A few years back, we had a church intern who asked me to explain the difference between the (Scottish) Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed traditions. She had grown up in a charismatic setting and was new to the Reformed tradition. When she started attending Westminster Theological Seminary, she kept hearing how our seminary taught a combination of both those traditions and wanted to know the distinctives.
Now I suppose I could have brought up each tradition’s respective confessions and catechisms, but I didn’t. To me, the biggest difference between the two was not in our confessions but in our practice. The Dutch Reformed, more so than Presbyterians, place heavy emphasis on the concept of Shalom.
What is Shalom?
Shalom is one of those ginormous overarching mega themes of the Bible that are so huge and all encompassing that simple definitions rarely do it justice. To give you a point of comparison, the “Kingdom of God” is another such mega theme that suffers the same problem. But like an idiot, I’m going to try anyway. Give me a break. I went to Westminster.
What is Shalom?
Shalom is Hebrew word that is normally translated “peace”…buuuut…that’s not really what it means. A better understanding would be that Shalom is a vivifying collective oneness that promotes harmonious coexistence and interconnected mutual flourishing in everything and everyone it touches.
Ok. I just said a mouthful there. What do I mean by that?
You see, the ancient Jews saw all of creation as one interconnected ecosystem.
For example, in grade school, we once did this science project on ecosystems. In this project, you placed a plant, a snail and a fish in a big water jar. The idea was those 3 things formed a mini ecosystem where each part had a specific and unique job to do and their personal well-being was interdependent on the rest of the ecosystem.
In other words, what happened to one always affected the rest. If any one of the parts died, they all died. But conversely, if anyone did their unique part well, it always benefited the rest of the system.
In this case then, an ecosystem is actually a collective oneness. The more harmony in the system, the more the system thrives and the constituent parts benefit.
Shalom as Vivifying Oneness
So the name of the game in Shalom is “oneness” or “unity”. When God says that it’s not good for Adam to be alone, He creates Eve and goes on to declares that the two shall become “ONE” (אחד). The idea is that families are supposed to be an example of shalomic oneness. They only are effective as blessings and anchors for all parties involved when they operate with shalomic unity. This isn’t just true for marriages or families, but for peoples, nations and even the entirety of creation. This was God’s design from the beginning.
What does the Bible say?
From what we can tell, the earliest recorded event in the Bible is actually not in Genesis 1, but in Psalm 74:12-17 which describes God as the Ancient of Days doing battle with Sea monsters/Leviathan before or at the creation of the world. To make a long story short, God is fighting on our behalf against forces of chaos and violent instability (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) (Eng: tohu va bohu), subduing them so that He can bring order and life enabling peace on the earth.
God then goes on to create humans on the earth whose job it is to image Him. Following Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:10), Adam and Eve were created to look like God so that they could make this world look like Heaven. How? By cultivating Shalom to maturity and completeness. The Reformed have typically called this enterprise the cultural mandate.
Now, the way we know Shalom has happened is when system-wide mutual flourishing is achieved. Andy Crouch, in an interview describes flourishing this way:
“No human being flourishes—becomes everything they are meant to be—without others exercising mindful, loving power on their behalf.”1
So for Crouch, you cause a human to flourish by bringing out the most potent and authentic version of who God meant for them to be. This can only be done with the help of others working Shalom in and with this person.
Adam’s job was to cultivate Shalom, not just for his own family or tribe but for the entire world. Where there was once only chaos and instability, Adam (and his posterity) was to bring Shalom. And, of course, we all know how that story ends. Adam failed when he sinned.
Perhaps another point of difference between Presbyterians and the Dutch Reformed is that Presbyterians tend to focus more on the forensic (legal) aspects of sin. For a Presbyterian, sin is a transgression of the law that must be punished. And while any Dutch Reformed person will acknowledge that to be true, the focus for the Dutch theologians is what happens with the ecosystem? For the Dutch Reformed, sin is the breaking of Shalom.2 It is effectively causing some kind of dis-integration from Shalomic vivifying harmony.
How does Shalom work?
In the New Testament, the idea of Shalom is extended to yet another Shalomic collective oneness: the Church. Paul calls the Church a “Koinonia” (gr: κοινωνία). Koinonia is a business term.3 It normally refers to a group of people with diverse talents and resources that band together to achieve a particular common (business) goal. If you want to do business, it’s very rare to find one person who has all the knowledge or resources necessary to succeed. So what many people do is gather a diverse group of people who will pool their unique talents and resources in order to achieve their commonly held goal.
Koinonia is the practical manifestation of Shalom in the church. It works by identifying and optimizing people’s uniqueness and then gainfully integrating them into the body. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul describes how we all participate in the ONE body of Christ. The word “participate” is the Greek word “Koinonia”. This is the basis for a whole set of teaching that focuses on explaining the importance of church unity which in many ways can be summarized by a passage just two chapters later (12:14-20) where Paul writes:
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The idea that Paul is getting at is that Shalom works by cultivating and harnessing the individual uniqueness of each person. As Crouch was alluding to earlier, this means nurturing individual persons to maturity and completion in a way that an eye can be an eye and a hand, a hand. Hegemony (ie. forcing everyone to look the same) then is the opposite of Shalom. For if we all look the same, that is a clear indication that we are doing Shalom and/or Koinonia wrongly.
Jesus our Prince of Shalom
Lastly, Jesus is the True Prince of Shalom.
The Christian story is that although Adam was supposed to cultivate Shalom over all the earth, he failed. Israel, as a nation, became an alternative collective agent who was supposed to cultivate Shalom in their land. They also failed. But God then sent Christ to be the Second and greater Adam and the greater Israel. He is the one who is able to successfully cultivate Shalom because He Himself is the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6).
In Mark 4:37-39, Jesus hovered (sailed) on the sea the same way that the Spirit of God hovered above the waters in Genesis 1. In Genesis, God spoke, forcing chaos and violent instability (tohu va bohu) to give way to Shalom. In Mark, Jesus spoke “Peace” and the waters became still. In other words, the exact same thing happened.4
In John 19:30, the last word out of Christ’s mouth was “It is finished” which in Greek is the word: “Tetelestai”. In Greek, that word is also a business term. It refers to a debt that has been paid in full. But if you were Jewish, you might have understood Jesus to be saying something different. The Hebrew root of Shalom is שלם which depending on which vowels are used, can either mean “he paid”, or “whole and complete”. If you are a Presbyterian, you will tend to focus on the forensic aspect of a (legal) debt that needed to be paid. But again, the Dutch Reformed, following Judaism, would see in addition to the forensic view how Jesus also meant, “Shalom has finally been made whole and complete again”.
This idea is further confirmed in the upper room, when Jesus appeared before his disciples who were terrified and in hiding. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Peace be with you.” This event appears in John 20:19 which was written in Greek. But there is a good chance that Jesus said these words in Hebrew. If He did, then the words he used were: “Shalom Aleichem” which is a common Hebrew greeting that is still used even today.5 Jesus work on the cross didn’t just satisfy the demands of the Law…it also was the restoration and completion of Shalom.
Over the next two posts I’d to propose two ways the concept of Shalom can inform Christian praxis. The next post will be ‘Shalom and Christian Worship’. The post after will be ‘Shalom and Intersectionality’.
- Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (p. 14)
- Louw and Nida
- Walter Brueggeman, Peace (p 16)