Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why solid reformed doctrines are the basis of a biblical pacifism

Thanks to the insights of a good friend doing some work on Yoder as part of his doctoral thesis, I'm inclined to think that Yoder has a similar problem to Hauerwas, a gaping hole in his theology of atonement, that undoes the central theological underpinning of pacifism. In this post I want to explore how the kind of pacifism I advocate is theologically grounded in classical reformed doctrines. I wish I had a snappy name for it, but really I just think it is a deeply biblical pacifism.

I suppose that a logical place to begin with is with total depravity. To recognise that all human beings are born in sin, are affected by sin, are shot through and through with the corrupting and tainting power and influence of sin, so that in every aspect of their image-bearing being they are sinful, is the frank and stark assessment of humanity that comes from this reading of the scriptures. The corollary to this is that it is through the original sin, the Fall, that death enters the world as judgment, so that all have sinned and so all fall under the judgment of God, the sentence of death. Death is inevitable, and deserved. Those two twin facts underpin this biblical pacifism.

That all have sinned, that sin is judged, that God opposes evil through his judgment, set the frame against which a doctrine of substitutionary atonement makes sense. That the Christ died in our place, to pay the penalty for our sins and so ransom and redeem us by the price of his blood, is the good news, the gospel, which means both that neither do we have a judgment to pay (death), nor a judgment to enact.

Closely linked to the doctrine of atonement though must be an eschatology of Christ's return, his second coming not to die a second time, but as judge of the earth. So that, those who have rejected the atoning work of the cross will face the defeat (as evildoers) and their judgment (as transgressors and rebels), as eternal death, even as Christ's return brings vindication for his forgiven people and resurrection to eternal life. The sure hope of eternal resurrection life is a necessary hope for those who would embrace biblical pacifism.

Lastly in this whistlestop tour, biblical pacifism is grounded in a high view of the Sovereignty of God. That he is the almighty transcendent Creator who made all things, rules all things, works in and through all things to achieve his good and glorious purposes, is the basis of a faith that can trust in his outcome, more than our methods.

If you don't believe in total depravity, then some are more deserving of death than others, because sin is not innate and all-encompassing, and so some have more right than others. biblical pacifism rejects the pride that privileges the life of self and kin over the stranger, because it is no respecter of persons.

If you don't believe in God's judgment, then this life is the only context in which good can triumph, justice can be done, and vengeance taken. Which means that if men don't do it in this world, it won't get done. biblical pacifism rather trusts that God will bring justice, and if not in this life, how much worse in the final judgment.

If you don't trust in the atonement, then there's no surety of forgiveness, which means you have no basis to extend forgiveness to others.

If you don't believe in the second coming, then God's ultimate judgment will never come, and so evil must be defeated in this life, in this world.

If you don't believe in the resurrection, then life is worth killing for.

And if you don't trust in the Sovereignty of God, you must seek to control and determine things for yourself.

It's not any kind of optimism about our world that drives this biblical pacifism, but a profound optimism about God and his redemptive and ultimate purposes.

And you see, this is why biblical pacifism can play the card of "It's more important to be faithful than to secure the right outcome." It's because (a) the 'right' outcome is ultimately secured not by our actions so much as God's goodness, sovereignty, justice, and atoning death in Christ. It's because (b) means create ends, ends do not justify means, and so faithfulness in act will result in faithful outcomes, even if these seem bad or wrong. It's because (c) ultimately we trust that faithfulness will be more effective in securing right outcomes, but we don't lose anything when they don't. It's because (d) we have already died to self, lost all, and been forgiven with a resurrection hope, so we have nothing to lose in martyrdom, but everything to lose in unfaithfulness.


Aric Clark said...

Great stuff! I always like to see people trying to save reformed theology from itself.

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

I appreciated your post's attempt to ground pacifism in Reformed distinctives. But one of the greatest distinctives of the Reformed Churches (as opposed to merely Protestant, a la Luther, Zwingli, & Cranmer) is the focus on the use of the Law (especially its second and third uses). I know it's just a blogpost, but do you see the active restraint of evil as having any place in your pacifism? Locally? Nationally? Internationally?

Seumas Macdonald said...

Fr. Chris,

Thanks for your insightful question. I suppose it would help to broaden the context of what I'm saying. I'm not making an argument to claim the reformed tradition as pacifistic, and so reformed political-theology and the like aren't really a part of my case. Secondly, I'm unpersuaded by the way the Reformed tradition has approached the Law. The 3-uses approach, while not a bad rule of thumb, is hermeneutically fraught with difficulty.

As to your specific question, I think Romans 13 gives a clear role for governments in actively restraining evil and delivering judgment, but that is not the role of the church, and I do not think christians are to undertake such roles in the state. In this I am more Mennonite than Reformed.

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

At least you can admit it with honesty - and that's appreciated. I was a Westminster-style Presbyterian at one time, but now I'm an Anglican. The 39 Articles specifically state:
"The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars." (Article XXXVII, original text)

This was mediating between the Roman position (that they had jurisdiction over their clergy, and thus could be their only judge) and the Anabaptist position (which said that we should not serve the civil government, though it didn't seem to prevent them from taking up arms and slaughtering everyone around them on the continent in order to bring about a radical egalitarianism).

The Reformed position has consistently been that government is a Christian vocation as well - and that government's job is well defined by Romans 13 as restraining or punishing evil and protecting the innocent. Thus the 1536 Geneva Confession enjoins obedience. Question 105 of the Heidelberg says that the civil magistrate bears the sword to prevent murder as a means of fulfilling the 6th commandment. The Belgic Confession explicity condemns the Anabaptist position as one that leads to chaos (and thus is more damaging to the powerless).

I could multiply this list manyfold, but the point I think is clear: acknowledging the sovereignty of God includes paying careful attention to the nature of liberty and the contingency of secondary causes which is established by that same decree. And because it is needful that those who "will judge the angels" also exercise judgment on earth, it is not only permissible but a holy calling to take up civil government in its multiple duties.

That is the Reformed position - and it is one that all Reformed confessions arrive at naturally by contemplating the depravity of man and the sovereignty of God and the surety of the eschaton. It is not merely part of the Reformed tradition that can be set apart as adiaphora but rather is a central component, part of the woof and weft of the fabric that made up what we call the Magisterial Reformation. It's not a later development (after the civil magistrate sides with them) but rather was evident from the beginning.

Thus, while I don't want to say that you're hijacking the name Reformed or using it in bad faith, I do want to enjoin you to consider the context of the positions on sovereignty and depravity. We do well to exercise humility in our contemporary age when the lux isn't as dominant as the tenebras.