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Is the New Testament Ambiguous About Non-Violence?

One could argue, with some legitimacy, that the portrait of God in the NT is not unambiguously non-violent, the revelation of God on Calvary notwithstanding. It can’t be denied that there are violent-appearing images of God in certain teachings of Jesus and certain NT authors, especially when it comes to their eschatological teachings. In addition, some argue that Jesus cleansing the temple (John 2:19-22) and instructing the disciples to buy a sword (Luke 22:36-37) are examples of the NT promoting violence. And it certainly can’t be denied that the most violent imagery in the NT is found in the book of Revelation. Indeed, some have argued that chapter 19 of this book contains the most violent imagery in the entire Bible. (See post on violence in Revelation.)

I think I’ve demonstrated that there are legitimate ways to interpret these passages in ways that do not promote violence. The links above introduce my perspective and I have thoroughly addressed these questions in the appendices of Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Yet, it can’t be denied that some of these violent images can be interpreted in ways that suggest that God is not altogether opposed to violence. And to the degree one could interpret these passages as depicting God in ways that promote violence, it must be conceded that the NT depiction of God is not unambiguously enemy-loving and non-violent.

In response to the alleged violence in some sections of the NT, I argue that the revelation of God in Christ, thematically centered on the cross, should incline us to privilege it over possibly-violent depictions of God in the NT. Hence, I would argue we should interpret any passage in the NT that could possibly be viewed as God acting violently in the same way we interpret the OT’s unambiguously violent depictions of God. We should, in other words, interpret these ambiguous views of God through the lens of the cross as I propose in Crucifixion of the Warrior God. (See this video that introduces what I mean by this.)

This leads me to a second level of ambiguity; that is, we must wonder if there is any ambiguity in the call for followers of Jesus to unconditionally embrace an enemy-loving, non-violent posture toward all people at all times. On this score, I confess that I don’t see any ambiguity. Indeed, I can’t think of a teaching in the NT that is simpler, clearer, or more uniformly taught than this one. From my perspective, any ambiguity that is alleged to accompany this teaching arises not because there is any difficulty in understanding it, but because theologians throughout history have struggled to integrate its logic.

The NT’s unambiguous teaching about non-violence—including loving enemies—runs directly counter to commonsense intuitions about the justified use of violence in certain personal, social and national circumstances. The prevailing assumption throughout history and yet today is that Jesus and certain NT authors surely weren’t forbidding the use of violence to protect our families or our country. Whatever they actually meant, this commonsensical line of thinking goes, they could not have meant that, for that is patently absurd and foolish!

The fact is that we ought not be surprised that the NT’s teaching on loving enemies strikes us as foolish since Jesus taught that if we only love those for whom it makes sense to love, there is nothing distinctly godly and rewarding about our love. But when we go beyond the conditional kind of love people normally extend to others and instead choose to love and bless even our worst “enemies,” we reflect God’s indiscriminate love in a distinctive way and thus enjoy a unique reward (Mt 5:46; Lk 6:32-33). Our love, in other words, is supposed to look foolish, and this, it seems to me, rules out any possibility of qualifying the NT’s command to love and to refrain from violence on commonsensical grounds. And it removes any ambiguity.

Related Reading

Podcast: Isn’t God the Author of Suffering in the Crucifixion?

Greg considers the implications of his Cruciform Hermeneutic on his previous work in God at War.  http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0274.mp3

Did God Assist the Israelites in the Violent Battle with the Amalekites? (podcast)

Greg keeps his hands in the air as he battles against Old Testament interpretations that portray God as violent.  http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0748.mp3

Does the Old Testament Justify “Just War”?

Since the time of Augustine, Christians have consistently appealed to the violent strand of the Old Testament to justify waging wars when they believed their cause was “just.” (This is Augustine’s famous “just war” theory.) Two things may be said about this. First, the appeal to the OT to justify Christians fighting in “just” wars…

The Heresy of “Just War”

Since the time when the Jesus-looking kingdom movement was transformed into the Caesar-looking “militant and triumphant” Church, there has been a tradition of Christians by-passing the enemy-loving, non-violent teachings of the NT and instead appealing to the precedent of divinely-sanctioned nationalism and violence in the OT whenever they felt the need to justify engaging in…

Jesus, the Word of God

“[T]he standing message of the Fathers to the Church Universal,” writes Georges Florovsky, was that “Christ Jesus is the Alpha and Omega of the Scriptures both the climax and the knot of the Bible.”[1] It was also unquestionably one of the most foundational theological assumptions of Luther and Calvin as well as other Reformers. Hence,…

Did God Destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? (podcast)

Greg considers the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and speculates on the nature of the angels who were sent there.   Episode 597 http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0597.mp3