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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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Page 106, cont.


The writings of Tertullianus make it abundantly clear that in his time there were considerable numbers of Christians serving in the Roman army. This fact, the nature and significance of which will be considered later, is one of great importance, but it is very far from exhausting the contribution of this great writer to our subject. He testifies not only to the willingness of many to serve, but also to the unwillingness of many others; and the views he expresses on the question are more than mere statements of a personal opinion -- they represent the convictions of a very large proportion of his fellow-Christians. Our best plan will be, first, to quote the pertinent passages from his works in chronological order, and then to add a few necessary comments.

It may, however, be stated here that, bound up with the problem of military service was the problem of undertaking public office as a magistrate. The police-work of society was done largely by soldiers, and the magistrate was not so sharply

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distinguished from the army officer as he is now. In any case, the Christian difficulty was pretty much the same with the one as with the other: common to both were the two great stumbling-blocks of idolatrous contamination and the shedding of blood (either judicially or in battle). It will therefore help us to understand the Christian position if we include a few passages bearing upon the question of the Christian's abstention from public office.

We recall first the passage in Tertullianus' 'Apologeticus,' in which he tells the pagans that, though the Christians are numerous and reckless enough to avenge their wrongs, there is no fear of their doing so. "For what war," he asks them, "should we not be fit (and) eager, even though unequal in numbers, (we) who are so willing to be slaughtered -- if, according to that discipline (of ours), it was not more lawful to be slain than to slay?"(1) It is doubtless in the light of this sentiment that we are to read the assumption earlier in his apology that Caesars could not be Christians.(2)

In his 'De Idololatria,' written

1. Tert Apol 37 (i. 463). The Latin runs: Cui bello non idonei, non prompti fuissemus, etiam impares copiis, qui tam libenter trucidamur, si non apud istam disciplinam magis occidi liceret quam occidere? The meaning is sufficiently clear, viz. that the Christians, though few, were so careless of death that they would fight their pagan enemies, were it not for their rule that it is better to be killed than to kill. Professor B.-Baker, however, translates (ICW 23): "Tell me a war for which we have not been useful and ready, even when inferior in numbers; ready to be cut down, as none would be whose tenets were not that it is more lawful to be killed than to kill," and quotes it as showing that "the chief thing by which they" (i. e. Christians in the Army) "were distinguished from their Pagan comrades--so far as concerned their action in the field--was their greater readiness to encounter death, in proportion as they had received a more excellent hope for the future" (italics mine). This surprising misinterpretation of Tertullianus has been followed by Cunningham (251 f).

2. Tert Apol 21 (i. 403): Sed et Caesares credidissent super Christo, si aut Caesares non essent saeculo necessarii, aut si et Christiani potuissent esse Caesares. Further reference will have to be made later to this important passage.

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while he was still a loyal Catholic, he states the conditions under which he believes it to be possible for a Christian to be a magistrate. "And so let us grant," he says,


that it is possible for anyone to succeed, in whatever office (he may happen to hold), in going on under the mere name of the office, without sacrificing, or lending his authority to sacrifices, or contracting for sacrificial victims, or assigning (to others) the care of the temples, or seeing after their revenues, or giving shows at his own (expense) or at that of the public, or presiding at them when they have to be given, or making a proclamation or an edict for any solemnity, or even swearing (oaths), or--as regards (his magisterial) power--judging anyone on a capital or criminal charge(3)-- for thou mightest allow (him to judge) about (questions of) money--or condemning (anyone),(4) binding anyone, imprisoning anyone, or torturing (anyone): if it can be believed that these things are possible.(5)  

In the next chapter he brands all magisterial garb and pomp as idolatrous and diabolic, but does not touch on the objection of violence and bloodshed. In the following chapter he deals specifically with the question of military service.


(The question) also concerning military service, which is concerned both with rank and power,(6) might seem (to have been) definitely settled in that (last) chapter. But now the question is asked on that (very point), whether a believer may turn to military service, and whether the military--at least the rank and file or (say) all the inferior (grades), who are under no necessity of











3. Latin: neque judicet de capite alicujus vel pudore.

4. neque damnet neque praedamnet.

5. Tert Idol 17 (i. 687).





6. de militia, quae inter dignitatem et potestatern est.

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(offering) sacrifices or (passing) capital sentences--may be admitted to the faith. There is no congruity between the divine and human 'sacramentum,' the sign of Christ and the sign of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness: one soul cannot be owed to two, God and Caesar. And (yet, some Christians say), Moses carried a rod, and Aaron (wore) a buckle, and John was girt with a leather belt,(7) and Joshua (the son of) Nun led a line of march, and the people waged war--if it is your pleasure to sport (with the subject). But how will (a Christian) make war--nay, how will he serve as a soldier in peace(-time)--without the sword, which the Lord has taken away? For, although soldiers had come to John and received the form of a rule, although also a centurion had believed, (yet) the Lord afterwards, in disarming Peter, ungirded every soldier. No dress is lawful among us which is assigned to an unlawful action.(8)  

In 'Adversus Judaeos,' which belongs roughly to the same period as 'De Idololatria,' Tertullianus says:


The old law vindicated itself by the vengeance of the sword, and plucked out eye for eye, and requited injury with punishment; but the new law pointed to clemency, and changed the former savagery of swords and lances into tranquillity, and refashioned the former infliction of war upon rivals and foes of the law into the peaceful acts of ploughmg and cultivating the earth. And so . . . the observance of the new law and of spiritual circumcision has shone forth in acts of peaceful obedience.(9)  

In the treatise 'Adversus Marcionem,' which came a few years later, about the time when Tertullianus broke with the





7. The allusions are to various items in the Roman soldier's equipment.






8. Tert Idol 19 (i. 690 f).









9. Tert Jud 3 (ii 604): see above, p. 62.

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Church and became a Montanist, he asks: "Who shall produce these (results, viz. truth, gentleness, and justice) with the sword, and not rather that which is contrary to gentleness and justice, (namely), deceit and harshness and injustice, (which are) of course the proper business of battles?"(10) A little later in the same work, he says: "'And they shall not learn to make war any more,' that is, to give effect to hostile feelings; so that here too thou mayest learn that Christ is promised not (as one who is) powerful in war, but (as) a bringer of peace."(11) In 'De Pallio,' written about 210 A.D., he confesses, in the person of his philosophic mantle, that he is "no barking pleader, no judge, no soldier."(12)

We next come to his important treatise 'De Corona Militis,' written--in 211 A.D., some years after his attachment to Montanism--in defence of a Christian soldier who had refused to wear a garland on the Emperor's birthday. Tertullianus takes occasion to touch on the prior question whether a Christian ought to be a soldier at all.


And in fact, in order that I may approach the real issue of the military garland, I think it has first to be investigated whether military service is suitable for Christians at all. Besides, what sort (of proceeding) is it, to deal with incidentals, when the (real) fault lies with what has preceded them? Do we believe that the human 'sacramenturn' may lawfully be added to the divine, and that (a Christian) may (give a promise in) answer to another master after Christ, and abjure father and mother and every kinsman




10. Tert Marc iii. 14 (ii. 340), cf Jud 9 (ii. 621).


11. Tert Marc iii. 21 (ii. 351).

12. Tert Pall 5 (ii. 1047): caussas non elatro, non judico, non milito, secessi de populo, etc.


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man, whom even the Law commanded to be honoured and loved next to God, (and) whom the Gospel also thus honoured, putting them above all save Christ only? Will it be lawful (for him) to occupy himself with the sword, when the Lord declares that he who uses the sword will perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace, for whom it will be unfitting even to go to law, be engaged in a battle? And shall he, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs, administer chains and (im)prison(ment) and tortures and executions? Shall he now go on guard for another more than for Christ, or (shall he do it) on the Lord's Day, when (he does) not (do it even) for Christ? And shall he keep watch before temples, which he has renounced? and take a meal there where the Apostle has forbidden it?(13) And those whom he has put to flight by exorcisms in the daytime, shall he defend (them) at night, leaning and resting upon the pilum with which Christ's side was pierced? Arid shall he carry a flag, too, that is a rival to Christ? And shall he ask for a watchword from his chief, when he has already received one from God? And (when he is) dead, shall he be disturbed by the bugler's trumpet--he who expects to be roused by the trumpet of the angel? And shall the Christian, who is not allowed to burn (incense), to whom Christ has remitted the punishment of fire, be burned according to the discipline of the camp? (And) how many other sins can be seen (to belong) to the functions of camp(-life)--(sins) which must be explained as a transgression (of God's law).

The very transference of (one's) name from the camp of light to the camp of darkness, is a transgression. Of









13. An allusion to I Cor. viii. 10.

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course, the case is different, if the faith comes subsequent(ly) to any (who are) already occupied in military service, as (was, for instance, the case) with those whom John admitted to baptism, and with the most believing centurions whom Christ approves and whom Peter instructs: all the same, when faith has been accepted and signed, either the service must be left at once, as has been done by many, or else recourse must be had to all sorts of cavilling, lest anything be committed against God--(any, that is, of the things) which are not allowed (to Christians) outside the army, or lastly that which the faith of (Christian) civilians has fairly determined upon must be endured for God.(14) For military service will not promise impunity for sins or immunity from martyrdom. The Christian is nowhere anything else (than a Christian). . . .


With him (i.e. Christ) the civilian believer is as much a soldier as the believing soldier is a civilian. The state of faith does not admit necessities. No necessity of sinning have they, whose one necessity is that of not sinning. . . . For (otherwise) even inclination can be pleaded (as a) necessity, having of course an element of compulsion in it. I have stopped up that very (appeal to necessity) in regard to other cases of (wearing) garlands of office, for which (the plea of) necessity is a most familiar defence; since either (we) must flee from (public) offices for this reason, lest we fall into sins, or else we must









14. dum tamen, suscepta fide atque signata, aut deserendum statim sit, ut a multis actum, aut omnibus modis cavillandum, ne quid adversus Deum committatur, quae nee extra militiam permittuntur, aut novissime perpetiendum pro Deo, quod aeque fides pagana condixit. The phrase 'quae nee extra militiam permittuntur' is difficult to construe; but by retaining this reading instead of the suggested 'ex militia' (so Rigaltius and Migne), one does not get rid of the proposal to desert, as the Translator in ANCL xi. 348 n seems to imagine.

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endure martyrdoms, that we may break (off our tenure of public) offices. On (this) first aspect of the question, (namely) the illegitimacy of the military life itself, I will not add more, in order that the second (part of the question) may be restored to its place--lest, if I banish military service with all my force, I shall have issued a challenge to no purpose in regard to the military garland.(15)  

In the following chapter, he asks: "Is the laurel of triumph made up of leaves, or of corpses? is it decorated with ribbons, or tombs? is it besmeared with ointments, or with the tears of wives and mothers, perhaps those of some men even (who are) Christians--for Christ (is) among the barbarians as well?"(16)

The clear, thorough-going, and outspoken opinions of Tertullianus have naturally attracted a good deal of a attention and criticism; and there are one or two points in connection with them which it will be well briefly to consider and emphasize.

1. The 'De Idololatria' (198-202 A.D.) is the earliest evidence we have for the enlistment in the army of Christians who were already baptized.(17) Any Christian soldiers mentioned in documents of an earlier date may well have consisted, for aught we know to the contrary, of men converted when already engaged in military life.

2. He recognizes only two practicable alternatives for the converted soldier: he must either leave the






15. Tert Cor II (ii 91-93).




16. Tert Cor 12 (ii. 94 f).


17. It will be seen (p. 108) that he asks the question "whether a believer may turn to military service," which almost certainly implies that some believers had already done so. Similarly in De Corona (211 A.D.) (see p. 111) he speaks of 'transferring one's name from the camp of light to the camp of darkness,' and mentions those converted when they were already soldiers as a special class, thus making it evident that there were others who had enlisted after conversion.

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service, or suffer martyrdom. Harnack indeed says that Tertullianus displays some uncertainty in regard to converts who were already soldiers, and that he does not present them this dilemma of either leaving the army or dying as martyrs, "but opens to them yet a third possibility, namely that of avoiding pollution by heathenism as much as they can."(18) But it has to be remembered that the pollution was, in Tertullianus' view, practically inseparable from military life; he runs over a large number of the commonest duties of the soldier, and raises objections to them one after another; and his third alternative must therefore be regarded as an ironical concession of a bare abstract possibility, which would be obviously impossible in practice, like his concession that a Christian may hold office, provided he has nothing to do with sacrifices, temples, public shows, oaths, judgment of capital or criminal cases, pronunciation and infliction of penalties, and so on.

3. The emphasis which he lays on the danger of contamination by idolatry has led some authors to represent this as his one real objection to military service and to use it for the purpose of dissociating him from those who in later times have objected to war on humanitarian grounds. Thus Professor Bethune-Baker says:


It is important to notice what Tertullian means by those offences against God which are inseparable from the soldier's life. It is not the modern idea at all. The special objections which he feels, the only offences against Christian sentiment that seem to really weigh with him, are the military oath--over which the heathen gods presided--and the pagan



18. Harnack MC 67.

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ceremonial with which so many military acts and operations were invested.(19)

This remarkable statement is approvingly quoted by Archdeacon Cunningham.(20) The passages just quoted from Tertullianus are sufficient proof of its amazing inaccuracy. Great as was his horror of idolatry, his conviction of the illegitimacy of all bloodshed and violence was equally great. Nor can I understand how Gass can say: "Tertullian was prepared to put up with Christian soldiers, only without the ostentatious crown of victory."(21) Even Troeltsch falls a victim to this error: he says that Tertullianus and Origenes, "despite the(ir) contention that the soldiers' handiwork of blood was absolutely unchristian, would have acquiesced, if service in the army had not brought the Christians into contact with the worship of the Emperor and (the religious customs) of the camp."(22) This statement is unwarranted even in regard to Tertullianus, and still more so in regard to Origenes, who never raises the difficulty of idolatrous contamination in the army at all.(23)

4. Tertullianus has been accused of lack of candour in boasting to pagans in one treatise(24) of the large number of Christians in the army, and after that arguing

19. B.-Baker ICW 25. Italics mine.

20. Christianity and Politics, 253. What is, I think, the one solitary allusion to the early Christian attitude to war in Dr. Forsyth's Christian Ethic of War contains a serious over-statement, if not a positive inaccuracy. He says (68 f): "The demand from Christian soldiers of the military oath . . . was objected to less on the grounds of the Sermon on the Mount than because it involved a confession of the Emperor's deity inconsistent with the place of Christ in His Gospel."

21. Gass, Geschichte der christlichen Ethik, i. 93.

22. Troeltsch III n 56.

23. The remarks of Ramsay (The Church in the Roman Empire, p. 435 f) on the subject imply that fear of participating in heathen rites was the one ground for the early Christian refusal of military service. Cf Aso Milman, History of Christianity, ii. 142.

24. Tert Apol 1, 37, Nat i. I, (see below, p. 234).

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with his fellow-Christians that there ought not to be any Christians in the army at all.(25) But unless candour requires a writer to explain his whole mind on a subject every time he mentions it in a purely incidental way, the charge of disingenuousness is unwarranted. Each time that Tertullianus spoke to pagans of Christian soldiers without reproaching them, he was simply adverting to an obvious and admitted fact, in order to prove the numbers and ubiquity of the Christians and their readiness to take part in the activities of society. It would have been not only futile, but out of place, to introduce a topic upon which Christian opinion was divided, unless the course of the argument distinctly called for its treatment.

5. Again, Tertullianus' attempt to find an application of Christianity to every department of life has been criticized as in itself a mistake. His earnestness, it is admitted, was commendable; but he was on wrong lines: "he failed, as every man is bound to fail, who conceives of Christianity in the light of a Rule, as a law of commandments contained in ordinances, rather than as a law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus."(26) We may concede that the province of Christian casuistry is a strictly limited one, and that the limits are at times overpassed both by Tertullianus and others. But even the Pauline Epistles, not to mention the Synoptic Gospels, teach us that there is such a thing as the Law of Christ, which, while springing from 'the spirit of life in Christ Jesus,' issues in certain very definite and concrete principles of conduct. This being so, it becomes the duty of every Christian,

25. So Harnack MC 59f: cf B.-Baker ICW 23; Guignebert 192; Bigelmair 180; De Jong 9 ff.











26. Scullard 212.


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not only to work out the application of these principles to his own life, but also--and this is particularly the duty of the Christian teacher and writer--to assist others to do the same.

6. It is interesting to notice in Tertullianus the idea already suggested by Justinus(27) of the 'alternative service' rendered by the Christian to society and the State, despite the fact that he does not engage officially in public affairs. The idea forms, as we shall see later, a very important item in the apologia of Origenes. Tertullianus does not work it into any organic system of thought; but his expressions of it, such as they are, are interesting. "I might deservedly say," he argues,


Caesar is more ours (than yours), inasmuch as he is appointed by our God. So that I do more for his (health and) safety (than ye do), not only because I demand it of Him who is able to give (it), nor because I who demand it am such as to deserve to obtain it, but also because, in reducing the majesty of Caesar below God, I the more commend him to God, to whom alone I subject him.(28)

He makes his philosophic cloak say in reply to the charge of idleness and neglect of public affairs:


Yet to me also it will be to some extent allowed that I am of advantage to the public. I am wont, from every boundary-stone or altar, to prescribe for morals medicines that will confer good health more happily on public affairs and states and empires than your works (will). . . . I flatter no vices; I spare no lethargy, no scabbiness; I apply the cautery to ambition,

and so on.(29)

7. Lastly, it is a mistake to regard Tertullianus as




27. See above, pp. 60, 103.










28. Tert Apol 33 (i. 448).








29. Tert Pall 5 (ii. 1047 f.)

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an individual dissenter from the Church as a whole on this question of whether Christians ought to serve in the army or not. Harnack, for instance, urges (in my opinion, without sufficient ground) that the Christian soldiers in the army had up till then never agitated as malcontents (frondiert) on account of their Christian profession, and that his "attack on the service of Christians in the army was something new, hitherto unheard of: easy as it was for him to prove the essential incompatibility of the service of Christ and service in the army, even in peace(time), it was just as impossible for him to appeal to a rigorous custom and practice already in force hitherto."(30)

It is true that no general or authoritative ruling on the point had yet been given--circumstances not having called for it, that Christian conviction in regard to it was never absolutely unanimous, that many of Tertullianus' Christian contemporaries (how many we do not know) differed from him, and that the Church on the whole ultimately agreed with them rather than with him. It must however be borne in mind that this last fact would have its own effect in submerging to some extent earlier utterances of a contrary tendency; and this effect must be allowed for in explaining whatever paucity there is in records of this kind. Tertullianus clearly tells us that 'many' soldiers, when converted to Christianity, immediately left the service.(31)

His own views are not to be set aside as those of a Montanist, for his objection to military service is as clear and emphatic in 'De Idololatria,' written before he had







30. Harnack MC 67.








31. See p. 112n. 1. Harnack (MC 66) waters down Tertullianus' 'multis,' into 'vielleicht viele.'


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adopted Montanism, as it is in 'De Corona,' written after he had adopted it.(32) And when we consider that these views, as will be shown presently, agree with the testimony of Origenes and the oldest Church-Orders as to the normal Christian practice in the earlier part of the third century, and were apparently endorsed by so representative a churchman as his own fellow-countryman and admirer Cyprianus, we shall hardly be inclined to believe that at this time he was voicing the opinion of a minority of Christians, still less that he represented the views of a mere handful of fanatical extremists.(33)

32. Professor B.-Baker's treatment of this ploint (ICW 22-26) is peculiarly conflicting and difficult to follow. He knows the date of 'De Idololatria,' and quotes what is said in it about Christ disarming every soldier, and so on: yet he makes much of the distinction between "Tertullian (a) Catholic" and "(b) Montanist," quotes the former as testifying to the presence of Christians in the army, adding that "in the opinion of Tertullian this redounded to their credit," speaks of "Tertullian's change of mind," points out how his Montanism is revealed in his later writings, and concludes that "the opinions recorded in them must be proportionately discounted." Some remarks have already been offered (pp. 115 f) on the real bearing to Tertullianus' boasts in Apol 37 and Nat i. I. They cannot be taken as showing that in his Catholic period be approved of Christians acting as soldiers.

33. Ramsay (The Church in the Roman Empire, pp. 435 f) speaks as if it was only a few individuals here and there who objected to Christians serving as soldiers.