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The Early Christian Attitude to War


WHILE ethics, in the usual sense of the word, do not exhaust the content of Christianity, they form one of its largest and most important phases. And inasmuch as ethics are concerned with the practical duties of human life, it is not unnatural that Christian thought should have included among its various activities many investigations into the rules and principles of personal conduct, and should have carried these investigations to an advanced degree of speciality and detail.

The quest however has only too often been marred by errors, oversights, and misunderstandings, with the result that 'casuistry' has fallen into bad odour and has become suggestive of unreality and pedantry -- if not of positive hypocrisy. But a moment's thought will show us that every sincere and practical Christian must, however he may dislike the word, be a casuist at least for himself; he must think out the practical bearing of his principles, weigh up pros and cons, balance one principle against another whenever (as is continually happening in the complexities of actual life) they come into conflict, and so work out some sort of a code of laws for his daily guidance.

Further than that, Christianity imposes upon 

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its adherents the duty of explaining, defending, inculcating, and propagating the Christian virtues, as well as that of living them out: and this duty is not completely met even by the strong witness of a good example, nor is it cancelled by the important modifications introduced by the subjective differences between oneself and one's neighbour. Casuistry therefore, when properly understood, must always remain an important branch of Christian study, as the science which is concerned with the determination, within duly recognized limits, of the practical duties of the Christian life.

Of this science the history of Christian ethics will necessarily be a very important part. The example of our Christian forefathers indeed can never be of itself a sufficient basis for the settlement of our own conduct to-day: the very variations of that example would make such dependence impossible. At the same time the solution of our own ethical problems will involve a study of the mind of Christendom on the same or similar questions during bygone generations: and, for this purpose, perhaps no period of Christian history is so important as that of the first three centuries.

It is true that during that period the Christian mind was relatively immature: it was still in the simplicity of its childhood; it was largely obsessed and deluded by mistaken eschatological hopes; it was not faced with many of the urgent problems that have since challenged the Church and are challenging it to-day; it seems to us to have been strangely blind and backward even on some matters that did face it, e.g. the existence of slavery, and of various other social anomalies.

But over against all this we have to set the facts that the 


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first three centuries were the period in which the work of the Church in morally and spiritually regenerating human life was done with an energy and a success that have never since been equalled, when the power springing from her Founder's personal life pulsated with more vigour and intensity than was possible at a greater distance, when incipient decay was held in check by repeated purification in the fires of persecution, and when the Church's vision had not been distorted or her conscience dulled by compromises with the world.

Among the many problems of Christian ethics, the most urgent and challenging at the present day is undoubtedly that of the Christian attitude to war. Christian thought in the past has frequently occupied itself with this problem; but there has never been a time when the weight of it pressed more heavily upon the minds of Christian people than it does to-day. The events of the past few years have forced upon every thoughtful person throughout practically the whole civilized world the necessity of arriving at some sort of a decision on this complicated and critical question--in countless cases a decision in which health, wealth, security, reputation, and even life itself have been involved. Nor--if we look only at the broad facts of the situation--would there seem to be much doubt as to the solution of the problem. Everywhere by overwhelming majorities Christian people have pronounced in word and act the same decision, viz. that to fight, to shed blood, to kill--provided it be done in the defence of one's country or of the weak, for the sanctity of treaties or, for the maintenance of international righteousness--is at once the Christian's duty and his privilege.

But only by an act of self-deception

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could anyone persuade himself that this is the last word the Christian conscience has to say on the matter. The power with which the decision of the majority has been -- and is still being--delivered owes a large share of its greatness (I say it in no uncharitable spirit) to other factors than the calm, impartial, and considered judgment of the Christian intellect and heart. In the tense excitement and ever-increasing flood of passion called forth by a state, of war, an atmosphere is generated in which the truth and reason ableness of the vox populi is not only taken for granted, but elevated into a sort of sacrosanctity, and dissent from it or disobedience to it appears to merit not toleration or even argument, but contempt, censure, and punishment.

But however the state of public feeling or the watchfulness of a government at grips with the enemy may check or silence the expression of dissent, however the exigencies of an acute international crisis may lead many to regard the problem of Christianity and war as (for the time being at least) a closed question, it cannot but be clear to those who will look beneath the surface that forces are at work, within as well as without the organized Church, which will not allow Christian feeling to remain where it is on the matter, and which clearly show that the growing generation of Christians is not going to rest satisfied with the variegated and facile answers that have been given to its doubts and queries in this particular emergency, notwithstanding the enormous weight of extra-Christian sentiment with which those answers have been reinforced.

The purpose of the following pages is not to force or pervert the history of the past in the interests of a 

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present-day controversy, but plainly and impartially to present the facts as to the early Christian attitude to war--with just so much discussion as will suffice to make this attitude in its various manifestations clear and intelligible--and to do this by way of a contribution towards the settlement of the whole complicated problem, as it challenges the Christian mind today.(1) Having recently had occasion for another purpose to work through virtually the whole of pre-Constantinian Christian literature, the present writer has taken the opportunity to collect practically all the available material in the original authorities. His work will thus consist largely of quotations from Christian authors, translated into English for the convenience of the reader, and arranged on a systematic plan. The translations are as literal as is consistent with intelligible English(2); but the original Latin or Greek has as a rule been dispensed with: full references are given in the footnotes for those who wish to turn them up, and a chronological table is provided as a key to the historical development.

Few fields of knowledge have been so thoroughly worked and amply written upon as the New Testament and the Early Church; and, inasmuch as no work on Church History, or Christian ethics, or even Christian teaching in the wider sense, could altogether ignore the subject before us, it has been out of the question to make an exhaustive consultation of the writings of modern scholars upon it. I have, however, endeavoured




1. I am sorry to see that Dr. P. T. Forsyth, in his Christian Ethic of War (1916), hardly touches (68) on the early Christians' views on the subject (see below, pp. 115, 191), except in connection with the exegesis of the N.T.


2. See the last observation on p. xxxii.


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to get hold of the principal modern works either wholly devoted to the treatment of this particular subject or containing important references or contributions to it. The following list, therefore, is not an exhaustive bibliography, but merely an enumeration with brief comments of such works as have come under my notice.

--What may be called the modern interest in the early Christian attitude to war, begins with the great work of Hugo Grotius, De Jure Belli ac Pacis, published in 1625. In lib. i, cap. ii, of that work, Grotius quotes some of the New Testament and patristic passages bearing on the subject, and controverts the conclusion that might be drawn from them as to the illegitimacy of all warfare for Christians.

--In 1678 Robert Barclay published An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, as the same is Held Forth, and Preached, by the People called, in Scorn, Quakers: the work had already appeared in Latin two years earlier. Towards the end of it he argued for the Quaker position in regard to war, quoting passages of scripture, and giving a number of references to the early Fathers to whose judgment he appealed in support of his thesis.

--In 1728 there was published at Amsterdam a book entitled Traité de la Morale des Pères de I'Eglise, by Jean Barbèyrac. It was written in reply to a Roman Catholic monk, R. Ceillier, who had attacked Barbeyrac for some strictures he had passed on the ethics of the Fathers. He takes up one Father after another, and thus has occasion to criticize the attitude which certain of them took up towards military service.(3)

--In 1745 there appeared at Magdeburg a small quarto pamphlet of thirty pages by Johannes Gottlieb Calov, entitled Examen Sententiae Veterum Christianorum de  


















3. See pp. xix f, xxiv, 85 f, 104 f n 1, 141 f, 154 ff.

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Militia. It argued that those Christian authors who regarded military service as forbidden to Christians were mistaken.

--In 1776 Edward Gibbon brought out the first volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapters 15 and 16 of that famous work deal with the status of Christians in the preConstantinian Empire, and contain brief but critical paragraphs on the Christian attitude to military service.(4) The passages are interesting on account of the eminence and learning of the author and his frank avowal of the early Christian aversion to all bloodshed, rather than for their fulness or for the justice, of the criticisms they contain.

--In 1817 Thomas Clarkson, the great anti-slavery agitator, published the second edition(5) of his Essay on the Doctrines and Practice of the Early Christians as they relate to War (twenty-four pages). It was a brief and popular, and perhaps somewhat onesided, treatment of the subject. It has often been republished, e.g. in 1823, 1839, 1850. A Spanish translation of it appeared in 1821.

--In 1828 were published Jonathan Dymond's three Essays on the Principles of Morality and on the private and political Rights and Obligations of Mankind. The last chapter (xix) of the third Essay is on War. The author, a member of the Society of Friends, defends the position of that Society that all war is unlawful from the Christian point of view, and attempts to justify it from the practice and the words of the early Christians, quoting a few examples.(6)

--In 1846





4. See vol ii, pp. 38f, 120f, in Bury's edition (1897).




5. I have not succeeded in discovering the date of the first edition.





6. The third edition of Dymond's Essays was published in 1836, the eighth in 1886. The chapter on war has been published separately, first in 1823, then in 1889 with an introduction by John Bright, and again in 1915 with a Foreword by the Rt. Hon. Thomas Burt, M. P.


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there appeared at Philadelphia, U.S.A., a small book on Christian Non-resistance, by Adin Ballou. He treats briefly of the early Christian practice, quoting a few passages from the Fathers and from Gibbon.(7)

--A few pages are devoted to the subject in C. Schmidt's Social Results of Early Christianity (published in French, 1853; English Translation, 1885),(8) Le Blant's Inscriptions chrétiennes de la Gaule (Paris, two vols, 1856, 1865),(9) W. E. H. Lecky's History of European Morals (first edition, 1869: several new editions and reprints),(10) Loring Brace's Gesta Christi (1882),(11) and Canon W. H. Fremantle's Pleading against War from the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral (1885 ).(12) P. Onslow's article on 'Military Service,' and J. Bass Mullinger's on 'War,' in the second volume of Smith and Cheetham's Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (1880), contain a good deal of useful information. In 1881 John Glob wrote an article for The British Quarterly Review on The Christian Church and War,(13) suggested by the political situation of the time, and dealing mainly with the post-Augustinian age, but also touching briefly on the earlier period.

--In 1884 appeared a volume on Early Church History, which has a special interest in this connection, in that it was the work of two Quakers, Edward Backhouse and Charles Tylor, and as such naturally laid stress on the early Christian attitude to war: the topic was faithfully, though not exhaustively, handled.(14)

--Hitherto, however, contributions to the study of the 



7. pp. 61-64.

8. pp. 282-289. A new edition appeared in 1907.

9. vol i, pp. 81-87.

10. See vol ii, p 248 ff of the 1911 impression.

11. See pp. 88-92 (several quotations from Dymond).

12. pp. 51 f.


13. Brit. Quarterly Review, vol lxxiii (Jan and April, 1881), pp. 80-99.




14. See pp. 126-130, 313-317 of Backhouse and Tylor's third edition (1892).


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subject had been for the most part very brief and fragmentary. A more thorough treatment of it was attempted by Mr. (now Professor) J. F. Bethune-Baker, of Cambridge, in his Influence of Christianity on War, published in 1888. This scholar gave a larger selection of passages from ancient authors and a fuller discussion of them than had hitherto appeared, besides pursuing his subject far beyond the limits of the early Church: but he unfortunately allowed his prepossessions in favour of a particular theory to mislead him in his presentation of the facts and in the inferences he drew from them. I shall have occasion in the following pages to criticize some of his statements in detail.

--The misconceptions that unfortunately mar his work are the more to be regretted in that it has been taken as an authority by a more recent writer, Rev. William Cunningham, Archdeacon of Ely (Christianity and Politics, 1916),(15) who has thus prolonged the life of a number of serious inaccuracies.

--In 1890 appeared the first of an important series of works by Continental scholars--K. J. Neumann's Der römische Staat und die allgemeine Kirche bis auf Diocletian (The Roman State and the general Church down to Diocletianus), vol i (Leipzig). The book was a new and scholarly investigation of the historical problems connected with the relations between Church and State, and contained a number of paragraphs and shorter passages on the Christian view of war.(16)

--In 1901 Charles Guignebert brought out at Paris a large work entitled Tertullien: etude sur ses sentiments a l'egard de l'empire et de la societe civile. He handles the views of many people










15. See the Appendix to Cunningham's book, pp. 249 ff, 251 n 3.





16. See, e.g., pp. 37, 115, 126-128, 182 ff, 197, 240 f.


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besides Tertullianus; and his chapter on 'Le service militaire, le service civil et l'impôt'(17) contains much useful information on the whole subject.

--The following year, there appeared at Munich Andreas Bigelmair's Die Beteiligung der Christen am öffentlichen Leben in vorkonstantinischer Zeit (Participation of the Christians in public life in the period before Constantinus). The book is in two parts: the concluding chapter (4) of the first of these deals with the Christian attitude to military service.(18) The work is on the whole thorough and scholarly, but the author's leanings as a Roman Catholic here and there unduly influence his judgment.

--In 1902 also came the first edition of Adolf Harnack's monumental work, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den drei ersten Jahrhunderten (The mission and expansion of Christianity in the first three centuries) (Leipzig). An English translation was published in 1904-5, while in 1906 appeared a new edition of the original, which was followed in 1908 by a revised English translation. The work is an encyclopedia of information on all aspects of the growth of early Christianity, and contains a full summary of the available evidence on the subject before us, with many quotations from the original authorities.(19)

--In 1905 Harnack brought out a monograph specially devoted to the early Christian view of war, and amplifying the material he had collected in his Mission und Ausbreitung. It was entitled Militia Christi. Die christliche Religion und der Soldatenstand in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (The soldiery of Christ. The Christian religion and the military profession in the first three centuries) (Tübingen). It is without doubt the most 


17. pp. 189-210.




18. pp. 164-201.









19. vol. ii, pp. 52-64 (ET).


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thorough and scholarly work on the subject that has yet been produced. It has, unfortunately, not been translated into English: and, despite the author's thoroughness, the extent of his learning, and his general saneness and impartiality of judgment, the arrangement of the material, and, in some cases, the conclusions arrived at, leave something to be desired.

--The same year (1905) appeared at Leiden a small book by a Dutch scholar, Dr. K. H. E. de Jong: Dienstweigering bij de oude Christenen (Refusal of [military] service among the early Christians). No translation of this book into English has appeared; but my friend, Mr. Cornelis Boeke, late of Birmingham, has very kindly placed an English rendering at my disposal. The book does not aspire to that phenomenal level of scholarship that characterizes all Harnack's work, but it contains a large amount of useful material, including some passages from ancient authors which I have not seen quoted elsewhere; and its generalizations seem to me to be nearer the truth than those of Bigelmair and in some cases even of Harnack.

--In 1906 Mr. F. W. Hirst's The Arbiter in Council appeared anonymously. It is a record of discussions, held on seven consecutive days, on various aspects of war. The subject of the seventh day's discussion was 'Christianity and War,' and a considerable section of it(20) consists of a freshly written study of the New Testament and early Christian teaching on the subject.

--The same year was published the first volume of Edward Westermarck's The Origin and Development of the Moral ldeas. This comprehensive work contains several chapters (xiv-xxi) on homicide, the second of which 















20. pp. 516-534.

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opens with a brief sketch of the early Christian view of war.(21)

--Heinrich Weinel's brief monograph, Die Stellung des Urchristentums zum Staat (The Attitude of Primitive Christianity to the State) (Tübingen, 1908), touches only briefly on the particular subject we are to study,(22) but is useful and important for the courageous and sympathetic emphasis that it lays on an aspect of early Christian thought which has since been largely snowed under and is often belittled and disregarded by modern students.

--The first volume of Ernst Troeltsch's great work, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (The social teaching of the Christian churches and sects) (Tübingen, 1912), has some interesting references to the early Christian attitude to war,(23) but does not deal with the topic as a complete or connected whole.

--More in line with The Arbiter in Council and less technical than Westermarck's book and the recent works of German scholars are Rev. W. L. Grane's The Passing of War (London, 1912, two editions), which however makes only a few random allusions to the early Christian attitude,(24) and Mr. W. E. Wilson's Christ and War, published for the Society of Friends in 1913. The latter was written as a study-circle text-book, and has had a wide circulation among the younger generation of Christians. The first two chapters of it deal with the teaching of Jesus on the subject, the third with the rest of the New Testament and the Early Church down to the time of Constantinus. The material is judiciously selected, and the comments are accurate and suggestive.

--Other comparatively recent utterances by 


21. pp. 345 ff.



22. pp. 25 ff.





23. e. g. pp. 40, 70, 111, 123 ff, 153.




24. pp. 31, 151, 161 f (second edition).


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members of the Society of Friends are an undated pamphlet of sixteen pages by Mr. J. Bevan Braithwaite of London, and Mr. J. W. Graham's War from a Quaker point of view (London, 1915).(25) A brief sketch and discussion of the available evidence was attempted by the present writer in chap. ii of The Ministry of Reconciliation (London, 1916). Archdeacon Cunningham's Christianity and Politics--published the same year--has already been alluded to.

The question may quite properly be asked why, if so much valuable work on the subject has already appeared before the public, it is necessary to add yet another book to the list. The answer is that, notwithstanding all that has been produced, we are still without an English book dealing solely and thoroughly with this important topic.

The problem of Christianity and war is one that claims serious attention even at ordinary times; and recent events have immeasurably magnified that claim. It is submitted that, for the adequate discussion and settlement of it, a full and accurate presentation of the early Christian view is indispensable. Harnack's Militia Christi is the only book that comes anywhere near meeting the case: and this, not being translated, is of no use to those who cannot read German, and furthermore is for the present practically unobtainable in this country. But in any case the subject is such as to lend itself to more than one method of treatment; and I venture to think that it is possible to present the material more proportionately and



25. See pp. 14 f, 23-32. 1 might also mention a briefer pamphlet issued by the Peace Society, and the Rectorial Address delivered by Andrew Carnegie at the University of St. Andrews, entitled, A League of Peace (Boston, 1906, pp. 6 f).

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comprehensibly--and even, on a few points--more accurately than has been done by Harnack.

No writer on the subject--least of all in these days--can be without his own convictions on the main question; and a Christian will naturally expect to find support for his convictions, whatever they happen to be, in the words and example of our Lord and his early followers. It has unfortunately happened only too frequently that writers have allowed their own opinions--perhaps unconsciously--to distort their view of historical facts. But a strong personal conviction, even coupled with the belief that it has support in history, does not necessarily conflict with an honest and thorough treatment of that history. While I have not refrained from interpreting the early Christian teaching in the sense which I believe to be true, I trust I have succeeded in preventing the spirit of controversy from introducing into this treatise anything inconsistent with the rigid demands of truth, the dignity of scholarship, and the charitableness of Christianity.

Before we plunge into an examination of the ancient records themselves, something must be said on one or two matters which will need to be kept constantly before our minds if the documents we are about to study are to be rightly understood and interpreted. The first of these is the distinction between what a man holds to be right for himself, and for others also in the sense of his being ready to exhort them to follow it as he does, and, on the other hand, what a man may recognize to be relatively right for his neighbour in view of the fact that his neighbour's mind, views, abilities, etc., are different from his own.

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The moral standards by which A feels it right to live and to recommend others also to live, he may quite fully realize that B, in his present state of mind, education, feeling, intellect, etc., cannot in the nature of things for the time being adopt; and he may frankly say so, without prejudice to his own consistency. This simple fact, which I would call the relative justification of other moral standards than our own, and which rests upon our subjective differences from one another, is daily illustrated in the judgments, opinions, and thoughts which we have of others: and yet it is surprising how easily it is overlooked, and how ready scholars have been, whenever they find it, to assume inconsistency and to make it a ground for disbelieving or ignoring whichever of the two complementary moral judgments conflicts most with their own sense of what is proper. We shall have throughout our study frequent occasion to notice mistaken inferences of the kind here described.

Not unconnected with this distinction is another, namely that between a writer's personal convictions as to what is morally right or wrong, on the one hand, and on the other hand statements and allusions which he may make by way of illustrating something else, or of supporting an argument with one who differs from him, when he speaks, as we say, ad hominem, and is not for the moment necessarily voicing his own view. In order to make this distinction quite lucid, examples would be necessary, and these are for the present postponed; but it is well at the outset to be on our guard against inferring too much from statements and allusions of this character.

Lastly, a word must be said on the conditions of

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military service in the early Roman Empire; for these naturally determined very largely the form which the early Christian attitude to war took. We must remember, in the first place that the Roman soldier was also the Emperor's policeman. Police duties throughout the Empire were performed by the military. That fact naturally affected Christian thought in regard to the military calling.

Whatever be the similarity or connection between the offices of the soldier and those of the policeman, there are yet important distinctions between them; and objections or scruples felt in regard to the former of them might not hold good against the latter. The natural result is that Christian utterances against military service are often less downright and uncompromising than they would have been if the soldier's calling had been in those days as distinct from that of the policeman as it is in ours.

Secondly, it goes without saying that practical ethical questions are not discussed and adjudicated upon before they arise, i.e., before circumstances make the settlement of them an urgent matter of practical importance. Now the state of things in the Empire was such as to defer for a long time the realization by Christian people of the fact that the question whether a Christian might be a soldier or not was an acute and important one. It was contrary to law to enrol a slave as a soldier, and Jews were legally exempt from military service on account of their national peculiarities: and when we consider what a large proportion of the early Christian communities consisted of slaves, Jews, and women, we shall realize that the percentage of members eligible for service must have been small.

Further than that, while the Emperor was entitled by law to levy 

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conscripts, in actual practice he hardly ever found it necessary to have recourse to this expedient: the population was so large in comparison with the armies, that the Emperor could get all the soldiers he needed by voluntary enlistment. This meant that any attempt to force a man into the ranks against his will was a very rare occurrence, and rarer still in the case of a Christian.(26)

Now no Christian ever thought of enlisting in the army after his conversion until the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A. D.) at earliest (our oldest direct evidence dates from about 200 A.D.(27)), while cases of men being converted when already engaged in the military profession (such as Cornelius the centurion of Caesarea, and the gaoler of Philippi) were during the same early period few and far between. There was thus very little to bring the practical question before the minds of Christian teachers, not only during this early period, but in many cases even subsequently; and this fact must be allowed for in studying statements made by them under such conditions. If it be our object to discover the real views of a writer or of a body of early Christians, we shall only land ourselves in error if we treat their words and acts as conveying their considered judgment on problems which--we have reason to believe--were never consciously before their minds at all.





26. Neumann 127 f; Harnack ME ii. 57 n 1, MC 48 f; Bigelmair 25, 175-177, De Jong 2 f.


27. See below, pp. 113; 235 f.


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