Paul and Violence?

In my new book on Paul, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, I have a chapter arguing against the idea that Paul had a violent personality and for Paul as peacemaker and practitioner of nonviolence—which, I argue, is rooted in Paul’s gospel and especially in the resurrection.

A sympathetic and astute reader of the book, Brad, posed some very interesting and important questions.

One particular question keeps coming to mind and I was wondering if you would mind giving me your thoughts on it. You do a really nice job of showing in a succinct and compelling way how the kenotic view of God (and its non-violent implications) does not necessarily conflict with eschatological wrath/judgment, but I am left wondering what exactly Paul might have thought about the images of God as “Divine Warrior” in the OT, especially as this image is used for the sanctioning of nationalistic war (e.g. Joshua and Judges). How do you think Paul would have related these two images of God, kenotic and Warrior? A somewhat related point is that, while Paul does seem to leave the Phinehas understanding of zeal aside in favor of the model of Abraham, Genesis seems to think that a climactic expression of Abraham’s faith was in his willingness to sacrifice his own son (the “Akedah”). Paul apparently is comfortable appropriating the Akedah as a prototype of Christ’s obedience, but how do you think he would have thought about this act of violence as an expression of faith?

[More specifically,] I’m wondering is what Paul would have thought when, so to speak, he picked up Judges and read it: given its Scriptural status I don’t think Paul would have thought that God as Warrior who authorized and even demanded nationalistic military engagement was “not the same” as the God of Jesus Christ (as, e.g. Marcion) or that God had previously acted contrary to his character. So the question I’m thinking through is how would Paul have put together his view of God as fundamentally kenotic with the prior revelations of God as a (nationalistic, militaristic) Warrior who leads his people in battle. Or to put it another way, if God now approaches his enemies in restorative love, it seems that Paul also would have been compelled to acknowledge that in previous times and perhaps also in the future at the eschaton, God had acted on the principle of retributive justice (so sapiential literature, the Deuteronomistic History, etc.) and through the mode of military conquest.

Some of my response to these questions follows:

1. It is clear that Paul (and perhaps also the Pauline tradition, if Ephesians is not by Paul) can occasionally use various forms of military language and images for both God’s and (especially) believers’ life and activity. This language comes from the Scriptures, other Jewish literature, and Roman military life, etc. (Nijay Gupta, finishing a PhD in NT at Durham University in England and now teaching at Ashland Seminary is beginning a study of the last of these three, and that should be interesting.) This Pauline language is fully denationalized and is “theologized,” specifically “apocalypticized”: it is used to describe the conflict between God and/or believers on the one hand, and evil powers, Satan, false gospels and ideologies, etc., on the other. In some sense, believers participate in the divine apocalyptic battle, as in other Jewish literature. But this battle is in no sense actual military combat or physical violence. Nor is this battle a form of “soft violence,” that is, non-lethal coercion. The battle is waged with such weapons as proclamation, prayer, persuastion, and suffering. The use of military imagery may be a bit off-putting to us who are sensitive to its abuse, but it in no way justifies the use of violence. In fact, God is the kenotic warrior! God’s means of initiating and waging the apocayptic battle is to send into the world weapons of righteousness that embody the divine character: the Son, the Spirit, the church.

2. Paul’s rejection of violence is firmly rooted in his gospel, so the question of the Akedah/Abraham’s sacrifice, to which Paul alludes in Romans 8, is also significant. The key to this problem is how Paul views Christ’s death (itself a form of violence, with or without the analogy to the Akedah). For Paul, Christ’s death is both the donation of the Son by the Father and the donation of the Son by the Son himself—a self-donation. It expresses both the love of the Father and the love of the Son. Because of this close and inseparable connection between Father and Son, the Father’s giving of the Son is ultimately an act of self-giving. The Father gives the Beloved, Son, the One who shares in the very divine status of God. Although, of course, Paul does not state this interaction in specifically Trinitarian terms, he does indicate the deep self-involvement of the Father in the giving of the Son by the use of the reflexive pronoun iin Rom 8:3 and the parallel adjective idiou in Rom 8:32—God’s own son. To put it in theological language that Miroslav Volf and others have used, Paul sees the atonement fundamentally as a two-party “transaction,” not a “three-party” transaction. That is, God in/through Christ (one party) lovingly reconciles the world (second party) through Christ’s incarnation and death, rather than God (one party) sending and punishing Christ (second party) in Christ’s death so that the world/believers (third party) do not have to die.

3. I struggle theologically with the freedom of God/constrained by his own character of love. But I am very leary of the hint of divine change (e.g. from OT to NT) or the perception of divine change (e.g. “progressive revelation”). Paul would absolutely say that the “God of the OT” is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is not Marcion. So, how might Paul read those bloody narratives? I think he would read them, and did read them (as seen in his “apocalypticizing” or “spiritualizing” [I hate that term] of the divine warrior tradition), allegorically, as did Origen, though Origen did so with a different allegorical strategy. I am not trying to say that Paul and Origen were thoroughgoing hermeneutical brothers, only that violence drew them both to some form of allegorical interpretation.

4. On the practical side, it seems to me that Rom 13:1-7 does not sanction believers’ participation in anything that contradicts the explicit exhortations in the context (all of Rom 12 and 13). That passage is a very Jewish nod to established authority, but the sword it approves is not the sword of the soldier. My point is primarily that, given all the interpretations of Rom 13 out there, no interpretation can be valid that allows Christians to violate the explicit command, for instance, to love enemies. So even if one concludes that 13:1-7 says God installs governments to carry out violence when necessary, Rom 12 and Rom 13:8ff prohibit believers from doing so. Which means either one goes the path of Luther (bifurcating the individual into two roles) or one becomes Anabaptist theologically if not ecclesially). Facing this heremeneutical and existential dilemma, I choose the latter, or perhaps it chooses me.

8 Responses to “Paul and Violence?”

  1. T says:

    Thanks for posting this. I can’t help but think of several angles on this topic. One that is stuck in my head concerns what God has the right to do in terms of ending a person’s physical life, and the related right to use other human beings to do so, if he chooses. This is, of course, a different question than what God routinely does and prefers to do and loves to do. He says he gets no pleasure in bringing judgment upon a person, but he does do so. He also strongly limits his people’s participation in judgment, violence and certainly cruelty.

    I think being a lawyer has shaped me on this issue of God’s rights via people, similar to Paul’s discourse in Romans on the subject, however unpleasant such a line of argument is (like the issues in Job, for instance). A human life of 80 years is still “short” in many respects (why doesn’t God make lives much, much longer?), and yet we’d have to say that a life of much shorter length is still a gift that God doesn’t have to give at all. I am very grateful that he gives as much life as he does and as freely as he does, but it doesn’t change the fact that any life is a gift, that God has the right to give and the right to take away. I don’t see God as going against his nature to end a human life (we are all going to die), or to use human instruments to do so in his discretion. I think the texts in Judges, Joshua, Exodus, etc. are still within my (and Paul’s?) concept of what God is within his rights to do (and would be in his rights to do even now) within the history of mankind, but that his disposition is strongly toward mercy and gentleness. What God was and is most looking forward to doing, which revealed the core of who he is and what he’s about, is in the cruciform Christ. It’s not that God never has done violence, or never will, it’s more about the life and act that has now revealed more of God than anything or anyone else. Having seen Jesus, how do we justify our violence as his will? I think that’s what Paul thought, even as he believed the prior history of God in the OT.

  2. MJG says:

    T, good to hear from you. The fellow Brad who made the query offered a somewhat similar take in an exchange of emails, saying something like God’s will “arcs toward” the restorative love manifest in Christ. I like the first of your last two lines: “Having seen Jesus, how do we justify our violence as his will? I think that’s what Paul thought, even as he believed the prior history of God in the OT.” I’m less confident about that very last sentence, though you may be right. Even if Paul believes that, however, the gospel compels him to reinterpret divine “violence.”

    As for God “doing violence,” I think that language (even though I’ve used it to describe certain divine actions) is probably a “category mistake,” as the Mennonite Willard Swartley contends in his book Covenant of Peace. God’s thoughts (and actions) are not our thoughts (and actions). Swartley argues that simply by being God, what God does in judgment is different from our attempts at retaliation or justice through violence.

  3. T says:


    Thanks for your last paragraph. That’s another important angle in all this–the difference b/n God’s actions in these areas and our own. It is tough stuff. BTW, I mentioned your work (however badly I may be understanding and/or applying it) in my most recent post. I think the participation/narrative ideas that you argue for regarding the cross (from Sanders?) are really helpful, again, if I’m understanding them rightly!

  4. MJG says:


    I’ll take a look at your post. My interpretation of Paul (especially about participation) is similar to that of Sanders, and I certainly owe something to him, but my interpretation of the cross in Paul does not derive from Sanders.

  5. bruce hamill says:

    Thanks for your comment about ‘category mistake’ – I will check out Willard Swartley. For some time now I have thought that ‘violence’ is a term which in teh dominant usage is already moral (if not theological) – recognising that we can’t describe an act as violent apart from seeing it as a violation of God’s created good purposes. Thus if we say that God violates the ‘totality’ (as David Bentley Hart does) we are using ‘violate’ metaphorically since the ‘totality’ is not a created good but a term for evil.

  6. MJG says:


    As you imply, if violence is a violation of God’s good purposes, God by definition does not act in violence. Hence the “category mistake.”

  7. Zwingli 2.0 says:

    I wonder if the historical perspective opened up by Paul in his letter to the Galatians might be helpful in understanding why God’s “personality” seems to have “changed” with Christ’s advent:

    Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ (3:24).

    Here, Paul asserts that the law is provisional, which suggests that the enmity between Israel and the Gentiles was also provisional.

    So, with the abrogation of the law, God no longer picks sides, as it were.

    In Christ, the divisions between Israel and the Gentiles are erased, and so God’s “militant” character softens.

  8. MJG says:


    Are you saying that God changed or that our perception of God changed?

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