Tag Archives: war

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. Continue reading