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.”
(19) Examples of nonresistance advocates who use the truncated version of this verse to support their arguments include: Harold S. Martin, “The Christian and Nonresistance” , BRF Witness: Volume 3. Number 1, 1968 and “A Christian Declaration On Peace, War and Military Service”, August 22, 1953, General Conference of the Mennonite Church USA,
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