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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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HITHERTO we have concentrated our attention on the various ways in which the Christian abhorrence and disapproval of war expressed itself. We have now to study the reverse side of the picture--the various conditions and connections in which war was thought of by Christian people without that association of reproach which so frequently attached to it. The contents of this reverse side of the picture are very heterogeneous, ranging from the use of military metaphors and similes up to the actual service of Christians in the legions. It will be our task to examine each phase of this side of the he subject candidly and carefully, and to attempt an estimate of the precise value of each in its relation to that strong antipathy towards war, the various manifestations of which we have just been reviewing.

We begin with the Christian use of military terms and phrases to illustrate the religious life. It was apparently Paul who introduced this custom of drawing from the military world metaphors and similes illustrative of different aspects of Christian, particularly apostolic, life.

--He urged the Thessalonians to put on

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the breastplate of faith and love, and to take the hope of salvation as a helmet.(1)

--He supported his right to subsist at the expense of the Church by asking: "Who ever engages in military service at his own expense?"(2)

--He spoke of his spiritual and disciplinary powers in the Church in the language of one holding a military command and suppressing a mutiny.(3)

--He spoke of his weapons of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, i.e. for attack and defence.(4)

--He called Epaphroditos and Arkhippos his fellow-soldiers and others his fellow-captives.(5)

--In a detailed enumeration of the items that make up the offensive and defensive equipment of a soldier, he elaborated the parallel between human warfare and the Christian's struggle against evil angelic powers.(6)

--Further use of military metaphors is made in the Pastoral Epistles. There the author bids Timotheos join him in bearing hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. "No one going on military service gets entangled in the affairs of (civil) life, (for his aim is) to please him who enrolled him."(7)

It is important to notice that Paul, as if aware of the liability of such language to misconstruction, twice went out of

1. 1 Thess v. 8.

2. 1 Cor ix. 7; cf 2 Cor xi. 8.

3. 2 Cor x. 3-6.

4. 2 Cor vi. 7; cf, for other military expressions, Rom vi. 13, 23, xiii. 12.

5. Phil ii. 25, Philemon 2, 23, Rom xvi. 7, Col iv. 10.

6. Eph vi. 12-18.

7. 2 Tim ii. 3 f; cf 1 Tim i. 18. It is to be observed that the language of 1 Tim vi. 12, 2 Tim iv. 7, from which we get the familiar phrases about 'fighting the good fight,' is drawn, not from the battle-field, but from the race-course (cf 1 Cor ix. 25, Heb xii. 1). Harnack discusses these NT military metaphors in great detail (MC 12-18). He finds their origin "in the pictures of the Old Testament prophets" (12), having apparently in mind such passages as Isa xi. 4 f, xlix. 2, lix. 17, Hosea vi. 5. He observes that while every Christian has to fight, it is not usually the ordinary Christian who is described as a soldier, but only the apostle and missionary. He points out that the analogy became more than a mere analogy, when it was used to prove that the missionary should be supported by the Church, and should not engage in the business of civil life.

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his way to remind his readers that in using it he was not referring to earthly warfare.


Though we walk in the flesh, we do not serve as soldiers according to the flesh; for the weapons of our military service are not those of the flesh, but powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds, demolishing theories and every rampart thrown up against the knowledge of God, and taking prisoner every project (to bring it) into obedience to Christ,

and so on.(8) Again,


Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the (angelic) rulers, against the (angelic) authorities, against the world-potentates of this darkness, against the spiritual (forces) of wickedness in the heavenly (regions). Wherefore take up the armour of God,

and so on.(9)

The Gospel of Luke preserves for us the one explicitly military parable of Jesus, that of the two kings preparing for war.(10) Clemens of Rome says to the Corinthians: 


Let us render service then, brothers, as strenuously as we can, under His faultless orders. Let us consider those who serve our governors as soldiers, in what an orderly, obedient, and submissive way they carry out their instructions. For all are not prefects or chiliarchs or centurions or captains of fifty, and so on; but each one in his own rank carries out what is ordered by the Emperor and the governors. The great cannot exist without the lower, nor the lower without the great. There is a union among all, and that is why they are (so) useful (kai en toutois chresis).(11)

Ignatius writes:


Please Him whom ye serve as soldiers, and from whom ye receive wages. Let no







8. 2 Cor x. 3-5.





9. Eph vi. 12 f.


10. Lk xiv. 31-33: see above, p. 38, and cf Mt xi. 12 f (= Lk xvi. 16), xxii. 7.






11. 1 Clem xxxvii. 1-4.

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one of you be found (to be) a deserter. Let your baptism abide as (your) weapons, faith as a helmet, love as a spear, patience as armour. Let your works be your deposits, in order that ye may receive the recompense due to you.(12)  

It will be seen that, while Ignatius does not do more than use military metaphors, Clemens goes a good deal further. In two respects his allusion to military life is a novelty. Firstly, he draws from his illustration the lesson of subordination of Christians to Church-leaders; and secondly, he unquestionably feels a real admiration for the Roman army as such. We shall have occasion to refer later to this second point.

Justinus uses the military analogy in rather a striking way. "It would be a ridiculous thing," he says to the Emperors, "that the soldiers engaged and enrolled by you should respect their agreement with you in preference to their own life and parents and country and all their friends, though ye can offer them nothing incorruptible, and that we, loving incorruptibility, should not endure all things for the sake of receiving what we long for from Him who is able to give (it)."(13)

In the apocryphal 'Martyrdom of Paul,' both the author himself and the characters he introduces speak of Christians as soldiers in the service of God(14): similar language is put into Peter's mouth in his apocryphal 'Martyrdom.'(15) In the Gnostic 'Excerpts from Theodotos,' it is said "(We) must be armed with the Lord's weapons, keeping the body and the soul unwounded."(16) Eirenaios refers, chiefly in Scriptural language, to the achievements of Christ under the figure of military



12. Ig P vi. 2: cf S i. 2. We may remember that Ignatius was, at the time of writing, in the charge of a squad of ten soldiers.









13. Just 1 Ap. xxxix. 5.


14. M Paul 2-4, 6 (i. 108 - 116; Pick 44-48).

15. M Petr 7 = Act Petr 36 (i. 90; Pick 116).

16. Excerp Theod 85.

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exploits.(17) Clemens of Alexandria has a large number of military expressions and comparisons designating various features in the Christian life.(18)

The pugnacious Tertullianus, despite his aversion to military service in actual life, was especially fond of using language of this sort.(19) It was adopted in fact far more readily and extensively in the Western than in the Eastern Church. The use of the one Latin word 'sacramentum' for the soldier's oath and for certain important Christian observances facilitated the introduction of the military conception of Christianity. While nothing was further from Tertullianus' real meaning than that Christians should actually take arms on behalf of their religion, yet the thought of Christians as soldiers was sufficiently vivid and real to him to enable him to play with the idea of an actual revolt.(20)

Origenes found the idea of the Christian life as a spiritual warfare of great value in that it furnished a key to much in the Old Testament that would have been repugnant to him, had he felt obliged to accept it in its literal meaning. Military metaphors appear in his best-known works, but are naturally most fully worked out in his Homilies on the books of Numbers, Joshua, and judges. In the Homilies on Joshua, he

17. Eiren IV xx. 11(ii. 223) (quotation of Ap xix. 11-17), xxxiii. 11 (ii. 265) (quotation Of Ps xlv. 4f), frag 21 (ii. 490) (the armed angel that met Balaam was the Word): cf II ii. 3 (i. 255) (world to be referred to God as victory to the king who planned it).

18. Clem Protr x. 93, 100 fin, 110, xi. 116, Paed I vii. 54, viii. 65, Strom I xi. 51, xxiv. 159ff, II xx. 110, 120, IV iv. 14, 16, viii. 60, xiii. 91, xxii. 141, VI xii. 103, xiv. 112, VII iii. 21, xi. 66, xiii. 83, xvi. 100f, Quis Dives 25, 34f.

19. Tert Mart 1, 3, Apol 50 init, Nat ii. 5 (i. 592 f), Spect 24 fin, Cul ii. 5, Paen 6, Orat 19, Jud 7, Praescr 12, 41, Cast 12 init, Marc v. 5 (ii. 480), Fug 10 f, Res 3, Scorp 4 fin, Pudic 22 fin, Jejun 10, 17.

20. Tert Apol 37 (i. 463) (see above, p. 107). Harnack treats the whole subject with great thoroughness in MC 32-40.

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says: "If those carnal wars did not carry a figure of spiritual wars, the books of Jewish history would, I believe, never have been handed down by the apostles (as) fit to be read in the churches by the disciples of Christ, who came to teach peace."(21)

Other writings of the first half of the third century containing military phrases and illustrations are Hippolutos' treatise against Noetos,(22) the apocryphal 'Acts of Thomas,' (23) the Pseudo-Cyprianic 'De Pascha Computus,'(24) and the 'Octavius' of Minucius Felix, which has a fine rhetorical comparison of the steadfast martyr to a victorious soldier.(25)

From the middle of the third century onwards the frequency with which military language is used to describe phases of Christian life and experience becomes very noticeable, particularly in Latin writers. Christians are spoken of as Christ's soldiers; Christ is the imperator; the Church is his camp; baptism is the sacramentum; heretics and schismatics are rebels and deserters, and so on. A multitude of military phrases occur in the portrayal of Christian trials and achievements, particularly in connection with persecution. A detailed analysis of the passages would tell us very little in regard to our main enquiry: some of them are simply edifying rhetoric; in some the parallel is carried

21. Orig Hom in Jos xv init (Migne PG xii. 897). Cf also Orig Princ III ii. 5 (milites Christi), IV 14 (see below, p. 175), 24, Orat xiii. 3 f, xxiv. 4, Cels vii. 21f. Harnack collects the passages from Origenes' exegetical works in MC 26-31, 99-104. Westcott says of the Homilies on Joshua: "The parallel between the leader of the Old Church and the Leader of the New is drawn with great ingenuity and care. The spiritual interpretation of the conquest of Canaan, as an image of the Christian life, never flags" (DCB iv. 107b).

22. Hipp. Noet 15 (quotation of Ap xix. 11-13).

23. Acts of Thomas 39, 126 (iii. 157, 234; Pick 260 f, 328).

24. Ps-Cypr Pasch 10.

25. Minuc xxxvii. 1-3.

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out in great detail; in others it consists of a bare illustrative analogy.(26)

We observe that the military metaphor commended itself most strongly to Cyprianus and those who corresponded with him,(27) Commodianus,(28) and the authors of the martyr-acts,(29) that it was on the whole more popular with the Latin or Western(30) than with the Eastern(31) writers; and that fondness for it was greatly stimulated by persecution.(32) The way in which the word 'paganus,' which originally meant civilian as distinct from soldier -- a sense which it kept till after 300 A.D., came eventually to mean non-Christian, indicates how strongly the idea of the Christian as the soldier par excellence permeated the mind of Latin Christianity.(33)

Most of the passages in which military metaphors and similes are used are obviously quite non-committal as to the writer's attitude to earthly warfare, though there are certainly some in which the analogy is put in

26. Cf Harnack MC 40-43.

27. Cypr Test ii. 16, iii. 117, Donat 15 init, Laud 10, 19, 26, Ep 10 (8) 1, 5, 37 (15) 1, 28 (24) 1, 31 (25) 5, 30 (30) 2, 6, 38 (32) 1, 39 (33) 2 f, 46 (43), 54 (50) 1, 55 (51) 4, 17, 19, 56 (52) 2, 57 (53) 1-5, 59 (54) 17, 58 (55) 1-4, 6, 8f, 11, 60 (56) 2, 61 (57) 2 f, 65 (63) 1, 73 (72) 10, 22, 74 (73) 8 f, 75 (77) 2, 78 (78) 1, 80 (81) 2, Laps 2 (see above P. 151 n 3), 36, Dom Orat 15, Mort 2, 4, 9, 12, 15, Bon Pat 12, Zel Liv 2 f, Fort pref 1 f, 4, treatise 13.

28. Commod Instr i. 34, ii. 9-13, 20, 22, Carm 77: cf Scullard, 259.

29. Passio Mariani et Jacobi i. 3, iii. 4, viii. 4, x. 3 (Gebhardt 134 ff); Acta Fructuosi 3 (Ruinart 266); Passio Montani et Lucii iv. 6, xiv. 5 (Gebhardt 147 ff); Acts of Codratius (Conybeare 195, 202, 206); Passio Quirini 2 init (Ruinart 522); Acta Marcelli 1 f, 4 (Ruinart 343 f); Passio Typasii 2 (Anal Bolland ix. 118).

30. Pont Vit Cypr 8, 10; Ps-Cypr Rebapt 16 fin, Jud i, 7; Arnob ii. 5, 8; Lact Inst I iii. 19, III xxiii. 2, V xix. 25, xxii. 17, VI iv. 15-19, xx. 16, VII xix. 5 f, Mort Pers xvi. 4-11.

31. Dion Alex De Natura (Feltoe 142), and in Eus HE VI xli. 16; Didask II vi. 10f; Clem Ep Jas 4; Clem Hom ix. 21, Recog iv. 33, vii. 24; Eus PE 15c, 16b, 165b, 663b.

32. Cf Harnack ME i. 414-418.

33. See Harnack's interesting note in ME i. 416-418, MC 122.

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such a way as to suggest that the writer accepts the rightness of war. Thus Cyprianus says: "It is a good soldier's (business) to defend the camp of his commander against rebels and enemies: it is the business of a proud general to keep the standards entrusted to him," and he goes on to plead accordingly for the rebaptism of heretics.(34) Or again: "If it is a glorious thing for earthly soldiers to return in triumph to their country after conquering the enemy, how much more excellent and great is the glory of returning in triumph to Paradise after conquering the devil!"(35)

Lactantius reinforces a strong appeal to the reader to enter upon the toilsome spiritual warfare against the devil by drawing an elaborate parallel between the demands of that conflict and the wisdom of enduring, for the sake of peace and security in the future, the bother of having to prepare to defend oneself and one's home against an earthly foe.(36)

But despite appearances, passages like these cannot be taken as more than mere illustrations. For the purpose of pointing an argument or decorating a lesson, a writer will sometimes use rhetorical analogies which seem likely to carry weight, but which do not represent his own considered opinions on that from which the analogy is drawn. We know, for instance, that Lactantius, despite these glowing words on the obvious need of self-defence, as a matter of fact totally disapproved of all bloodshed, including capital punishment and military service: and it seems practically certain that Cyprianus did the same.(37)

At the same time, the frequent and unrestricted use of military metaphors was not without its dangers.




34. Cypr Ep 73 (72) 10.



35. Cypr Fort 13.




36. Lact Inst VI iv. 15 ff.







37. See above pp. 147 f, 159 f.


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Harnack remarks:


When the forms of military life are taken over into the higher religions, the military element appears at first to be thereby converted into its exact opposite, or to be changed into a mere symbol. But the form too has a logic of its own and its own 'necessitates consequentiae.' At first imperceptibly, but soon more and more clearly, the military element, which was received as a symbol, introduces also the thing itself, and the 'spiritual weapons of knighthood' become the worldly (weapons). But even where it does not get as far as that, there enters in a warlike disposition which threatens the rule of meekness and peace.(38)

And again later, of the Latin Christianity of the third century:


A tone that was on the one hand fanatical and on the other hand bombastic entered into the literature of edification in the West. The Christian threatened to become a 'miles gloriosus.' Even though it might all through be a question of spiritual warfare, (yet) an earthly delight in battle and strife, in plunder and victory in the ordinary sense, could (quite easily) develop itself in this fashion. Military speech was not by any means justified by the actual circumstances, apart from the intermittent persecutions: it (just) became the fashion. The martyr-acts that were written in the great persecution under Diocletian and his colleagues, and still more those that were written later, are often enough lacking in the peace and prudence which was prescribed to the Christians in their classic documents--except the Apocalypse. But who can criticize the attitude of people who were handed over to the executioner and went to meet a dreadful death? Their biographers only are open to criticism.(39)  

We may say therefore, with








38. Harnack MC 8.
















39. Op cit 42 f.


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regard to this first department of Christian thought in which war stood for something good, that while it lent itself to abuse and misconstruction, particularly in the case of the cruder minds and harsher spirits in the Church, it dealt strictly speaking only with warfare in its purely spiritual sense, and comprised nothing that was necessarily at variance with the most rigid abstention from the use of arms.