A Denver Journal Review
A Peacable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives
David J. Neville, A Peacable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). $24.99 pap. xv + 288 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-4851-7.
David Neville, associate professor of theology and lecturer in New Testament studies at Charles Stuart University in Canberra, Australia, has written a provocative work, attempting to account for the violence associated with divine judgment in the New Testament from the perspective of Christian non-violence. Neville acknowledges that a common approach to this dilemma is to distinguish between God’s prerogative to right the world’s wrong anyway he desires and humanity’s right to exercise God’s vengeance on his behalf. Neville, however, is not even comfortable with the concept of divine vengeance. He can accept “eschatological reversal” but not “retribution” (p. 9). Interestingly, he can uses quite strong language in declaring Matthew 18:35 as “morally obscene” and incessant punishment for temporal misdemeanors “morally repugnant” (p. 25). These convictions, rather than biblical exegesis, form Neville’s starting point, but he believes he can explain away the passages in the New Testament that appear to undermine his position.
With respect to Matthew and Mark, Neville finds the story of Jesus’ non-resistance to his execution as trumping all the less central parts, especially the parables of eschatological vengeance. He agrees with those that mitigate the force of the latter by stressing the minority, oppressed status of the first generations of Christians and the comfort such vengeance could give them. But he still demurs: “Understandable as this may be in historical context, how valid is such an expectation when the writing of a harassed community of faith becomes canonical Scripture at the hands of those with temporal power and in the hands of a religious majority?” (p. 37). But if it is acceptable in its historical context, perhaps the problem lies instead with its use by those who are a majority with temporal power. Perhaps we should object to its misapplication rather than trying to redefine its original meaning or argue that it is canceled out somehow by the crucifixion. Other eschatological passages, moreover, emphasize the fact of divine judgment, but without going into details concerning means or motive.
If any Gospel deserves to be called “the gospel of peace,” it is Luke. But Acts does not represent peace-filled perspectives as uniformly. In the Gospel, Luke 23:34, coming as it does as part of Jesus’ climactic words from the cross, trumps any other pictures with its amazing cry, “Father forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” In addition, “one crucified alongside Jesus who recognizes that he deserves retribution is promised a place in paradise (23:39-42) (p. 117).” The degree to which Neville is willing to sidestep the clear biblical teaching is apparent in his treatment of 12:45-48a. Verse 46 offers the harsh language of the master cutting in pieces the unforgiving servant, but Neville’s blunts the force of this metaphor by believing it applies to Christian leaders, but it is not clear that the referent can be this limited. That Christ will come back as he ascended is taken as referring to a peaceful return, since his departure was peaceful, though that seems one of the less likely facets of the ascension that Luke’s angelic spokesmen (Acts 1:11) have in mind.
“Peace” is major feature of the Gospel of John’s teaching, especially found in Jesus’ words in the Farewell Discourse and after his resurrection. Jesus denies playing the role of Judge but does acknowledge that judgment is the inevitable outworking of human rejection of the Light. Vengeance and recompense are replaced by “the ratification of self-discrimination provoked by an encounter with Jesus as the definitive revelation of God (p. 206). When Neville comes to John’s apocalypse he is particularly concerned to counter John Dominic Crossan’s characterization of the Revelation as “the most consistently and relentlessly violent text in all the canonical literature of all the world’s great religions” (p. 219), an exaggeration showing that Crossan has not read Revelation carefully enough (nor, this reviewer would add, the Qur’an!). Neville rightly stresses that Revelation never actually describes a final battle, despite countless fictitious scenarios inspired by the gathered hordes at “Armageddon.” More significantly, the Lamb triumphs by his sacrificial death, even as many of his followers are called to follow suit through martyrdom.
Neville concludes his volume by endorsing Charles Cosgrove’s hermeneutic or “rule of moral-theological adjudication”: “that in cases of interpretive ambiguity, ‘one may view Scripture as properly interpreted only where it is construed according to certain substantive principles, conceived as intrinsic to Scripture itself, taken as a whole.’” (p. 244). The hermeneutic sounds legitimate. The two questions that remain are if the passages in the New Testament narratives that appear to represent eschatological vengeance or divine retribution really are that ambiguous and if the principle of requiring God himself to be nonviolent is really intrinsic to Scripture. It could be argued that Neville has put the cart before the horse, allowing his discomfort to define what God can and cannot do rather than letting God through his revealed Scriptures define the nature of his own judgment.
The volume nevertheless challenges every reader to rethink their pre-understandings about the meaning and application of crucial texts about final judgment in the Gospels, Acts and the Apocalypse. Whether or not one comes down precisely where Neville does, the exercise will prove beneficial. And even if one stops just a little short of some of the sweeping pro-pacifism conclusions of the author, one will have to admit that a careful handling of the texts leads to a synthesis much closer to Neville’s than to the typical conservative Christian “shoot-em-up” mentality!
Craig L. Blomberg, PhD
Professor of New Testament