Swords, Guns, and Evangelical Allegory

Right after the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, I Googled ‘Christian gun control’ and ‘Christian gun rights,’ and found, not surprisingly, some spirited Biblical defenses of the right to bear arms.  Today, I’m happy to report, these pages are mostly drowned out by evangelical voices, whether conservative evangelicals or  former conservatives, who are increasingly willing to challenge the doctrines of the NRA.

Source: Stan Weber (attribution via Flikr)

The debate remains shrill and intractable, of course, among evangelicals, just like the larger national debate.  One reason for this, I believe, is that evangelicals try to resolve moral questions by appeal to Scripture, and yet they operate with hermeneutical assumptions that make this appeal fruitless.

For example, Ellen Painter Dollar, a former blogger for Christianity Today, writes a particularly powerful piece in which she relates how her attempts to advocate tighter gun control were silenced by CT’s editors.  When she turns to the Bible to defend gun control, she (like many others) quotes Matthew 26:47-52.  When one of Jesus’ disciples try to defend him with his sword, Jesus rebukes him:

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

Dollar interprets this as: “And those who live by the gun—who look to guns to protect us from guns—will die by the gun.”  Notice her assumption: when the Bible talks about swords, it means guns.

Swords are equivalent to guns.

Now consider this Christian defense of gun rights by Larry Pratt on www.keepandbeararms.com. Pratt offers a thorough Biblical defense of the right of an individual to self-defense.  Among his other arguments, he quotes from Christ’s words in Luke 22:36:

“. . . But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a sack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.”

Then he comments: “Keep in mind that the sword was the finest offensive weapon available to an individual soldier — the equivalent then of a military rifle today.”

Again, swords are equivalent to guns.

Unlike Dollar, Pratt offers an explicit justification for this claim.  The sword, he argues, is a member of a larger class: ‘finest offensive weapon available.’  Although the Bible says ‘sword,’ which literally refers to a weapon with a long blade and a handle, it means ‘finest offensive weapon.’  Since a gun is the finest offensive weapon available today, the Bible’s teachings about swords apply directly to guns.

The sort of Christian who makes this argument likely thinks of himself as a ‘Biblical literalist,’ and most people are probably happy to grant him the label.  But he cannot possibly be a literalist.  The literal meaning of ‘sword’ is, well, a sword.  Pratt, however, has translated ‘sword’ into the general concept ‘offensive weapon.’ This kind of translation is the essence of allegory, that most un-literal of hermeneutics.  It’s easy to miss, however, because traditionally Christian allegory spiritualizes bodily particulars — ‘sword’ might refer to the ‘sword of the Word,’ for example.  Evangelical allegory, by contrast — both in the ‘liberal’ Dollar and the ‘conservative’ Pratt — moves not from body to spirit but from particular to general: not from sword to Word but from sword to weapon.

In Pratt’s essay, this assumption leads to some particularly interesting extended allegories.  Gun rights advocates love the story in 1 Samuel 13:19-23, in which the Philistines oppress the Israelites by outlawing the production of weapons:

Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, ‘Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.’  But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen each man’s plowshares, his mattock, his ax, and his sickle . . . So it came about, on the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan.

Pratt reads this as an allegory about gun control:

Today, the same goals of the Philistines would be carried out by an oppressor who would ban gunsmiths from the land.  The sword of today is the handgun, rifle, or shotgun.  The sword control of the Philistines is today’s gun control of those civil governments that do not trust their people with guns.

Notice the allegorical translations:

  • ‘sword’ = ‘handgun, rifle, or shotgun’
  • ‘blacksmith’ = ‘gunsmith’
  • ‘sword control’ = ‘gun control’
  • ‘Philistines’ = ‘those civil governments that do not trust their people with guns’

Once one recognizes this kind of reading as allegorical, one can apply the usual criticisms of allegory.  First, allegory eviscerates the literal sense. Both Dollar and Pratt totally ignore certain features of swords — they have blades, hilts, etc. — and see only their function as weapons.

Moreover, allegory does this arbitrarily.  Why does sword mean ‘weapon’ and not ‘bladed thing’ or, for that matter, ‘sword of the Word?’  How does one decide that the sword’s character as a weapon is meaningful but the sword’s character as a blade is not?

Because allegory is so arbitrary, it is no wonder it leads to fruitless arguments.  But they are made more fruitless and intractable because the parties do not recognize that they are reading allegorically.  They assume that their allegorical translation, ‘sword’ = ‘gun,’ is the meaning of the Bible.  This is a dangerous illusion.  To speak human words as if they are God’s word comes awfully close to a kind of false prophecy.  No wonder these debates become shrill and vicious.

There are better ways to approach the Bible — but that will be the subject of my next post.

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4 thoughts on “Swords, Guns, and Evangelical Allegory

  1. Hey Mark,
    I was glad to see you posted again. I miss my friends Charlottesville, particularly the time spent in conversation at your home.
    This problem seems to be the same that lurks behind the term “biblical principles”, which are a particular subset of what you are calling “allegory”. The basic logic is that the particulars of scripture–be they historical, moral, etc–are windows into the “timeless” (or “absolute”) truths of scripture. Thus, good exegesis, on this model, strives to peer through and beyond particularities into the transcendent meaning that God attempted to communicate to all (read “me”) human beings through scripture.
    This approach is most troublesome because it assumes that the move from the text to the principle doesn’t involve a interpretation, a contextualized particular choice, on the part of the reader. It also proceeds on the assumption that all these principles, rightly identified, cohere into a uniform network of “Biblical Truth”. So when a question arises, such as that of gun control, the task of the faithful Christian is to go to scripture so that they can discover, with the help of the Holy Spirit (who serves as the justification for ignoring the interpretive step between text and principle, or for allegorizing, as you say), to the pertinent biblical principles.
    Obviously, I agree that this approach is unhelpful, but it does attempt to move towards something important, which is that the particularities of the text do not exhaust its meaning. Christians go to scripture with the presupposition that there they will find a word from God for the church. So the question, then, which perhaps you are intending to answer in the post you promise above, concerns how we are to discern and react to this word.
    Best,
    Nathan

  2. I do not know that I would use the word allegory to describe the difference between a modern tool and a historical one. I feel the term “principle” might be more applicable. Take for example a less volatile argument to illustrate my point. There is a commandment to use “just weights and measures”. We no longer use weights or measures like they did in the past. In the past there was a scale and a weight was put on one side. The payment was piled on the other side until the scale balanced. Scales today are nothing like this implement. The closest “scale” we have today compared to then has weight that runs across the top bar or they are digital. In addition, we rarely weigh out our money at the grocery store. Does the difference in the physical implement used to measure worth nullify the principle of using just weights and measures? If it does, there is no point in discussing this matter with you, as the Bible would have very little application in your life. If you agree that different ways of measuring value do not change the underlying principle of fairness in transactions, then I believe you need to reconsider your position on the value of the Bible when understanding Godly principles concerning the hot topic of guns.

    1. Both Nathan (sympathetically) and Nickie (critically) point out that what I’m calling ‘allegory’ might also be described as reading the Bible for ‘principles.’ I’m happy to use this term, as long as one recognizes that principle-reading is frequently a species of allegory — a type of allegory that reads the particulars of the Bible as referring to timeless, universally applicable concepts.

      Nickie argues that if one does not seek principles in the Bible, then the Bible can have very little application. Notice that this effectively makes the Bible’s ability to be the Word of God dependent on a particular hermeneutic — abstracting Biblical principles — rather than on its own ‘living and active’ power. Against this argument, one must say:
      1. Abstracting principles is just one way of reading the Bible: Christians over history have used an extraordinary variety of hermeneutics, and many of these Christians were far greater saints than we are likely to be.
      2. Abstracting principles bears little resemblance to many of the practices the Bible itself commends: ‘meditating on the Law day and night,’ for example. (In my experience, people who abstract principles tend to preach the principle rather than return to the text for further meditation.)

      Nickie, in this post I tried to argue that you have it backwards — reading for principles gives the Bible less application because it invariably ignores part of what the Bible actually says. One alternative, which I will explore in my next post, is to apply the Bible ‘typologically,’ by analogy rather than principle — asking what is a sword, and how is a gun both like it AND UNLIKE IT. One cannot see the Bible or our world clearly without meditating on both the similarities and the differences.

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