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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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Page 179, cont.


But Scripture spoke of other wars than those of past history. The Jews looked forward to an approaching cataclysm, a great intervention of God in human affairs, involving a general resurrection and judgment, the reward of the righteous, the punishment of sinners, and the establishment of a divine kingdom under the regency of the Messiah. It seems to have been generally expected that the occurrence of terrific wars, involving the overthrow and slaughter of the enemies of the Chosen People and their Messiah, would form a part of this series of events, though there was no unanimity as to the details of the programme.

The Christian Church practically took over the Jewish apocalyptic beliefs en masse: hence we find war entering into their hopes and expectations of the future. Mark includes in the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus the following passage:


When ye hear (of) wars and rumours of wars, be not amazed: (this) must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there shall be earthquakes in divers places; there shall be famines. These things (are the) beginning of (the Messianic) birth-pangs. 

Matthew and Luke report the same or similar words.(1)

Luke represents Jesus in the Parable of the Pounds as describing the king on his return summoning into his presence for execution those who














1. Mk xiii. 7 f ||s. According to 'The Vision of Isaiah,' the war continues incessantly from the Creation to the Parousia (see above, pp. 49 f).

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did not wish him to reign over them.(2) Paul says that the Lord Jesus will destroy the Lawless One (i.e. Antichrist) with the breath of his mouth, and bring him to nought by the manifestation of his coming.(3) This theme of Messianic warfare appears in a multitude of different shapes in the Apocalypse. The openings of the first, second, and fourth seals usher in disastrous wars.(4) Christ is represented as a conqueror,(5) having a sharp two-edged sword issuing from his mouth(6): he threatens to make war with it upon the Nikolaitans,(7) and to slay Jezebel's children.(8) A tremendous conflict is about to come, in which he will conquer the Beast and the kings of the earth with terrific slaughter.(9) After his millennial reign, there will be further wars against Gog and Magog.(10)

The Book of Elkesai, written apparently during the reign of Trajanus, prophesied that, when three more years of that reign had elapsed, war would break out among the ungodly angels of the north, and a convulsion of all ungodly kingdoms would ensue.(11) Justinus quotes several passages from the Old Testament, speaking of a warlike triumph on the part of God or of the Messianic King.(12) In the apocryphal 'Acts of Paul,' the apostle tells Nero that Christ "is going one day to make war upon the world

2. Lk xix. 27, cf 11.

3. 2 Th ii. 8.

4. Ap vi. 1-8.

5. Ap iii. 21, v. 5: cf John xvi. 33.

6. Ap i. 16, ii. 12, xix. 15.

7. Ap ii. 16.

8. Ap ii. 23.

9. Ap xiv. 14-20, xvi. 13 f, 16, xix. 11-21.

10. Ap xx. 7-10.

11. Brandt in Hastings' Encycloypaedia of Religion and Ethics, v. 263b.

12. Isa lxiii. 1-6 (the one in dyed garments from Bosrah) is quoted by Justinus in Dial 26 (532), Dan vii. 11 (destruction of the Beast) and 26 (overthrow of the Horn) in Dial 31 (540 f), Ps xlv. 5 (arrows in the heart of the king's enemies) in Dial 38 (557), Ps cx. 1 ("until I make thine enemies thy footstool," etc.) and 5 (kings crushed in the day of God's wrath) in Dial 32 (545). From Dial 32 (544) we gather that Justinus regarded the putting of Christ's enemies under his feet as a process going on from the time of the Ascension.

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with fire."(13) In the Gnostic 'Excerpts from Theodotos,' we read of a great battle going on between the rebel 'powers' and the angels, the former fighting against, the latter--like soldiers--for, the Christians: God rescues the Christians from the revolt and the battle and gives them peace.(14) The Montanist prophetess Maximilla foretold wars and anarchy.(15)

Tertullianus, in his Apology, assures the pagans that the events going on around them--"wars, bringing external and internal convulsions, the collision of kingdoms with kingdoms, famines, and pestilences, and local massacres"--had all been foretold in Scripture(16); and in his reply to Markion he quotes Jesus' announcement of eschatological wars, etc., as demonstrating his connection with the severe and terrible Creator, inasmuch as he says that they must come to pass, and does not concern himself to frustrate them, as he would have done had they not been his own decrees.(17)

Hippolutos quotes the passage in Daniel where Michael is said to have been sent to make war on the prince of Persia(18); he speaks in some detail of the warlike character and doings of Antichrist,(19) and refers generally to the wars that are to be the prelude of the Last Things.(20) The Didaskalia quotes for the guidance of the Christian bishop the passage in Ezekiel, where the watchman is bidden warn the people when God is bringing a sword upon the earth, and adds: "So the sword is the judgment, the trumpet is the gospel, the watchman is the bishop appointed over the Church."(21)

13. M Paul 3 (i. 110 ff; Pick 45).



14. Excerp Theod 72.

15. Eus HE V xvi. 18 f.



16. Tert Apol 20 (ii. 389 f).




17. Tert Marc iv. 39 (ii. 455 f, 458 f).


18. Hipp Dan IV xl. 3 (Dan x. 13, 20 f).

19. Hipp Dan IV xlix. 1, 4.

20. Hipp Dan IV xvii. 8 f.



21. Didask II vi. 6-11.

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Cyprianus told his people that the wars and other calamities, which had been foretold as due to occur in the Last Times, were then actually occurring, showing that the Kingdom of God was nigh.(22) Victorinus of Petavium, in his Commentary on the Apocalypse, said:


Now the white horse and (the One) sitting on it shows our Lord coming with a heavenly army to reign; and at his coming all the nations will be gathered together and will fall by the sword. But the other (nations), that were more noble, will be kept for the service of the saints, and they themselves also will have to be slain at the last time when the reign of the saints is over, before the judgment, when the Devil has been again sent away. Concerning all these things the prophets uttered predictions in like manner.(23)  

Lactantius refers to the wars and troubles of the Last Times, particularly those of the time of Antichrist,(24) and quotes in connection with them a passage from the Hermetic writings, which says that God,


having recalled the wandering and purged away the wickedness, partly (by) flooding (it) with much water, partly (by) burning (it) up with sharpest fire, sometimes casting (it) out by wars and pestilences, led his own world (back) to (its) ancient (state) and restored it.(25)

The vague idea of a victorious war to be waged by the Messiah against the wicked was thus taken over from Jewish apocalyptic and seems to have become a fairly regular element in Christian belief. With the Jews, who had a land and a Holy City of their



22. Cypr Mort 2.






23. Victorious in Haussleiter, Theologisches Literaturblatt, April, 1895, col. 195.


24. Lact Inst VII xv. 10 f, xvi. 1-5, 12-14, xvii. 6ff, xix.




25. Lact Inst VII xviii. 4.


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own, and whose Messianism was consequently of a materialistic and political kind, such a belief might at any time take practical form in the proclamation of a holy war against the enemies of God's Chosen People.

When however it was transplanted to Christian soil, the risk of an attempt to anticipate by force of arms the Messiah's final triumph virtually disappeared. It was not until the time of Constantinus that the success of Christianity appeared to be bound up with a military victory--and not till long after that that a 'holy war' was proclaimed in Christendom. The Christian took no part as an earthly warrior in fighting for Messiah's victories. Those victories were expected to be won with armies of angels, or better still were interpreted in a spiritual sense.

Tertullianus went out of his way several times to explain that the military character ascribed to Christ in Scripture was to be understood spiritually and figuratively, not literally: war, literally understood, he said, would produce deceit, and harshness, and injustice, results the very reverse of what was foretold as the work of Christ.(26) The expectation, therefore, of the quasi-military triumph of Christ, like the respectful view taken of the Old Testament wars, was not likely to encourage the Christian to take arms on behalf of his faith, except perhaps in the case of crude intellects that had barely grasped the essentials of Christianity, and here and there in the earliest times when the Church had hardly emancipated herself from the sway of the apocalyptic and Jewish political spirit.


One must not forget the psychological fact that the












26. Tert Marc iii. 13 init (ii. 337 f) (a ridiculous picture of the infant Immanuel acting as warrior), 14 (ii. 340) (see above, p. 51), iv. 20 (ii. 406 f), v. 18 (ii. 516 f), Res 20 (ii. 821).

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world of imagination and the world of actual life are separate, and that under (certain) conditions a very quiet and very peaceable man can at times give himself up to extravagant imaginations, without their actually influencing his own inner attitude. History proves that the military Jesus Christus redivivus of apocalyptic never in the (course of the) first three centuries turned the Christians into warlike revolutionaries.(27)

Nevertheless, this belief in a warrior-Christ who would conquer his enemies, played a certain part in preventing a unanimous and uncompromising rejection of warfare as a permissible element in Christian life.(28)





27. Harnack MC 10: he discusses the whole question very fully (8-12: cf 43 f).



28. Harnack MC 11f (see below, pp. 193 f).