In a 2009 article responding to Richard Hays’s pacifist reading of the New Testament (Studies in Christian Ethics), Nigel Biggar argues that Hays’s Anabaptist reading of Romans 13 is “incoherent.” Hays argues that while the use of force in punishment is ordained of God, “that is not the role of believers.”
Biggar responds: “If God has ordained the use of the sword to punish wrongdoers (and thereby defend innocents), then that is something that should be done. If needs to be done and it is right to do. Why should Christians be exempt from doing what is necessary and right?”
To the Anabaptist argument that the special calling of Christians is to embody the “alternative society so completely governed by God as to lack need of the sword.” If this were God’s intent, Biggar observes, one wonders how Romans 13 got into the NT in the first place. And then he adds,
“Alternatively, one might regard the non-coercive, entirely God-governed society, not as a current rival to one where the public use of force is ordained, but rather as its ideal goal. In this case, the pacific ideal would so function as to qualify and discipline the current use of force, which intends it. Rather than produce two distinct classes of people – those who use the sword and those who point to peace – it would produce one class only – those who struggle to use the sword pacifically. This, however, would bring us not to pacifism, but to the doctrine of just war.”
Biggar is, I think, correct about Romans 13: If the sword is necessary and a public good, it is difficult to see why Christians could be excluded from using it. And I think too that he is correct that the “ideal” of a God-governed society is an end toward which societies in general should tend, and that this is the aim of just war theory.
But I think he idealizes too far. While the “ideal” society is not currently in existence, there is a real social alternative society to the society that is governed, ultimately, by the use of the sword. The ideal end is not only end, but has come into the present, and taken institutional flesh as the church. The church is not yet a “non-coercive, entirely God-governed society,” but still it is God’s society with a real presence in history. One might put it this way: The ideal society toward which all societies aspire is the church.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 1:11 pm
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