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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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Page 170, cont.


The broad fact that meets us here is the ease with which the early Christian was able, whenever necessary, to keep his own ethic and that of the Old Testament in different compartments of his mind, without being seriously disturbed by--and even without noticing--the discrepancies between them.

The Scriptures were for him divinely inspired; the history they recorded had been divinely controlled; whatever was narrated and approved by the Biblical authors was regarded as sacred, and as such not a proper subject for human criticism--it was accepted with child-like and unquestioning reverence. The reader had no trained historical sense with which to discern development in man's knowledge of God's Will: hence he lacked, not only the inclination, but also the means, of properly relating the ethic of his own faith to that of a long distant foretime. The soundness of his own moral intuitions saved him from presuming to follow indiscriminately the example of those great ones of old, of whom he read and spoke with such genuine reverence and admiration. No greater mistake could be made than to suppose that the early Christian would have permitted himself or his fellow-Christians to do

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whatever he could peruse without censure or even with approval in the pages of Scripture.

An instance will suffice to make this point clear. Concubinage and prostitution were practices which early Christian sentiment strongly condemned as sinful. Whatever might be the frailty of his flesh, no early Christian ever seriously thought of advocating or even defending such practices in his own day--least of all from the pages of Scripture. Yet we find Paul referring to the concubinage of Abraham without a hint that it was sinful,(1) and James and the author of Hebrews alluding to Rahab the harlot, not only without censure, but even in terms of high praise.(2)

Similarly with the subject of war. For the early Christian the warlike habits of 'the great of old' and his own peaceful principles formed two separate realms, both of which he recognized without attempting--or feeling any need to attempt--to harmonize them. He could recall with complacency, and even with a devout admiration, the wars of the ancient Israelites, totally unconscious of any problem presented to him by their horrors, and without in any way committing himself to a belief in the propriety of similar action on his part.

Thus it was that Stephen and Paul both recalled with a glow of patriotic enthusiasm how God had subdued and destroyed the Canaanites before their ancestors under Joshua,(3) and the author of Hebrews spoke proudly of Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, reminded his readers how "by faith the walls of Jericho fell down. . . . by faith Rahab the harlot was not destroyed with the disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace," and mentioned in his catalogue of the heroes







1. Gal iv. 22 ff.

2. Jas ii. 25; Heb xi. 31.








3. Ac vii. 45, xiii. 19.

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of faith "Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, who by means of faith subdued kingdoms. . . . escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, routed armies of foreigners."(4) Clemens of Rome tells in detail the story of Rahab and the spies, making the scarlet thread she bound in the window a type of the Lord's redeeming blood.(5) 'Barnabas' finds a type of the cross in the hands of Moses extended above the battle between Israel and Amalek, and a type of Jesus himself in Joshua, whom Moses ordered to record God's determination to destroy Amalek.(6)

Justinus quotes to Truphon the words of Moses: "The Lord thy God, who goeth before thy face, He shall destroy the nations," and says: "Ye, who derive your origin from Shem, came, according to the judgment of God, upon the land of Canaan, and took possession of it"(7): he reminds him how the angel of the Lord slew 185,000 Assyrians before Jerusalem in Hezekiah's time.(8) Like the other writers just mentioned, he sees types of Christ, the cross, etc., in military incidents, objects, and persons that appear in the Old Testament, in Joshua, in Moses' outstretched arms, and the stone he sat on, in Rahab's scarlet thread, and in the horns with which Joseph would push the nations (Deut. xxxiii. 17).(9)

While the juxtaposition of the discrepant standards of Scripture and of the Christian life created no difficulty


4. Heb vii. 1, xi. 30-34. It is quite a mistake to use this passage, as Professor B.-Baker does (ICW 6, 18), in support of his view that "war is sanctioned . . . by the teaching and practice of Christ and of His immediate disciples," if by that is meant that war is something in which the follower of Jesus was permitted to take part.

5. 1 Clem xii.

6. Barn xii. 2, 9.



7. Just Dial 126 (772), 139 (796).

8. Op cit 83 (672).



9. Op cit 90 f (692 f), 111 (732), 113 (736 f), 115 (741, 744), 131 (781).

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for the childlike mind of the first generations of Christians, yet it was obviously bound sooner or later to attract attention. As soon as the Church began to develop her thinking powers and to face the tangled and perplexing problems of practical life, the antinomy had to be reckoned with. That the sanction of war in the Old Testament had some influence on Christian practice by the time of Tertullianus, we know; though we cannot say how soon that influence began to make itself felt.

In the realm of theology, however, the difficulty came to a head in the heresy and schism of Markion, about the middle of the second century. Markion's theory was that all divinely ordained wars, judgments, penalties, and so on, were to be referred, not to the Supreme Being, the good God who was the Father of Jesus, but to an inferior Deity, the just God of the Jews. This dualism the orthodox Christians rejected and resisted with horror, and indeed it was as easy to find disproof of it, as support for it, in Scripture. Neither Markion nor his opponents had the modern key, viz. the theory of the progressive revelation of the Divine character to men; and the orthodox, in meeting his arguments, were driven to seek for warlike features in the God of the New Testament, and thereby gravely imperilled one of the most essential features of the Christian gospel.(10)






10. Harnack says (MC 26): "Marcion's grasp of the Christian idea of God was without doubt essentially accurate. But the thought of a development of the Jewish conception of God into the Christian was as remote from him as from his opponents; so that he had to break with the historical antecedents of Christianity, and his Catholic opponents had to adulterate the Christian idea of God with what was out-of-date. Both fell into error, for there was no other way out. It will however always remain a credit to the Marcionite Church, which long maintained itself, that it preferred to reject the Old Testament, than to tarnish the picture of the Father of Jesus Christ by the intermixture of traces of a warlike God."

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Forty or fifty years later, the situation had developed. We find indeed, as before, many allusions to the ancient Hebrew wars without any question being raised as to their incompatibility with Christian usage. Joshua continues to be represented as a type of Jesus, and the massacres he is said to have perpetrated are complacently referred to. Moses is praised as a great general, his outstretched arms are taken as a sign of the cross, the Maccabees' decision to fight on the Sabbath is quoted, and so on.(11) But the importance and urgency of the question raised by Markion were more than ever realized, for his church was still strong and flourishing. Lengthy exposures of his errors were penned by Eirenaios, Tertullianus, and Hippolutos.

More significant for our immediate purpose--for these replies to Markion deal only incidentally with the question of wars--is the fact revealed by Tertullianus, that the Old Testament was now being used by certain Christians in order to justify themselves for bearing arms. The plea does not seem to have been always very intelligently framed, for we are told that these Christians appealed not only to the wars of Joshua and the Israelites, but also to Moses' rod, Aaron's buckle, and John the Baptist's leather girdle!(12)

How utterly and seriously misleading this reverence for the Old Testament could be for simpleminded Christians--particularly of the less scrupulous and puritanical sort--we gather from a treatise belonging to about the






11. The reader who cares to study these allusions in detail will find them in Eiren III xvi. 4, xvii. 3, IV xxiv. 1, frags 18 f, 44 (ii. 86, 93, 232, 488 f, 509), Demonstr 20 (11), 27 (16), 29 (17); Clem Strom I xxiv. 158-164, II xviii. 82, 88; Tert Jud 4, 9 f (ii. 606, 622 f, 627 f), Marc iii. 16 (ii. 343), 18 (ii. 347), iv. 36 (ii. 451), Monog 6 fin, Jejun 7, 10; Hipp Dan I viii. 3, III xxiv. 8, IV xliv.




12. Tert Idol 19 (i. 690): see above, p. 109.


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middle of the third century, and probably written by Novatianus, in which certain Christians are referred to who justified themselves for attendance at the public shows in the amphitheatre on the ground that David had danced before the ark and Elijah had been the charioteer of Israel.(13) But even among the more intelligent and sincere Christians, who lived in the times when participation in warfare had become a Christian problem, the fact that the Old Testament wars were traditionally justified had some effect in preventing a unanimous decision against such participation.(14)

One way out of the difficulty was to regard the Old Testament wars as parables, allegories, and types, descriptive of the spiritual life. Many Christians, we are told, regarded these difficult narratives as types, though they were not quite clear as to what they were types of.(15) It needs a special insight, Origenes contends, to enable one to interpret these passages aright: "strangely enough, by means of the history of wars and of conquerors and of (the) conquered, certain mysteries are made clear to those that are able to test them."(16) What large use Origenes himself made of this method of interpretation we have already seen.

We may note that, great as was his confidence in it, his historical sense prevented him from applying it completely; and not having the one clue to the problem, he had eventually to leave the discrepancy between the two dispensations unresolved. Thus, when Celsus pointed out the contradiction between the Old Testament promises of wealth and dominion and precepts for the conduct of




13. Novat Spect 2: ubi, inquiunt, scripta sunt ista, ubi prohibita? alioquin et auriga est Israel Helias et ante arcam Dauid saltauit.

14. Cf Harnack MC 11 f.




15. Orig Princ IV i. 9 fin.



16. Orig Princ IV 14.


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war, on the one hand, and the teaching of Jesus on the other, Origenes argued that the former are to be taken in a spiritual sense, as the Jews themselves eventually took them, the literal sense being in many cases obviously impossible. The promises of the Law were never literally fulfilled; the Jews therefore would not have remained so zealous for the Law, had they understood it--as Celsus does--literally.

At the same time, Origenes recognizes that the Law had a literal, as well as a spiritual, meaning, that the Jews understood the laws permitting them to punish offenders and to fight against their enemies literally and not spiritually, and that they were allowed to do so, as otherwise they would have perished as a nation. Yet he also argues that the promise that the Jews should slay their enemies cannot be taken literally, and points out that the destruction of Jerusalem proved that God did not wish the Jewish State to stand any longer.(17) It is easy enough to see the unresolved contradiction in Origenes' position--indeed, one can hardly believe that he himself could have been quite satisfied with it: but further advance was impossible without the more modern ideas of the part played by man's subjective conditions in the determination of human duty and the consequent necessity of a progressive, i.e. a changing, revelation of the divine Will.

A further point along this very line was reached by a Christian writer (the author of the 'Dialogus de Recta Fidei') of the early years of the fourth century, in connection with the closely allied problem of the contradiction between the Mosaic Law of Retaliation and the Sermon on the Mount. That problem, however, is still more closely connected with the question











17. Orig Cels iii. 7, vii. 18-26.

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of the justifiability of judicial penalties than with the question of war, and will accordingly have to be considered later.(18) We may, however, notice here the full approval which this author gives to the spoliation of the Egyptians by the Israelites and to Moses' punishment of the rebels:


It does not therefore seem at all undeserved that those, who had waged war unjustly, should be despoiled like enemies by the laws of war. . . . It was just that those who had revolted should be slain like enemies and conspirators. . . . We have shown concerning those, who wage war unjustly, that the proper result is that they should receive what is (usually) given (ea quae . . . referuntur) by the law of war; whence we have taught that Christ also ordered (his) enemies to be thrust into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.(19)

Apart from this author and Origenes and those who touch on the problem of the Lex Talionis, no other writer makes any contribution to the settlement of the difficulty of Old Testament wars.(20) This difficulty however did not bulk so large but that authors of even the latest part of our period could refer to those wars in the same happy and unconscious way as their predecessors. Minucius Felix speaks of the military successes of the Jews, as long as they worshipped God: "(though) unarmed, they pursued armed men as they fled, (and) overwhelmed (them) by the command of God and with the help of the elements."(21) In


18. See below, pp. 218 ff.








19. Adamant i. 10, 12, 13.

20. Tertullianus (Virg I) has some words about the development of righteousness from its rudiments in the natural fear of God, through infancy in the Law and the Prophets, youth in the Gospel, and maturity in the work of the Paraclete, but he does not work the theory out.



21. Minuc xxxiii. 3.

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Cyprianus we once more find mention of Moses making the sign of the cross(22) and other allusions to Old Testament wars,(23) as well as commendations of Cornelius, the centurion-convert of the New Testament.(24) Lastly, Joshua appears as a type of Jesus in the 'Divine Institutes' of Lactantius.(25)

Summing up, we may say that all orthodox Christians agreed in regarding the wars waged by the ancient Hebrews as having been waged with the Divine sanction, if not always at the Divine bidding; that few of them were concerned, and none fully succeeded, in harmonizing the divergent views of the Old and New Testaments in regard to the use of violence, but that, inasmuch as the approval accorded to ancient Hebrew wars was--whether the Christian fully recognized the fact or not--relative to the ancient Hebrew mind, i.e. relative to subjective human conditions which were very different from those of the Christians themselves, the instinct which withheld the latter from copying the military precedents of Scripture was perfectly sound, and could have been logically justified if the requisite philosophical apparatus had been available; that the use normally made of these stories of ancient times was simply that of edifying types or allegories of Christ and the Christian life; that the use of them in order to justify Christians in bearing arms was in many cases the product of an extremely crude habit of mind; that it satisfied both sides of the question even less than did the view of the rigid abstentionist (in that it could give no account of its departure from

22. Cypr Test ii. 21, Fort 8.

23. Cypr Bon Pat 10, Zel Liv 5: cf also Ps-Cypr Jud 6; Victorinus in Routh iii. 458.

24. Cypr Ep 72 (71) 1, Dom Orat 32.

25. Lact Inst IV xvii. 12 f.

Page 179 the teaching of Jesus), and that it involved the subtle fallacy of supposing that what God permits or enjoins for men in one stage of development, He equally permits or enjoins for men in quite a different stage.