In 1998, a Christianity Todayarticle called the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) "one of the most promising publishing ventures in evangelical scholarship." Books & Culture went even further, calling it "the most important project in religious publishing at the end of the millennium." Twelve volumes (out of 28) and five years later, the ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, continues to earn plaudits from evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
There is much in this "Christian Talmud" that speaks directly from the early church fathers to Christians of today. Each month, the ACCS team will comb ancient letters, sermons, commentaries, and other writings on specific topics in the news (the ACCS series, in contrast, is arranged biblically rather than topically).
Like the ACCS, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Current Events draws from the church's first seven centuries, and the selections are chosen for their insight, rhetorical power, and faithful representation of the consensual exegesis of the early church. Where possible, we've linked to the full text of the original writings (Note, however, that the linked documents are generally public domain—and thus older—translations than the ones appearing here).
"It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between," said C.S. Lewis. The same could be said about the analysis of current events—never allow yourself to read more of what today's experts have to say until you've read how the first Christian experts already weighed in on the subject.
The ancient church understood that war has been around as long as human beings and sin have coexisted. It is a consistent tenet throughout the Christian tradition that war is the result of sin. The responses to war, however, have followed two basic trains of thought: pacifism, and the idea that certain wars can be just.
Pacifism is characteristic of the early centuries of Christianity in someone like the North African apologist Tertullian (160-220 A.D.), who regularly warned Christians to distance themselves from pagan culture. He wrote: "How will he serve in the army even during peacetime without the sword that Jesus Christ has taken away? Even if soldiers came to John and got advice on how they ought to act, even if the centurion became a believer, the Lord by taking away Peter's sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter. We are not allowed to wear any uniform that symbolizes a sinful act" (On Idolatry 19.3).
The third-century Roman Presbyter Hippolytus wrote The Apostolic Tradition, Canon 16, (ca. 215 A.D.) which opposed serving in the military as a matter of church discipline: "A soldier in the lower ranks shall kill no one. If ordered to do so, he shall not obey, and he shall not take an oath. If he does not want to comply with this directive, let him be dismissed [from the church]."
Origen (185-254 A.D.), sought to defend Christians against the charges of the pagan Celsus. Speaking in defense of the support Christian's provide to the empire, he nonetheless admonishes that the Christian's only role in war should be that of intercessor: "This would be our answer to those who are strangers to our faith and who ask us to take up arms and to kill men for the common good … Christians fight as priests and worshippers of God while others fight as soldiers. Christians fight through their prayers to God on behalf of those doing battle in a just cause and on behalf of our emperor who is ruling justly in order that all opposition and hostility toward those who are acting rightly may be eliminated. … We do not go out on the campaign with him [the emperor] even if he insists, but we do battle on his behalf by raising a special army of piety through our petitions to God" (Against Celsus 8.73). He, however, also notes in this same document that "if wars are ever necessary, they ought to be just and ordered" (Against Celsus 4.82).
Lactantius (240—320 A.D.) proves to be a transitional figure in the Christian understanding of pacifism and war. In his Institutes, written in the last days of Roman persecution from 304-311, he condemns war and military service: "It is not right for a just man to serve in the army since justice itself is his form of service. … It does not matter whether you kill a man with the sword or with a word since it is killing itself that is prohibited. And so there must be no exception to this command of God. Killing a human being whom God wills to be inviolable, is always wrong" (Divine Institutes 6.20.16-17). However, when he writes his Epitome to the Institutes after Constantine came to power, fighting and killing are no longer always wrong: "Courage is good if you are fighting for your country, but it is evil if you are fighting against your country"(Epitome 61.3). He even has further hope for a similar liberation of other repressed peoples even as the Christians had been liberated by Constantine: "On those who continue to afflict the just in other parts of the world that same omnipotent Father will wreak vengeance for their wrong doing (Divine Institutes 1.1.14).
The Constantinian era brought about a change. Previously marginalized Christians were now involved in affairs of state. Though there were many Christian soldiers before the time of Constantine, it wasn't until previously marginalized Christians became involved in the affairs of state that the church fathers began nuancing their opposition to military action. The issue then became how one could remain a Christian when the demands of the state required use of force to combat evil or prevent injury. This caused Athanasius (296-373 A.D.) to make a distinction between murder and warfare in the fifth commandment's prohibition against killing: "One is not supposed to kill, but killing the enemy in battle is both lawful and praiseworthy. For this reason individuals who have distinguished themselves in war are considered worthy of great honors, and monuments are put up to celebrate their accomplishments. Thus, at one particular time, and under one set of circumstances, an act is not permitted, but when the time and conditions are right, it is both allowed and condoned" (Letter to Amun, PG 26:1173).
Ambrose, who himself had been in public service before becoming a bishop, praises the courage of the soldier who "protects one's country from destruction [rather] than protecting oneself from danger, and that exerting oneself for one's country is much superior to leading a peaceful life of leisure with all the pleasures it involves (On the Duties of the Clergy 3.3.23). "The kind of courage which is involved in defending the empire against barbarians, or protecting the weak on the home front or allies against plunderers is wholly just" (On the Duties of the Clergy 1.27.129).
Having received baptism from Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) also continues many of the distinctions spoken of previously, adding further clarifications that would become normative for the Christian tradition which followed. He speaks of the proper motivation for war in a letter to the Roman general Boniface: "Peace should be your aim; war should be a matter of necessity so that God might free you from necessity and preserve you in peace. One does not pursue peace in order to wage war; he wages war to achieve peace. And so, even in the act of waging war be careful to maintain a peaceful disposition so that by defeating your foes you can bring them the benefits of peace. 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' says the Lord, 'for they will be called the sons of God' (Matt. 5:9)" (Letter 189.6). It is also important that the proper authorities carry out the war: "It makes a difference for what reasons and under whose authority men undertake wars that are to be waged. The natural order of things, which is designed for the peace of mankind, requires that the authority for waging war, and the planning of it, rest with the chief of state. Soldiers, in turn, for the sake of the peace and safety of all are obliged to carry out a war that has been decided on (Against Faustus 22.75). If possible, it is better to "prevent war through persuasion and seek or attain peace through peaceful means rather than through war" (Letter 229.2). In the end, however, it is the "wrongdoing of the other side [that] forces the wise man to wage just wars" (City of God 19.7).
Joel Elowsky is Operations Manager for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.
For a fuller exposition of this topic, see Louis J. Swift, "The Early Fathers on War and Military Service" in Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 19 (Michael Glazier, Inc.: Wilmington, DE, 1983), from which much of the above material was taken.
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Last year, Christianity Today Managing Editor Mark Galli (former editor of Christian History) wrote an article contesting the idea that the church was uniformly pacifist before Constantine's day.
For more on Christian views of war, see our War on Iraq full coverage area.