I was thinking of this today and wanted to rerun it.
One of the most important rules for Bible study is to never read (just) a Bible verse. Countless errors occur when people pick and choose verses they like while ignoring the real meaning of the passage. An individual verse can’t mean something different than it does in the broader passage. I have accidentally quoted things out of context many times and am always glad to learn the correct way to interpret a passage.
The same goes for quoting other writers. A theological liberal seminary student (read: false teacher) started posting comments on “pacifist wisdom.” His first quote was from Athenagoras of Athens, circa 180 A.D. from A Plea For The Christians, and it followed some anti-capital punishment posts. Perhaps this guy was a flaming pacifist, and perhaps the quotes from other writers will make his point, but this one missed the mark.
The portion that he quoted:
We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly.
What I found interesting is that this quote doesn’t even make a pacifistic anti-capital punishment point. Athenagoras notes that the death was just! It gets worse when you look at the broader context, with the previous portion italicized:
For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly, who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism?
So the context wasn’t necessarily pacifism and definitely wasn’t only pacifism. Read the whole passage in the link under the heading of “The Christians condemn and detest all cruelty” and see for yourself. The Christians were accused of being murderers and cannibals, and the quote is from the section defending themselves against that charge. Perhaps he should have been turning the other cheek, but it is obvious that he wrote that section to defend Christians against false charges.
Also, keep in mind the kind of death he was referring to. Was it crucifixion, the cruelest form of execution ever devised? Was it being killed by wild animals in the arena? (Note the reference to gladiators and wild beasts.) He and other church fathers might have been against those types of capital punishments – though that still wasn’t the context of the passage – but perhaps they would feel differently about lethal injection.
That’s nice, but what does the Bible say? Even if the passage had been in context, it would have been much more meaningful if it would have referred to the how the early church interpreted scripture (I know it was pre-Canon, but most of the books were widely circulated and authoritative). After all, just because you quote a few guys doesn’t mean their views meshed with scripture.
What I found really interesting was Athenagoras’ section on abortion:
And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it . . .
Again, he is trying to defend themselves against charges of murder and cannibalism by pointing out how they think abortion is murder.
It seems to me that true pacifists would quote the anti-abortion part because that was so clear. 99% of all murders are abortions, so wouldn’t pacifists want to start there? That is, unless they are the typical pro-abortion pacifists or those who say they are anti-abortion but do and say nothing about it – including voting.
Here are a few more quotes from early church leaders on abortion. I’m sure the pacifists quote these left and right in their pro-life efforts:
You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay a child by abortion. You shall not kill that which has already been generated. (Epistle of Barnabas 19.5; second century)
Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant. (The Didache 2.2; second century catechism for young Christian converts)
It does not matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. In both instances, the destruction is murder. (Tertullian, Apology, 9.4; second century)
Those who give abortifacients for the destruction of a child conceived in the womb are murderers themselves, along with those receiving the poisons. (Basil the Great, Canons, 188.2; fourth century)
Jerome called abortion “the murder of an unborn child” (Letter to Eustochium, 22.13; fourth century).
Augustine used the same phrase, warning against the terrible crime of “the murder of an unborn child” (On Marriage, 1.17.15; fourth century).
The early church fathers Origen, Cyprian and Chrysostom likewise condemned abortion as the killing of a child.
Quoting the Bible or anything else out of context is unproductive.