Introduction: Paralyzing Ambiguity

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War
by Albert C. Winn

Introduction: Paralyzing Ambiguity

Thus says the Lord of hosts, . . . "Go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." (1 Sam. 15;2-3)

It is not the will of my Father who is in

heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matt. 18:14 RSV)

The dream of a warless world is hoary with antiquity. It is at least as old as the words of a Hebrew prophet, written centuries before the time of Jesus:@@@

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more;

but they shall all sit under their own vines

and under their own fig trees,

and no one shall make them afraid.

(Micah 4:3-4)1

Phrases from this dream live on in this, perhaps the most warlike century in human history. We are asked to contribute to the Plowshares Defense Fund. The Vine and Fig Tree Community is located in Alabama. We sing around the campfire the African American spiritual "I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More."

But the dream is not confined to radical visionaries, who can be so labeled and dismissed. World War I was widely hailed as "the war to end wars." And at least twice in our century hardheaded politicians and diplomats, shaken by the horrors of modern warfare, have dared to dream the dream. In the prologue of the Covenant of the League of Nations they wrote:

The High Contracting Parties, in order to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security by the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war. . . agree to this Covenant of the League of Nations.

The League failed; the world went to war again, a yet more horrible war. In its aftermath there was another attempt to abolish war:

We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind . . .to ensure . . . that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.

Armed force has been used, not in the common interest, every year since those brave words were written. The inexpressible sadness of our era is that as soon as the dream is revived it dies, overwhelmed by the harsh realities of a world where finally only military might settles international disputes and where even the prospect of total annihilation cannot generate a sustained effort for the abolition of war.

The Church’s Timidity

One would suppose that the prophet’s dream would be cherished among the prophet’s heirs. The Christian church accepts the Bible, where the dream is found, as the authoritative word of God. Therefore one would expect the abolition of war to be high on the church’s agenda. Not so. By and large Christians have not talked seriously or acted resolutely for it. For most of its history the energies of the church have been focused, not on how to abolish war, but on how to go to war justly (jus ad bellum) and how to fight a war in a just manner (jus in bello).

The historic peace churches are an exception. They have believed that there is no way for a state to go to war justly or for a Christian to fight justly once war has been declared. However, it is fair to say that their energies have been focused on conscientious objection to war more than on the abolition of war.

At the height of the cold war, when the reality of the nuclear threat began to sink in, there were stirrings for peace in the churches in the United States. Unprecedented statements against war were released by the Roman Catholic bishops2 and the United Methodist bishops.3 Almost every mainline Protestant church issued statements and launched some kind of peacemaking program. but the rank and file of church members have seemed paralyzed, unable to act decisively, unwilling to insist in any clear and public way that the nations of the world, including their own, move toward the abolition of war and the realization of the prophetic dream. Indeed, there has been no clear statement of that goal in the pronouncements of their leaders.

Meanwhile, there was among the powerful TV evangelists and other evangelicals great support for the arms buildup and an ardent embrace of the warlike policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations and even of the military adventures of Colonel Oliver North and his colleagues in "the Enterprise."4

Why are Christians thus divided and paralyzed? Why are they so easily caught up in the carefully manipulated fervor of Desert Storm and the like? Why are even those most enthusiastic for peace timid to speak of the abolition of war?

The Ambiguity of the Bible

There are doubtless many reasons: economic and political, psychological and cultural,5 but a fundamental reason for paralysis and division among Christians is the ambiguity of the Bible.6 This is evident to the most casual reader. The dream of the abolition of war is given us in the Bible, but the reason most Christians hesitate to accept that dream and act upon it comes also from the Bible, from all the wars that are recorded and celebrated by God’s people, all the wars that are authorized and even commanded by God. God is the God of peace, who does not will the destruction of even one little child, but God is also the God of war, who orders war throughout the whole history of the Old Testament and even in the last book of the New.

The Bible is ambiguous with regard to many ethical problems,7 but Paul D. Hanson, who has made special studies of the diversities and polarities in scripture,8 says that the ambiguity regarding war and peace is regarded by many as the most troublesome and offensive of all. It can lead to silence on the subject, the justification of war, or the heresy of Marcionism.9

Attempted Solutions

Modern Christians have tried in various ways to resolve the scriptural ambiguity. One way is to abandon the Old Testament. Marcion tried this long ago, and was condemned as a heretic. But there has been a tendency, now and again, for "peace churches" to speak of themselves as "New Testament churches." Jean Lasserre, the staunch and erudite French pacifist, asks: "Why do I take up my position on the ground of the New Testament?" He answers that although Jesus bases his teaching on the Old Testament, he gives Old Testament texts an entirely new meaning. So, the Old Testament may illuminate the New, but it cannot contradict or challenge it. It cannot be normative directly. We must find our answers to moral questions in the New Testament alone.10 Even an Old Testament scholar like T. R. Hobbs, after summarizing the Old Testament view of war, says that it cannot be an example for Christians; they must depend on the New Testament for that.11 But the New Testament is utterly incomprehensible without the Old, which is its indispensable background. And, as I shall seek to demonstrate, to eliminate the Old Testament eliminates not only a huge number of wars but also the essential picture of what peace is all about, of God as giver of peace, of how peace is to be maintained and ordered -- its connection with justice -- and of the final peace that is promised and hoped for. The baby would be thrown out with the bath water.

Another attempted solution is the idea of the evolution of religious concepts. Human beings started out with a rather primitive, bloodthirsty conception of God. Slowly but surely their understanding improved until finally, with Jesus, they arrived at the idea of a loving heavenly Parent.12 There are several problems with this. For one thing, the Bible does not claim to be a study in evolving human concepts; it claims to be revelation, a series of words from God of which human beings could never have conceived on their own. For another, the God of peace occurs from the very beginning, in the most primitive strata of scripture, and the God of war is still there on the final pages.

A third solution is the celebrated two-kingdom solution of Martin Luther. As citizens of Christ’s kingdom, Christians do not fight or wage war. But they are also citizens of some earthly kingdom. In that capacity they do fight and wage war, just as the citizens of Israel and Judah did long ago. In a book that is excellent in many respects, Peter Craigie finally comes down, it seems to me, to a form of this solution. Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God, but they are also citizens of some state, and all states are founded on violence, nothing else. Christians cannot change either the kingdom of God or the violent state. Pacifists ignore the reality of the state. Advocates of just war ignore the reality of the kingdom of God. We must live in the tension, attempting the transformation of the state, even though that is impossible! We need both Isaiah’s vision of a warless world and Koheleth’s common sense that there is a time for war and a time for peace.13

One more solution is to say that the peacemaking injunctions of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount were directed at individuals in their conflicts with other individuals. They are therefore applicable to individuals and perhaps possible for individuals, but they are not applicable to conflicts between states and are not possible for states to obey. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society14 was a very sophisticated development of this thesis, which had devastating effects on the post -- World War I peace movement in the United States and was widely used to justify U.S. participation in World War II. The Old Testament certainly contains abundant illustrations of national actions that fall below the ordinary level of individual morality. Interestingly enough, it is the Old Testament that insists clearly that peace is a national matter, a political matter, not to be confined to some inward peace in the individual heart or to good relationships between one individual and another.

If the ambiguity of the Bible does not yield to these or perhaps other solutions, what shall we do? How shall we start to assess it, to understand it, and ultimately to deal with it?

A Canonical Approach

First of all, it seems to me, we need to take the canon of scripture as it stands. Not only should we not delete the Old Testament, we should not use the tools of biblical criticism to delete any passage in either Testament that does not suit our argument. To say that it is "a later addition" to the authentic writing of the prophet, or "clearly reflects the mind of the early church rather than the mind of Jesus," does not mean it is not scripture.

What has functioned authoritatively in the church from early times, and still so functions today, is not the changing reconstructions of the critics, but the established contents of the canon. A discussion of war and peace in which all can join will need to be based there.15

This does not mean, on the other hand, that insights from literary-historical criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, sociological criticism, rhetorical criticism, or narrative criticism will be ignored. Such matters neither produce nor eliminate the biblical ambiguity regarding war and peace, but they have their importance, as we shall see.

The Starting Point

A second basic question of method is: where shall we begin to examine and perhaps to resolve this massive ambiguity? In Alice in Wonderland the King of Hearts solemnly advised Alice to begin at the beginning and go to the end.16 That would seem logical here, but there is a better way. Let us begin at the center, with Jesus. Are we to interpret the teachings of Jesus by the holy war doctrine of Joshua and Samuel, or are we to interpret the holy war doctrine by the teachings of Jesus? Surely Luther was right with his "was Christum treibi." For Christians, the true heart of God’s word is that which promotes, "pushes" Christ. The internal principle for interpreting scripture can be no other than the mind of Christ.17 Christ is Lord of scripture as surely as he is Lord of the Sabbath, Lord of the church, Lord of all.

Our first task, then, will be to see if we can understand the mind of Jesus with regard to peace and war. That will become our key to unraveling the ambiguity of the Law and the Prophets, and the ambiguity of the apostolic writings. It will not be as simple as it sounds, for the ambiguity that characterizes the Bible as a whole also characterizes its internal principle of interpretation, the biblical picture of Jesus himself. Ulrich Mauser says that the tension in Jesus’ teaching on peace must not be quickly and cheaply released, otherwise the subject itself becomes very seriously distorted."18 So we turn in the first two chapters to wrestle with it.




1. A full discussion of Micah 4:3-4 and its parallel in Isa. 2 will be found in chapter 8.

2. The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (Washington, DC.: United States Catholic Conference, 1983).

3. In Defense of Creation, The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1986).

4. Not all evangelicals axe m this camp. Among the most courageous voices for peace are those of evangelicals like Ronald J. Sider and Jim Wallis. See Sider’s "An Evangelical Witness for Peace" in Preaching on Peace, which he edited with Darrel J. Brubacher (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), pp. 25-28; and Wallis’s collection of articles from the magazine Sojouners, which he edits, entitled Waging Peace (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982).

5. For a penetrating analysis of the psychological and cultural reasons, see the writings of Sam Keen, particularly Faces of the Enemy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986).

6. To say that scripture is ambiguous is not to slander it. Equivocation is saying two opposite things with intent to deceive; but ambiguity may arise out of the way words function and the way things are. The historical process is by nature ambiguous. The intention of the biblical writers is often ambiguous, like all human intentionality. The mystery of God’s will remains ambiguous to our understanding.

7. One of the fairest and most rigorous wrestles with biblical ambiguity known to me is Willard M. Swartley’s Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1983).

8. Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), esp. pp. 411-413; The Diversity of Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).

9. Paul D. Hanson, ‘War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible," Interpretation 38 (1984): 347-362.

10. Jean Lasserre. War and the Gospel (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press. 1974), pp. 23-24.

11. T. R. Hobbs, A Time for War (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1989), pp. 222-233.

12. A good example of this is in Harry Emerson Fosdick, A Guide to Understanding the Bible: The Development of Ideas Within the Old and New Testaments (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938), pp. 1-54.

13. Peter C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), pp. 107-112.

14. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).

15. Here I am advocating a canonical approach on a practical basis: if we want a "level playing field" in debates about the Bible and war and peace, we need to start with a common definition of what constitutes the Bible, what can be quoted in the argument. There are, of course, more profound biblical and theological reasons for a canonical approach. See the work of Brevard S. Childs, notably An Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979); The New Testament as Canon (1984); Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (1986). See also the work of James A. Sanders, notably Torah and Canon (1972); Canon and Community (1984); From Sacred Story to Sacred Text (1987). All books cited here were published by Fortress Press in Philadelphia.

16. This is the method followed by Vernard Eller in War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1981). J. Carter Swaim in War, Peace, and the Bible (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982) moves back and forth between the Testaments, but starts with the Old.

17. Lamar Williamson, Jr., agrees that Jesus is "the hermeneutical key" to the discrepancy between the Old and New Testaments. See "Jesus of the Gospels and the Christian Vision of Shalom," Horizons in Biblical Theology 6(1984): 1-26.

18. Ulrich Mauser, The Gospel of Peace (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1991), p. 35.