Pacifism and Pentecostals in South Africa

A New Hermeneutic for Nonviolence

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Marius Nel
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     238 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As the title implies, Pacifism and Pentecostals in South Africa is about pacifism and nonviolence first and foremost, and its secondary theme is how this relates to Pentecostalism generally and to the South African context specifically. Although much attention is given to the social and historical context, these themes are mainly discussed theologically. Marius Nel gives attention to how the Pentecostal understanding of the Bible relates to their early pacifism, which the author fervently believes they “should” (a word found often in the book) return to. The book consists of five substantive chapters with a short introduction and concluding brief synthesis. Endnotes are very detailed and comprehensive, revealing the extensive and wide-ranging reading that underlies this book.

The main argument is that Pentecostals relate their understanding of war and violence to the way they understand the Bible, or their hermeneutic. Because they have abandoned their initial pacifist position to a large extent, Nel argues for its recovery. Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, he traces the history of Pentecostal pacifism and goes back even further to the beginnings of Christianity and the theology and philosophy behind pacifism. The author makes frequent reference to one of the alternatives supported by Christian churches, a “just war,” which he also rejects. The first chapter discusses the various hermeneutical positions Pentecostals have had over more than a century. Nel argues that around the time of the second world war, Pentecostals changed their position to be more acceptable to western society at large. The chapter discusses much more than the Pentecostal views on war, as it traces the debate throughout Christian history and argues that pacifism is a non-negotiable position for Christians to adopt, “a moral alternative” (p.25).

Chapter 2 continues with a detailed discussion of the biblical views of violence, from the “holy” wars of the Hebrew Bible to the pacifist views of Jesus, and the teachings of the epistles and the book of Revelation, including a consideration of the early church writings. It closes by interacting with several theologians on the subject of violence. In the central Chapter 3, perhaps the most interesting chapter, the ideology of apartheid and its origins are the background to the violence that has been a characteristic of South Africa for centuries. Nel traces the history and development of a theology justifying apartheid, where the prominent Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper plays a significant role. His political theology was seen by Afrikaner nationalists as supporting the political and social segregation in this country. Nel traces the devastating effects of apartheid ideology in fomenting violence in contemporary South Africa.

The fourth chapter discusses whether there is such a thing as a “distinctive Pentecostal hermeneutic” (153);  Nel thinks there is not, because of the divergent views among Pentecostal practitioners and scholars. In the final chapter 5, the author reflects on the “just war” theory, a subject that he has already discussed earlier, but here he goes into the history of the theory and the theology associated with it, concluding that in his view the theory is untenable for Christians.

Although more careful proofreading would eliminate many grammatical errors, English is not the author’s first language and his study is  more remarkable in that he is an Afrikaner and a Pentecostal in the Apostolic Faith Mission. This denomination has a history of participation in the apartheid structures of South Africa almost since its beginnings in 1908. Nel has an important message that deserves to be heard, being both passionate and relevant to Pentecostals and to South Africa, but also to our wider contemporary world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Allan H. Anderson is Emeritus Professor of Mission and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham, England.

Date of Review: 
August 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marius Nel is Research Professor at North-West University, South Africa. He has written numberous articles on Biblical Studies and hermeneutics and contributed to several collections including the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible and Ethics. His own books include Aspects of Pentecostal Theology (2015).


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