Piper’s Pacifism: A Canonical Response
John Piper (PhD), speaking as chancellor for Bethlehem College & Seminary, has responded in writing to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s (J.D.) statements on students getting permits to carry guns on the campus of Liberty University, where he is chancellor. In this post, I won’t be getting into the details of the statements made by Chancellor Falwell, Jr. His statements deserve little remark, in my opinion. He is well within his rights to carry a concealed weapon, his students have the liberty to arm themselves for the protection of Liberty, and I’m not the least surprised that he expressed such liberties in a manner deemed politically incorrect. That people are shocked by such a thing is what really deserves analysis.
Chancellor Piper’s statement, on the other hand, deserves a much closer consideration, if only due to the preponderance of Scripture which he quotes and evaluates in building his argument. My analysis will not be in a point-counterpoint form, but will assume that you’ve read Piper’s entire argument, which I understand may be too arduous a task for some readers. I fully accept that. If that’s you, please feel free to go back to crushing candy or flicking angry birds or fingering your phone screen in some other mindless manner.
Two preliminary points: (a) straw men and (b) residual Marcionism.
a. Chancellor Piper egregiously mischaracterizes the ethical position of Chancellor Falwell, Jr. (and those who agree with him) as: “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me.” This is clearly a straw man. Although Chancellor Falwell, Jr. may have a bit of straw hanging from his sleeve in this regard, such rhetorical deceptions are certainly beneath Chancellor Piper and are hardly an example of engaging the strongest opposing perspective.
b. Marcionism was possibly the earliest heretical sect in the ancient church and yet we haven’t quite managed to get ourselves completely out from its shadow, even today. Among other things, Marcion was said to be the first to separate the New Testament from the Old Testament, seeing the OT God as incompatible with the NT Christ. He created a “canon-within-the-canon” of Scripture by excising the OT altogether. I’m calling the continuing impulse to read the NT as abstracted from the OT “residual Marcionism,” and it is nowhere more evident in contemporary evangelicalism than in discussions of ethics.
Sometimes it shows itself as a “red-letter faith,” only treating the quotations of Jesus in the Gospels as truly authoritative – not recognizing that Jesus’ own red-letter teachings affirm that he and the God of the OT are one (cf. Jn 8:58, 10:30, 17:21).
Other times it appears as an epistolary bias, prejudicing the teaching of the epistles as more weighty than even the Gospels and Acts, much less the OT, because the epistles are said to have been produced later in the progress of divine revelation or because many believe that non-didactic portions of Scripture need to be interpreted in light of the didactic ones—implicitly giving pride of place to the nearly entirely didactic epistles.
All evangelicals will disavow a residual Marcionite impulse in principle, but it is most clearly seen in matters of ethics—is the answer we give consistent with the ethics derived from the entire canon of the OT and NT or does it illegitimately prejudice one part of the canon over the rest? (Note: I’d argue that the nature of reading Scripture requires the development of a “canon-within-the canon,” but that this may be done in ways which are legitimate and others which are more Marcionite. Or even Ebionite, I guess. But that’s a different discussion altogether.)
For the purpose of an analysis of Chancellor Piper’s ethics on self-defense, then, we will want to keep in mind whether or not classical OT self-defense texts (such as Ex 22:2) are adequately incorporated into his ethic, while also analyzing the way in which he selects and interprets the texts which lead him to his conclusions.
Chancellor Piper begins where he usually begins: what would Paul do? And Paul would tell Christians not to avenge ourselves, return good for evil, and that God gives weapons to governments to pursue justice in the world (Rom 12-13). The good chancellor acknowledges there are ambiguities in the way that Christian mercy and civic justice intersect, but asserts neither can be absorbed into the other. These points are well-taken, although I think the examples he gives only muddle the ambiguities further, rather than clarifying anything. Do many people think that in a democracy citizens are the government? Or that Rom 13:4 entails an ethical imperative for Christians to carry weapons? (Note: there are examples in Nehemiah 4:15-17 of the wall-builders in Israel carrying workloads with one hand and a weapon in the other. How does the chancellor’s ethic evaluate and incorporate this passage? How does his ethic speak to Christians in the militaries of various nations or law enforcement agencies, if it speaks to us at all?)
Following a consideration of Paul, we have a discussion drawn from Peter. It’s safe to say, I think, that Chancellor Piper is approaching this particular ethical question with a bias which weights the epistles as his canon-within-a-canon (at the very least abstracting the NT from the OT completely); however, if one maintains that the epistles are occasional letters—written to certain people upon the occasion of specific circumstances—then one will incorporate their teachings into a larger canonical ethic somewhat differently than the chancellor has.
Yes, and amen, Christians can expect persecution and suffering and under such circumstances we should entrust our soul to a faithful Creator while doing good. But what does Chancellor Piper’s ethic have to say to the average American Christian on the subject of self-defense in a non-persecution situation, such as a violent mugging or home invasion, if he says anything at all?
I may be mistaken, but it seems as though the chancellor’s view of 1 Peter holds up a persecuted church as the ideal. The undertone seems to be that if the American church (among others) isn’t violently persecuted then we must be doing something wrong, right? Rather than acknowledging that persecution was the historical reality to which Peter’s letter was addressed and deriving valuable ethical practices from the text and its contexts, Chancellor Piper holds up the historical context of first century Roman persecution as normative, leaving him with very little to say to anyone in a dissimilar context… such as the American Christian audience for his article.
We also hear Chancellor Piper’s take on the words of Christ and the non-violent resistance offered by the apostles in Acts. I think virtually every Christian would agree with what Piper affirms about Jesus’ teachings on endurance and enemy love here; some of us would just question whether Jesus’ statements entail what Piper denies: namely, that Christians do not have the liberty to decide when to practice self-defense under an ethic of wisdom. Surely we have to leave room for there to be a difference between fighting wars to bring in the kingdom (Jn 18:36) and loving my neighbor by protecting him from someone who enters his home only to maim, kill, and destroy, right? Is there a relevant difference in Chancellor Piper’s ethic between a civilian and an off-duty Christian police officer using lethal force in self-defense? The former seems undesirable, while the latter seems permissible, but on what basis? It remains unarticulated, if there is a relevant difference at all.
Now, Lk 22:35-38 is classically controversial in the pacifism vs. self-defense discussion. In my opinion, both sides read too much into it. Chancellor Piper and other pacifists wish to treat Jesus’ reference to buying swords as merely figurative and self-defense defenders want to read it as something like the Second Greatest Commandment. I think it’s not that complicated. Jesus is just telling his boys to “stay frosty, it’s gonna get hairy out there. Last time you went out, you didn’t take anything. This time, you better pack a lunch.” If you don’t have a sword, you’re going to want to get one—and like everything else use it wisely. Ex 22:2 already establishes ethically justifiable instances of self-defense in a canonical ethic and Lk 22:35-38 comports with it, and with the larger canonical ethic of wisdom.
So, Chancellor Piper’s point eight is where the theoretical rubber meets the ethical road and it is where the Chancellor seems to get the most squeamish about his conclusions, giving a sevenfold answer to the simple question, “Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?” My answer would be, “Love God and do what you want”—and I want to shoot my wife’s assailant because I love her too much to let her be abused and because I love him too much to let him abuse her. If not providing for my family is a denial of the faith (1 Tim 5:8), how much worse is not protecting them if I am able? Chancellor Piper, on the other hand, states that the New Testament does not aim to make an answer to the question clear for us. And he may be correct in that regard, but this is where his residual Marcionism is most clear and where it leads his ethic to collapse under the weight of real-life situations. The NT abstracted completely from the OT may not give a clear answer. Fortunately, in God’s infinite wisdom he gave us the entire canon from which to derive an ethic.
Chancellor Piper’s pacifism is not derived from a consistently canonical ethic and his residual Marcionism is most evident where his theoretical ethics are required to be put into practice. In contrast, a canonical ethical answer maintains that Christians have the liberty in Christ to act wisely in the world, which includes an allowance for justifiable instances of self-defense which comport with the larger ethical themes of love for neighbors and enemies, endurance under trial/persecution, only returning good for evil, and providing for one’s family. While I greatly appreciate Chancellor Piper’s ministry, in this instance I would suggest his conclusions are sub-biblical and, as such, impractical.