For all practical purposes, I am indeed a pacifist: I do not believe Christians can or should serve in the military; I reject war and the use of harmful force as sinful, etc. And yet over the course of recent months, I have become more and more uncomfortable with the idea of pacifism or being a pacifist. The reason for my lack of comfort is analogous to Karl Barth’s concerns about universalism, namely, that a system (whether of salvation or of ethics) is erected in place of a person (Jesus Christ). This is a serious problem. The Bible does not present us with a system of doctrine or of ethics. What it presents is Jesus as Lord.
Now, of course, certain things follow from the confession that Jesus is Lord. Systematic theology has a necessary place within the life of the church (hence my pursuit of a PhD in systematic theology). But we have to be careful that our theological formulations are always a matter of intellectual fidelity to the Messiah. For this reason, in theology, we begin with the event of God’s self-revelation, and our theology is a matter of “thinking-after” this event. Once we establish the revelatory norm, our theology becomes an interpretation of this normative reality for our particular contexts here and now under the guidance of Holy Scripture. Certain things, of course, will remain unshakeable, e.g., the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, or the fact that reconciliation with God is purely an event of divine grace. But the overall interpretation of this divine revelation will take on distinctly different forms within particular cultural locations. My conception of what God did and does cannot simply be transposed into an alien cultural environment without being reinterpreted. Missiologists are keenly aware of this issue, as are biblical translators. The conservative polemic against “dynamic equivalent” translations is quite idiotic, since all translation, by the very nature of being a translation, includes dynamic equivalency. The question is not whether dynamic equivalency is involved, but rather whether this dynamism is faithful to the event of revelation within the cultural context of the translators.
I would say something similar is the case for Christian ethical action. The temptation into which the church throughout history has fallen prey is that we will construct a system of morals (often proof-texting the Bible along the way) that we can then apply to any situation in any culture within any time and place. This is substantially analogous to the situation with systematic theology. Fidelity to the Messiah is replaced with replication of an event. The whole thing can be compared (albeit over-simplistically) to Catholic vs. Protestant ecclesiologies. In Catholic ecclesiology, mission involves the extension of an ecclesial structure which is already fixed and established apart from any cultural particularity. In Protestant ecclesiology, in its modern missiologically informed variants, mission involves the translation of the church into a unique cultural situation. The gospel is reinterpreted for a new community.
The problem with “pacifism” is the problem with any ideological system: one becomes faithful to a system that is defined in abstraction from one’s cultural location. For those familiar with the terminology, the problem with pacifism is that it is anti-missional. The same problem is involved in the traditional ecumenical creeds of the church. Mere repetition of these creeds without theological translation is doctrinally equivalent to a Catholic ecclesiology of structural extension.
What I am advocating is fidelity to the messianic event of reconciliation in Jesus of Nazareth—in both noetic and ethical terms. This act of messianic fidelity will take the form of cultural translation/interpretation under the normative guidance of Scripture, always within the obedience of faith in response to God’s self-attestation and illumination through Word and Spirit. Such fidelity will certainly mean that particular actions are, for the most part, ruled out from the beginning. Committing violent and exploitative acts falls within that scope, as does taking an oath of obedience to anyone apart from Christ (which precludes participation in the government and military, for example). Thus, for all practical purposes, fidelity to Christ will look and smell like pacifism. But what we cannot do is construct some moral-ethical system that says what can or cannot be done in every possible situation. We cannot substitute some rule—“all violence is always wrong”—in place of what Paul calls the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
I take it that my position is in basic conformity with Paul’s overall theology within the (undisputed) NT letters, in which he rejects the erection of some new law in place of the old law. Paul instead engages in a radical annihilation of ethical systems of law, replacing the entirety of the old ethical codes with the one rule “love your neighbor as yourself,” since “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 10:9-10). What does this look like in each unique context? Well, that’s where the difficult work of translation becomes necessary.
Paul’s concern is not with figuring out a list of new laws and rules that conform to the gospel; instead, his concern (which should be ours as well) is with the new human person, the new creation, which is ontologically constituted in Jesus and becomes an existential reality for us in the Spirit’s gift of faith. This new creature lives within the power of the Spirit, who bestows the gifts of the Spirit so that we might live in correspondence to the life of Jesus. These gifts are not new laws; rather, they are the elements which constitute life under the eschatological reign of God. They define what it means to be a new creature. Here and now, then, we are to live as a new creation within our particular cultural context. In ourselves we are still part of the old creation which surrounds us. But insofar as we submit ourselves in obedience to Jesus, insofar as we become servants of the Messiah, our old existence is actualized in the Spirit as a moment of the new creation’s in-breaking.
In conclusion, I propose a messianic-pneumatic theology of evangelical fidelity to the apocalyptic event of the eschatologically new creation. Our life of messianic fidelity will take the existential form of “ad hoc” correspondence to Jesus. In other words, in place of an ethical-moral system, I propose that we respond in each new moment in obedience to the Messiah; in each new time and place, we are to hear and respond in faith to Word and Spirit. This fidelity to the gospel will establish a form of life that has certain basic contours—including, e.g., life in community, self-donating love for both neighbor and enemy, rejection of violence, giving and sharing of material property, etc. This is messianic and pneumatic because, as Paul says, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah; and it is no longer I who live, but it is the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20). And this life is a life in the new creation, because as Paul says elsewhere, “If anyone is in the Messiah, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), “for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:15).