Tactical Theology

A Primer on Self-Defense

Open carry at a Free State Project meeting in Lancaster, New Hampshire in 2009.
Photo credit: Lucio Eastman (CC-By-2.0)

This is a guest post by Rev. Michael Ericson originally posted here. Rev. Ericson has been the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Reformed Church in Johnston, IA since 2001. Prior to that he served in the Presbyterian Church of America. Ericson holds degrees from Covenant College, Baylor University, and Reformed Theological Seminary.

Self defense has been quite a hot topic these days. Given the increasingly godless character of our society and the emboldened nature of the criminal element, the issue of self defense grows more pressing and practical. I here offer a brief, biblically based primer on self defense. We will touch on:

1. the right of self defense; 2. the nature of self defense; 3. the manner of self defense; and 4. the duty of self defense.

I. The right of self defense

Before ever considering the issues of gun control, etc., the bedrock principle of the right of self defense must be set forth. Arguments may be made both from nature and Scripture. While not very effective in our current epistemological wasteland, arguments from nature, with the understanding of its handiwork as that of our Creator, the Triune God, and the principles of general revelation, are valid: “Doth not even nature itself teach you” (1 Cor 11:14). All of the classic works delving into the nature of rights and defense employ arguments from both nature and Scripture. Such is found in George Buchanan’s De Jur Regni Apud Scotus, Althusius’s Politica, or Rutherford’s Lex Rex. Or one who is so admired by many today, John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Civil Government. Thus, the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution holds forth the natural right to bear arms.

Scripture, however, in addition to giving the proper lens to view nature, is the paramount light to inform our minds and consciences upon this subject. Early on we find Genesis 9:5-6 addressing the subject:

And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

While it is the case that principles such as expressed in Romans 13 are also in view, we would read too much into the text to suggest that the role of the civil government is the only thing in view here. Hence, consider the case laws for the avenger of blood in Numbers 35. Genesis 9, thus, appears more likely to lay out the notion of the value of a man’s life and the right to take the life of the offender. Calvin’s comment on Gen 9:6 is telling:

What I have said must be remembered, that this language rather expresses the atrociousness of the crime; because whosoever kills a man, draws down upon himself the blood and life of his brother. On the whole, they are deceived (in my judgment) who think that a political law, for the punishment of homicides, is here simply intended. Truly I do not deny that the punishment which the laws ordain, and which the judges execute, are founded on this divine sentence; but I say the words are more comprehensive.

I would suggest that implicit in the text is the notion of a natural right to defend oneself against a would-be murderer, thus rather than two lives lost post facto, only one is, namely, that of the intended murderer. He who takes the sword dies by the sword.

As many have pointed out, also pertinent is Ex 22:2-3, “ If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. [3] If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.” There may be more in view here than self defense, such as an immediate law of justice brought to bear upon someone who cannot be brought to trial, due to the dark, but self defense is here permitted at the least. This was no act of a formal, civil government; no trial and no state-appointed executioner.

The case of Peter striking off Malchus’ ear (Matt 26:51-52; Jn 18:10) is not a general rebuke of every use to the sword. This was not the situation which called for it. Our Lord does lay down the  general principle that those who take the sword will perish by the sword.

The many discussions I have witnessed on this topic by or amongst those professing Christians who are either opposed or lukewarm to the idea of resisting violence against oneself with the use of deadly force almost all give lip service to the idea of the right of self defense. Like those who state that they are personally against abortion and then go on to explain that right to life away. The seeming trend among broad evangelicals is to think that the right to their defense is vested in the civil government. It’s interesting to note that not even Hobbes in Leviathan, written during the English Civil War of the mid 1600s, held that the right of personal self defense was given to government, and believed that one could resist a tyrannical government with arms. Our Leviathan has grown even larger than his, with the mindless permission of the majority.

Self defense is a natural right written in the fabric of the constitution of nature by God Himself. A right that Scripture illuminates and that the gospel does not obviate.

II. The nature of self defense

At the heart of self defense is not a redress of personal insult. A slap in the face is still the same thing that it was over 2,000 years ago (Matt 5:39), and we are to turn the other cheek.

Nor is revenge a proper motive. Revenge and vengeance belongs to the Lord.

Public justice is not the issue. The sword and Rom 13 still have their place and time. Their place is not with you amidst all your private journeying. And their time is not in that few seconds you have to live or die at the moment of an attack.

The goal of self defense is not to kill. Rutherford, Lex Rex, Question XXX, “To kill is not of the nature of self-defence, but accidental thereunto.” What he means is that the goal or intent is not to kill. Means are used to stop the threat, and they are employed, and, if needed, in increasing measure until the threat is stopped. Death of the attacker is not necessary to self defense. It may well occur, but only accidentally related to the stopping of the threat (on a side note, accidental is here used in the scholastic sense in a way we might say circumstantially related). For example, if you stop a murderous attacker with the use of a firearm, aiming at the higher statistical hit ratio of center body mass, and keep firing until the threat is stopped, the attacker may or may not die. If the police officer responding to the call asks you what you were trying to do, it is not proper, and may be legally inexpedient, to answer that you were trying to kill the person. If your motive was right, your answer should be that you were attempting to defend yourself until the threat had stopped. Thus, as Rutherford says, killing was only circumstantially related, accidental, to the act of self defense.

The nature of self defense is to protect and defend self from imminent, permanent, bodily harm and threat to life. This pertains to oneself, of those under your care, and others in general (cf. Deut 22:27).

III. The manner of self defense

When defending oneself, the heart and mind should not be moved by sinful motives, or a  love of death or harm, but rather humility, sadness over loss of life, and submission to divine providence, as well as gratitude to God form deliverance from temporal death. We will focus on the means used.

Rutherford, Lex Rex, under his discussion of Question XXXI: “Whether or no self-defence against any unjust violence  offered to the life, be warranted by God’s law, and the law of nature and nations,” posits “Self-defence in man natural, but modus, the way, must be rational and just.” In other words, man has a natural right of self defense, but the actual way he does so and the means he uses, in contrast to animals, is based on a rational judgment of the situation and his ability to defend himself, making use of various means.

The means used should be proportional to the threat. As Thomas Boston observes on the 6th commandment:

1. Just self-defence against violence offered unto us by others unjustly, Luke 22:36. So a man ought to defend himself if he can, against thieves or robbers; and therefore, it is said, “If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him,” Exod 22:2. Yet this must be only in the case of necessity, where the violence cannot be escaped but by a violent repelling it; for all violent courses must be the last remedy, Luke 6:29. Where a soft reception will still the violence offered, it is not the spirit of Christ, but of Satan, that repels violence with violence. And when it is necessary, no greater violence may be offered than what is necessary to repel the attack”  Ex 22:2-3 (Works:II, 263).

An ascending scale of the means used is to be employed: words, fleeing, force. When words are sufficient to deescalate the situation, then nothing else is justified. Many foolish people suggest words are always sufficient, or should be, even if a villain is running at you with a gun. Not so. If you can flee, you must flee. If you reasonably judge, perhaps in a fraction of a second, that neither of these options will be sufficient, then a violent, repelling force may be necessary. We see this progression in David. Following entreaties, then fleeing, he takes up Goliath’s sword (1 Sam 21:9). Thomas Vincent, in his Shorter Catechism Explained, Q. 67&68.6, teaches:

What are the lawful endeavours which we ought to use for the preservation of our life?

A. The lawful endeavours which we ought to use for the preservation of our life are—

1. Defence of ourselves with arms and weapons, against the violence of thieves and cutthroats that seek to murder us. “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment,
and buy one.”—Luke 22:36.

Note his non-metaphorical understanding of Lk 22:36.

Taking away the people’s weapons is nothing new historically, cf. Jud 5:8; I Sam 13:19-22. This robs them of their rational means of self defense. The recent 2008 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Heller case, by a 5-4 vote, just barely kept weapons in the hands of individual citizens. They ruled that the Constitution’s second amendment right to bear arms, among other aspects, applies to individual citizens. In his dissent, however, Justice Stevens stated that “there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution,” arguing that this right applies only to militia. As to the ascending scale in employing the right of self defense, it is to be noted that tyrants, in denying the right of self defense, not only take away weapons, but even deny the right to speak and the right to flee.

To take away a proportional manner of self defense is to gut the right of self defense. It does little to no good to take a pen knife to a gun fight; it’s rational and proportional to take a gun to a knife fight, as the manner of self defense must be greater than the threat.

IV. The duty of self defense

The question before us, based on the right of self defense: is there a duty to exercise self defense? This takes the form of personal application, removes it from the realm of theory and brings it home. While not everyone is capable of self defense, the question of duty applies to those who are. Consider the notion of duty in relation to the sixth commandment as brought out in the Westminster Larger Catechism:

WLC 135, What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?

The duties required in the sixth commandment are all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves [Eph 5:28-29] and others [1 Kings 18:4] by resisting all thoughts and purposes, [Jer 25:15-16; Acts 23:12; Acts 23:16-17,21,27] subduing all passions, [Eph 4:26-27] and avoiding all occasions, [2 Sam 2:22; Deut 22:8] temptations, [Matt 4:6-7; Prov 1:10-11; Prov 1:15-16] and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; [1 Sam 24:12; 1 Sam 26:9-11; Gen 37:21-22] by just defence thereof against violence, [Ps 82:4; Prov 24:11-12; 1 Sam 14:45] …”

WLC  136, “What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?

The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, [Acts 16:28] or of others, [Gen 9:6] except in case of public justice, [Num 35:31,33] lawful war, [Jer 48:10; Deut 20:1] or necessary defence; [Exod 22:2-3] the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; [Matt 25:42-43; James 2:15-16; Eccles 6:1-2] …

Note the connection made between lawful self defense and the sin of neglecting or withdrawing the means of preservation of life. This presses the matter for someone to study the Scripture and the issues involved concerning self defense and come to a conscionable decision.

Rutherford addresses whether or not someone has a duty of self defense, which would, of course, entail the means to it. In Lex Rex, Question 30, after establishing the right of self defense, he asserts the following:

when he may preserve his own life, and doth not that which nature’s law alloweth him to do, (rather to kill ere he be killed,) he is guilty of self-murder, because he is deficient in the duty of lawful self-defence.

We must consider and take to heart the relation between the right to self defense and, for those capable, the duty of it. To have the means to use violent repelling force in defense of yourself and others, coupled with the conviction that you ought to use it, if necessary, is a very weighty responsibility. There is nothing fun or glamorous about it. Anyone in their proper, moral mind would prefer, and pray, never to have to do so. Find me an executioner who loves his work and I’ll show you a sin-sick man. Show me one who, in a spirit of meekness, fear and trembling, does so for the glory of God, by the command of God, for the preservation of the life of the innocent (relatively), the good of society and purging of evil, and I will show you a biblical, righteous man. The same is true in situations of self defense where it is not possible for the civil sword to intervene in time. Let a sharp two edged sword be in his or her hands and the praise of God in their mouths.

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