Chapter 2d

Christian War

July 20, 2022

Part 9

It is not likely that the churches founded by the Apostles would either suddenly or universally have swerved from their original opinions.

Certain expressions of the primitive Christians are usually alleged by those who are adverse to all wars, whose opinions may be considered and refuted in three points of view.

In the first place, from these expressions nothing more can be gathered than the private opinions of certain individuals, but no public opinion of the Churches.

Besides these expressions for the most part are to be found only in the writings of Origen, Tertullian and some few others, who wished to distinguish themselves by the brilliancy of their thoughts, without regarding consistency in their opinions.

For this same, Origen says that:

  • Bees were given by God as a pattern for men to follow in conducting just, regular, and necessary wars
  • Tertullian, who in some parts seems to disapprove of capital50 punishments, has said, “No one can deny that it is good the guilty should be punished.”

He expresses his doubts respecting the military profession, for in his book upon idolatry, he says, it is a fit matter of inquiry, whether believers can take up arms, or whether any of the military profession can be admitted as members of the Christian Church.

But in his Book “The Soldier’s Crown” he makes some objections against the profession of arms. He then makes a distinction between those who are engaged in the army before baptism, and those who entered after they had made the baptismal vow.

“It evidently, says he alters the case with those who were soldiers before their conversion to Christianity; John admitted them to baptism, in one instance Christ approved, and in another Peter instructed a faithful Centurion: yet with this stipulation, that they must either like many others, relinquish their calling, or be careful to do nothing displeasing to God.”

He was sensible then that they continued in the military profession after baptism, which they would by no means have done, if they had understood that all war was forbidden by Christ. They would have followed the example of the Soothsayers, the Magi, and other professors of forbidden arts, who ceased to practice them, when they became Christians. In the book quoted above, commending a soldier, who was at the same time a Christian, he says, “O Soldier glorious in God.”

The second observation applies to the case of those, who declined or even refused bearing arms, on account of the circumstances of the times, which would have required them to do many acts inconsistent with their Christian calling. In Dolabella’s letter to the Ephesians, which is to be found in Josephus, we see that the Jews requested an exemption from military expeditions, because, in mingling with strangers, they could not conveniently have observed the rites of their own laws and would have been obliged to bear arms, and to make long marches on the Sabbaths. And we are informed by Josephus that, for the same reasons, the Jews obtained their discharge of L. Lentulus.

In another part, he relates that when the Jews had been ordered to leave the city of Rome, some of them enlisted in the army, and that others, who out of respect to the laws of their country, for the reasons before mentioned, refused to bear arms, were punished. In addition to these a third reason may be given, which was that they would have to51 fight against their own people, against whom it was unlawful to bear arms, especially when they incurred danger and enmity for adhering to the Mosaic law.

But the Jews, whenever they could do it, without these inconveniences, served under foreign princes, previously stipulating, as we are informed by Josephus, for liberty to live according to the laws and rules of their own country. Tertullian objects to the military service of his own times on account of dangers, and inconveniences very similar to those, which deterred the Jews.

In his book on Idolatry, he says, “it is impossible to reconcile the oath of fidelity to serve under the banners of Christ, with that to serve under the banners of the Devil.” Because the soldiers were ordered to swear by Jupiter, Mars, and the other Heathen Gods. And in his book on the Soldier’s Crown, he asks, “if the soldier be to keep watch before the temples, which he has renounced, to sup where he is forbidden by the Apostle, and to guard in the night the Gods, whom he has abjured in the day?” And he proceeds with asking, “if there be not many other military duties, which ought to be regarded in the light of sins?”

The third point of view, in which the subject is to be considered, relates to the conduct of those primitive Christians, who, in the ardour of zeal, aimed at the most brilliant attainments, taking the divine counsels for precepts of obligation. The Christians, says Athenagoras, never go to law with those, who rob them.

Salvian says, it was commanded by Christ that we should relinquish the object of dispute, rather than engage in law suits. But this, taken in so general an acceptation, is rather by the way of counsel, in order to attain to a sublimer mode of life, than intended as a positive precept. Thus many of the primitive Fathers condemned all oaths without exception, yet St. Paul, in matters of great importance, made use of these solemn appeals to God.

A Christian in Tatian said, “I refuse the office of Praetor,” and in the words of Tertullian, “a Christian is not ambitious of the Aedile’s office.”

In the same manner Lactantius maintains that a just man, such as he wishes a Christian to be, ought not to engage in war, nor, as all his wants can be supplied at home, even to go to sea. How many of the primitive fathers dissuade Christians from second marriages? All these counsels are good, recommending excellent attainments, highly acceptable to God, yet they are not required of52 us, by any absolute law.

The observations already made are sufficient to answer the objections derived from the primitive times of Christianity.

Now in order to confirm our opinions, we may observe that they have the support of writers, even of greater antiquity, who think that capital punishments may be inflicted, and that wars, which rest upon the same authority, may be lawfully engaged in by Christians. Clemens Alexandrinus says, that “a Christian, if, like Moses, he be called to the exercise of sovereign power, will be a living law to his subjects, rewarding the good, and punishing the wicked.”

And, in another place, describing the habit of a Christian, he says, “it would become him to go barefoot, unless he were a soldier.” In the work usually entitled the Constitutions of Clemens Romanus, we find that “it is not all killing which is considered unlawful, but only that of the innocent; yet the administration of judicial punishments must be reserved to the supreme power alone.”

But without resting upon individual authorities, we can appeal to the public authority of the church which ought to have the greatest weight. From hence it is evident that none were ever refused baptism, or excommunicated by the church, merely for bearing arms, which they ought to have been, had the military profession been repugnant to the terms of the new covenant.

In the Constitutions just quoted, the writer speaking of those who, in the primitive times, were admitted to baptism, or refused that ordinance, says, “let a soldier who desires to be admitted be taught to forbear from violence, and false accusations, and to be content with his regular pay. If he promises obedience let him be admitted.”

Tertullian in his Apology, speaking in the character of Christians, says, “We sail along with you, and we engage in the same wars,” having a little before observed, “we are but strangers, yet we have filled all your cities, your islands, your castles, your municipal towns, your councils, and even your camps.” He had related in the same book that rain had been obtained for the Emperor Marcus Aurelius by the prayers of the Christian soldiers.8 In his book of the crown, he commends a soldier, who had thrown away his garland, for a courage superior to that of his brethren in arms,53 and informs us that he had many Christian fellow soldiers.

To these proofs may be added the honours of Martyrdom given by the Church to some soldiers, who had been cruelly persecuted, and had even suffered death for the sake of Christ, among whom are recorded three of St. Paul’s companions, Cerialis who suffered martyrdom under Decius; Marinus under Valerian; fifty under Aurelian, Victor, Maurus, and Valentinus, a lieutenant general under Maximian.

About the same time Marcellus the Centurion, Severian under Licinius. Cyprian, in speaking of Laurentinus, and Ignatius, both Africans, says, “They too served in the armies of earthly princes, yet they were truly spiritual soldiers of God, defeating the wiles of the Devil by a steady confession of the name of Christ, and earning the palms and crowns of the Lord by their sufferings.” And from hence it is plain what was the general opinion of the primitive Christians upon war, even before the Emperors became Christians.

It need not be thought surprising, if the Christians of those times were unwilling to appear at trials for life, since, for the most part, the persons to be tried were Christians.

In other respects too, besides being unwilling to witness the unmerited sufferings of their persecuted brethren, the Roman laws were more severe than Christian lenity could allow of, as may be seen from the single instance of the Silanian decree of the Senate.9 Indeed capital punishments were not abolished even after Constantine embraced and began to encourage the Christian religion. He himself among other laws enacted one similar to that of the ancient Romans, for punishing parricides, by sewing them in a sack with certain animals, and throwing them into the sea, or the nearest river.

This law is to be found in his code under the “title of the murders of parents or children.” Yet in other respects he was so gentle in punishing criminals, that he is blamed by many historians for his excessive lenity. Constantine, we are informed by historians, had at that time many54 Christians in his army, and he used the name of Christ as the motto upon his standards.

From that time too the military oath was changed to the form, which is found in Vegetius, and the soldier swore, “By God, and Christ, and the holy spirit, and the majesty of the Emperor, to whom as next to God, homage and reverence are due from mankind.” Nor out of so many Bishops at that time, many of whom suffered the most cruel treatment for their religion, do we read of a single one, who dissuaded Constantine, by the terrors of divine wrath from inflicting capital punishments, or prosecuting wars, or who deterred the Christians, for the same reasons, from serving in the armies.

Though most of those Bishops were strict observers of discipline, who would by no means dissemble in points relating to the duty of the Emperors or of others. Among this class, in the time of Theodosius, we may rank Ambrose, who in his seventh discourse says, “there is nothing wrong in bearing arms; but to bear arms from motives of rapine is a sin indeed,” and in his first book of Offices, he maintains the same opinion, that “the courage which defends one’s country against the incursions of barbarians, or protects one’s family and home from the attacks of robbers, is complete justice.”

These arguments so decidedly shew the opinions of the primitive Christians in the support of just and necessary war, that the subject requires no farther proof or elucidation.

Nor is the argument invalidated by a fact pretty generally known, that Bishops and other Christians often interceded in behalf of criminals, to mitigate the punishment of death, and that any, who had taken refuge in churches, were not given up, but upon the promise of their lives being spared. A custom was introduced likewise of releasing all prisoners about the time of Easter.

But all these instances, if carefully examined, will be found the voluntary acts of Christian kindness, embracing every opportunity to do good, and not a settled point of public opinion condemning all capital punishments. Therefore those favours were not universal; but limited to times and places, and even the intercessions themselves were modified with certain exceptions.10