Guy F. Hershberger and Reinhold Niebuhr on Christian love

Will the Real Augustinian Please Stand Up?

Conference on “Anabaptists in Conversation: Mennonite and Brethren Interactions with Twentieth-Century Theologies,” 19-21 June 1997.  Young Center for the Study of Anabaptist and Pietist Groups, Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.

Agapeism and Hershberger

In the 1950s, it must have seemed to leading Mennonite thinkers such as Guy F. Hershberger that Christian ethicists — at least Protestant ones — had settled on a common definition of authentic Christian love. As a leading formulator of Mennonite peace witness, Hershberger’s primary concern was that his ethic be faithful to scripture. Yet Hershberger could also articulate his Mennonite defense of one kind of Christian pacifism from within this apparent consensus concerning Christian love. To do so might actually help him counter the claims of his main opponent, Reinhold Niebuhr.

What Christian ethicists now call “Agapeism” was serving as an overarching framework within which Protestant thinkers carried on their ethical debates. However else Anders Nygren, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others disagreed, they all conceived of authentically Christian love or “agape” as fundamentally other-directed and free of egocentric self-love. Christian love, they agreed, was self-giving, oriented entirely toward the needs of others, and therefore prepared to sacrifice one’s own self-interest for the good of others. Though to careful thinkers, self-sacrifice in se was never the end nor the whole of this love, a willingness to sacrifice oneself was its test case, and thus its most telling trait.

Agapeists have differed somewhat in their understanding of how Christian love relates to other human loves, but they have differed most on the implications of agape for applied ethics. For Reinhold Niebuhr, the “absolutism and perfectionism of Jesus’ love ethic” served paradoxically as the ultimate standard for every moral situation, even though it nevertheless had “nothing to say about the relativities of politics and economics, nor the necessary balances of power which exist and must exist in even the most intimate social relationships.”[1] Niebuhr’s main point, of course, was that even though Jesus taught his followers to reject all violence, the Christian church did not have to do so and would render itself politically irrelevant or socially irresponsible if it tried.[2]

Other Protestant luminaries who shared an Agapeist conception of Christian love did, however, seek to apply agapeic principles directly to concrete ethical problems. Sometimes they even seemed near to adopting an ethic of consistent nonviolence. In his classic work from the 1930s on The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that Christ calls all Christians to follow him in suffering and self-denial according to the divine love which bears away the sin and suffering of others; suffering is “badge of true discipleship” and “[t]o deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self.”[3] To be sure, Bonhoeffer would eventually abandon thoroughgoing nonviolence to participate in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. But Karl Barth seems to have moved closer to Christian pacifism as his career progressed.[4]

Paul Ramsey’s recovery and elaboration of classical just war criteria for limiting the scope of violence actually constituted a challenge to Niebuhr’s argument against the relevance and applicability of agape. Ramsey’s break with Niebuhr was only implicit when he included a section on “A Christian Ethic of Resistance” in his 1952 work Basic Christian Ethics.[5] In 1961, however, he would open his study on War and the Christian Conscience with a pointed attack on the ethic of expediency that Niebuhrianism had produced.

As Hershberger made his own, even stronger, case for the applicability of Jesus’ ethic in all human relations, Agapeism thus provided him too with a sphere of consensus within which to debate. This is especially true in Hershberger’s The Way of the Cross in Human Relations, his most systematic effort to articulate a consistent ethic of nonviolent, Christ-like love. Not surprisingly, Hershberger quoted Ramsey and Bonhoeffer more heavily than other Agapeists.[6]

Ramsey provided help as Hershberger critiqued egocentric self-love and defined true “disinterested love.” The essense of sin, he wrote, is for human beings to reject “a relationship of responsive obedience” to God’s love and pursue their own course in opposition both to God’s intended order and to “the steadfast love of God which goes out to all men.”[7] Here Hershberger quoted Ramsey to say that sin is “‘any falling short of disinterested love for neighbor for his own sake…, any falling short of the strenuous teachings of Jesus, any falling short of the full definition of obligation contained in I Corinthians 13.'”[8]

Such love, of course, could demand costly self-sacrifice, as Bonhoeffer had so eloquently argued. Hershberger quoted extensively from The Cost of Discipleship in order to underscore a series of points. In Hershberger’s telling, “The utter abandon of self, which is the way of the cross, produces a sincerity, a humility, and a simplicity of life which leads the disciple to forget himself and strive to serve only his God and his fellow men in all that he does.”[9] It also produces nonresistant love of enemy, not as a strategy to overcome persecution, yet in confidence of “‘the victory of love over the enemy’s hatred'” through “‘the love of Jesus Christ alone.'”[10]

“The heart of Christian ethics,” Hershberger summarized, “is love for the neighbor.”[11] Incarnate in the life, death and person of Jesus — and “painfully specific” in Jesus’ teachings — such love was neither an abstract rational principle nor a broad generality.[12] Yet to understand the meaning of neighbor love, Hershberger was not relying solely on the New Testament witness. In a telling phrase, leading into a telling quotation, Hershberger wrote that “Martin Luther [had] sharpened this great truth [that Christian ethics concerns the neighbor’s good after the model of Christ’s self-giving love, in] this way: …”[13] Then, almost graphically illustrating how the process of conceptual sharpening had been proceeding, Hershberger quoted from Luther’s Freedom of a Christian not directly, but by way of Ramsey’s Basic Christian Ethics:

“Therefore, in all his works [the disciple] should be guided by this thought and look to this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, having regard to nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor…. I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in life except what I see necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor….”[14]

A superficial reading, then, would seem to suggest that Hershberger completely shared Agapeism’s definition of Christian love, which in turn traced roots through Luther.[15]

A great truth “sharpened.” To argue that the influence of Agapeism on Hershberger caused him to describe authentic Christian love as wholly self-giving, sacrificial, other-oriented, and opposed to self-love would certainly be wild exaggeration and just plain wrong. For one thing, Hershberger undoubtedly cited leading Protestant thinkers of his day mainly for apologetic reasons. Hershberger had long-standing, specifically Anabaptist-Mennonite reasons for emphasizing the cost, the sacrifice, and the suffering that anyone must anticipate who seeks to follow Christ-like, cruciform love not only for neighbors but for enemies.

No, the influence of Agapeism — if influence it was — operated more subtly. It “sharpened.” It clarified or made more pointed what was already there. But perhaps, as with any act of sharpening, it also whittled, cut, or ground away something of an earlier whole. For in fact, Hershberger also had authentically Mennonite reasons to define Christian love as something other than wholly self-sacrificial. Thus it would be misleading to identify Hershberger’s conception of Christian love too closely with that of Agapeism. He had reason to place far greater stress on mutual love than the Agapeists were doing, and he may even have had reason to allow for some non-egocentric right self-love.

Niebuhr and Augustine

By reputation and by his own confession, Reinhold Niebuhr was some kind of Augustinian. Yet it was not until he had already begun to emerge as a leading voice in American Protestantism, and to formulate one version of what would later carry the name of Neo-orthodoxy, that Niebuhr had occasion to read Augustine closely. In retrospect, Niebuhr expressed surprise that his careful study of the great Latin theologian of Christianity’s fourth century came so late. “The matter is surprising,” he noted in 1956, “because the thought of this theologian was to answer so many of my unanswered questions and to emancipate me finally from the notion that the Christian faith was in some way identical with the moral idealism of the past century.”[16]

To be sure, Niebuhr’s incorporation of Augustine’s thought was selective and never slavish.[17] Niebuhr drew most heavily on three interlocking themes that confirmed his own theological anthropology and political “realism” — Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, diagnosis of human pride and self-love, and critique of political pretense. Human beings do not simply sin from ignorance but willfully, out of an egotism that they could transcend only in rare and limited ways. Moral education and cultural improvement would thus have only modest impact on social patterns of human self-assertion because they did not alter — and in fact tended to confirm — the more basic and original sin of human pride and self-love. The justice possible in this world, therefore, was only the limited one of the earthly city that Augustine had described in his City of God.

Niebuhr’s selective appropriation of Augustine’s deeper wisdom, without obligation to every detail, certainly fit with all that made Niebuhr’s brand of orthodoxy “neo.” Yet Niebuhr did not just discard untenable technicalities such as Augustine’s theory of the sexual transmission of original sin. No, at least if Augustine supplied the precedent, Niebuhr’s Neo-orthodoxy was selective to potentially unorthodox proportions.[18] By his own admission Niebuhr turned his attention only belatedly to a doctrine of grace that would correspond to his doctrine of sin.[19] He incorporated a doctrine of eschatology only fitfully.[20] He wrote on ecclesiology hardly at all.[21] And he affirmed only fragments of Augustine’s doctrine of Christian love.

Different ages have chosen their own Augustine and formed variant Augustinianisms all along. If Niebuhr’s Augustinianism is unreliable, that is not because he was selective; every student of Augustine must weigh and select.[22] Rather, it is because Niebuhr failed to stay in conversation with too many of the major themes that shaped Augustine’s thought. Above all, no Augustinianism can claim to be in continuity with Augustine himself if it subordinates the one line of inquiry and teaching that arguably shaped all others. We must take seriously his insistence in the closing pages of On Christian Doctrine, book one, that to build up Christian love or caritas is the goal and sum of scripture, and thus the key to understanding and teaching faithful Christian doctrine.[23]

Driving the quest that Augustine described in the long prayer of his Confessions was a passionate longing to love rightly, to become unsnared from false loves for friends, temporal goods, and creatures, by rediscovering a proper love for creatures “in God.”[24] To love any creature rightly meant to recognize that the source of its life and goodness is the God whose face we see in the person and character of Jesus Christ.[25]tly was to desire and help it find its good in relation to God, within the ecology of right relationships among all creatures that God created it to fulfill. Augustine’s vision is a Gestalt, a vision of love-as-a-whole-in-coordination-with-its-parts,[26] an eschatological vision looking forward to the state in which “God will be all in all.”[27] In light of this vision, what is true for the neighbor is true for the self, and vice versa: the good that we seek when we love neighbor, self, or enemy is not a private good of each one’s willful and egocentric devising, but participation in the common good of right and mutual relationship with God and all other creatures in God.

Of course, we human beings cannot possibly see God’s will for all creatures as one coordinated whole.[28] But by showing us what God loves, and how God loves, Jesus Christ fills up the content of love for God, and all other loves “in God.” Specification of the content of love for God continues where the first fruits of a new creation begin to appear in the community of mutual love. For if believers are members of the body of Christ, and even enemies of Christ could yet become brothers and sisters in Christ,[29] then it would be impossible not to love Christ when we love the brother or sister, suffering and rejoicing together as each member suffers or rejoices.[30] Thus, the people of believers living as a community of mutual love is itself the eschatological appearing of God’s own mutual, trinitarian love in history.[31]

Augustine’s convictions on the intransigence of human sin and the absolute human need for God’s grace to heal the divided human will grew from his longing to love rightly, not vice versa.[32] Insofar as that longing was frustrated, failure to fully learn to love rightly was a source of insight, and occasion for fuller confession, but not a reason to abandon the quest. To attempt to love God through his own intellectual and moral exertions revealed his own pride and need for grace. Yet to be saved continued to mean for him not just forgiveness but the transformation of one’s self through transformation of the loves that determined the self.

Sacrificial and Mutual Love

Augustine’s conception of Christian love is both helpful and controversial because it unites and orients all possible loves “teleologically,” in relation to the love for God that is purpose or goal of all life and action, and that God’s own love makes possible. The communion whereby all creatures love one another in God by actively seeking the right relationship of each to God and to the whole, is a good that one may rightly seek to enjoy, and that may frankly motivate right action.

But if Augustine integrates Christian accounts of both right self-love and proper self-denial, is this a vice or a virtue?

A protracted debate at the frontier between Augustine studies and Christian ethics has simmered ever since another leading Agapeist, Anders Nygren, published his monumental Agape and Eros in the 1930s. In a way, Augustine was Nygren‘s own chief rival because Augustine had held together precisely what Nygren believed cannot be held together — self-regarding and self-sacrificial love.[33] Though Niebuhr did not divorce agape and eros so completely,[34] self-sacrificial love of neighbor was essentially a free-standing duty for him.

Niebuhr’s central plank was that “Christ as the norm of human nature defines the final perfection of man in history.”[35] That perfection was in fact “the perfection of sacrificial love.”[36] Yet even as the cross shows that divine perfection involves itself in the suffering and tragedy of human history, it “also indicates that [human] perfection … is not attainable in history.”[37] The key to comprehending this paradox is the contrast Niebuhr drew between sacrificial love and mutual love — at least mutual love as he understood it.

Jesus’ ethical ideal was for Niebuhr one of “pure disinterestedness”[38] or “sacrificial agape.”[39] Ordinary morality, however, always works toward some kind of prudent “armistice” between contending claims and interests, it does not relinquish them.[40] A life dedicated to living out the ideal of selfless love must necessarily lead to the self-sacrifice of the cross. For a love which seeketh not its own is not able to maintain itself in historical society.”[41]

In contrast, then, the highest moral possibility that human beings can sustain over time is not sacrificial but rather mutual love, which to Niebuhr meant merely reciprocal love. Within history mutual love provides the only achievable ethical norm. The purposes and obligations of human society can only find their fulfillment in mutual love, as all conflicting claims and interests are “proportionately satisfied and related to each other harmoniously.”[42] Harmony can be in the interest of any enlightened ego; in fact the noblest of such “mutual love” retains the taint of egoism insofar as human agents desire a more harmonious social order out of self-interest.[43]

Still, the sacrificial love of the cross clarifies what is only partially knowable otherwise, that mutual love cannot sustain itself by itself. Niebuhr often reiterated what he once called the paradox of the moral life:[44]

[T]he highest mutuality is achieved where mutual advantages are not consciously sought as the fruit of love. For love is purest where it desires no returns for itself; and it is most potent where it is purest. Complete mutuality, with its advantages to each party to the relationship, is therefore most perfectly realised where it is not intended, but love is poured out without seeking returns.[45]

So perfect mutual love results when no one seeks it for oneself, but only seeks the good of others through sacrificial love.[46]

Niebuhr’s formulation encounters at least three problems. First, as feminists have pointed out, stressing the self-sacrificial trait in authentically Christian love seems to offer little good news to those upon whom society is already too quick to impose sacrifices or whose sense of selfhood is already shattered.

Second, if Niebuhr can explain the paradox of the moral order it may not be quite so paradoxical. It might thus be possible to love and act in truly Christ-like self-denial while knowing and desiring that one’s sacrifices may contribute causally to an order of mutual love whose ultimate realization one recognizes to be a good for oneself. If so, it cannot be impossible or necessarily wrong to motivate self-denying love by presenting mutual love as its end or purpose — its telos.[47]

The third problem in Niebuhr’s formulation was that throughout all his discussions of mutual love he conflated it with mere reciprocity. If Christ himself endured the cross for “the joy that was set before him,”[48] then even his own supremely sacrificial act looked with longing towards the telos of mutual love he had proclaimed as God’s Reign. What makes joy in the mutual love that is “set before us” something more than mere reciprocity is what Jesus Christ shows us about the way God creates and restores relations of mutual love: God has taken the first step, has loved and suffered first. Thus, all who seek mutual love in Christ-like ways will likewise be prepared to risk and to act first — not without hope nor altogether without thought of receiving love in return (as Niebuhr and Nygren believed) but without any guarantee of receiving love in return.

Guy F. Hershberger understood this and his defense of Mennonite convictions on peace required a different account of mutual love than Niebuhr’s, yet accepting an Agapeist framework made it harder for him to articulate. In The Way of the Cross, self-denial, as the preeminent mark of Christ-like love, sometimes seems to become the predicate for Christ-like love itself, and thus to rule out every form of self-love or longing for an order of mutual love.[49]

Closer examination of Hershberger’s thought suggests, however, that self-denying love itself took its meaning from a larger teleological structure.[50] When Hershberger wrote that “[t]o be a Christian means to enter into the same experience with Christ, presenting our bodies…as a living sacrifice…,” his thought was nonetheless implicitly teleological. For this was not just any sacrifice; it was, he continued, “a living sacrifice for the cause for which Christ died.”[51] That cause was the salvation of the world through reconciliation with God and one another. It was this cause that gave meaning to specific duties in a life of discipleship according to Christ’s teaching and example. “Why be moral?” — or better, “Why be a disciple?” Salvation is at hand, Christ has worked reconciliation through suffering, and following this example will contribute to “the cause of Christ.”[52]

Because the telos here is one that God achieves in Christ and God alone can complete, Hershberger’s thought is unmistakably eschatological rather than self-consciously teleological.

Perspective for the fulfillment of [the disciple’s] mission is not complete without a view of the kingdom of God and its consummation, the goal toward which redemption moves. A Christian social ethic is impossible without a Christian eschatology. The work of the Christian is not man’s work; it is God’s work. The way of the cross is not man’s way; it is Christ’s way.”[53]

Yet the structure or “perspective” that makes it possible to “walk the way of the cross” is no less teleological because it is eschatological. The duties of nonresistance take their meaning and shape from a larger good, a longer-range “goal,” that “stirs” the nonresistant Christian’s motivation as a “call.” “To obey the command of love is to identify one’s self and to synchronize one’s life with the divine order in all man’s affairs.”[54] Christian discipleship in accord with Jesus’ love ethic, therefore, is not simply a dutiful following but a loving self-identification with God’s larger purposes, which in turn reflect God’s benevolent intention for all creatures.

Hershberger not only spoke of mutual love and its relationship to sacrificial love in a way that differed from Niebuhr — but had to do so. After all, his church’s communal witness was finally the best answer to Niebuhr’s charge that a nonresistant church must renounce social responsibility. In both his writings and his denominational activities, Hershberger sought to encourage the creation of communitarian institutions that both reflected and sustained the socially-relevant witness of the Mennonite community to Christ’s “way.”[55] The goal was not simply to preserve Mennonite folkways and prosperity for their own sake. Nor was it to preserve Mennonite “purity” through a “perfectionist” “strategy of withdrawal” or “separation from the world,” as the Niebuhrian caricature of Mennonite social ethics alleged.[56] The goal was to witness to Christ.[57] Hershberger’s basic answer to the Niebuhrian challenge, was that Christians could contribute not less but more to society and to social transformation by building communities whose peaceable lifestyle is both itself a witness and is in turn the basis for every other witness through mission, evangelism, and service.[58] This answer to Niebuhr required the institutionalization of mutual love.

If Hershberger only tended to equate self-sacrifice and Christian love itself, he clearly intended that sacrificial love and mutual love stand in parallel; in his parlance they constituted “the way of love and brotherhood.”[59] That the church cultivate “the brotherhood life” was at least as important, he explained, as were its efforts to instruct new generations in its nonresistant teaching. The reason: “Mennonite nonresistance and Mennonite brotherhood spring from the same root and … nonresistance flourishes best in the brotherhood type of environment.”[60] Unlike Niebuhr, Hershberger clarified that Christian mutual aid is more than contractual reciprocity. The desire to desire to participate in mutually beneficial relationships was not sub-Christian so long as each was prepared to be the first to act sacrificially.[61]

Still, to promote his overarching vision for a community of mutual love, Hershberger needed to promote church-based patterns and institutions of mutual aid over against merely secular ones, and this required him to project an attractive, desirable vision of the good. In but one example, Hershberger urged wealthy members of the community to invest in church-based institutions rather than in “the stocks and bonds of enterprises which make no contribution to the life of the church;” to motivate them, Hershberger appealled to a vision of thriving community, a common good, with which he expected its members to identify for reasons that were certainly not devoid of self-concern: “[I]f brethren with means use their money for the help of needy young people, the home community will be enriched; … both the young people and the investors will be able to live their lives with their families in the community, where their personalities, their influence, their money, and their land will do much to strengthen them and their way of life.”[62]

The sort of Christian community Hershberger envisioned and sought to sustain certainly required its members to seek one another’s good above their own. Yet in another sense mutual love was a self-conscious goal toward which self-sacrifice was the means. Here is a clue not a contradiction. Hershberger’s ethic required both Christ-like self-denial and a vision of the good that Christian disciples might embrace as their own good.

Could Mennonite Theology Be Augustinian?

So Hershberger’s conception of Christian love differed from Agapeism in crucial ways — and inadverantly moved closer to an Augustinian formulation. But is coincidence on this one point any more than that — a mere coincidence? Well, there is more, and it adds up to a case that not just Hershberger but Mennonite theology as a whole is far more deeply embedded in the long, rich, and self-correcting conversation which is the Augustinian tradition than we might have thought. (In my full-length paper I argue this through six points, but here must limit myself to four:)

First, to recover the place of mutual love as a fully Christian outworking of God’s love already within history is to recover ecclesiology for Christian ethics, at least insofar as Niebuhr had neglected it. To do this while simultaneously accepting Niebuhr’s argument that Christian theology must retain an Augustinian doctrine of sin, also requires an eschatology and a pneumatology or doctrine of grace to explain how God gets us there from here. This is eminently Augustinian, but its outline also coincides with points Hershberger and John Howard Yoder were making against Niebuhr in the 1950s.[63] When Mennonite theologians accept Niebuhr’s recovery of an Augustinian doctrine of sin while pointing out Niebuhr’s neglect of pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, they arguably become more rather than less Augustinian than he.

Second, if it seems that we still only have convergence on a broad outline of theological themes, then we need to recognize this: Augustine’s thought holds together not as a tight and architectonic system but as the agenda for a long, complex and potentially self-correcting conversation. Although the place of ecclesiology in the economy of salvation is very clear in Augustine’s theology, his thought is most sketchy and unfinished at the point where one wishes he would specify the sociological shape of the life of a pilgrim people. Yet Augustine and his “two cities” schema did definitively shape the centuries-long debate in Western Christianity over the relationship between civic and religious loyalties. It did so by presenting history and society as a field of tension in which all human projects fall short of God’s peaceable Reign yet can still be called toward greater justice.[64] And so we debate still — but we too are part of the debate. When some sixteenth-century Anabaptists used Martin Luther’s language of “two kingdoms” in order to insist on a quite different ecclesiology than he, they were giving one of a number of logically possible ways to work out the relationship between Augustine’s “two cities.” So was Hershberger when he wrote about ways that the “nonresistant” church, as a “colony of heaven,” is socially responsible in its own way through its witness and engagement with its host society.

Third, Augustine himself may well have betrayed his own best insights when he rationalized the Christian use of violence.[65] If it is possible to “prove” such a highly interpretive thesis at all, space here surely will not suffice. Nor will it do, even in a longer treatise, to amass Augustinian proof texts. Only a reading of the deeper grammar of Augustine’s thought will do.

In the grammar by which Augustine wrote of Christian love, one “has” or achieves the good through a “continence” that clings to God in trust but does not grasp at the goods that God means to give as gifts. Continence, then, is a way of having the good of right relationship with all that one loves by respecting them and their place in God’s intended ecology, by receiving that good from God in grateful trust, rather than having what one loves through manipulation and domination. The vindication of Augustinian charity-at-work-through-continence is that it diagnoses Augustine’s own incontinence. Mutual love in the body of Christ was for Augustine the greatest of earthly goods. His great temptation was therefore to force its realization through imperial sanctions and domination rather than trust in God. Augustine effort to heal a deep schism among North African Christians by forcing rival Donatists back into the Catholic fold represents a realized eschatology — an attempt to make the fullness of God’s promises happen already in history.[66] Yet this was out of synch with his deepest theological convictions — that God’s grace alone can transform the human will, that God’s grace comes to us through God’s amazing humility in Jesus Christ, that we must appropriate all God’s other gifts too through a continence that trusts God and respects others as creatures of God.[67]

Arguably, then, Augustine’s Donatist policy struck a fateful fissure at the heart of his teaching and his doctrine of love. The point here is twofold: (1) If the necessary place of violence in Augustine’s thought is open to debate at all, then Mennonites and other heirs of Anabaptism belong in the debate. (2) Any geneological tracing of Augustine’s ideas that assumes all of his theology must be wrong because we believe him wrong on this point will almost certainly be too simplistic to wash.

Fourth, although we surely do not need Augustine in any ultimate sense, we do need the witness of the larger Christian tradition in order to be faithful, as surely as it needs ours. Like Hershberger, Mennonite theologians should continue seeking above all else to be faithful to the life, teachings, cross and resurrection hope of Jesus Christ. Our primary task is to test historical and contemporary theologies against the biblical witness rather than vice-versa, adopting and drawing from them that which helps us to interpret and live the biblical proclamation more faithfully. Yet there is the catch.

We have lost our naivete — at least those of us who have thought carefully about the task of biblical interpretation. We have learned that to attempt to read straight off the Bible is to invite misreadings, not just because knowledge of ancient historical contexts illumines the text, but also because we cannot read at all without taking extra-biblical concepts from our own world of meaning into our engagement with the text. Those concepts have histories.

And so we have no choice. We seek to test our extra-biblical concepts against the biblical witness, but we use those same concepts in our discernment of the biblical witness. This sets up the task of biblical and theological discernment as a continuing conversation back and forth. But it cannot be the only conversation. In order to be self-critical about the terms and concepts by which we read the Bible, we must also analyze them and discover their limitations through dialogue with a wider rather than narrower range of theologies. Guy F. Hershberger might have articulated more clearly his own conception of Christian love if he had not allowed the Agapeist conception to circumscribe it.

This is not to say that he or we should allow Augustinian conceptions to circumscribe us instead. It is to say that we must converse both broadly and critically, ready to accept the insight and wisdom of all those who are also on pilgrimage to a city that none of us has seen with perfect clarity. In other words, faithful to our own particular tradition of discernment and practice, we must define our own way to be catholic.


1. Reinhold Niebuhr, Interpretation, 39, cf. 105.

2. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, reprint ed., The Scribner Lyceum Editions Library (New York: Scribner’s, 1960), 19-21, 263-67; Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist,” in Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Charles Scibner’s Sons, 1940), 1-32.

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, reprint, 1959 (New York: Touchstone; Simon & Schuster, 1995), 88, 91-92, 144-50. Note that for all of Hershberger’s references to this book I have provided page numbers to this now-more-accessible edition, rather than the one Hershberger was citing.

4. John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth and the Problem of War, Studies in Christian ethics series (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), 52, 116-18; John Howard Yoder, “Peace Without Eschatology?” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed, with an introduction by Michael G. Cartwright, with a foreword by Richard J. Mouw (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 166-67.

5. The section concluded: “Participation in regrettable conflict falls among distasteful takes which sometimes become imperative for Christian vocation. Only one thing is necessary: for love’s sake it must be done. All things are lawful, all things are now permitted, yet everything is required which Christian love requires, everything without a single exception.” Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, 184.

6. In the early chapters in The Way of the Cross on “Foundations,” Hershberger also made major use of Emil Brunner, Justice and the Social Order, translated by Mary Hottinger (London: Lutterworth Press, 1945); C. H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today (New York: George H. Doran, 1920).

7. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 12.

8. Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, 290. Also see Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 40, 52-53; Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, 142, 243.

9. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 36.

10. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 36; Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 149-50. Cf. also Hershberger’s additional citation of Bonhoeffer’s apparent nonresistance, followed by a discussion of his change of position during World War II: Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 106-08.

11. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 40.

12. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 41-42.

13. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 40, emphasis mine.

14. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 40; Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, 142. Elipses stand here as they appear in Hershberger. Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian is also known as his Treatise on Christian Liberty. For this quotation in its now-standard setting, see Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” 365, 367. One of the elipsis in Hershberger’s quotation of Ramsey quoting Luther presents an intriguing question, however. Was it perhaps it was something besides mere editorial economy that led him to delete one sentence: “‘Lo, this is a truly Christian life, here faith is truly effectual through love; that is it issues in works of the freest service cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward, and for himself is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith….'” (Emphasis mine.) Was Hershberger less worried than the others that self-regarding “hope of reward” would vitiate authentic Christian love?

15. North American Protestant ethicists have regularly quoted Luther’s 1520 treatise. Ramsey’s comment was that “[t]here can be no stronger statement than that given by Luther of the whole response of a Christian to his neighbor’s needs in any action;” Basic Christian Ethics, 142. “Here,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, “Luther comprehends the whole beauty and power of Christian agape;” Human Destiny, 186. Even after Protestant reflection on Christian love in this century evolved to a point that allowed Gene Outka to survey the field in search of a consensus, Luther’s influence shaped the effort, through Nygren’s mediation; Agape, 1.

16. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” 9.

17. For examples of Niebuhr’s willingness to distance himself from those aspects of “Augustinian Christianity” that did not coalesce with his own thought or seem credible to twentieth-century moderns, see: Interpretation, 30, 90-92; Moral Man and Immoral Society, 70; Human Nature, vol. 1 of The Nature and Destiny of Man, reprint, 1941, The Scribner Lyceum Editions Library (New York: Scribner’s, 1964), 156-58, 216, 279; Human Destiny, 134-40. The earlier two of these sources are both less subtle and less important than the latter, because they do not yet reflect Niebuhr’s close reading of Augustine.

18. My overall sensitivity to the ways in which Niebuhr was not as “orthodox” as he claimed has been heightened by John H[oward] Yoder, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism, reprint, 1955, A Concern reprint (Scottdale, Pa.: Concern, n.d.), 17-18. Also see Hershberger’s summary of Yoder’s points in Way of the Cross, 115-18.

19. Against charges that he had been preoccupied with original sin, Niebuhr wrote: “I must plead guilty to this charge in the sense that it was a long time before I paid as much attention to the Christian conception of the cure as to the diagnosis, to “grace” as well as to sin.” “Intellectual Autobiography,” 10.

20. Note Niebuhr’s doubts about the wisdom of having drawn on eschatological themes when he wrote the preface to a reprint of The Nature and Destiny of Man (ix).

21. In Human Destiny, Niebuhr’s longest sustained discussion of ecclesiology offered not a constructive proposal but a critique of Roman Catholicism, along with what he considered its essentially Augustinian doctrine of grace. See Human Destiny, 138-39, 144-52.

22. In my dissertation I have argued that Augustine’s rationalization of the use of imperial violence in supressing rival “schismatics” and attempting to force an order of mutual love into existence was “incontinent” by Augustine’s own account, represented a kind of realized eschatology in contradiction with his deepest insights, and struck a fissure near the very core of his theology. See Gerald W. Schlabach, “For the Joy Set Before Us: Ethics of Self-Denying Love in Augustinian Perspective,” Ph. D. Diss. (University of Notre Dame, 1996), 234-36.

23. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.40 – 1.40.44.

24. See especially book 4 of the Confessions.

25. Confessions 4.10.15, 4.12.18-19.

26. On the oneness of love, which seeks to draw all things into unity, see Augustine, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of St. John,” in Augustine: Later Works, edited and translated by John Burnaby, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 8 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), prologue, 5.7, 10.3; Augustine, The Trinity, 8.8.12.

27. 1 Corinthians 15:28; cf. Augustine’s use of this phrase in Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, vol. 7 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, first series, edited by Philip Schaff (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 65.1, 67.2, 83.3.

28. For Augustine’s understanding of the relation of parts to whole, see Confessions 4.10.15 – 4.11.17; and City of God 12.4.

29. Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 8.10 and 9.3, cf. 1.11 and 8.4.

30. Augustine, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of St. John,” 10.3.

31. Cf. Augustine, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of St. John,” 10.4: To bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) “is the consummation of all our works — love. There is the end, for which and unto which we run our course: when we reach it we shall have rest.”

32. See especially book 8 of the Confessions.

33. Nygren, Agape and Eros, 503.

34. See note here.

35. Reinhold Niebuhr, Human Destiny, 68. Though Niebuhr’s theological anthropology drew on a wide-ranging reading of Western history, contemporary world events, and major Christian thinkers through the centuries, he always insisted that its most important source was the biblical witness to both the human condition and the possibilities for redemption.

36. Reinhold Niebuhr, Human Destiny, 68.

37. Reinhold Niebuhr, Human Destiny 68.

38. Reinhold Niebuhr, Love and Justice, edited by D. B. Robertson (Cleveland: World Publishing, Meridian, 1967), 37.

39. Reinhold Niebuhr, Human Destiny, 71.

40. Reinhold Niebuhr, Interpretation, 39.

41. Reinhold Niebuhr, Interpretation, 39.

42. All quotations in this paragraph are from Niebuhr, Human Destiny 68; see also p. 81.

43. Reinhold Niebuhr, Human Destiny, 81-82.

44. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 265.

45. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 265-66. He also noted here that “This is how the madness of religious morality, with its trans-social ideal, becomes the wisdom which achieves wholesome social consequences.”

46. Reinhold Niebuhr, Human Destiny, 95.

47. Of course, in Niebuhr’s ethic, sacrificial love is appropriate for one level of social organization and not for another, while mutuality might be a legitimate goal where sacrificial love is inappropriate. Niebuhr’s paradoxical tendencies thus work at different institutional levels and in different lives. This may only mean, however, that Niebuhr has either refused or decided it is impossible to order various goods according to a unified account of the human good. Feminists sense the difficulties here when they seek to show why the severe split in Niebuhr’s ethic between private and public spheres is untenable; Andolsen, “Agape in Feminist Ethics,” 75-76. Likewise Mennonite pacifists have sensed the problem when they have pointed to his neglect of ecclesiology, and argued that to live out Jesus’ ethic through alternative communities that seek to anticipate God’s final Reign, may be a more rather than less responsible way to contribute to social justice. A thorough-going critique of Niebuhr would need to fill out these lines of argument. On Niebuhr’s neglect of ecclesiology and eschatology, see Yoder, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism; cf. Yoder, “Peace Without Eschatology?” 143-67.

48. Hebrews 12:2.

49. Also see Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 5; War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 3d ed., reprint, 1953, Christian Peace Shelf Selection (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1969), 32.

50. Classical teleologies should not be confused with modern consequentialism. The latter lacks the metaphysical conviction to posit a final human end. Cf. G. E. M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33 (1958): 1-19; Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Teleology, Utilitarianism, and Christian Ethics,” Theological Studies 42 (1981): 604-07, 617, 628-29.

51. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 26.

52. According to New Testament portrayals, wrote Hershberger, the person of the new covenant is meek, compassionate, lives peaceably with all, does not seek vengeance and bears the fruit of the Spirit. Why? “He knows that the salvation which `the prophets sought and searched diligently’ is now at hand. Stirred with this thought, he girds up the loins of his mind to fashion himself after an `holy manner of living.’ He suffers gladly for the cause of Christ, because Christ also suffered, leaving an example that we should follow His steps.” War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 46-47.

53. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, viii-ix.

54. Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 6-7.

55. On Hershberger’s role in the Mennonite community movement, see Theron F. Schlabach, “To Focus a Mennonite Vision,” 29-38. Also see Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 209-54, 263-65; Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 299-330.

56. See Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist,” 4-5, 30-31; John C. Bennett, Christian Ethics and Social Policy, The Richard Lectures in the University of Virginia (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), 41-46. Also see H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 56-57. For Hershberger’s rejection of Niebuhrian claims that the Mennonite ethic harbored perfectionist illusions see Way of the Cross, 54-55, 109.

57. Economic values, Hershberger wrote, are means to a “greater end [which] is the bringing of the way of love and brotherhood to all men. The true Christian community is a missionary community….” Such a community did not merely validate itself by sending out missionaries, but was already witnessing through its communal life when it sent out missionaries and service workers. War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 228.

58. See especially Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 240-44. When later Mennonites added social action or even grassroots political activism to this list, they sometimes debated with Hershberger yet they followed his logic insofar as they insisted that building Christian community is the sine qua non of all other strategies. See John H[oward] Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1972); Duane K. Friesen, Christian Peacemaking & International Conflict: A Realist Pacifist Perspective, with a foreword by Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Peace Shelf Selection (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986), 205-18.

59. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 228.

60. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 263-64. In the preceding pages, Hershberger had laid out his program for continuing to educate the church in “the teaching of nonresistance.”

61. “To those who have caught this spirit the emphasis in mutual aid is on the obligation to help the brother who is in need. To be sure, when an individual suffers loss he is not out of place in accepting aid from others or even in hoping to receive it. But the emphasis will be on giving aid, not on receiving it….” Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 322.

62. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 264. Similarly, Hershberger urged members to subscribe to the church’s mutual aid program because it offered more than any standard insurance policy. A Christian has needs that go deeper than the demands of business, he wrote, “individual, family, and community needs and obligations which can be met in a really satisfactory manner nowhere except within the Christian community.” When a family loses a spouse to death or disability, when disaster destroys a house, or when there is any such suffering at home, “the family stands in need of spiritual consolation and of the material aid of the Christian fellowship.” Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 325.

63. Cf.Hershberger, Way of the Cross, 102, 111, 115-18; Yoder, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism, 17-19. Hershberger wrote in summary that the Neo-orthodox school of thought which Niebuhr led “has cast aside the old [social gospel] optimism based on the idea of progress and the natural goodness of man; and it has moved to the theological right far enough to recover an orthodox anthropology and a doctrine of sin. Its weakness, as this writer sees it, is an insufficient emphasis on redemption, on the power of the Holy Spirit, and on the lordship of Christ.”

64. As my own interest in Augustine first developed, I believe I became convinced that I was not in such alien territory as I had supposed when I serendipitously read Markus’s Saeculum and reread Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State, Institute of Mennonite Studies Series, no. 3 (Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life Press, 1964) within the space of a few months, and recognized this same worldview in both.

65. Though Mennonite thinkers (certainly including Hershberger) have faulted Augustine most for legitimizing warfare by ennumerating the criteria for “just war,” I believe his most serious betrayal of both New Testament teaching and his own theology came with his change of mind concerning imperial sanctions against heretics and schismatics — the rival Donatists of North America especially. (His two most important documents in this regard are letters no. 93 to Vicentius and no. 185 to Boniface [a.k.a. “The Correction of the Donatists”].) Here is where Augustine most confused the Church’s sociology by blurring distinctions between religious and civil authority, or what we now refer to anachronistically as the line between church and state. Romans such as Cicero (De Officiis 1.11-12) had already recorded criteria for discerning the justifiability of warfare. Without the rationalizations and confusions that Augustine’s Donatist policy involved, the just war criteria he outlined might have functioned more like “middle axioms” for appealing to rulers on their own terms without necessarily confusing those terms with a Christian ethic. It was thus his rationalization of religious repression that made Augustine into far more of a Eusibian apologist for Constantinianism than the author of City of God intended to be. For Augustine’s most important writings on warfare see Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, vol. 4 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, first series, edited by Philip Schaff, Reprint of the 1886-1890 ed. published by Christian Literature Co., Buffalo, New York. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 1.22.70-79; and letters 47, 138, 189.

66. Whatever Augustine did to consolidate the Constantinian synthesis of church and state, his doctrine of love and his theory of continence nonetheless diagnose what John Howard Yoder has called the “Constantinian temptation” at its very heart, the temptation to think it our duty to make history come out right; John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed, with an introduction by Michael G. Cartwright, with a foreword by Richard J. Mouw (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 198.

67. This paragraph summarizes arguments in chapters three and four of Gerald W. Schlabach, “For the Joy Set Before Us”. Other scholars too have noted affinities and points of contact, at least, between at least one possible Augustinian theology and an Anabaptist or otherwise radical social ethic. See Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, 165; Thomas Heilke, “Theological and Secular Meta-Narratives of Politics: Anabaptist Origins Revisited (Again),” Modern Theology 13, no. 2 (April 1997): 231, 239, 245; Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Augustine and Christian Political Theology,” Interpretation 29 (1975): 252-65. For an argument parallel to my own case that Augustine’s Donatist policy involved an eschatological “impatience” and struck a deep contradiction in his theology, see Thomas Heilke, “On Being Ethical Without Moral Sadism: Two Readings of Augustine and the Beginnings of the Anabaptist Revolution,” Political Theory 24, no. 3 (August 1996): 493-517; Heilke in turn makes major use of sharply contrasting books by John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory Beyond Secular Reason (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990) and William E. Connolly, The Augustinian Imperative: A Reflection on the Politics of Morality, Modernity and political thought, vol. 1 (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1993).