‘Put on the Armour of God’: The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians

Gordon Zerbe

The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 2 (Spring 2000)

Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld. ‘Put on the Armour of God’: The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 140. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

Piqued by questions related to the theme of power and empowerment in Ephesians, and more particularly Eph. 6:10-20, Tom Yoder Neufeld in this stimulating, well-crafted, and concise monograph explores the biblical history of one aspect of the divine warrior myth – namely the arming and dressing of the warring deity. The study begins with Isa. 59:15-19, proceeds through Wisdom of Solomon 5:19-23 and 1 Thess. 5:1-11, and climaxes with Eph. 6:10-20. Essentially Yoder Neufeld’s 1989 Harvard Divinity School doctoral dissertation, this work is rich in exegetical insight, sharp in theological acuity, and suggestive for ecclesial social performance.

The author argues that in the four texts, all of which presuppose a situation of social victimization, the motif of the divine warrior in armor is exploited “as a forceful expression of the power and inevitability of divine intervention both in judgment and salvation. . . . Divine intervention is interpreted as the presence and exercise of divine qualities, virtues, and actions in each of these texts” (154). Yet each text appropriates the motif in a distinctive way. In Isa. 59’s social critique, addressed to a situation of social oppression, “a highly usable and reusable” motif is fashioned from the familiar myth – YHWH takes on armor (righteousness/justice as a breastplate, a helmet of salvation, garments of vengeance and fury) to reclaim the lost social virtues of justice and righteousness in the post-exilic Jewish community. In the Wisdom of Solomon, this motif is appropriated in the climax to the introductory segment, in which the divine warrior (with righteousness/justice as a breastplate, impartial judgment as a helmet, integrity as an invincible shield, and stern wrath for a sword) vindicates the suffering “righteous one” (modeled on the servant of Isa. 52-53).

The chapters on 1 Thess. 5 and on Eph. 6 unveil how the motif of the divine warrior in armor is transformed in early Christian ethical exhortation. Yoder Neufeld’s passions come to full expression (also evident from the Conclusion) and he makes his most significant contributions here. He concludes: “In 1 Thessalonians 5 Paul takes the breathtaking step of placing the confused and even fearful Thessalonians into God’s armour, thereby implicating them in the invasion of the divine warrior. Moreover, the surprise element of that divine intrusion is heightened by the nature of that participation – the militant exercise of faith, love, and the hope of salvation” (154).

The following are key elements of his argument: (1) The rhetoric in 1 Thess. 5 has an explicitly (but not exclusively) socio-political horizon, evident especially in “a brief but cutting critique of Rome” (82), caricaturing the imperial slogan “peace and security” (1 Thess. 5:3). (2) In contrast to prophetic and apocalyptic traditions in which the divine warrior is given sole agency to judge and vindicate, rendering the community largely passive as it awaits divine intervention, Paul exhorts the community to become engaged in the struggle. Paul’s purpose is not simply to assure believers of their protection, nor to exhort them to a defensive stance, but to prod them into militant action. (3) This task emerges out of the community’s particular status and identity, taking up the very role of the divine warrior, by virtue of its baptismal status, as believers “don the Messiah and with him his identity and task” (85). 1 Thess. 5:8 is interpreted in light of Rom. 6:1-14 and 13:11-14: “the experience of baptism [is] the entry into the armour” (a significant novel argument, though submerged in a footnote on p. 90). In this sense, it is the community that inhabits the divine armor, taking on the role of God yet without actually replacing God; in this way the divine warrior in armor is “democratized.” (4) Believers are exhorted to employ an ironic “strategy of surprise” – the warfare of love. Moreover, the absence of the “cloak of vengeance” (Isa. 59:17) suggests a restriction of the character of the divine armor and a recasting of the nature of divine warfare. In this sense, the divine warrior is “pacified” even as “God remains in the picture as warring judge who brings wrath” (89).

The final chapter provides one of the finest studies of Eph. 6:10-20 and a compelling treatment of the strategy of the entirety of Ephesians and its preoccupation with power and empowerment. Yoder Neufeld convincingly argues that the concern of the author of Ephesians (a pseudepigraphical document) is not the institutionalization or hierarchicalization of the church as commonly assumed but empowerment in its struggle. The author conflates for a circle of divided Paulinists the perspectives of heavenly status through completed salvation and the “unfinished task of cosmic struggle and victory” (97). Ephesians reappropriates the Pauline legacy of the divine warrior in armor, maintaining an emphasis on the “democratization” of the warrior, based on the baptismal identity and status of the Christian community, (who “step into the role of the Divine Warrior by taking up his power” and so “inhabit the armour of God”). “In effect [the author] replaces Christ the warrior with the saints as corporate warrior,” Yoder Neufeld says. In contrast to 1 Thessalonians, the battle is against the cosmic “peers of God, as it were – the devil and his principalities and powers” – “diverse manifestations of a seamless web of reality hostile to God.” The socio-political dimension is muted, yet “it is in the realm of human interaction that the battle with the supra-human powers (also) takes place.” The warfare of the community is no longer ironic but overtly aggressive and confrontative, even as peace, love, and reconciliation are crucially important in Ephesians. The announcement of “peace” (6:15) refers not to an ironic mode of warfare but “to the state which follows cessation of warfare once the powers have been vanquished” (138). Paul’s earlier “pacification” of the warrior is given a new twist.

Yoder Neufeld’s work is especially suggestive for the interpretation of other passages in Paul in which divine warrior/warfare imagery applied to the community is evident or close to the surface (e.g. Rom. 12:21; 1 Cor. 16:13; Phil. 1:27-2:18). I hesitate slightly with respect to the argument that the community in 1 Thess. 5 is pictured as taking on the “role” of the divine warrior. I prefer to suppose that for Paul the community participates in the warrior’s judicial battle and dons the warrior’s virtues. While Yoder Neufeld nuances his argument carefully, noting that in 1 Thessalonians the role of God is not actually “replaced,” Paul clearly distinguishes the role of the community and the role of the divine warrior in the eschalogical battle, reserving special prerogatives of justice and vengeance for God (e.g., Rom. 12:19-21; 16:19-20; 1 Cor. 5:12-6:3; 1 Thess. 5:8-9). Thus I would prefer to understand the related roles of warrior and community in terms of synergism (e.g., Phil. 1:27-30; 2:12-13). Indeed, on this point of imaging the community as synergistically active in the cosmic battle (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:2-3), Paul stands in continuity with various apocalyptic writers (e.g., Jub. 23; 1 Enoch 85-90, 93:1-10; 91:11-17; 1QM). What distinguishes him is not the notion of the community’s active participation in the warrior’s battle but his emphasis on the ironic character of the community’s warfare of love in the human plane.

These are minor points, however. Yoder Neufeld’s work invites further theological reflection and conversation. First, it invites conversation with another biblically-oriented perspective on divine warfare which highlights the notion that, while the divine warrior is active, the community is to be passive (e.g., M. Lind and others). Assuming the ongoing validity of “biblical realism,” Yoder Neufeld’s thesis moves away from passive non-resistance as a pacifist framework toward active participation in the struggle for peace and justice, in concert with a peace-making, justice-vindicating God. Indeed, it suggests that the normal place of the Christian community is not in a zone of comfort, stability, or isolation, but in the heart of the struggle. On the other hand, his thesis invites conversation with Mennonite pacifists less comfortable with the biblical imagery of a warring deity in ethical discourse (e.g., H. Huebner, R. Gingerich, and others). Now in broader circulation, this book should become a strategic component of any biblically-oriented peace theologian’s arsenal.

GORDON ZERBE, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB