the ethical requirements of God’s people under the Old Covenant have continued into the New Covenant. We do not achieve salvation through our efforts to meet these requirements, but nobody achieved salvation that way under the Old Covenant either. Our having been justified before God by His grace through Christ does not give us permission to sin but is rather the reason we are to avoid sin (15). The difference between God’s ethical requirements under the two Covenants is that in the Old Covenant they were an external standard, a list of dos and don’ts, written in stone, whereas in the New Covenant God’s requirements would be an internal standard that God would write upon the very hearts of His people (16). This refers to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers, that began with His descent upon the Church on Pentecost as recorded in the second chapter of Acts.
As an effective means of producing righteousness, the internal indwelling of the Spirit of God in the hearts of believers to actively change them, and produce repentance and obedience, is a superior law to an external standard that merely threatens and promises, as St. Paul argued in his epistle to the Galatians. Does that mean that the content of what is defined as right and wrong has also changed, that God’s people under the New Covenant are held to a stricter standard, and that now they are forbidden to participate in war even for defensive purposes?
Resist Not Evil
Those who think so, find their strongest supporting evidence in the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the fifth through seventh chapters of the Gospel According to St. Matthew. In the Beatitudes, the blessings which open the Sermon, Jesus declared “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” (5:9) The most important passage, however, is the following:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? (vv. 38-47)
The idea that Christ forbade His followers from participating in wars takes a number of different forms. One of these, the doctrine of nonresistance, derives its name from the words “resist not evil” in this passage. Nonresistance is more than just opposition to war, it is an ethical philosophy that holds that even in the interests of self-defense one should not respond to violence with violence. Those who believe in this idea, regard it as a higher ethical standard than that which allows people to fight back in their own defense, because the person who submits to violence without responding in kind is not lowering himself to the level of his attacker.
Is this what Jesus meant?
The verses in question follow a format in which Jesus introduces a quotation with “Ye have heard that it hath been said” and then, following the quotation, introduces His own remarks with “But I say unto you”. This occurs a total of six times in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, and the six “Ye have heard…But I say” constructions, are divided into three pairs each of which has a common idea. In the first pair, for example, the quotations are straight from the Ten Commandments, the commandments against murder and adultery, and the common idea to Jesus’ commentary on these commandments is that it is not enough to keep them outwardly, one must keep them internally as well.
It is a mistake, however, to think that Jesus is here replacing the Old Testament Law with a “higher standard”. Jesus Himself warned against interpreting His words this way. Following the Beatitudes, and the verses where He tells His followers they are the salt and light of the world, Jesus introduces this section of the Sermon by saying:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (vv. 17-20)
This introduction was necessary, because the “Ye have heard it said….But I say unto you” construction could easily be taken as a form of contradiction, i.e., “The Scriptures say this, but don’t mind them, do this instead”. In this warning, Jesus says it is a mistake to read His words that way. The Hebrew Scriptures – the “law and the prophets” are the established, authoritative, Word of God, and He has not come to abolish them.
He had, however, come to fulfil them. Now the Christian Scriptures as a whole teach that Jesus fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures in a number of ways – He fulfilled the prophesies of the coming Messiah, He offered Himself up as the ultimate sacrifice to which the Old Testament sacrifices pointed, etc. This is not what Jesus was talking about when He said “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” (17) The word translated “fulfil” here is pleroo, which means “to cause to be full” or to “fill up.” This is a way of saying that He is going to explain the full meaning of the Law, that He is going to fill it up with meaning the way you fill up a cup with water.
So in these three pairs of “Ye have heard it said…But I say unto you” constructions, He is not contradicting the Old Testament, but explaining it. His overall point, as He immediately goes on to explain, is that the righteousness God requires is a greater righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees. The first pair make the point that the righteousness God demands involves internal obedience to His ethical commandments and well as external obedience. The second pair make a similar point about the civil provisions of the Law. While the Law contains civil provisions for divorce and the swearing of oaths in court, God’s righteousness requires marital fidelity and truthfulness on all occasions.
What point was He making in the third pair, which is the pair we are considering?
The point which He was making is that God has not given to us, as private persons, the authority to punish evil that He has given to lawfully constituted authorities, and that we are not to assume that authority unto ourselves.
The first quotation “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, in the Old Testament law, was the standard that the civil authorities of the commonwealth of Israel were to use in administering justice. It was not a license for private individuals to hunt down those who have wronged them and to exact personal revenge. To interpret “Resist not evil…” as a revolutionary command to abolish the death penalty and the Lex Talionis in general would violate Jesus warning against thinking that He is come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. So, therefore, would interpreting “Resist not evil” as forbidding the civil authorities to engage in war. His point must therefore have been that these civil penalties are not to be privately administered in revenge.
The second quotation is only partially taken from the Old Testament. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour” is taken from Leviticus 19:18. The second part of the quotation, “and hate thine enemy” is not found there. Exactly what Jesus was quoting there we do not know. It may have been an interpretive gloss on the first part of the quotation but we have no written record of it. At any rate, it is not from the Tanakh, which is why when Jesus went on to tell His followers to do the exact opposite, He was not contradicting the Law or the Prophets.
While Leviticus 19:18 does not include a commandment to hate your enemies, it does include more than just the words “love thy neighbour”. Here is the whole verse:
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.
In its original Old Testament context, then, “love thy neighbour” was thought of as the opposite of seeking vengeance and holding grudges. The word Jesus uses for “enemy” in both the non-Levitical part of the quotation and in His commandment to “love thy enemies”, is not the word ordinarily used to refer to one’s enemy in war (18), but rather the word echthros. This word refers to a personal enemy, usually someone who was once a friend but with whom one is now at odds.
Note the significance of this. The part of the quotation which is not taken from Leviticus 19:18, “hate thine enemy”, actually contradicts the verse. The use of the term echthros, that ordinarily refers to a personal enemy, someone in your own community with whom you have had a falling out, as the object of a command to hate, conveys the opposite meaning of Leviticus’ command to not avenge yourself or hold a grudge against “the children of thy people”. Therefore, when Jesus told His followers to “love thine enemies” He was emphasizing the Levitical commandment against personal vengeance and grudge-holding.
In this final pair of “Ye have heard it said…But I say unto you” constructions, then, Jesus was telling His followers not to seek personal revenge, not to hold grudges against people. Other interpretations, that He was forbidding the death penalty and war, are not consistent with His statement that He is not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil them.
Then Would My Servants Fight
Another statement of Jesus, frequently cited as evidence that Christ taught nonresistance to His followers, is His declaration to Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight”, found in the eighteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. The “if…then” kind of argument Jesus was making, relies on the opposite of that which follows the “then” being true. “Then would my servants” fight, only works as an argument for “My kingdom is not of this world” if His servants did not fight.
The problem with using this as an argument for nonresistance is that the argument only works if this declaration is cut short after the word fight. (19) The full declaration reads:
My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
Read in its entirety, Jesus’ argument does not require absolute nonresistance from His followers to demonstrate that His Kingdom is not of this world, just that His servant not fight to prevent His arrest and trial.
St. Peter had, in fact, attempted to fight to prevent His arrest, and Jesus had stopped him from doing so. This is recorded in all four Gospels, and St. Matthew records Jesus saying the following to St. Peter:
Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. (v. 26:52)
This verse too, is cited in support of nonresistance, but the two verses that follow demonstrate that the reason Jesus stopped St. Peter is that His arrest and trial are necessary parts of God’s plan.
These verses show that Christ taught that His followers are not to use force to establish His kingdom on earth. A similar point was made by St. Paul in his epistle to the Ephesian Church. He wrote:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (6:12)
In its immediate context, which describes the spiritual armour of God, it is clear that when this verse refers says “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood” by “we” it means the Church qua the Church, and not believers acting in some other capacity, as policemen or soldiers, for example.
Military Duty Was Not Forbidden To Earliest Believers
These verses do not teach that civil governments are forbidden from using force to maintain law and order or to defend the security and peace of their countries, or that Christ’s followers are forbidden to serve as soldiers or policeman. It would be very surprising if it did, considering the number of places in the New Testament where it explicitly identifies the civil authorities as God’s servants, acting with authority given them by God, and enjoining Christians to pray for the civil authorities and to be good, dutiful, citizens (for example, Romans 13, 1 Timothy 2:2, 1 Peter 2:13, 17).
In fact the exact opposite of the idea, held by those who teach nonresistance, that Christ’s followers were forbidden to serve as soldiers or policemen is the case.
When St. Augustine argued that just war was consistent with the teachings of Christianity, liked to point to the soldiers who came to be baptized by John the Baptist, and were told “be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14) rather than “find a new career.” In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the chapter immediately after the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, tells of a Roman centurion who comes to Jesus and asks Him to heal his servant. Jesus commends the man for His faith, saying to those present “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” and fulfils his request. He does not condemn the man for his military career or require that he abandon it. Later, in the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts, another centurion, Cornelius, is described as a “devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always.” Upon the instructions of an angel, he sends away for St. Peter, who comes, preaches the Gospel to Cornelius and his household, and, when they have believed and received the Holy Ghost, and baptizes them. Again, there is no mention of an expectation that Cornelius would abandon his military career.
A Higher Standard?
The fact of the matter is that there is one thing, and only one thing, in Jesus’ teachings that suggests that He has imposed a higher standard on His followers than that contained in the Old Testament. Jesus, when asked what the greatest commandment was, said:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:36-40)
Many read this passage as if Jesus said that “these two commandments summarize the new ethical teachings I am giving you” but that is not what He said. He said that the entire Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, hang on these commandments. In the upper room, after the Last Supper, Jesus did give a new commandment to His disciples:
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. (Jn. 13:34)
Like the two commandments that summarize the Old Testament, the verb in the new commandment for the Church is love. This commandment does, in fact, raise the standard from that of the Old Testament. “Love thy neighbour as thyself” does not tell people to place the needs of others ahead of themselves, only on par with themselves. The statement “as I have loved you” in the new commandment, has a double meaning. It means both “because I have loved you”, which provides Christ’s followers with the motivation to keep the commandment, and “in the way I have loved you”, which implies that the love is to be self-sacrificial. Later, Christ makes this point explicit, when He repeats and explains the commandment:
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (15:12-13)
Does the new commandment contain the idea of nonresistance?
Look at it this way. Suppose that a foreign enemy has determined to conquer the country in which you live, and it is a merciless, barbarian, foe. Its modus operandi is to pillage, rape, and enslave, and to lay waste to the countryside. The call to arms, to fight off this invader goes out. Which person, do you think, better demonstrates the kind of “love for one another” in which a man lays down his life for his friends? The man who answers the call to arms and goes out to fight the barbarian horde, willing to sacrifice his own life, for the good of his wife, children, relatives, friends, neighbours, and countrymen? Or the man who recites “resist not evil” to justify allowing his wife to be raped, his children enslaved, and his brothers, friends, and neighbours to be killed?
Nonresistance does not look very much like a “higher ethical standard” when considered in that light, now, does it?
(1) The tradition of churches that hold to the faith expressed in the creeds of the undivided church.
(2) During the Reformation, for example, the Anabaptists were radical reformers, who like the Puritans in England, went much further than the mainstream Reformers – Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Knox, etc. - while remaining Trinitarians. The Anabaptists preached an ethics of non-resistance that they claimed to be based on Christ’s teachings and example, and this remains the official doctrine of churches in the Anabaptist tradition, such as the Mennonites and Hutterites, to this day.
(3) Someone without a high view of the teachings of Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and the Holy Scriptures, is, of course, not an orthodox Christian.
(4) Note the second part of Genesis 9:6 “for in the image of God made he man” and its broader context 9:1-7.
(5) The duty to honour one’s parents is a religious duty not a civil duty. This is seen more clearly in the numbering schemes of the Jews, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants, than in the Augustinian scheme accepted by the Roman Catholics and Lutherans. In the Augustinian scheme, the commandment against murder is the fifth commandment. In the other schemes, the commandment to honour one’s parents is the fifth commandment – five religious duties, five civil duties. This may not make sense to many people today, because the division of the commandments that is more obvious to the modern mind is into the commandments ending in the Sabbath commandment, and the commandments after. The last six commandment include instructions as to how to behave towards other people, the first four do not. Nevertheless, to the ancient mind, the duty to honour one’s parents would have gone together with the duty to honour God/the gods. Giving proper respect to God or the gods and to one’s ancestors was considered to be a single moral virtue – pietas, or piety.
(6) See previous note.
(7) Not “representative” in the sense of democratic/republican theory, but in the sense of what Eric Voeglin called “existential representation”, i.e., the way a government represents its community/society/city/nation by acting for it, making decisions for it, on the historical stage. See The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 36-51.
(8) Leviticus 18 gives a description of these abominable practices. While the bulk of the description pertains to various types of sexual immorality, note especially verse 21 “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”
(9) Nietzsche argued that in every language, the words used to describe that which is praiseworthy, were originally terms coined, used, and defined by the strong, the master class, to describe their own characteristics, while the words used to denote the opposite concept, originally referred to the characteristics of those whom the master class subjected, the weak, the slaves. Thus such things as physical strength and beauty, strength of will, and courage were “good”, whereas their opposites were “bad”. Then, he argued, there was a change, and the meanings of “good” and “bad” were inverted, to create a morality that favoured the weak over the strong. He argued this most fully in Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, although a version of this concept was present in his earliest book The Birth of Tragedy.
(10) As noted in Part Two, one of the times in which St. Augustine defended the concept of just war, was in the context of refuting this position, in Contra Faustus.
(11) I John 2:18-26, 4:1-3, II John 7-11.
(12) This was a liturgical Scriptural reading, a practice that carried over into the Church from the synagogue.
(13) Although the parable is recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke, which does not record the raising of Lazarus, it is obvious that the parable was given after that event. St. John records that after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests and Pharisees did not respond by believing in Jesus, but began their conspiracy to kill Him. They did not believe – “though one rose from the dead”. This is the whole point of the parable. Note that Dives, who is described by Jesus as being dressed in purple and fine linen – the robes of the high priest - has five brothers who live in his father’s house. The leader of the conspiracy to kill Jesus, according to St. John, was Caiaphas. Caiaphas, the high priest, was the son-in-law of Annas, a previous high priest, who, although he had been removed from office by the Romans, still had tremendous influence. Annas had five sons, who, like their brother-in-law Caiaphas, all held the office of high priest.
(14) The House of Annas, referred to in the previous note, were Sadducees. Note that in the parable Abraham speaks of “Moses and the prophets”.
(15) Romans 6.
(16) Jeremiah 31:31-35, Hebrews 8:7-11, 10:15-17
(17) Although it would be included in His statement “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” The Greek word represented by “fulfilled” here is ginomai, which means “to become” or “to come to pass”.
(18) Polemos is the Greek word for war. The adjective, polemios, -a, -on, which is built off of its stem, means “of war” or “hostile”. In its substantive use, i.e., as a noun, the adjective polemios means enemy, and its plural form, hoi polemioi means “the enemy.”
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca