www . compassionatespirit . com

The Early Christian Attitude to War


Table of Contents / Abbreviations / About this book / Books / Home

Page 244


Chapter 21: Summary and Conclusion

AN attempt must now be made to gather together the scattered threads of the foregoing records and to present something in the nature of a general summary of the whole question.

--We saw at the outset that Jesus adopted for himself and enjoined upon his followers principles of conduct which, inasmuch as they ruled out as illicit all use of violence and injury against others, clearly implied the illegitimacy of participation in war, and that it was for this reason that he resisted the temptation to establish the Kingdom of God by the use of arms.

--We saw that his principles were meant to guide the conduct, not of the whole of unredeemed humanity all at once, but that of the growing group of his own followers as members of the Kingdom, that these principles of so-called 'non-resistance' had their positive counterpart in the power of love to overcome sin in others and did not reduce those who adopted them to helpless cyphers in the conflict against evil, but on the contrary made them more efficient units in that conflict.

--We saw too that the various pleas that have been put forward with a view to emancipating the Christian disciple from compliance with these principles--as, that they are meant to refer only to the inner disposition or spirit and not to the outward actions, or that

Page 245

they are counsels of perfection practicable only in a perfect world, or that they affect only the personal and private conduct of the disciple and not his duties as a member of society, or that they are an interim-ethic which is invalidated by the existence of historical conditions which Jesus did not foresee--all rest on various easily demonstrated misapprehensions.

The early Christians took Jesus at his word, and understood his inculcations of gentleness and nonresistance in their literal sense. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war for the bloodshed which it involved; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their policy to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.

With one or two possible exceptions no soldier joined the Church and remained a soldier until the time of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.). Even then, refusal to serve was known to be the normal policy of the Christians--as the reproaches of Celsus (177-180 A.D.) testify. In the time of Tertullianus (say 200-210 A.D.), many soldiers had left the army on their conversion; and his writings are the earliest record we possess of any Christians joining the army when already converted. While a general distrust of ambition and a horror of contamination by idolatry entered largely into the Christian aversion to military service, the sense of the utter contradiction between the work of imprisoning, torturing, wounding, and killing, on the one hand, and the Master's teaching on the other, constituted an equally fatal and conclusive objection.

The Church-Order framed probably by

Page 246

Hippolutos of Rome early in the third century and widely circulated in the East required magistrates and soldiers to abandon their calling before baptism, and excommunicated the Christian who insisted on joining the army. Origenes, the finest thinker the Church possessed for many generations, the man who was exempt from those crude eschatological notions which are generally represented as the context in which all early Christian utterances on social duty are to be read, took it for granted that Christians generally refused to serve in the army, and that they did so, not in fear of idolatrous contamination, which does not seem to have been a difficulty when he wrote (248 A.D.), but on the score of bloodshed; and he defended them for doing so in a series of acute arguments that have never since been answered. Cyprianus, a highly influential and thoroughly loyal Churchman, appears to have held the same views on the matter as his 'master' Tertullianus. Arnobius almost certainly disapproved of Christians fighting, and his contemporary Lactantius (early fourth century) unequivocally pleaded for the same conclusion.

No Church writer before Athanasios ventured to say that it was not only permissible, but praiseworthy, to kill enemies in war, without the qualification--expressed or implied--that he was speaking of pagans only.(1)

While the application of Jesus' teaching aching to the question of military service was in a way unmistakable, and was in fact generally made in the way that has just













1. The words of Athanasios are quoted below, p. 257 n 1. His statement is perfectly general, and doubtless was meant to apply to Christians as well as pagans. It cannot therefore be put on the same level as Origenes' phrase "those who are righteously serving as soldiers" (see above, p. 135), which obviously applied only to the pagan soldiers of the Emperor.

Page 247

been described, it is nevertheless true that the conditions in which the early Christians were placed did not in many localities call for any such application for a very long time. Jews and slaves were not enrolled at all in the Roman army. The Emperors (who were legally entitled to fill their legions by conscription)--not to mention the Herodian princes and the Jewish Temple-authorities--could normally get all the soldiers they wanted by means of voluntary enlistment; hence the chances of a Christian being pressed into military service against his will were practically nil. This position of affairs meant that for the vast bulk of Christians in the earliest times, the question as to the legitimacy or otherwise of their entering the army simply did not arise; the mind of the Church, while in full possession of the pertinent teaching of Jesus, had for a long time no occasion to make a definite application of it to this particular question or to lay down a definite ruling in regard to it. There was thus a certain unguardedness, a certain immaturity of reflection, which, besides accounting for the silence of early Christian authors on the point, helped to make room for various compromises and commitments.

For during this embryonic and quiescent stage of Christian ethical thought there were certain other factors at work, which militated against a clear pronouncement on the illegitimacy of the use of arms by Christians. To begin with, warfare stood on a different footing from other pagan customs which it was quite easy for the Church to condemn and reject without compromise. It was unlike adultery, in that it was esteemed and honoured by pagans, and not condemned: it was unlike idolatry, in that it concerned only a few,

Page 248

and not members of society in general. It was inseparably bound up with the police system by which law and order were maintained; and the severity of the Christian judgment against it was thus mitigated by its association with that against which the Christian objection was not so easily felt or framed.

Then again, there were various connections in which the Christians themselves thought of war without any admixture of repulsion or censure. They were fond of speaking of the Christian life itself as a warfare and of themselves as soldiers of Christ. Scripture taught them to think with reverence and esteem of the warriors of old as men acting with the approval and under the guidance of God. Many of them looked forward to a great military triumph of Christ over his enemies at the end of the age.

In the meantime, they could think of war as a means of divine chastisement: they regarded the great victories of the Romans over the Jews in 67-71 A.D. as a divine punishment of the latter for their treatment of Christ. They were taught to think of the Emperor as appointed by God for the purpose of checking sin and maintaining order-tasks which they knew he could not fulfil without using soldiers. We have already examined in detail all these Christian aspects of war and seen that none of them, when rightly understood, contained anything inconsistent with the most rigid abstention of the Christians themselves from the use of arms.

At the same time, it is easy to see that these lines of thought must have predisposed many Christians to miss the essential point when they came to consider the question of their own personal conduct. The various complications just enumerated and the absence of a unanimous or authoritative ruling on the point combined to render

Page 249

the issue far less clear to many than it would otherwise have been. This, of itself, meant that at any time after the inception of Christianity, the existence of Christian soldiers was at least a possibility.

Several other factors contributed to facilitate the actualization of this possibility. Not only was the question in some respects a complicated one; but many members of the Christian Church were, as we know, of a very simple, unintellectual, and unreflective type of mind, and shunned on principle anything in the nature of clear dialectics. Such people were peculiarly liable, in that day as in this, to draw illogical conclusions touching their conduct as Christians from Old Testament wars or from Paul's use of military similes. As a matter of fact, we learn from Tertullianus, that the Christian soldiers of his time justified their position, not by any public-spirited appeals to the obvious needs of society,(2) but by references--often of an extremely puerile kind--to Old Testament precedents. They quoted not only the wars of Joshua and the Israelites, but Moses' rod, Aaron's buckle, and John the Baptist's leather belt, just as Christians who wished to attend the circus appealed to David's example in dancing before the ark and to Elijah as the charioteer of Israel.(3)




2. Troeltsch represents the advocates of compromise in the third century as wiser than they really were, in speaking of "compromises and compositions, which recognize the necessity of these callings" (i.e. magistrates and soldiers) "for the social system, and therefore enjoin here too continuance in the calling" (Troeltsch 124: see above, p. 144 n 1).

3. See above, pp. 109, 174 f. Hence Harnack's (MC 61) criticism of Tertullianus for refusing to treat his opponents' appeal to Scripture seriously, is only partially justified. Bigg says in another connection: "It was this . . . inability to grasp the idea of progress which led to the wholesale importation of ideas and practices from the Old Testament into the Christian Church" (The Church's Task under the Roman Empire, p. 27).

Page 250

Another circumstance that operated in the same direction was the gradual and steady growth throughout the Church of a certain moral laxity, which engaged the serious and anxious attention of Christian leaders as early as the time of Hermas (140 A.D.) and had become an acute problem by the time of Pope Kallistos (216-222 A.D.): this abatement of the primitive moral rigour would naturally assist the process of conformity to the ways of the world.(4)

The same too would be the effect of the gradual waning of the eschatological hope, which, while far from constituting the true ground of the Christian refusal of military service, was yet with many a main plea for their general aloofness from worldly life.(5) And not only was the eschatological hope itself waning, but even in circumstances where it was still powerful, the Christian was reminded of the Apostolic counsel: "Let everyone remain in the calling wherein he was called"(6)--a ruling which had not yet received in any definite form the limitation which it obviously needed. The converted soldier was the more willing to give himself the benefit of this ruling, inasmuch as his withdrawal from the army on the ground of his change of religion was a process attended with no little difficulty and danger.(7) Finally, Christianity was characterized by several features, such as monotheism, absolutism, universalism, use of military language, wars in Scripture, and so on, which would naturally appeal to the military mind.(8)

There were therefore quite a large number of factors





4. De Jong 26: "the increasing worldliness of Christendom had naturally resulted in an increased number of Christian soldiers."


5. Harnack ME ii. 53; Troeltsch 111 n.



6. Harnack ME ii. 52, MC 49 f.



7. Bigelmair 177-179.


8. Harnack ME ii. 53 n 1, MC 54 f.

Page 251

at work, which combined to facilitate the conversion of soldiers to Christianity and their continuance in military life after their conversion, despite the fact that such a state of affairs conflicted in reality with the ethical demands made by the Church. The anomaly of their position was easily overlooked by the men themselves, who had become inured to their grim duties and had all their lives regarded the profession of arms as honourable.

Most of the considerations helping to justify their position to themselves would also help to secure toleration for it in the eyes of their fellow-Christians; and the inclination of these latter to disapprove would also be further checked by yet other considerations, such as the fewness of the cases involved, at any rate in early times, joy at the erection of Christ's banner in the devil's camp,(9) distance from the battlefield and easy blindness to its horrors, and lastly, that charitable leniency which naturally deters the Christian from objecting to a good many acts of a co-religionist which he would not feel justified in doing himself. It is thus that we are to account for the omission of the Church to take a decided line on this matter from the beginning. Apart from the Church-Orders, the influence of which--though probably extensive--we cannot exactly measure, we have no extant record of any attempt being made to compel soldier-converts to leave the army on baptism.

The admission of these few soldier-converts to the Church sometime, let us say, in the second century, perhaps not earlier than the reign of Marcus Aurelius, proved to be the thin end of the wedge. It constituted a precedent by which the judgment of the Church at large was imperceptibly compromised. If a Christian









9. Harnack ME ii. 53 n 2.

Page 252

who was a soldier before conversion may remain so after it, then it follows that a Christian layman might become a soldier if he wished to. That this conclusion was drawn by the end of the second century we have already seen. If a few soldiers can be tolerated in the Church, then any number can be: if a few Christians may enlist, then any number may do so. Once the beginning has been made and allowed to pass muster, the obstacles in the way of a general reversion to a stricter standard become virtually insuperable.(10)

While all this is true, it is very easy to exaggerate and misrepresent the extent of the concession which the Church made to her soldier-members. For one thing, the absence of a definite ruling on the concrete point decades before circumstances had arisen calling for such a ruling, has been interpreted, quite erroneously, as if it implied a considered judgment, on the part of the whole Church, in the direction of conformity with the ways of the world. Thus Professor Bethune-Baker refers to the centurion of Capernaum, the soldiers baptized by John, Cornelius of Caesarea, Sergius Paulus, the soldiers who defended Paul, the command in 1 Tim to pray for kings, and the words of Paul in Rom xiii, as proving that war was sanctioned by the immediate disciples of Christ.(11) Like many others who have written on the subject, he not only makes no allowance





10. "In the rapid expansion of relations and the haste of human affairs practices slide insensibly into existence and get a footing as usages, before any conscience has time to estimate them; and when they have won the sanction of prescription, they soon shape consciences to suit them, and laugh at the moral critic as a simpleton, and hurry on to the crash of social retribution" (Jas. Martineau, Essays, Reviews, and Addresses, v. 502).




11. B.-Baker ICW 16-18.

Page 253

for the immaturity of Christian thought on this topic, but recognizes no distinction between what is sanctioned for the Christian and what is sanctioned for those who have not yet reached Christianity.

If his argument is meant to show that the Christians of the first generation had come to the conclusion, after full consideration, that there was nothing in their Master's teaching which interfered with their own participation in war, then the double oversight just alluded to must be held to invalidate the argument. The attitude of laissez-faire, to which he alludes, was the attitude of those who had not yet realized that there was a problem to be solved: it is inadequate as an index even to the convictions and practice of the apostolic age, and still more so as a basis for modern Christian ethics.

Bigelmair's account of the early Christian position embodies what may well have been the plea of some of the most unintellectual of the early Christian apologists for war. He regards the abolition of war as one of the ideals foreshadowed in the Sermon on the Mount, but as unattainable even in our own day and much more so in the time of the early Church. "Besides," he says, "in the struggle for it the individual is almost powerless." From this he concludes that the apostolic dictum "Let everyone remain in the condition in which he was called" was regarded as applying to soldiers, and that that is why we find Christian soldiers in the earliest times.(12) But if the fact that a certain calling, cannot yet be abolished because the world is imperfect is sufficient to justify a Christian in pursuing it, then it is difficult to see why the sale of intoxicants, and prostitution, and even highway robbery, should not be regarded as permissible
















12. Bigelmair 164-166.

Page 254

Christian vocations.(13)

It is probable that there were in the early Church those who argued as Bigelmair does, but the argument is none the less radically unsound, and furthermore unrepresentative of the normal Christian habit of mind, both in regard to behaviour in general--for the early Church was very sensitive as to the rightfulness of the callings pursued by her members--and in regard to the particular question we are considering.

But apart from misinterpretations due to treating the silence or the laissez-faire attitude of the early Christians (which as we have seen arose largely from the immaturity of the problem and of the minds that had to solve it) as if it were the mature and deliberate judgment of men long familiar with the ins and outs of the question, we find even in the best modern authors a striking tendency to overestimate the degree of approval that was given by the Church to those of her members who took arms. Thus Bestmann, speaking of Origenes, says: "In regard to military service, his Church thought differently from her apologist."(14) Bethune-Baker: "The Christian society of the time found no cause of complaint in the fact of its members serving in the legions."(15) Bigelmair: Tertullianus "may very well have stood quite alone in his circle, somewhat as the soldier, who lays aside the crown. . . . is the only one of his many comrades."(16) Harnack: "As for the rigorous party, they hardly made anything of their prohibitions. . . . But these rigorists effected no change whatever in the actual situation"(17):

13. Cf Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1, 1 ii. 115:

Prince. "I see a good amendment of life in thee; from praying to purse-taking."

Falstaff. "Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal; 'tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation."








14. Bestmann ii. 295.

15. B.-Baker ICW 25.


16. Bigelmair 180.


17. Harnack ME ii. 53, 57.

Page 255

"these injunctions of the moralists were by no means followed in the third century,"(18) Cunningham: "Military service was uncongenial to Christians, but was not regarded as in itself wrong."(19)

All this fits in well enough with one set of facts, but is flagrantly out of keeping with another set. It underrates, in the first place, the immense compromises to which the Christian soldier was committed by his position. Apart from all question of contact with idolatry and special temptations to which his place in the army exposed him, he had not only to take the lives of his fellow-men in the indiscriminate conflicts of the battle-field and to scourge and torture prisoners in the judgment-courts, but he was not even allowed to use his own discretion as to whether this severe treatment was justified in any given circumstances: for his military oath obliged him to inflict it, not when he felt it was needed, but whenever his superior officer--usually a pagan, and possibly a cruel and unjust man as well--thought fit to order him to do so. It is impossible to believe that the early Church swallowed this enormous compromise as easily as these modern authors would have us believe.

That as a matter of actual historical fact the Church did not do so, there is abundant evidence to prove--evidence to which the statements just quoted give far too little weight. The view usually taken is that the Church as a whole sided from the first with the soldiers, and that the authors who took a different line were individual extremists, mere voices crying in the wilderness, to whom nobody paid much attention.

The reverse of this would be nearer the truth. The Christian soldiers of the time of Tertullianus were evidently under


18. Harnack MC 73.

19. Cunningham 252.


Page 256

the necessity of defending their position, and the way in which they seem to have done it does not enhance our respect for their clear-mindedness. No Christian author of our period undertook to show that Christians might be soldiers. The Church-Order of the third century forbade them to be so. Celsus, Tertullianus, Hippolutos, Origenes, Cyprianus, and Lactantius, all testify to the strength of the Christian objection to military service. If it is allowable to speak at all of a general position taken by the early Church in this matter, it will be that of the stricter rather than that of the laxer party to which we shall have to apply the term.

It is generally thought that, with the accession of Constantinus to power, the Church as a whole definitely gave up her anti-militarist leanings, abandoned all her scruples, finally adopted the imperial point of view, and treated the ethical problem involved as a closed question.(20) Allowing for a little exaggeration, this is broadly speaking true. The sign of the cross of Jesus was now an imperial military emblem, bringing good fortune and victory. The supposed nails of the cross, which the Emperor's mother found and sent to him, were made into bridle-bits and a helmet, which he used in his military expeditions.(21) In 314 A.D. the Synod of Arelate (Arles) enacted a canon which, if it did not, as many suppose, threaten with excommunication Christian soldiers who insisted on quitting the army, at least left military service perfectly free and open to Christians. (22) Athanasios, the 'father of orthodoxy,'



20. Bigelmair 201; Harnack MC 44 f, 87 ff, 91 f; De Jong 28.

21. Sokrates, Eccles Hist i. 17.

22. | Can Arel 3: De his qui arma projiciunt in pace, placuit abstineri eos a communione. Possible meanings are (1) the obvious one, excommunicating those who lay down their arms in time of peace, those who do so in time of war being punished by the military and so not coming under the Church's jurisdiction at all (Dale 238 f, 281); (2) similar, but referring the peace to that now existing between Empire and Church (Harnack MC 87 ff); (3) taking arma projicere as= arma conjicere in alium, and referring the Canon to the gladiatorial games, as Can 4 deals with charioteers and Can 5 with actors (so Hefele 186; Bigelmair 182; and--fully and strongly--De Jong 28 ff). Even on the last interpretation, the Canon implicitly permits Christians to use weapons in war-time. How far the decisions of this Synod were regarded as generally binding seems doubtful (Hefele 182; De Jong 28 n).

Page 257

declared that it was not only lawful, but praiseworthy, to kill enemies in war(23); Ambrosius of Milan spoke similarly, if less baldly(24); while Augustinus defended the same position with detailed arguments.(25) In 416 A.D. non-Christians were forbidden to serve in the army.(26)

Historians have not failed to notice, and in some cases to deplore, the immense compromise to which the Church was committed by her alliance with Constantinus. Thus Dean Milman says:


And so for the

23. Letter to Ammonios or Amun (Migne PG xxvi. 1173): "We shall find in other things that happen in life differences of a certain kind existing. For instance, it is not lawful to kill (phoneuein); but to destroy opponents in war is lawful and worthy of praise. Thus those who distinguish themselves in war are counted worthy of great honours, and pillars are erected proclaiming their achievements. So that the same (act) in one respect and when unseasonable is not lawful, in another respect and when seasonable is permitted and allowed."

24. Exposition of S. Luke, ii. 77 (Migne PL xv. 1580): John the Baptist tells "soldiers not to make a false accusation, not to demand booty, teaching that pay has been assigned to the military for this purpose, lest, while subsistence is being sought for, a plunderer should be going about. But these and others are the precepts peculiar to the several duties (of life)," but all are required to be merciful. De Officiis Ministrorum, I xxvii. 129 (Migne PL xvi. 6 1): "It will be clear that these and other virtues are related to one another. Thus for instance the bravery which guards the fatherland in war from the barbarians or defends the weak at home or (one's) allies from robbers, is full of justice," etc.

25. Migne PL xxxiii. 186 f, 531 f, 854 f, xlii. 444 ff. I owe these quotations (notes 1-3) to De Jong (50-54): cf also, for Augustinus, Gibb in British Quarterly Review, lxxiii. 83; Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, i. 347.

26. Codex Theodosianus XVI x. 21.

Page 258
first time the meek and peaceful Jesus became a God of battle, and the cross, the holy sign of Christian redemption, a banner of bloody strife.(27) This irreconcilable incongruity between the symbol of universal peace and the horrors of war, in my judgment, is conclusive against the miraculous or supernatural character of the transaction,

viz. Constantinus' vision of the cross before the battle of the Milvian Bridge. Milman adds in a footnote: "I was agreeably surprised to find that Mosheim concurred in these sentiments, for which I will readily encounter the charge of Quakerism." Then follows a quotation from Mosheim. The text above continues:


Yet the admission of Christianity, not merely as a controlling power, and the most effective auxiliary of civil government (an office not unbecoming its divine origin), but as the animating principle of barbarous warfare, argues at once the commanding influence which it had obtained over the human mind, as well as its degeneracy from its pure and spiritual origin.(28)

Lecky remarks:


When a cross was said to have appeared miraculously to Constantine, with an inscription announcing the victory of the Milvian bridge; when the same holy sign, adorned with the sacred monogram, was carried in the forefront of the Roman armies; when the nails of the cross . . . were converted by the emperor into a helmet, and into bits for his warhorse, it was evident that a great change was passing over the once pacific spirit of the Church.(29)

Bigelmair observes:


It was a long way from the cross, at the foot of which Roman soldiers had once cast lots for the garment of the Jewish misleader of the people,



27. H. H. Milman, History of Christianity ii. 287.











28. op cit 288.








29. Lecky ii. 250.

Page 259
to the cross which hovered at the head of the Roman legions as a military standard.(30)

But while the greatness and importance of this historic decision are unquestionable, we must be careful not to imagine that the capitulation of the Church to the demands of the State was more complete or decisive than was actually the case. An important piece of evidence in this connection is the existence of the various Church-Orders. Without repeating all that has already been said in regard to them, it may be observed that 'The Testament of our Lord,' which forbids a soldier to be baptized unless he leaves the service, and forbids a Christian to become a soldier oh pain of excommunication, was compiled in Syria or southeastern Asia Minor not earlier than the middle of the fourth century.(31) The Egyptian Church-Order, which lays down the same ruling, with the modification that, if a soldier has been received into membership and is commanded to kill, he is not to do it, and if he does he is to be rejected, is usually thought to belong to the first half of the fourth century.(32) The 'Hippolytean Canons,' in their present form, introduce further relaxations, but are of very uncertain, probably still later, date. The Apostolic Constitutions, in which the old stringency is really abandoned, are not earlier than the last quarter of the fourth century.(33)

The existence of these Church-Orders is conclusive proof that in large sections of the Christian community, the decision taken by official Christendom, as seen for instance in the


30. Bigelmair 8.









31. Cooper and Maclean 41-45.


32. See above, p. 120. Even if the Egyptian Church-Order be the work of Hippolutos himself, it was clearly regarded as authoritative long after his date.

33. Maclean 146, 149.

Page 260

Canons of the Synod of Arelate, was not accepted.(34) Testimony is borne to the same effect from several other quarters.

'The Disputation of Arkhelaos with Manes,' a composition belonging probably to the second quarter of the fourth century, opens with an episode, one feature of which is the rejection of the military belt by a large number of soldiers at Carchar in Mesopotamia, on being converted to Christianity through the generosity of a certain Marcellus, who ransomed a crowd of captives from them.(35) Then we have the martyrdom of Theogenes in Phrygia, under Licinius, for refusing--in the manner of Maximilianus--to allow himself to be enrolled in the legions(36); the sudden decision of the revered St. Martinus of Tours to leave the army the day before a battle (he met the taunt of cowardice by offering to stand unarmed in front of the ranks)(37); the similar step taken later by his friend, St. Victricius, afterwards archbishop of Rouen(38); the letter

34. Bigelmair says, a propos of the relaxation: "Time and circumstances demanded their rights" (172); "No generally binding force belonged to Cburch-Orders of this kind but they clearly exhibit the dispositions which prevailed in wide circles" (173): cf De Jong 39.

35. The Acta Archelai are in Routh v. 36 ff (esp. pp. 37 f); ET in ANCL xx. 272 ff. For the date, cf Harnack C ii. 163 f: we need not imagine that the story is necessarily true, but, as Harnack says, it is "yet not without value" (MC 84 n, ME ii. 63 n 1).

36. His Acta are quoted at length by De Jong 34-38. Baronius (Martyrologium Romanorum, Jan 2, note e, p. 8) records the martyrdom of Marcellinus, a youth executed by Licinius, as Baronius says, "non odio militiae . . . sed quod . . . Licinius suns milites litare praecepisset." Whether that was the only reason in this case we do not know. Licinius did persecute his Christian soldiers. Those who left his service permanently were treated with indulgence by Constantinus (Eus Vit Const ii. 33); those who had left and then rejoined were penalized by the Council of Nicaea as 'lapsi' (Hefele 417 ff; Harnack MC 91).

37. DCB iii. 839b; De Jong 40-42. De Jong also draws attention (48 f) to the fact that the popularity of the Emperor Julianus (361-363 A.D.) with the army and the support it gave him in his reversion to paganism presuppose a comparatively small proportion of Christians in it.

38. DCB iv. 1140b ("He quitted military service for conscience' sake, a desertion which entailed such maltreatment as nearly lost him his life"); De Jong 42-46 (Victricius' motive I in part at least, was 'the aversion to bloodshed'--arma sanguinis abiecisti).

Page 261

of St. Paulinus of Nola (about 400 A.D.), persuading a friend to do the same(39); the strictures passed by St. Gregorios of Nazianzus and by Khrusostomos (St. Chrysostom) on the military character(40); and lastly the opinion of St. Basilios the Great that those who had shed blood in war should abstain from communion for three years.(41)

It would carry us beyond the scope of our subject to go further in this direction; but enough has been said to show that the decision to which the leaders and the majority of the Church were committed by the patronage of Constantinus was very far from winning the immediate and unanimous assent of Christendom. It is evident that in many quarters the settlement was accepted only gradually and with an uneasy conscience.

It was in the nature of the case that this should be so. For the settlement was itself the result, not of any attempt to solve the ethical problem on its merits, but of a more or less fortuitous combination of circumstances. During the period when the conditions of life in Empire and Church relieved all but a very few of the need of making a personal decision, with the result that the problem in its different bearings dawned on the Christian mind only fragmentarily and by slow degrees--during that period, I say, the simplemindedness of some, the worldliness of others, and the charitable tolerance--not necessarily the approval--of the rest, were already silently determining what the result was to be.

The consequence was that when the triumph of

39. Migne PL lxi. 300 ff; De Jong 47 f.


40. Migne PG xxxv. 608 f, lviii. 590 f.


41. Migne PG xxxii. 681.

Page 262

Constantinus suddenly called upon the Church to come down definitely on one side of the fence or the other, she found that a free decision was no longer open to her. Her joy at the deliverance Constantinus had wrought for her was so great that it put her off her guard. She found herself compelled by the eagerness with which she had welcomed him, and by her own immaturity of thought and inconsistency of practice, to make his standards of righteousness in certain respects her own. Henceforth it was out of the question for her to insist on an ethical view and practice, on which her own mind was not completely made up, and which her great protector would inevitably regard as dangerous disloyalty to himself. Official Christianity was now committed to the sanction of war, so far as the practical conduct of Christian men as citizens was concerned, not only when they were convinced that the maintenance of righteousness demanded war--that in itself would have been a great and fundamental compromise--but in any cause, good, bad, or indifferent, for which the secular ruler might wish to fight. Further than that, the decision not only settled the practical question for the time being and doomed the dissentient voices, many and firm as they still were, to ultimate and ineffectual silence, but it tied up the freedom of Christian thought and made any unfettered discussion of the problem on its merits next to impossible for centuries to come.

The testimony of the early Church in regard to the participation of Christians in war will naturally vary very considerably in the strength of the appeal it makes to different types of Christians to-day. In view of all that we have just seen of pre-Constantinian times and

Page 263

in view of the subsequent history of Europe, it is difficult to resist the impression that the Church took a false step when she abandoned her earlier and more rigorous principles. How far the discovery of that mistake imposes upon Christians in these times the duty of correcting it--how far even the possibility of correcting it is still open to them--are questions on which opinion will be sharply divided.

It is quite true that the Christian Church stands in a very different position from that in which she stood in the first three centuries of our era. But the question is, Is there anything in that difference, is there anything in our modern conditions, which really invalidates the testimony against war as the early Christians bore it, and as Origenes defended it?

Not, we may answer, the passing away of the eschatological outlook, for the great apologia of Origenes is as independent of that outlook as any modern Christian could wish--not the development of national life and sentiment, for Christianity lifts the disciple of Christ above racial divisions and interests just as truly now, as it did then--not laws making military service compulsory, for the laws of States can never make right for the Christian what according to the higher law of the Kingdom of God is wrong for him--not his obligations to society, for these obligations he already renders in overflowing measure by the power and influence of his life and prayers as a Christian--not the breaking forth of high-handed aggression and tyranny and outrage, for these things were continually breaking forth in those early times, and the Christian now, as then, has his own appointed method of curing them, a method more radical and effectual than the use of arms and involving him in a full measure of suffering

Page 264

and self-sacrifice--not admiration for, or indebtedness to, fellow-citizens who have risked life and limb in the struggle for righteousness on the field of battle, for the right thing for a man to do has to be decided by reference to his own subjective conditions, and one can fully esteem and honour the relative good in a sub-christian course of conduct without being thereby bound to adopt it oneself--not our inability to discover at once the full meaning of Jesus' teaching for our complicated social and economic institutions, for such discovery is a lengthy process, in which one forward step at a time has to be taken, and unless the step is taken on each issue as it becomes clear, no further light is to be hoped for on the issues that are next to it in order of obscurity and complexity--not the unreadiness of the rest of the world to become Christian, for the Christian's work now as then is essentially one that has to be done by those who constitute only a portion, for the present a very small portion, of society -- not the unreadiness of the rest of the Church to become pacific, for the individual Christian with a true message must never wait until the whole Church agrees with him before he lives up to it and declares it, otherwise all promise of spiritual progress within the Church is gone--not, finally, the offence and unpopularity which the message evokes or the vastness of the obstacles that lie in its path, for the best service Christians have ever done for the world has been done under the shadow of the world's frown and in the teeth of the world's opposition.

Men of very varied opinions are in agreement to-day that the Church has failed: but the Church, unlike other religious bodies, possesses in the personal example and guidance of her Lord an ever ready corrective to bring her back from her aberrations.

Page 265

As Lecky (ii. 9) tells us:


Amid all the sins and failings, amid all the priestcraft and persecution and fanaticism that have defaced the Church, it has preserved, in the character and example of its Founder, an enduring principle of regeneration.

We can in fact measure the value of all the great reformative movements of Christendom--Franciscan, Lutheran, Puritan, Methodist, and so on--by the extent to which they embodied attempts to bring human life and conduct into closer conformity to the spirit and teaching of Jesus; and conversely, we can measure the unworthiness and harmfulness of the Church's failures, for instance, the tone of her many controversies, and the great stain of persecution, by the extent to which they involved departure from the same spirit and teaching.

Of those who accuse the Church of failure many will none the less still keep their faith in her and their hope for her; and of these again some will know clearly in which direction lies the way of amendment. It is for them to pass on to the world in its confusion and to the Church in her perplexity the knowledge that the true remedy for the most crying and scandalous evil of our time--an evil beneath which the whole human race is groaning and suffering--lies in a new and closer application to thought and life of the teaching of the Prince of Peace.