This reproduces a review article first posted in Pneuma Review on April 8, 2017 and accessed HERE. (If you wish to cite it in a paper it is better to do so from Pneuma Review,)
Roger E. Olson, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas: Can Their Approaches to Christian Ethics be Bridged?” Pathos, Posted Feburary 27 and 28, 2017.
Reviewed by William L. De Arteaga
This two-part article by the noted Evangelical scholar, Roger Olson, should be of interest to practically most Christians. The article deals with two prominent theologians of the modern era who espouse very different views on the morality of the Christian’s participation in war. Olson’s article masterfully summarizes their opposite theologies. The first is that of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) who formulated a modern variant of the Christian “just war” theology that traces its roots to St. Augustin (354-430). Olson then summarizes the Christian pacifist theology of Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) which has garnered a wide following in recent decades.
Olsen is well credentialed for his attempt at describing these opposite positions. He is professor at Baylor University, and has been editor of Christian Scholar’s Review and Christianity Today, and as such is well acquainted with Christian thought of all persuasions. Olsen declares he loves and has been influenced by the theology of both Niebuhr and Hauerwas. He admits it is a seemingly impossible task to reconcile these two theological views, but makes a valiant effort at it.
To summarize Olson’s summary: Reinhold Niebuhr was the most widely read and influential Protestant theologian of his generation. He was pastor and then professor at Union Theological Seminary for decades immediately before and during World War II. As a young pastor in Detroit he fought for the rights of the auto workers to unionize. At the same time, he noted the rise of Fascism and Communism and the genocidal outrages perpetuated by the totalitarian dictators. In Niebuhr’ most famous book Moral Man and Immoral Society, he argued against pacifism and for the position that the state may use violence to limit injustice, conquest and tyranny. He strongly advocated for American entry into World War II, and later supported America’s Cold Wars.
For Niebuhr, war is a tragic necessity and never completely successful. Man’s sin nature would ensure that mistakes would be made in the course of the war or in the peace process. In fact, nothing would be definitively just until the Second Coming. Yet inaction and pious pacifism would lead to catastrophe. When Niebuhr began airing his view on war and the use of force, it was contested strongly by other pastors and theologians, as many were disillusioned by the failed peace after World War I. However, as the tragic history of World War II unfolded, his arguments seemed self-evidently true to most Christians.
All to the contrary, a resurgent Christian pacifism has been elaborated by the Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas came to maturity during the Vietnam war, when the Barragan brothers, two Catholic priests, were formulating a pacifist argument against the Vietnam War. For many, Vietnam seemed anything but a “just war.” Hauerwas was especially influenced by the Mennonite theologian Howard Yoder who preached a form of Christian absolute pacifism and non-violence.
Hauerwas centers his understanding of Christian life and ethics on the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus indeed counsels non-violence and non-resistance to evil. This means, for Hauerwas, that no Christian should participate in any civil organization or group that uses or threatens to use coercive force, as in police and courts, and of course the military. Rather, Christians are called to form “witnessing communities” within the general society where they practice non-violence and non-resistance, even at considerable cost.
So how does Oslon reconcile two such antithetical theologies? He does so by pointing to individuals whose lives have bridged the differences. He cites the life of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another German pastor of earlier times and healing minister, Christoph Blumhardt, and several others including William Jennings Bryant, the secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson.
William Jennings Bryant’ life is especially attractive to Olson’s bridge position. Bryant was a devote Christian and pacifist. In 1914, at the start of World War I, he used his position as Secretary of State to encourage peace negotiations between the Allies (Britain and France) and Central Powers (Germany and Austria). However, those negotiators failed, and President Wilson began favoring the Allied side. Bryant feared the US would eventually enter the war. Indeed, that happened, but Bryant resigned from the government before that as a protest to Wilson’s tilt. In any case, Olson considers Bryant’s public life a “bridge” person between the Niebuhr and Hauerwas positions. He was a man of pacifist persuasions, and served the government with all his strength as long as he could in good conscience.
Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked practically all of his adult and ministry life as a dedicated pacifist and advocate of non-violence. However, when he saw the monstrous evil of the Jewish Holocaust, and German atrocities to other peoples and enslaved POWs, he was forced to reconsider his position. He joined the German Army’s intelligence branch (which was heavily Christian) and assisted the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and his generals. That cost him his life.
A Charismatic Perspective and critique:
It seems to me that Olsen’s good intentions of bridging Niebuhr and Hauerwas don’t quite succeed. That is especially clear in the example of Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist most of his life, but a “just war” participant at the end of his life. But he was not both at the same time. A bridge holds both ends at the same time. Bonhoeffer’s eloquent and inspiring story as pacifist opponent to Nazism has become a heritage story to Christendom. But Bonhoeffer’s ultimate resort to arms indicates the weakness of pacifism in the face of catastrophic evil. His attempt to kill Hitler and his generals was no different morally than the typical American GI who enlisted out of high school in 1942 because he saw and understood the evil of Nazism via newsreels and the newspapers, and wound up fighting in several campaigns – perhaps even being involved in a tragic “collateral damage” incident. (The tragedy of war, as Niebuhr would point out).
But beyond the weak logic of Olson’s argument that lies a hidden hermeneutical problem in the Niebuhr-Hauerwas debate. It is that both men, but especially Hauerwas, did not consider 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. 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.
This liberal apostasy is similar to the theology of the heretic Marcion of the 2nd Century. Marcion, the bishop of Synop (near Rome) did not like the Old Testament with all its gore, as in the automatic execution of murderers, or killing of the 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 the OT is a false gospel. For Marcion, the true Bible was the Gospel of Luke and most of the letters of Paul – period. In fact, Macion edted Luke and Paul to eliminate any positive mention of the Jews or of the Mosaic law – he hated both.
Harerwas’ theology seems to follow this Marcion pattern. I would 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 Harerwas, 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 Nieburh was right and Hauer is 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 be executors of God’s wrath for the sake of justice and punishment.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rms 17-24
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves... For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Rms 13: 1-5)
Ultimately, though Olsen is a great teacher and wonderful blogger, his quest to bridge the Niebuhr - Hauerwas divide is futile. It is an attempt to connect a theology that incorporates the fullness of scripture, and understand the present tragic dilemmas that man must live with, with a system that seems Christian, but it ultimately unbiblical.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932). It is still in print, but also available online as a free PDF download.
 Hauerwas has written many books, but a quick way to understand his theology it is by accessing an anthology of his works, The Hauerwas Reader, Eds. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001). His single most important work on Christian pacifism and non-violence is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989).
 Contemporary scholarly example Barrie Wilson How Jesus Became Christ (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008)
Scot McKnight “Jesus vs. Paul” Christianity Today. Posted Dec 3, 2010. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/december/9.25.html?start=1
 For a brilliant and readily assessable explanation of these difficult issues, see the recent article in First Things by James R. Rogers “Death Penalties and the Divine” Posted, March 28, 2017.