Early Christian Pacifism?

Below is the text of an old graduate school paper I wrote in 2007 reviewing the historiography of early Christian views of warfare. I am providing it here because I once had it available on an older website I managed and it was, surprisingly, cited in the footnotes of a number of online essays or books published afterward (based on my search of google books). Because I no longer maintain the older website, I wanted to make it available here. There is nothing new here for scholars of the period and it is a bit dated now, since it was written nearly eight years ago, but some seeking trustworthy information on the issue may find it useful as a summary of scholarship on the topic until 2007. I present the text unrevised, as I originally wrote it, and I have kept my old footnotes and bibliography for those seeking to research the issue further. But the reader should know that a number of new scholarly books addressing this topic have been published since 2007 by those who specialize in this area.

As a crusades historian, I was undoubtedly interested in comparing the moral reasoning and justifications for crusading provided by 11th and early 12th century theologians and canon lawyers with early Christian thinkers on the topic. Indeed, in popular understandings of the early Church, the apparent passiveness of early Christian martyrs as well as the works of a number of early Christian writers have been cited to argue that the Church was effectively “pacifist” in its approach to violence (in contrast to later crusades era clerical authors). Yet while crusades era theologians were undoubtedly innovative in their rationales permitting the Christian use of force in the era of the First Crusade, they were not entirely divorced from the “early fathers.” Modern 20th and 21st century notions of pacifism would not apply to the early fathers’ generally non-violent approach (as a religious minority operating in Roman society until the fourth-century). To the contrary, early Christian writers acknowledged that Christians served in the Roman army and in some cases respected the right of the Roman state to use violence to defend its borders (even praying to God for Roman military victories). This is not pacifism by any modern definition. Yet this is not to say that early Christian writers were warmongers as they typically abhorred violence. Indeed, while they may have sometimes saw the use of violence by the Roman state as acceptable, this did not mean they necessarily felt Christians should participate in such violence. This essay attempts to tease out the complexity of these early Christian views on the matter.


Early Christian Views of War

Andrew Holt (c.) 2007

While there were few Christian advocates of pacifism in the middle ages, such sentiments increased considerably in the early modern period.[1] Those Christians who argued against warfare in the early modern period often supported their positions by citing the supposedly pacifist nature of the early Church. In 1517 the humanist scholar Erasmus, for example, in his celebrated plea for peace, Querela pacis, lamented what he viewed as the misrepresentation of the Church fathers to justify war in his age.[2] The later sixteenth century witnessed the birth of avowed pacifist Christian denominations during the radical stage of the Protestant Reformation as they believed Christ and the early Church taught pacifism. Such denominations included the Brethern, the Quakers, and the Anabaptists and their legacy continues to the present in the pacifist teachings of the modern Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites. The rise of religious pacifism was followed by the rise of pacifist ideologies in the secular world, as Enlightenment scholars in Europe increasingly questioned the Just War theory,[3] with its roots in the fourth century, and emphasized what they believed were the pacifist teachings of Christ and the early Church. Nineteenth century scholars, perhaps taking their queue from Enlightenment era scholars, embraced the pacifist view of the early Church and insured such a view was carried over into the twentieth century.[4]

Twentieth century understandings of early Christian views on war and peace have been primarily shaped by scholars in the fields of philosophy, ethics, and theology.[5] Theologian Adolf von Harnack (1905) and ethicist James Moffatt (1918) argued the basis of early Christian pacifism without questioning the premise.[6] In 1934 ethicist Robert Stevenson claimed that it was “among the early Christians that absolute and unqualified condemnation of war first appeared in the Western World.”[7] In the decades that followed, a significant number of scholars echoed Stevenson’s claims with few qualifications. More recently Calvin College Philosophy Professor David Hoekema claimed the early Christian community “understood Jesus’ commands to prohibit the bearing of arms” and, consequently, “…refused to join the military.”[8] The respected Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame until his death in 1997, claimed that Christians today cannot be faithful to the teachings of the early Church without being pacifists.[9] The views of Hoekema, still active as a philosopher at Calvin College, and Yoder, whose works on pacifism have been made available through an online memorial at Notre Dame University, are by all appearances held by many academics today.[10]

While many modern scholars from the early twentieth century until the present have argued, or continue to argue, the supposed pacifism of the early Church, there have been some dissenters. Some scholars have challenged the notion that the early Church, however it may be defined, was uniformly “pacifist” and have argued the issue is not so clear.[11] The opinions of early patristic writers varied considerably on several aspects of the legitimacy of the use of force by the state, and their opinions seem to have been influenced by the region and time in which they lived. Three centuries of Christianity allowed for considerable evolution in the views of the Church fathers, as did the varying circumstances of their place in Roman society. Considerable work has also been done on the subject of Christian soldiers serving in Roman armies since at least the middle of the second century. Scholars who argued the pacifist nature of the early Church have recognized this apparent contradiction, but they claimed that Christians could only legitimately serve in non-combat roles, which required no killing. Yet there is considerable evidence that Christian soldiers fought alongside their non-Christian counterparts and, on occasion, with the approval of their spiritual leaders.

The works of historian Roland H. Bainton are a natural starting point for an examination of twentieth century scholarly understandings of the early Christian view of war.[12] Bainton published widely on the subject, but his most thorough and focused work is found in his 1941 article, “The Early Church and War.”[13] Bainton’s foundational article remains among the most important works on the topic for two reasons: First, it gives an excellent overview of scholarly opinions on the issue until his time. Second, it focuses more narrowly on early Christian views of war and peace than nearly any other available work, recent or otherwise, on the topic. This is certainly the case for those works reviewed in this essay.

Bainton’s nuanced position on the issue is not without its complications. After listing a number of scholars who came before him, all of whom argued the early Church was, on the whole, opposed to war,[14] Bainton generally agrees with their position, noting that the an aversion to killing was the basis for early Christian objections to warfare.[15] Yet Bainton’s position differs in that it comes with a number of important qualifications and exceptions. Bainton allows for some differences in early Christian thought on war, which he attributes to time and place, as well as the degree of orthodoxy of those he examines. As a result, Bainton’s analysis, specifically the significant number of major qualifications and exceptions he suggests are necessary to properly consider the issue, are powerful enough to challenge any notion of an early Church universally opposed to war, if not challenge even Bainton’s position claiming a general opposition to war.

One of the major issues examined by Bainton is the service of Christians in the pre-Constantinian Roman army, for which there is considerable and indisputable evidence from the later second century until the time of Constantine.[16] Bainton notes, however, that there is no evidence whatsoever of Christians serving in the Roman army from the New Testament era until the decade of 170 to 180, which initially may to lend credence to the idea of early Christian aversion to military service. Yet as Bainton points out, this is a lack of evidence either way, as there are no explicit prohibitions to Christians serving in the military at this time either. The most we can deduce from such a lack of evidence is that either Christians did not serve or that they did serve and their service was taken for granted.[17] Even with this acknowledgment, Bainton is willing to hazard the assumption that this is reflective of a lack of Christian involvement in the military during this early period. However, his reasons have nothing to do with ‘pacifism” or a Christian aversion to military service, as this could just as well be a reflection of social factors and governmental restrictions that barred Christians from military service. Bainton notes, for example, that the growth of Christianity had taken place mostly in cities, while armies where generally kept on the frontier, so that there would have been considerably fewer opportunities for the conversion of Roman soldiers.[18] Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, many Christians were slaves and freedmen, meaning they would have been ineligible for military service during this time.[19] Consequently, the lack of evidence for Christians in the military before the decade of 170 does not necessarily reflect a prohibition on military service during this period, as it can also reflect the lack of conversions in the Roman ranks as well as the inability of Christians to join the service regardless of whether they desired to do so or not.

Bainton is also careful to recognize considerable differences among Christians depending on where they live. The data that is available, he argues, demonstrate that “pacifism best flourished within the interior of the Pax Romana, and was less prevalent in the frontier provinces menaced by the barbarians.”[20] Bainton argues that the area most “disinclined” to military service was the Hellenistic East. He notes that Celsus (c.185), the pagan who criticized Christians for their lack of military service, among other things, likely came from the Hellenic East as he wrote in Greek. As Bainton notes, Celsus was wrong about Christians refusing to serve in the military, as they had done so earlier under Marcus Aurelius in the West.[21] Yet Celsus may have assumed no Christians served in the military because in his region they may have not. Bainton points out that over sixty years later, when Origen of Alexandria responds to Celsus (c. 248), he writes, “We do not fight under the Emperor.”[22] Bainton argues that here Origen seems to confirm Celsus claim, as through his travels Origen spoke for more than just Egypt, but also Palestine, Greece, and Asia Minor. So with both Celsus and Origen making a similar claim, Bainton argues it is likely that Christian soldiers did not serve in this region. Yet this is not certain, or at least the situation seems to have been about to change, as there survives an inscription from Phrygia from the middle of the century that describes the existence Christian soldiers.[23]

Bainton uses a similar approach when examining the possibility of Christian soldiers in other regions. In North Africa, for example, Bainton notes that there is evidence for both acceptance and rejection of military service by Christians.[24] The Christian Church in Rome also appears to have been the somewhat agreeable to the possibility of Christian service in the military. Bainton notes that the Roman Church was “notorious” for leniency towards those who broke the rules and this may have carried over in their view of Christian soldiers.[25] This may account for the significant number of Christian grave inscriptions revealing they had been soldiers, of which at least six can be definitely dated to before Constantine, while many others are suspected of falling into the same category.[26]

For Bainton the most evidence for the acceptability of Christian participation in the military comes from the eastern provinces. The Thundering Legion, was initially recruited in the province of Melitene in southern Armenia. This was the same region in which Armenian Christians took up arms to defend against imperial attempts to enforce idolatry. In Syria, Abgar IX, King of Edessa (A.D. 179-216), converted to Christianity in 202 and for the remainder of his reign made Christianity the official cult of Osrhoene. Here Bainton notes we have no records of Abgar disbanding his military forces, but, as Bainton seems to imply, his forces were possibly required to sacrifice to the Christian cult of Osrhoene. Consequently, Bainton notes, “The Constantinian revolution was thus anticipated on the eastern fringe of the empire by fully a century.”[27]

Bainton’s conclusions concerning the acceptability of military service by Christians before Constantine might be summed up as follows; the military was never embraced as a profession by Christians before Constantine, although from around 170 A.D. forward we do find varying degrees of evidence in some regions of Christian participation in the military. Christians did serve in the military and this suggests that at least some of them found the profession acceptable. Yet we must be careful in claiming too much, as this evidence in itself does not signify any sort of formal acceptance of Christian service in the military by the Church. Bainton supports such a position through reiterating the various condemnations of important theologians from the period who he claims uniformly write of military service for the Christian as taboo until the time of Constantine.[28] The only exception some make, as Bainton notes, is for the possibility of serving in a non-combat role and only so long as the Christian will not be forced to engage in various forms of idolatry often required by those they serve.[29] Bainton apparently continued to embrace such a view throughout his career as in 1960, fourteen years later, he wrote, “No Christian writer prior to the time of Constantine approved of Christian participation in warfare.”[30]

Perhaps the two biggest criticisms of Bainton’s otherwise careful and thoughtful study is that it is dated (1946), with more recent scholarship questioning some of his findings, and that he too briefly covers a large amount of intriguing evidence that would have been better served by a slightly more detailed analysis. For example, consider Bainton’s claim that the Syrian King Abgar VIII converted to Christianity over a century before Constantine.[31] More recent scholarship has shown that while Abgar was likely quite sympathetic to Christianity; there is no direct proof that he formally became a Christian.[32] If Abgar never formally became a Christian, then there would be no issue over his use of military forces.

A second weakness of Bainton’s study is due to its length. He covers far too much territory in a twenty-three page article. He includes an analysis of historiography until his time, the theological works and apologies of various patristic writers, the differences of opinion between Christians living in frontier societies versus those in the interior, the phenomena of early Christians serving in the Roman army, and much more. His study would have been better served if he had focused more narrowly on a few issues, more fully exploring their significance. For example, his analysis of early Christian texts includes no analysis of texts that were later considered unorthodox even if they achieved relatively high levels of popularity with Christians before Constantine. Bainton might have analyzed, for example, The Gospel of Thomas or the various Apocryphal Acts, which would have presented him with a popular Christian genre of texts that were generally more approving of violence.[33] Such an analysis might have altered Bainton’s final claim that “no Christian writer” before Constantine approved of Christian participation in warfare.

The work of North Dakota State University historian John Helgeland is also important for those studying early Christian views of war. While much of his work dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, Helgeland is one of only a few modern historians who have done extensive work on the subject of pre-Constantinian Christian views of violence and warfare. His 1974 article, Christians and the Roman Army A.D. 173-337, remains foundational for those studying the specific issue of Christian service in the military before Constantine.[34] Yet unlike Bainton, who implies a sort of pacifism when he notes that no early Christian writer approved of warfare, Helgeland argues that the evidence gathered from the church Fathers of the first three centuries “proves that there was no such thing as an early Church pacifism.”[35] Helgeland’s primary evidence comes from Christian texts, primarily those of Christian theologians. Yet, unlike Bainton, he also draws limited evidence from popular Christian writings that were ultimately considered unorthodox by the later Church even if they had achieved various degrees of popularity among some Christians before Constantine. Hence Helgeland provides a unique approach that I have not found by any other writer on the subject.[36]

Helgeland begins with an examination of the Church Fathers, paying special attention to the writings of Tertullian and Origen, but also providing a brief analysis of the works of Hippolytus, Cyprian of Carthage, and others.[37] His first observation is the “striking fact” of how little the early Fathers wrote about the subject.[38] He notes that “pacifist historians” have argued that since the early Church said so little about serving in the military, “it was a tacit understanding among the Christians that one did not even consider such an occupation. However, the lack of references to enlistment proves that there is a lack of references to enlistment- nothing more.”[39]

Of those early Christians who did write about the subject of Christian participation in the Roman Army, Tertullian provides perhaps the most information on the subject, although it is scattered in writings dating throughout his career and still considerably limited when compared to his work on almost any other issue. Helgeland picks up on an important theme missed by Bainton in examining Tertullian’s works when he notes that Tertullian’s position on the place of Christians serving in the military changes over the course of his career. Helgeland describes how, early on, Tertullian “recognized the necessity of war” and defended the loyalty of Christians to the Roman Empire by noting that they prayed for brave armies.[40] Yet later in Tertullian’s career, in his more rigorist Montanist period, he displayed a greater hostility toward government and, as a result, the service of Christians in that government or it’s military.[41] So for Helgeland, who later argues that there is no uniform opinion among the early fathers on this issue of Christian service in the military, he rightly points out that there is not even a consistent opinion expressed by Tertullian, one of the most important Christian writers of the time.

With Helgeland’s analysis of Origen, we are introduced to what will become a major issue in his analysis of all other early Christian writers; the issue over whether such apparent condemnations of Christian participation in warfare are actually condemnations of other issues. In the case of Origen, for example, Helgeland argues that his real concern was that soldiers were often called on to swear by the genius of the Emperor, which amounted to a form of idolatry unacceptable for the Christian.[42] Helgeland subjects the early third century works of Hippolytus to a similar analysis, noting that it is not “certain whether he [Hippolytus] objected to enlistment on the basis of combat, idolatry or some other unspecified reason.[43] Helgeland deals with potential objections from Cyprian of Carthage in a similar way. He notes that “Cyprian made one remark, easily interpreted to support the argument of pacifist historians, that the hand which has received the Eucharist is not afterward to be defiled with the sword or blood.”[44] Yet Helgeland notes that the apparent support this claim gives to notions of early Christian pacifism is muted when one considers that such a prohibition is drawn from the Old Testament, at a time when the same claim would not have been understood to have been a prohibition against killing, much less military service.[45] Helgeland also notes that “none of the Father’s depended on military analogies as frequently as did Cyprian,” and that for in this case the mention of sword “is not specifically a military sword: he may in fact be referring to a murderer as well as a soldier.”[46]

Of particular interest in Helgeland’s study is his all too brief and limited examination of apocryphal writings, a topic that certainly deserves greater scrutiny for a subject like this. The first few centuries of the Christian church represented a period in which orthodox beliefs had not been fully established and, as a result, a number of Christian works were written that received limited degrees of popularity before they were ultimately condemned as unorthodox. Yet the fact that there was apparently a market for these widely circulated texts perhaps gives us insights into the differing views of at least some Christians on the issue of Christian violence.[47] Helgeland points out that the apocryphal writings display attitudes concerning violence which were strikingly different from the Church Fathers. The Jesus of the apocryphal gospels is “not a forgiving person, the youth Jesus carried grudges and left in his wake death and destruction. Parents of children in Nazareth came to Mary and Joseph complaining that Jesus was killing their children…”[48] As for what we can learn from such literature, Helgeland acknowledges that there is no evidence that such writings influenced the ethics of the early Church, but that their very existence calls into question the influence of the Church fathers upon those circulating and reading such texts.[49]

In sum, Helgeland argues that the evidence gather from the writings of the early fathers does not demonstrate a total rejection of war or violence. Rather, an aversion to war on their part “proves nothing since none has ever accused them of warmongering: it is possible to hate war and yet admit that it is a necessary step to the solution of a conflict.”[50] Helgeland also demonstrates that an apocryphal body of Christian literature existed and was widely circulated that portrayed violence in a much different way than the Church fathers, in that even Jesus resorted to violence to achieve his means.

Boston College theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill has also weighed in on the issue with her 1994 book, Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory.[51] Unlike Helgeland, Cahill is quite willing to argue that the writings of the early Fathers demonstrate that they were indeed “pacifists” and she unambiguously refers to them as such on several occasions.[52] Although Cahill and Bainton both argue that the leadership of the early Church rejected the legitimacy of Christian military service, Cahill’s claims come with far fewer qualifications or exceptions than Bainton and, consequently, she makes a much more straightforward claim for the “pacifism” of the early Church. Cahill bases her argument on the idea that the New Testament “clears the ground for Christian pacifism by establishing compassion and forgiveness as part of discipleship for Jesus’ followers.”[53] Her argument is that this understanding of discipleship effectively prohibited the use of force or violence by Christians. Cahill argues that such an understanding of Christianity is clearly demonstrated in the works of Tertullian and Origen, and it is exclusively from these two authors that she draws her evidence.

Beginning with Tertullian, Cahill focuses on two of his better known works including his Apology and On the Crown. It is unsurprising that Cahill would primarily examine these particular writings as considerable groundwork has already been laid by past scholars studying the same works (including Bainton and Helgeland). Additionally, these are the primary works of Tertullian that address the subject of his views of war at any length, allowing one to draw reasonable conclusions about his opinions on the issue.

In them, Cahill finds little room for compromise on her position that Tertullian was, indeed, a pacifist. For example, in contrast to Helgeland, Cahill interprets a remark in Tertullian’s Apology that Christians pray for “brave armies” for the Empire not as an early, pre-Montanist, endorsement of the legitimacy of warfare, but only that Christians should pray for “the powers that be.”[54] Concerning Tertullian’s spirited defense of Christian contributions to the state, by citing the efforts of the so-called Thundering Legion under Marcus Aurelius and by declaring “we sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you,” Cahill again provides a different perspective from Helgeland when she notes, “It is dubious that that these references represent an acceptance of Christian military participation as such…They seem to demonstrate merely that he regarded it as a fact…”[55] As a result, she describes Tertullian as, “A pacifist, but not a separatist.”

Cahill approaches the writings of Origen in much the same way. She focuses primarily on his work, Against Celsus (248 A.D.) which she notes provides his “most extended attention to the ethics of war or of the military profession.”[56] She notes that, like Tertullian, Origen does not deny the legitimacy of government, but simply objects to taking part in the violence associated with the military profession. Unlike Hegeland, and to a lesser extent Bainton, Cahill does not ascribe Origen’s objections to Christian military service to the potential for idolatry.[57] Rather, she notes that Origen opposed any sort of “homicide,” from which Cahill argues that Origen would have applied the same reasoning to those who kill in times of war.[58]

Perhaps the major flaw with Cahill’s chapter addressing early Christian views of war is that it is almost entirely dedicated to an analysis of Tertullian and Origen’s works. As a result, it would benefit tremendously from a broader analysis of early Christianity that examines other Christian writers, not to mention a broader analysis of the works of Tertullian and Origen. For example, Cahill primarily focuses on two of Tertullian’s works and provides no analysis of the fact that these were written more than ten years apart.[59] She might have given greater attention, for example, to the evolution of Tertullian’s intense rigorism and how it might have influenced his later writings in comparison with his earlier works. The same criticism can be applied to Cahill’s limited analysis to Origen’s works where she again focuses on only two works.[60] It seems that in limiting her analysis mostly to two authors, Cahill could at least have more thoroughly explored their works.

Drew University religious scholar Darrell Cole also entered the debate with his 2002 book, When God says War is Right: The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight.[61] Unlike Bainton and Cahill, but like Helgeland, Cole unambiguously argues that the early Church was not pacifist. Cole notes He notes that, “Such a viewpoint [that the early Church was pacifist] is historically inaccurate and cannot be held with any integrity, given what we now know about early Christian practices.”[62] Cole draws from a broad variety of early Christian writings to support his claims including the works of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Basil.[63]

Cole minces no words, beginning his patristic analysis by noting, “We have little evidence that any early Church Father (besides Tertullian who was later declared a heretic) held an unambiguously negative view of war.”[64] While Cole, in essence, agrees with Lisa Cahill’s assessment of Tertullian’s aversion to war, Cole takes a strikingly different position with regard to Origen. Unlike Cahill, Cole argues that Origen’s works do not show him to have been a “pacifist,” but only opposed to Christians becoming soldiers.[65] Cole’s point is simply that Origen’s aversion to Christian service in the military does not equal a rejection of the legitimacy of the Roman state to wage war under appropriate circumstances.

Cole claims that Origen’s only work in which he was concerned with Christian participation in warfare was his Against Celsus, written in response to a Roman philosopher critical of the Christians and their loyalty to the state. Origen argues against Celsus by noting that Christians should be given the same privilege as the pagan priesthood who were not required to physically serve in combat, but instead served the cause by praying for the success of the emperor and the soldiers in battle.[66] This is not, as Cole argues, a rejection of war on principle, but only the physical participation of Christians in war. Yet in a spiritual sense, through prayer, Christians did participate in the physical destruction of the enemies of the Roman state. Origen is in favor of Roman victory in war, even employing his special status as a Christian to pray to God for Roman success. As Cole notes, “Origen’s position, therefore, was decidedly not one of pure pacifism. He opposed military service for Christians, but he did not oppose war…He did not reject violence, but placed it in the hands of others; whatever force was needed for order and protection could be provided by Rome.”[67]

Also noteworthy is Cole’s interesting and unique look at Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215). Cole notes that Clement is “hard to pin down” on what exactly should be the Christian attitude to war.[68] While Clement claimed that Christians should be trained in peace, not war, he also praised Moses as a military commander and “showed a generally positive attitude toward war in Old Testament practices.”[69] Cole notes that Clement also displayed a positive attitude toward soldiering through his interpretation of the New Testament, from which he claimed that, “Jesus, through the mouth of John the Baptist, commanded soldiers to be just but not to quit soldiering (Luke 3:14).”[70]

On the whole, Cole argues very persuasively that early Christian attitudes toward war and peace were, at the very least, unclear about their opinions on the matter. This is all Cole needs to establish to challenge the notion that the early Church was “pacifist” which is his stated goal from the outset.[71] The only major deficiency in Cole’s work is its briefness when examining patristic writers before Constantine. Cole provides lots of interesting information from post-Constantinian fathers like Augustine, Ambrose, and Basil, but the fact that such writers embraced the legitimacy of warfare in some circumstances is not disputed. As a result, Cole’s work would provide a greater contribution to the study of Christian views of warfare if it contained a lengthier analysis of the period before Constantine.

Finally, we examine the work of Syracuse University historian Michael Gaddis in his 2005 book, There is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in

the Christian Roman Empire.[72] Overwhelmingly, Gaddis’s work is focused on the fourth and later centuries and provides only a cursory examination of Christian views of violence before Constantine. This is especially curious as his work seeks to explore the evolution of Christian thought on violence during the fourth century and later, but provides little coverage concerning what those views evolved from; that is, what did Christians think about violence before the period Gaddis studies? Such a study would better demonstrate the monumental degree of change that takes place in the fourth century as Gaddis argues. Gaddis does, to be sure, examine peripheral issues such as violence in or by the Roman state before Constantine, early Christian responses to Roman violence directed toward them as revealed by the actions of Christian martyrs, and the rise of Christian “intolerance” of dissenters in the period before Constantine. Yet these are individually much more limited issues than the broader question of early Christian views of warfare and its legitimacy.

Gaddis most directly, although briefly, addresses the issue of pre-Constantinian Christian views of the legitimacy of violence in his first chapter (see pages 23-25) under the sub-heading of Early Christians and Violence. He begins by noting that for the first three centuries of their history, “Christians were in little position to employ significant violence either in defense of their faith or in their own internal disputes.”[73] Yet Gaddis also notes that this is a period when the Church develops “the language of spiritual combat.” Christian theologians of the first and second centuries increasingly portrayed Jews, pagans, and heretics as the soldiers of the Devil committed to the destruction of the Church. As a result, Christians, as soldiers of God, would need to fight back as St. Paul commanded, “Put on the armor which God provides, so that you may be able to stand firm against the devices of the Devil… take up the great shield of faith….for sword, take that which the Spirit gives you- the words that come from God.”[74]

From this understanding of Christians as spiritual soldiers, in spiritual combat against the forces of the Devil, Gaddis argues that although most Christians have not interpreted these formulations to refer to literal violence, “the possibility has always existed for them to be understood in a more than figurative sense.”[75] He supports this argument when he notes that “Askesis, the punishing self discipline pursued by zealous holy men, was understood as constant battle against a very real enemy, the demons…”[76] Even Christian martyrs, Gaddis notes, were not viewed as passive victims of the Roman state. Rather, their ordeals were understood “in terms of struggle, active spiritual combat against the forces of evil.”[77] From these views of Christian persecution, Christians developed a “’sectarian’ mindset, characterized by a strong commitment to purity, a sense of separation from a corrupt world, and an aversion to compromise.”[78]

So in the final analysis, Gaddis seems to imply that although early Christians did not fight in wars for or against the Roman state, this was not because of they understood there to exist an inherent contradiction between Christianity and violence. Rather, Gaddis argues that the lack of Christian violence during this period can be ascribed to practical reasons, such as the fact that early Christians were not in a position to employ violence effectively against the Roman state or in internal disputes, or that Christians sought to separate themselves from the Roman state to maintain their purity, rather than any outright prohibition on war and violence. It is unfortunate that Gaddis did not explore these issues more thoroughly, as they seem foundational to the later emphasis of his book.

Collectively, the main historiographical problem with the regard to early Christian views of warfare seems to be that there is no book length study that addresses this issue. All books dealing with the subject of early Christian views of violence focus much more on the transitional fourth century, such as Gaddis or Cahill, while devoting only an introductory chapter, or even only a few pages, to the foundational era of the first three centuries. The available articles on this subject are too restricted in scope, usually focusing on a valuable, but limited aspect of the issue. Clearly scholars have done considerable research on the topic, but it is scattered and needs to be pulled together and analyzed collectively. A careful, lengthy, and comprehensive study that narrowly examines Christian views of warfare before Constantine is sorely needed and if it was well done would likely become a seminal work in this field. Such a work would need to consider the various types of evidence that address this issue in a systematic way; that is, what are the various forms of evidence;[79] where does the evidence overlap; where does the evidence agree or disagree, and what are its limits? The scholar willing to tackle such a project would no doubt face an enormous task in cataloging and analyzing such evidence, but if successful they would contribute enormously to the state of research as this has not yet been done.

Additional research also needs to be done with regard to the sources. Although John Helgeland has done limited work on non-orthodox Christian writings, it seems to be a field that is ripe for exploitation by the enterprising historian. After all, those who have done work on Christian texts have mostly focused on Tertullian and Origen. It is curious that the theological works of Tertullian and Origen, both later declared heretics, are so authoritatively cited by scholars trying to determine early Christian views of warfare while other ‘heretical works’ that provide numerous insights on early Christian views of violence, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are not. Additionally, as Tertullian and Origen have received a disproportionate share of scholarly attention on this issue, considerable additional research can and should be done on other more orthodox writers from the first three centuries of Christian history.

That it was relatively easy for fourth century Christians to adapt to the use of force in the post-Constantinian era also needs to be more fully explored. Gaddis touches on this in his all too brief study of the use of militant language by early Christians to describe their spiritual combat with demons, but much more work needs to be done. Clearly, there existed something in the earlier Christian tradition that made such a relatively smooth transition possible, and the issue has not yet been fully approached using this framework. The fact that later post-Constantinian writers such as Basil cited distinctions between killing and murder in the writings of the early Church father provides a hint of what may yet still need to be discovered in early Christian writings. While Basil made this comment in 374, it is uncertain which early fathers he refers to and it may be that he was aware of earlier writings on the subject that no longer survive. In fact the commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill” (Ex. 20:13) has increasingly been challenged as a mistranslation that should more appropriately be rendered, “Thou shall not murder.”[80] Its an important distinction as otherwise most of the Old Testament would make no sense as it is contains numerous instances of divinely inspired warfare and killing on God’s behalf. A specialist with the linguistic ability to determine the proper translation of the word as it is used in the Greek texts of the early Church fathers might well discover such a distinction. This is important because the theological works of certain writers who refer to this verse, such as Tertullian, are often cited as being opposed to all warfare. If, in fact, writers such as Tertullian meant such this verse to mean murder, rather than killing, this would limit such claims considerably. On the other hand, if early Greek translations do use the word “kill” rather than “murder”, then one could question the accuracy of the translations from which they learned and determined their position on such issues as early Christian views of war.

Finally, a new framework needs to be established for the study of early Christian views of war that excludes the notion of “pacifism.” With the exception of the historian Roland Bainton, writing sixty years ago, it is mostly modern theologians, ethicists, philosophers, and political scientists who have adopted the term with apparently few reservations. In doing so, they have co-opted alleged early Christian views to relate to modern issues. When examined through such a framework such studies are more likely to be skewed historically and these scholars would benefit from a careful contextual, historically-sensitive treatment of this topic. Historian John Helgeland, for example, is to be praised for his rejection of the term “pacifist” for the early Church.. In doing so, Helgeland provides an alternative view that presents a serious challenge to non-historians who maintain that the early Church was “pacifist.” The time is right for scholars to reconsider this issue in a comprehensive way that introduces new evidence into a systematic contextual examination of old evidence. It is an especially ripe field for historians who until now, with only a few notable exceptions, have not been well represented in this study.



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[1] Princeton University medievalist William Jordan has addressed the lack of pacifism in the middle ages, noting, “There was curiously little pacifism in the High Middle Ages. St. Augustine, already by the fourth century, had formulated a theory of just war (bellum justum), and subsequent clerics interwove his theory into a wider ideology of Christian kingship. The ideal Christian king tried to avoid war or, if war was unavoidable, tried to find honourable ways to re-establish peace (‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’, Matthew 5:19). The Christian prince whose lands were invaded without legitimate reason or whose subjects were imperiled by the forces of a rival prince or by rebellion would necessarily use war as an instrument of policy and could do so legitimately.” See William Jordan. Europe in the High Middle Ages. (New York: Penguin, 2003), 100.

[2] Desiderius Erasmus. “Querela pacis.” Ed. Erika Rummel. The Erasmus Reader. (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 2003), 302. “For this end [war] we misrepresent the laws of our fathers, the writings of pious men, and the words of Holy Scripture with supreme shamelessness, to say nothing of irreverence. It has almost come to the point that it is foolish and irreverent to open one’s mouth against war…”

[3] Darrell Cole. When God Says War is Right. (Colorado Springs, Co.: Waterbrook Press, 2002), 6.

[4] For an excellent historiographical review of early twentieth century scholarship on the issue of early Christian pacifism see, Roland H. Bainton. “The Early Church and War.” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 39:3, (Jul.: 1946), 189-212.

[5] It is curious that so few modern historians seem to have dealt with this issue in a substantive way. Only two of the five sources examined in this paper are historians, John Helgeland and Michael Gaddis. Essentially John Helgeland is the only historian I could find that deals in a substantive way with pre-Constantine Christian views of violence and warfare. Gaddis’ work is almost entirely focused on the view of violence by Christians in the post-Constantine era, with only brief references to the position of the pre-Constantine Church on this issue. Even the forthcoming volume by historian H.A. Drake (due out in November, 2006), Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices (Fortress Press), does not deal with early Christian views of war and peace.

[6] Bainton, 189.

[7] Robert C. Stevenson. “The Evolution of Pacifism.” International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 44:4, (Jul., 1934), 438.

[8] See Christian Century, October 22, 1986, 917-919.

[9] John H. Yoder. Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution: A Companion to Bainton. (Elkhart, Ind.: Goshen Biblical Seminary, 1983), 27. Yoder was also a Teaching Fellow in the John B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame.

[10] A number of John Howard Yoder’s works, both published and unpublished, are available online at http://www.nd.edu/~theo/research/jhy_2/writings/home/welcome.htm They are part of an online memorial available at http://www.nd.edu/~theo/research/jhy_2/index.html

[11] Clearly the most energetic current scholar arguing against the notion that early Christianity rejected violence or war under any circumstances is Darrell Cole, Professor of Religion at Drew University. Cole’s 2002 work, When God Says War is Right (Waterbrook Press, 2002), will be examined in this essay, but Cole has other works on the topic of Christian violence including, The Virtues of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West (co-authored with Alexander F.C. Webster, 2004), as well as several recent articles for journals like First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, for which Cole has been a semi-regular contributor.

[12] The importance of Bainton’s work has been cited by a number of modern scholars including the late John H. Yoder, who in 1983 published, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution: A Companion to Bainton. Elkhart, Ind.: Goshen Biblical Seminary, 1983.

[13] See, Roland H. Bainton. “The Early Church and War.” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 39:3, (Jul.: 1946), 189-212. Bainton published other works on early Christianity, most notably his 1960 book, Early Christianity. Malabar, Fl.: Krieger, 1960. Yet none of his other works focus as narrowly on the issue of early Christian views of war as does his above mentioned article for the Harvard Theological Review. His book, Early Christianity, for example, only offers a few pages [pages 52-55] of analysis on the issue of the Christian view of war that are not as detailed as the article. Its for this reason that I am focusing on his earlier article, written in 1946, instead of his latter book, written in 1960, but this is only after reviewing the book to insure that no significant differences emerged in his later view of the issue, which according to my estimation there are not.

[14] Bainton, 189. Bainton outlines the previous work on early Christian views of war by noting, “The attitude of the early Church toward the problem of participation in warfare has been not a little studied and controverted. The data with regard to participation and the attitude toward it have been assiduously compiled by a series of investigators among whom four may be mentioned for their distinctive and permanent contributions.” The scholars Bainton refers to are Adolf Harnack, James Mofatt, Henri Leclercq, and C.J. Cadoux. All but one of them [Harnack] wrote in the wake of the destruction of World War I and all argued the early Church was pacifist. Bainton praises Cadoux’s work the most when he notes, “His work [Cadoux’s] remains the indispensable point of departure for all subsequent investigation.” (p. 189).

[15] Bainton, 209.

[16] Much of this material is commonly cited by historians to demonstrate early Christian participation in the Roman army before Constantine. Because it is already so well known and widely cited, and because Bainton does not challenge any traditional analysis of this material, I have chosen to list it here rather than in the text of my paper. First, he references the often praised service of the so called ‘Thundering Legion’, that is, Christians who served in the armies of Marcus Aurelius in the 170s (p. 191), Second, he notes the testimony of Tertullian in 197 [Apology], who cited the military service of Christians to refute claims of Christian misanthropy by their detractors, as well as the later works of Tertullian that attest to the service of Christians in the military which by this time Tertullian laments (p. 192). He follows this with other references to such service when he notes Cyprian’s reference in 250 of two soldier martyrs (p. 192), as well as efforts by the Roman Emperor Galerius to weed out Christians from his army during the persecutions of 303-304. Third, Bainton cites the existence of inscriptions, some of which can definitively be shown to have dated to before Constantine, that cite the military service of Christians (p.192).

[17] Bainton, 191.

[18] Bainton, 191.

[19] Bainton, 191.

[20] Bainton, 193.

[21] This refers to the so-called Thundering Legion, a unit of Christian soldiers from Armenia who supposedly served with distinction under Marcus Aurelius prior to his death in 180 A.D.

[22] Bainton, 193.

[23] Bainton, 193.

[24] Bainton, 193. He notes, “In northern Africa there is evidence alike of acceptance and rejection of military service. Tertullian, who is our witness for the presence of Christians in the army, also affirms that many upon conversion withdrew from military service. Cyprian as we have seen, mentions two soldier martyrs, yet close to the grave of Cyprian was buried a youth Maximillianus, executed for his conscientious objection to wearing the soldier’s badge.”

[25] Bainton, 193. He notes, “Notoriously this Church [in Rome] took the initiative in leniency toward offenders. Rome under Callistus first let down the bars in granting forgiveness to sexual offenders (A.D. 220) and under Cornelius to apostates (A.D. 250). We cannot be certain, but the assumption is plausible that Rome may have been ahead of other Christian communities in relaxing opposition to the military profession.”

[26] Bainton, 193.

[27] Bainton, 194.

[28] Bainton primarily examines the works of Origen (beginning on page 196), Clement of Alexandria (beginning on page 196), Tertullian (beginning on page 197), Minucius Felix (beginning on page 197), and Cyprian of Carthage (beginning on page 197).

[29] Bainton, 197. Bainton writes, “Yet some appear to have sanctioned military service if warfare were not involved as in the case of soldiers on garrison duty in tranquil areas or assigned to police tasks in an economy in which military and police functions were not differentiated. For example, in the city of Rome, fire protection and the keeping of the peace were assigned to a military unit…”

[30] Roland H. Bainton. Early Christianity. (Malabar, Fl.: Krieger, 1960), 53.

[31] Bainton, 194.

[32] See Garth Fowden. Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) 77. Fowden notes, “Two contemporary Christian writers appear to have spoken of Abgar VIII as a ‘holy man’, ‘a believer’; and though there is no certainty that he formally embraced the new faith, Christianity was both an early and a vigorous growth at Edessa.”

[33] See the following examination of John Helgeland’s in this essay (pages 13-14). Although Helgeland’s examination of the topic is far too brief, he at least addresses the topic with a short study of the so-called Gospel of Thomas.

[34] John Helgeland. “Christians and the Roman Army A.D. 173-337.” Church History, Vol.

43:2, (Jun., 1974), 149-163, 200.

[35] Helgeland, 156.

[36] Specifically, the so-called, Gospel of Thomas, see Helgeland, 156.

[37] Helgeland, 150-155.

[38] Helgeland, 150. He writes, “The first striking fact about the Father’s writing on Christians participating in the Roman army is how infrequently they subject appears. Obviously there was no controversy calling forth angry exchanges of letters on the problem; in most cases only random comments appear regarding war in general.”

[39] Helgeland, 150.

[40] Helgeland, 150.

[41] Helgeland, 150. Helgeland contrasts two works by Tertullian, including his Apology, which boasts of Christian participation in the military, and his De Corona militis, which attacks the notion of Christians serving in the military.

[42] Helgeland, 153. Helgeland notes, “Origen’s arguments against enlistment were religious rather than ethical or moral. If Origen had had bloodshed in mind when he prohibited enlistment, he would not have said [earlier] that Christians should pray for the emperor’s success in just wars…”

[43] Helgeland, 154.

[44] Helgeland, 154. The comment is found in Cyprian’s On the Advantage of Patience.

[45] Helgeland, 154. He notes, “Rather than a prohibition against military service on the ground of possible bloodshed, this comment is an Old Testament ritual taboo carried into the liturgy of the early church. Num. 19:11-22 decrees that a person contaminated by a corpse is unclean for seven days; the purification rites especially apply to one touching a corpse slain with a sword.”

[46] Helgeland, 154. See pages 20-21 of this essay, the section dealing with the work of historian Michael Gaddis, for a further examination of the military imagery regularly employed by early Christian writers to describe the responsibility of the early Christian believer to wage “spiritual warfare.”

[47] Helgeland, 156.

[48] Helgeland, 156. Helgeland continues, “…referring to an incident when Jesus caused a boy who had run into him to fall down dead. On another occasion, Jesus made a small pond with a mud dike and rainwater; in it was a fish. A young son of a scribe maliciously broke the dike, drained the water, and the fish died. At this Jesus caused the boy to dry up and die as the fish had done. Once in school Jesus teacher hit him on the head; Jesus cursed him and he too died. When Joseph heard of this he told Mary never to let Jesus outside again ‘because those who anger him die.’”

[49] Helgeland, 156. Helgeland also speculates that those Christians most likely to enlist in the Roman army would have been more likely to read the vast apocryphal literature of the time rather than the writings of theologians such as Tertullian or Origen.

[50] Helgeland, 156.

[51] Lisa Sowle Cahill. Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

[52] For Cahill’s references to the pacifism of the early Church or particular Church Fathers, see pages 41, 42, 47, 48, 54.

[53] Cahill, 39.

[54] Cahill, 47.

[55] Cahill, 47.

[56] Cahill, 52.

[57] Cahill, 52. She notes, “While it can be taken for granted that military service at that time included idolatry, and that Origen found it objectionable, idolatry does not play a major role in Origen’s writings as a reason against such service.”

[58] Cahill, 52.

[59] The main works by Terullian that Cahil focuses on are The Apology and The Crown. She does briefly examine other works, such as On Idolotry, Against Marcion, and An Answer to the Jews, but her analysis of these works is limited.

[60] She primarily focuses on Origen’s works, On First Principles and Against Celsus. A brief scan of the ‘ibid’ that dominate her footnotes quickly demonstrates her over reliance on these two works.

[61] Darrell Cole. When God Says War is Right The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight. Colorado Springs, Co.: Waterbrook Press, 2002.

[62] Cole, 8.

[63] Cole, 5-29.

[64] Cole, 8.

[65] Cole, 10. Cole notes, “The Christian pacifism movement claims Origen (A.D. 185-254) as a hero, but its hard to decide whether the term “pacifist” can truly and fairly be applied to him, at least in the way we think of it today. To modern ears, pacifism means the complete rejection of warfare as an inherently immoral practice. This was not Origen’s view, though he was certainly opposed to Christians becoming soldiers.”

[66] Cole, 10-11.

[67] Cole, 12.

[68] Cole, 9.

[69] Cole 9. Concerning Clement’s call for Christians to be peaceful, he cites his works, The Teacher I.12.98 and Exhortation to the Greeks XI. 116-17.

[70] Cole, 9.

[71] Cole, 7-8

[72] Michael Gaddis. There is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in

the Christian Roman Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

[73] Gaddis, 23.

[74] See Ephesians 6:10ff (RSV trans.) Cited in Gaddis, 23.

[75] Gaddis, 23.

[76] Gaddis, 23.

[77] Gaddis, 24. Gaddis notes, “Athletic and military metaphors pervaded the early Christian literature: the martyrs were champions of God, soldiers of Christ. The physical suffering of the martyrs found its counterpart in spiritual struggle in which the champions of faith gave as good as they got, every wound received upon their bodies becoming a blow struck against the demons who drove their persecutors.”

[78] Gaddis, 25.

[79] Such a work should consider Christian texts (both orthodox and unorthodox), the fact that such texts provide relatively little information on the subject and why this might be, Christian separatism from the state, archaeological evidence such as inscriptions and funeral stones, evidence for the service of Christians in the Roman army, regional differences among Christians on the legitimacy of warfare, the militant language of early Christians in describing their spiritual battles against demons, the biblical evidence for and against warfare, and finally, the relatively easy transition to the use of force by Christians in the fourth century if they truly abhorred violence before.

[80] Numerous scholars of Hebrew have argued this, including Professor Berel Lang from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Lang claims that “thou shalt not kill” is a mistranslation of the biblical text Exodus 20:13, which should more properly translate as “Thou shalt not murder.” He also notes, “The original Hebrew, lo tirtsah., is very clear, since the verb ratsah. means ‘murder,’ not ‘kill.’ If the commandment proscribed killing as such, it would position Judaism against capital punishment and make it pacifist even in wartime. These may be defensible or admirable views, but they’re certainly not biblical.” For a rather interesting overview of the issue, see “You shall not murder: On Language.” The Jewish Daily Forward. [Online] http://www.forward.com/articles/on-language/ [Cited: 11/10/2006].