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Roger Olson: Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas: Can Their Approaches to Christian Political Ethics be Bridged?

But beyond the weak logic of Olson’s argument lies a hidden hermeneutical problem in the Niebuhr-Hauerwas debate. It is that both men, but especially Hauerwas, have not considered Paul and his epistles sufficiently in their theology.

This comes in the form of background to both theologians, whose base theology was in Protestant liberalism. That tradition fundamentally discarded both the Old Testament and Paul’s writings as true vehicles of God’s revelation. The base claim of much liberal theology was that Jesus was a simple Jewish itinerant preacher and great ethical teacher (who probably did no real miracles) but that Paul exalted him into a divine person.[3] This form of apostasy began in the Nineteenth Century with some liberal theologians and became a major element in Protestant academic and liberal theology. Evangelical theologians have mostly resisted the tendency, but now it is making inroads among Evangelical theologians.[4]

Evangelical theologians have mostly resisted the tendency, but …

This liberal apostasy is similar to the theology of the heretic Marcion of the 2nd Century. Marcion, the bishop of Sinope (near Rome), did not like the Old Testament with all its gore, as in the automatic execution of murderers or killing Canaanites and other peoples in the Promised Land at God’s command. So he concluded that the god of the Old Testament was not the “Abba” God of Jesus. Thus, according to Marcion, the OT was a false gospel.[5] For Marcion, the true Bible was the Gospel of Luke and most of the letters of Paul, period. In fact, Marcion edited Luke and Paul to eliminate any positive mention of the Jews or of the Mosaic law – he hated both.

I am concerned how similar Hauerwas’ theology looks like Marcion’s approach to ​​Scripture. I will go so far as to call Hauerwas’ system of liberal biblical interpretation the “hermeneutic of annihilation.” Like Marcion, it discards the Old Testament as a guide to God’s character and activity, especially in regards to God’s demand for justice. The Old Testament becomes little more than a background document to the New. Its laws as reflecting the mind of God for human righteousness are made obsolete by the cross. Some element of that is true, as the Cross did indeed absorb God’s wrath on our sins. But the fallacy is to believe that the wrath of God, and the use of violence to execute the wrath of God for justice or punishment was totally cancelled. Rather, the wrath of God is constant in the Bible from the Babylonian destruction of the Temple, to the blinding of the sorcerer Elymus by Paul (Acts 13).

Hauerwas focus on the Sermon on the Mount wipes out the opportunity of understand God’s intentions and commands for mankind as an eternal continuum from the earliest text of the Old Testament to the last written New Testament document. For Hauerwas, only God’s love and forgiveness needs to be considered in theology and in the life of the Church. In relevance to the present discussion, Hauerwas’ theology is particularly lacking, and in fact distorting, of the role of the state in using cohesive violence to enforce justice.

One only has to look at Paul’s epistle to the Romans, especially chapters 12 and 13 to understand that Niebuhr was right and Hauerwas was in error. There Paul affirms and encapsulates the ethical demands of the Sermon on the Mount as normative to personal behavior (yes Hauerwas is correct on this) but continues on with a discussion of the wrath of God as a spiritual reality and constant. Paul goes on to declare that agents of the civil government are to be executors of God’s wrath for the sake of justice and punishment.

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2017

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include Quenching the Spirit: Discover the Real Spirit Behind the Charismatic Controversy (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015), and The Public Prayer Station: Taking Healing Prayer to the Streets and Evangelizing the Nones (Emeth Press, 2018). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He continues in his healing, teaching and writing ministry and is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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