With the beginning of the second half of 2020 and on the occasion of the ‘Year of the Bible’ endorsed by the World Evangelical Alliance, the EEA is now focusing on a new communication theme for the next six months, ‘The Relevance of the Bible for European Societies’. Jeff Fountain, initiator of the Schuman Center for European Studies, has devoted a series of articles in his weekly column ‘Weekly Word’ to the relevance of the Bible to numerous areas of life in European society and has kindly agreed to make these articles available to the European Evangelical Alliance. The articles are to be published in a coffee table book entitled “How the Bible Shaped Our Lives” by the end of the year. In the next newsletters we will take a closer look at selected areas of our life shaped by the Bible, starting with the impact of the Bible on the search for peace in Europe in the last centuries today.
Trying to understand western culture without knowing the Bible is like watching a 3D movie without any special glasses.
Biblical illiteracy is eroding our western cultural heritage. A generation ignorant of the themes and stories of the Bible has lost the code to understanding many of the literary, musical, visual and dramatic works of, for example, Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt and Dante.
Or of Dan Brown, U2, Hollywood and Jesus Christ Superstar, for that matter. For much of the poetry, literature and films of the 20th century assumed a now-lost biblical literacy.
This book demonstrates how the Bible has shaped our art and music, our language and literature, our politics and democracy, our morality and ethics, our law and justice, our marriages and families, our business and economics, our perceptions of human dignity and equality, our understanding of time and history – even our science and technology – far more than any other influence.
Yet the Bible is strangely absent from our educational curricula and public institutions.
We don’t need ‘faith’ to recognise the uniqueness of this book. No book has been so widely published and translated into so many languages. It is the most loved and hated book of all time, the most quoted and criticised book ever, the most smuggled and most destroyed book in human history.
The Bible’s very existence is unique. It is a portable library (biblia) of sixty-six books compiled without a general editor, the work of over forty writers spread over at least fifty generations on three continents and in three languages. Their combined work offers remarkably harmonious answers to the deepest questions of life: Who is God? who are we? where have we come from? where are we going to? how should we live our lives?
The Bible has been a source of inspiration and comfort for countless millions globally for more over many centuries. Sadly, it has also been misused to unleash wars, persecutions and injustices. Power and wealth, xenophobia and racism have too often drowned out its core message of love and acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation, equality and dignity, brotherhood and hospitality, mercy and compassion, peace and freedom.
Then as now. For again we see religious nationalism being used to exclude the ‘other’. At the same time, the loss of this heritage means we no longer know our own culture, and we become insecure towards other cultures.
We hope these pages will help you, the reader, rediscover this remarkable Biblical cultural heritage.
Swords Into Ploughshares
The Bible has been blamed for all sorts of violent atrocities including the Crusades, the Inquisition, religious wars, forced conversions and other forms of religious extremism.
And not without reason. Old Testament passages tell of wholesale massacres of men, women and children, and of David being praised for slaughtering ‘tens of thousands’ in comparison with King Saul’s mere ‘thousands’. These are difficult passages for 21st century minds to accept. Some even call for this ‘violent book’ to be banned, along with the Koran, used by Islamists to justify religious violence today.
However, for over two thousand years the Bible has inspired the search for peace among Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, western Protestant and pacifist streams, and their respective political expressions.
The church of the first three centuries was a persecuted minority practicing a ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ pacifism. Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165) wrote that ‘we who formerly killed one another not only refuse to make war on our enemies but…freely go to our deaths confessing Christ.’ Tertullian (c.160-c.220) taught against wearing any uniform which symbolised a sinful act.
After Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in the fourth century, believers began sharing responsibilities for the temporal order. Two Latin bishops, Ambrose (c.339-397) and Augustine (354-430) developed a just war theory based on two presuppositions: one, peace was God’s intended order for humanity; two, fallen human nature required a legitimate authority to wield the sword to resist evil, uphold justice and defend the weak. Augustine put it this way: ‘it is iniquity on the part of the adversary that forces a just war upon the wise man.’
Athanasius and Basil, fathers of the Eastern Church in the fourth century, recommended that soldiers who killed enemy soldiers be pardoned; although, added Basil, communion may have to be withheld for three years ‘due to their uncleanness’.
Christian Romans now saw themselves as the New Chosen; the newly Christianised empire as the New Israel; Constantinople as the New Rome and the New Jerusalem. Their mandate was to defend themselves against pagans and infidels, and later Moslems and even Western Christians, as Israel had in the Old Testament under Moses, Joshua and David. ‘Self-defence’, ‘pursuit of peace’, ‘recovery of lost territory’ and ‘averting greater evils’ became accepted justifications for warfare.
Both Eastern and Western Christendom adopted practices ‘sanctifying’ military activities including military chaplains, pre-battle blessings, religious services on the battlefield, relics and other religious symbols accompanying troops in battle and special liturgies for the fallen as well as for victories – all practices still used widely today.
The Crusades, as argued by Pope Innocent IV, were against an ‘unjust occupation of lands unjustly expropriated and exploited by those who had no right to it’.
In the Middle Ages, the Peace of God (Pax Dei) movement emerged in Western Europe to protect church property, agricultural resources and unarmed clerics, followed by the Truce of God (Treuga Dei) movement to limit the days of the week and times of year when the nobility could engage in fighting. Large crowds witnessed vows being made to uphold the peace on threat of excommunication for violation. A ban on the use of certain weapons against fellow Christians was an early attempt at ‘arms control’.
The Reformation saw a continuation of the Catholic and Orthodox views of just war in the new territorial churches. Some mainstream Protestants viewed the duty of secular governments to include the protection of society from apostacy (as had Catholic and Orthodox authorities before them), by which the burning of heretics could be justified. As persecuted minorities, however, Anabaptists revived the pacifism of the early church.
Calvin raised the possibility of rebellion against tyranny, inspiring both John Knox (Scotland) and William of Orange (Holland) towards armed resistance. The Geneva Bible contained translations and commentaries supporting disobedience to wicked rulers. Calvinistic theology was deployed also during the English Civil War and the American Revolution to justify a ‘divine mandate to reform the political order’.
Scholars trained in the Calvinist (Hugo Grotius) and Lutheran (Samuel von Pufendorf) traditions laid foundations for modern international law and the later emergence of global institutions for the maintenance of peace, such as the United Nations.
Swiss evangelical, Henri Dunant, appalled by suffering he witnessed on the battlefield, initiated the 1864 Geneva Convention ‘for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field’. Today the Geneva Conventions define basic rights of wartime prisoners, establish protections for wounded and sick, and for the civilians in and around a war-zone.
The words of the prophet Isaiah engraved on the United Nations Plaza in New York express the age-old dream of swords being beaten into ploughshares and witness to the incomparable contribution of the Bible towards world peace.