138 Christians and War

CHRISTIANS AND WAR

 In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains the “just war” position I’ve come to embrace as my own:  “Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him?  No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment–even to death.  If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged.  It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy.  I have always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, long before the war, and I still think so now that we are at peace.  It is no good quoting “thou shalt not kill.”  There are two Greek words:  the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder.  And when Christ quotes that commandment He uses the murder one in all three accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  And I am told there is the same distinction in Hebrew.  All killing is not murder any more [p. 92] than all sexual intercourse is adultery.  When soldiers came to St. John the Baptist asking what to do, he never remotely suggested that they ought to leave the army:  nor did Christ when He met a Roman sergeant-major–what they called a centurian.  The idea of the knight–the Christian in arms for the defense of a good cause–is one of the great Christian ideas” (pp. 91-92). 

Since I deal with the issue of war in some of the classes I teach, during the recent war in Iraq I read or re-read several treatises devoted to the broader issue of Christians engaging in combat.  One of the most widely-cited and most respected is Roland H. Bainton’s Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace:  A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, c. 1960).  Since Bainton is an eminent historian, the author of Here I Stand, one of the finest biographies of Martin Luther, one might expect a dispassionate, objective survey of the evidence. I’d read the book 30 years ago and accepted it as something of a definitive survey.  Returning to the treatise, however, I realize that one should begin reading it from at the end!  In the next to the last chapter, Bainton declares that “pacifism” is the only legitimate Christian position (p. 248).  This leads him, in his final chapter, to as invalidate natural law arguments that support “just wars.”  Then he reveals the bias that underlies his work, for he urged the United States to “disarm unilaterally,” hoping the USSR would honor such a move, and subordinate the nation’s sovereignty to a “world government” of some sort (p. 256).  Still more:  this world government should institute a “planned economy” (p. 258) of a clearly socialist sort.  Aligning himself with leftists such as Norman Cousins and Bertrand Russell, Bainton seems to reduce the “kingdom of God” to the social gospel utopia so popular in 20th century liberal academic circles..

With Bainton’s bias in mind, his book certainly provides much valuable historical information.  His meticulous footnotes are especially useful in locating the sources he discusses.  He touches on concerns for war and peace in the Greco-Roman world, noting the development of “just war” thought in Cicero.  He acknowledges that the Old Testament, recording the conquest of Canaan–and more especially the deuterocanonical books detailing the Maccabbees’ revolt–provided a certain basis for Medieval  “crusading.”  The New Testament, he insists–especially Jesus’ teachings–provides a basis for “pacifism,”  the position he argues that was embraced by the pre-Constantinian Church. 

Since I’ve read most of the primary sources in this era, and since Bainton says that “the early Church” is “the best qualified to interpret the mind of the New Testament” (p. 66), I carefully scrutinized this section, reading the original sources cited in his footnotes.  What one finds, when reading the alleged “pacifists” of the EarlyChurch, is passing references to war within passages devoted to idolatry or personal purity.  Some of the citations, put in context, are frankly irrelevant to the discussion.  Some of them merely stress the importance of loving everyone, including one’s enemies.  Clement of Alexandria is cited for opposing war–but the passages where he says otherwise are not noted!  Both Tertullian and Origin, two of the four most generally cited “pacifists” in this era, warmly supported the Empire and stressed that by praying for Roman soldiers they did more to protect the state than they would by joining the army.  He acknowledges that writers, such as Tertullian, opposed military service, while Christian soldiers, at the same time, “were not excluded from communion” (p. 66).  He notes that pacifism “flourished” in safe enclaves like Alexandria and Carthage, where there was no war, though Christian soldiers evidently served on the frontier (in Armenia, for instance) where barbarians threatened.  He makes absolutist statements, such as “no Christian author approved of participation in battle,” followed in the very next sentence by the acknowledgment that “the position of the Church was not absolutist, however” (p. 66).  In sum:  there’s no solid evidence, but Bainton chooses to believe that pacifism better reflected the mind of the EarlyChurch! 

The “just war” doctrine decisively developed following Constantine’s edict of toleration, when Christians increasingly assumed responsibilities for their society–magistrates, police, courts, soldiers, etc.  Understandably, apart from the vigorous monastic movement, Christians found that they could not withdraw from the world and hope non-Christians would do the “dirty” work necessary to enact and enforce laws and protect people from evil-doers.  Ambrose and Augustine, especially, justified war as an , when fought according to Christian principles.  Augustine’s position proved to be “of extreme importance because it continues to this day in all essential to be the ethic of the Roman Catholic Church and of the major Protestant bodies” (p. 99). 

Subsequent centuries generally supported Augustine’s position, though scattered  pacifists registered their protests.  During the Middle Ages, Christians added crusading to the just war position, and Bainton, predictably, has little good to say about these efforts to retake lands lost to the Muslims.  Some sectarian movements, such as the Waldensians and Cathari, espoused pacifism, as did some humanists during the Renaissance.  The magisterial Protestant Reformers, of course, supported “just war,” while Anabaptists made pacifism something of a rule of faith. 

During the Enlightenment, secular thinkers like Emanual Kant, in Perpetual Peace espoused a prudential pacifism, and during the 19th century opposition to war increased.  And to the degree Protestant Liberals promoted the “social gospel” a commitment to peace, as well as social justice, marked their agenda.  William Ellery Channing, the famous Unitarian, for instance, inveighed against the inhumanity of all war, and the Quakers served at the front lines of he pacifist movement.  With Leo Tolstoy, increased numbers of Christians exalted the kenotic Christ, who renounced all power to lead the exemplary life we’re called to embrace.


Another pacifist manifesto, The Early Christian Attitude to War:  A Contribution to the History of Chrisitan Ethics (New York:  The Seabury Press, 1982), by C. John Cadoux, though written in 1919 as a volume in the “Christian Revolution Series,” has remained a staple in the anti-war library.   A deeply learned examination of the sources, Cadoux’s treatise deals honestly with the sources, documenting that the EarlyChurch allowed diverse opinions concerning war. 

He argues that Jesus’ teaching underlies the pacifist position, though he acknowledges that certain passages in the New Testament authorize military action.  He insists that the Early Church disapproved of war, he also admits, that handful of anti-war dissenters, such as Tertullian, Hippolytos and Lactantius (primary sources for pacifism), were never accepted as teaching authorities by the established Church.  On the other hand, just war advocates, such as Augustine, were elevated to the position of Doctors whose positions were generally taken to be normative.  He also notes the Old Testament’s approval of righteous warfare and examines the various documents that indicate the presence of Christian soldiers in the period before Constantine as well as thereafter. 

Apart from my appreciation for the many sources examined and documented, I found Cadoux’s position seriously flawed on at least three counts.  First, the book seems to be written with little concern for the broader Roman world within which the EarlyChurch flourished.  The Pax Romana, as the words indicate, insured empire-wide peace for nearly two centuries (28 B.C.-180 A.D.).  Certainly there was warfare on the frontiers.  Obviously there were internal conflicts, such as the Jewish insurrection that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  But one must always remember that one reason Christians said very little about war was there were few wars.  Still more, Cadoux says little about what military service involved–and that the religious commitments required of soldiers, more than fighting in wars, best explains the anti-military pronouncements of rigorists such as Tertullian.  Secondly, Cadoux admits that a score of highly regarded historians (i.e. Harnack, Troeltsch, Ramsey) do in fact differ with his assertions, but he fails to effectively explain why his interpretation of the evidence should be accepted–other than providing ammunition for the pacifist movement. 

Like Bainton, Cadoux helps guide us to the sources–and their footnotes and bibliographies are quite helpful.  Both, however, must be read with an awareness of the argument being advanced. 


Radically differing from Bainton and Cadoux, a positive perspective on the “just war” tradition has recently been published by Darrell Cole, a professor at DrewUniversity, entitled When God Says War Is Right:  The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight (Colorado Springs:  WaterBrook Press, c. 2002).  The book enjoys Chuck Colson’s commendation:  “For many years I have read about, thought about, written about, and spoken about just war.  Nothing I’ve studied, however, has taught me as much as Darrell Cole’s book.  Cole’s in-depth research and clear writing style yield what I believe will become a new classic work in the field.  The fact that our nation is attempting to prosecute a just war on terrorism makes Cole’s book both timely and an indispensable resource for policymakers and the citizens who hold them accountable.”

Cole’s goal is “to present the traditional Christian just war doctrine in a clear, accessible manner” (p. 2), accurately explaining the position finely honed by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin in particular.  That these two theologians–arguably the greatest Catholic and the greatest Protestant thinkers–agreed in teaching the responsibility for waging a “just war” lends credence to Cole’s view that war is rightly considered a “good” endeavor when carefully implemented.  This is because Christian love, rooted in the very character of God, prompts one to use force when appropriate to protect innocent people and to establish the peace that is good for everyone.

To defend his position, he evaluates the pacifist option.  He shows where those (like Bainton and Cadoux) who argue that the EarlyChurch was pacifist are wrong.  The best recent historical studies simply present a mixed picture.  Before Constantine the few references available to us show that some Christians opposed and some supported taking up arms and serving the state as a soldier.  Interestingly enough, they almost all admired soldierly virtues such as courage and employed military imagery in their descriptions of spiritual valor.  They also, without exception, supported the Empire’s police and military personnel–urging, as did Origen, that Christians pray for the triumph of Roman armies.  With the triumph of Constantine, of course, Christians increasingly assumed various responsibilities for secular rule, and the greatest theologians of the 4th and 5th centuries–Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, Augustine–worked out the “just war” criteria that would subsequently shape Christian thinking on the subject.  “In Ambrose’s eyes, the Christian who stands idly by while his neighbor is attacked is no virtuous person, and perhaps not even a Christian” (p. 21). 

Defining the just war, Cole says that five criteria have generally been invoked on behalf of jus ad bellum (just reasons for going to war).  They are:  “(1) proper authority, (2) just cause, (3) right intention, (4) war as the only way to right the wrong, and (5) reasonable hope of success” (p. 78).  Added to that are the criteria for jus in bello (justly waging war), that prescribe “discrimination” (fighting without deliberately taking civilians’ lives) and “proportion” (appropriately limiting the means employed).  Cole carefully explains that one can foresee bad things happening, when one pursues a certain course, without specifically intending for them to occur.  So “collateral” casualties inevitably accompany armed conflict, but that does not negate the righteous intent with which one pursues his goal. 

Having explained what constitutes a “just war,” Cole then looks at WWII, the Vietnam and Gulf wars, the possibility of nuclear war, and the current conflict with Muslim terrorists.  It’s clear that many wars–at points at least–fail to meet just war criteria.  Even WWII, when one looks at things like saturation bombing, had it’s unjust aspects.  But, Cole insists, wars will erupt, and Christians must assume responsibilities for their world, including an effort to wage truly just wars. 


A handy compendium, War and Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c. 1975), ed. by the distinguished WheatonCollege philosopher, Arthur F. Holmes, is still one of the best volumes available.  After a helpful introduction, there are selections from Plato and Cicero, illustrating the “Pagan Conscience.”  Then documents from the EarlyChurch illustrate the “conflict of loyalties,” pitting the non-violent views of Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius against the just war positions of Ambrose and Augustine.  The Medieval and Reformation eras reveal a virtual consensus in support of just wars. 

Martin Luther’s statement is both strong and typical:  “‘For example, a good doctor sometimes finds so serious and terrible a sickness that he must amputate or destroy a hand, foot, ear, eye, to save the body.  Looking at it from the point of view of the organ he amputates, he appears to be a cruel and merciless man; but looking at it from the point of view of the body, which the doctor wants to save, he is a fine and true man and does a good and Christian work, as far as the work itself is concerned.  In the same way, when I think of a soldier fulfilling his office by punishing the wicked, killing the wicked, and creating so much misery, it seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love.  But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honor and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is; and I observe that it amputates a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish'” (p. 143).   

Moving to more recent times, pacifists such as Robert Drinan have argued that the Gospel mandates pacifism whereas Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey insisted that it does not.   To Niebuhr, pacifism is not simply an alternative Christian position.  It is, he insisted profoundly wrong, for “there is not the slightest support in Scripture for this doctrine of non-violence” (p. 306).  Pacifists have, Niebuhr says, “reinterpreted the Christian gospel in terms of the Renaissance faith in man” (p. 307), a faith pervasive in modern Christian circles that emphasize the earthly establishment of the “Kingdom of God.”

Finally, addressing a related but somewhat different issue, is Stanley N. Gundry, ed., Show Them No Mercy:  4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (

Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, c. 2003).   Four distinguished scholars advance their views in brief essays and respond to those of the other three, providing an open and challenging debate that nicely explores God’s role in the conquest of Canaan.  In “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” C.S. Cowles, of PointLomaNazareneUniversity, argues that the God who authorized the killing and conquest described in the Old Testament cannot be harmonized with the God of love revealed in the New.  He finds inadequate all efforts to reconcile a loving God with a Warrior Lord.  Loving, not conquering, one’s enemies is the way of Jesus–and since Jesus reveals God the Old Testament wars simply do not reveal Him truthfully.  Unwilling to affirm “the inerrancy and infallibility of all Scripture” (p. 15), Cowles takes the Old Testament as only a partial (and in parts seriously flawed) revelation of the God revealed in Christ.

Eugene H. Merrill, a professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, makes “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” arguing that the “Jahweh war” called for in passages such as Ex. 23 and Dt. 20 must be understood as a “war against spiritual darkness and wickedness in realms that transcend the human and earthly” (p. 76).  Thus the conquest of Canaan is part of God’s plan for man’s salvation, and the wars authorized therein must be restricted to that time and place and purpose.        Daniel L. Gard, a theologian at Concordia Theological Seminary in Forth Wayne, IN, argues “The Case of Eschatological Continuity” by aligning the Old Testament’s wars with the Second Advent of Christ revealed in Matt. 25 and the book of Revelation.  Then Tremper Longman III, a professor of Old Testament at Westmont, builds “The Case of Spiritual Continuity,” refusing to grant any difference between the God of Israel and the God of Jesus.  God fought, in the past, as a Warrior, and he will come as a Warrior at the end of time, sitting in final Judgment. 

The issue discussed in this book is one of the most difficult one encounters reading the Bible.  To listen to the four positions, to weigh the evidence, to come to a conclusion, is facilitated by these essays.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *