Covenant of Peace
Willard M. Swartley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006. 541 pages.
Covenant of Peace by Willard Swartley deserves a much more comprehensive review than this space allows. This volume marks a crowning achievement of Swartley’s fruitful career as professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. The theme of peace and peacemaking has figured prominently in his teaching and his publications along the way. If the theme has been “missing” in books on New Testament theology and ethics, as Swartley maintains (2-8), Covenant of Peace rectifies the situation boldly. Swartley’s thesis is that the new covenant envisioned by Ezekiel is “a covenant of peace,” which in turn is precisely the literature of the New Testament (xiii).
The author consciously intended this book to serve “in the seminary classroom and among peers in the scholarly guild” (xiii). Moreover, every discussion is laced with references to scholarly sources, documented in copious footnotes. Its aim is “to focus and honor the contribution that the various New Testament books and authors make to an understanding of peace” within the “theological and christological matrix of this thought” (9), while seeking to “shape human formation . . . , transforming enmity into valued friendship” (2).
This is a comprehensive treatment of the subject of peace and peacemaking, but it is far from sketchy. It explores in detail the related themes of peace, reconciliation, nonviolent resistance and nonretaliation as they appear throughout the New Testament. One of the great strengths of Swartley’s work in this large volume is his valiant effort to mark out the distinctive features of each book’s presentation of a peace theology and ethics. Even the Synoptic Gospels are explored individually. Consequently, one finds in this book not merely one New Testament peace theology, but peace theologies within the New Testament canon. Swartley, as one would expect, does work out a synthesis in the end according to his own Anabaptist heritage and convictions.
Furthermore, he rightly seeks to lodge his findings on peace in the New Testament against a background in Jewish literature on the one hand, and against the Greco-Roman sources on the other. This is a worthy undertaking, however daunting.
Above all, the discussion in this book makes connection with other themes, large and small, including “kingdom of God,” “way of the cross,” “love of enemy,” “justice,” “Sabbath,” “healings,” “liberation,” and “kiss of peace.” Nor does his search for a peace theology within this thematic texture hinder him from dealing openly with texts in tension with his position. For example, he treats Jesus’ clearing of the temple—overturning the tables, etc.—by portraying the act as one of nonviolent resistance against evil (112-20). While his work is very much his own, it could be viewed as a nuance on the work of René Girard from whom Swartley has drawn significantly.
What is a review without some critique! A few points must suffice. (1) It seems to me the book does not explain well how the good news of the kingdom in Jesus, in which the enemy is loved, could have at the same time made enemies that would ultimately crucify Jesus for his way. I find Swartley’s effort to balance Jesus’ “love of enemy” with his highly provocative stance in Jerusalem less than compelling.
(2) Reliance on Montefiore and Lowe’s A Rabbinic Anthology (among other such) is scarcely a scholarly way of reading Jewish sources. E. P. Sanders, whose watershed publication in 1977 (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Fortress) called a halt to such selective reading, appears only twice in this large volume, and one of those references with his name misspelled (sic Sander’s, 190).
(3) “Peace occurs 44 times in Pauline and deutero-Pauline writings” (191). But Swartley does not let us know what the deutero-Pauline writings are, or how they differ in their view of peace from the view in the genuinely Pauline writings.
(4) Repeated mention of something, whether peace or any other subject, as “pervasive in the New Testament” is hardly persuasive, and not a scholarly way of proving a thesis. The word “pervasive” occurs numerous times throughout the book, and detracts from an otherwise worthy discussion (e.g., 57, 59, 143, 145, 402, 414, 416, 418). There are many places in the New Testament where “peace” is not discussed, as in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul passes judgment on the community for their refusal to remove an immoral man. Similarly, 2 Corinthians chapters 10 to 13 are more about punishment of disobedience than they are about peace (2 Cor. 10:6). I take terms such as “pervasive” and “permeate” (22) to mean the word/theme appears everywhere, in every pericope. This is just not so for peace or for any other important topic in the New Testament.
Having made these few critical observations, I remain convinced that this monumental work on peace and peacemaking, grounded in the New Testament, will set a standard for all future work on New Testament theology and ethics. I heartily endorse it.