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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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Page 20, cont.


I. The first precept of which account has to be taken is Jesus' reiteration of the Mosaic commandment, Thou shalt not kill. This commandment appears in the Sermon on the Mount as the first of a series of Mosaic ordinances which, so far from being narrowed down 

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as too exacting, are either reinforced or else replaced by stricter limitations in the same direction.(1) It is included in the list of commandments which Jesus enjoined upon the ruler who asked him what he would have to do in order to inherit eternal life.(2) 'Acts of homicide' (phonoi) are mentioned by him among the evil things that issue from the heart of man.(3)

It is commonly argued that this commandment of Jesus refers only to acts of private murder, and does not apply to the taking of life in war or in the administration of public justice. It is true that the Hebrew word used in the Mosaic commandment has almost exclusively the meaning of murder proper, and is not used of manslaughter in war, and that the Mosaic Law in general certainly did not prohibit either this latter act or capital punishment.

On the other hand, it has to be noted (1) that the Hebrew word for 'murder' is used two or three times of a judicial execution,(4) (2) that the Greek word which appears in the Gospel passages quoted has the general sense of 'killing,' and is used of slaughter in war both in classical Greek(5) and in the Septuagint,(6) and (3) that, while there is undoubtedly an ethical distinction between murder or assassination on the one hand and slaughter in war on the other, there is also an ethical similarity between them, and the extension of the Mosaic prohibition to cases to which it was not 

1. Mt v. 21 ff, cf 27 f, 31-48.

2. Mt xix. 16-19 ||s.



3. Mt xv. 18-20; Mk vii. 20-23.






4. Numb xxxv. 27, of the avenger of blood slaying a murderer; ibid. 30, of the officers of justice doing so; I Kings xxi. 19, of Naboth's execution.

5. Herodot i. 11; Aiskhulos Theb 340: cf the Homeric use of phonos.

6. Exod xvii. 13; Levit xxvi. 7; Numb xxi. 24; Deut xiii. 15, xx. 13; Josh x. 28, 30, 32, 35; Isa xxi. 15.


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commonly thought to apply, but with which it was not wholly unconnected, was just such a treatment as we know Jesus imposed upon other enactments of the Jewish Law.(7)

II. Still more explicit is the well-known non-resistance teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. I quote from that version of that Sermon in Mt v:


(38) Ye have heard that it was said: 'Eye for eye' and 'tooth for tooth.' (39) But I tell you not to withstand him who is evil: but whoever strikes thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also: (40) and if anyone wishes to go to law with thee and take away thy tunic, let him have thy cloak also: (41) and whoever 'impresses' thee (to go) one mile, go two with him. (42) Give to him that asks of thee, and from him who wishes to borrow of thee, turn not away. (43) Ye have heard that it was said: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.' (44) But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (45) in order that ye may become sons of your Father who is in heaven, for He raises His sun on evil and good (alike) and rains upon righteous and unrighteous. (46) For if ye love (only) those who love you, what reward
7. B. Baker parries the force of this argument by an appeal to the well-known distinction between letter and spirit. He says (ICW 11-13): "Thus it is that Christ never seems to wish so much to assert a new truth, or a new law, as to impress upon His hearers the spiritual significance of some old truth or law; to raise them altogether out of the sphere of petty detail into the life of all-embracing principles; . . . It is essential to our understanding of Christ's meaning to observe that Fie designs to give a spiritual turn, if we may say so, to the old specific law. . . . So we cannot regard the extension which the law 'Thou shalt not kill' received from Jesus as a comprehensive denial of the right of man ever to deprive a fellow-creature--in the beautiful language of the sermon on the mount, a brother-of his earthly life." Arguing in this way, the author has no difficulty in proving that Christ "countenanced and sanctioned war" (15, 18). Something will be said later in regard to this antithesis between letter and spirit and the use here made of it (p. 23).
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have ye? do not even the taxgatherers do the same? (47) and if ye greet your brothers only, what extra (thing) do ye do? do not even the gentiles do the same? (48) Ye then shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.(8)  

Volumes of controversy have been written as to the real import and implications of these critical words, and great care is necessary in order to discover exactly how much they mean. The obvious difficulties in the way of obeying them have led to more than one desperate exegetical attempt to escape from them.

There is, for instance, the familiar plea (already alluded to) that Jesus meant his followers to adopt the spirit of his teaching, without being bound by the letter(9) -- a plea which, as has been pointed out by no less an authority than Bishop Gore, commonly results in ignoring both letter and spirit 

8. The Lucan parallel (vi. 27-36) adds to 'Love your enemies' the words: 'do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you.' Its other additions and differences are unimportant, and on the whole it has perhaps less claim to originality than the Matthaean version. It is worth remarking that the word used for enemies (echthroi) besides being used for private and personal enemies, is also used in the Septuagint, the New Testament, and elsewhere, for national foes (Gen xiv. 20, xlix. 8, Exod xv. 6, Levit xxvi. 7, 8, 17, 1 Sam iv. 3, etc., etc.; Lk i. 71, 74, xix. 43: also Orig Cels ii. 30, viii. 69).

9. Thus C. E. Luthardt (History of Christian Ethics before the Reformation, ET p. 187) criticizes Tertullianus' view that Christians ought not to wield the sword as soldiers or as magistrates as "the necessary consequence of the standpoint that makes the words of Christ which refer to the internal attitude of the disposition directly into a law for the external orders of life." Cf Magee, in The Fortnightly Review, January 1890, pp. 38 f. B. Baker's view to the same effect has already been quoted (see previous p., n 1). The reader may judge for himself how far astray the latter author's method of dealing with the teaching of Jesus leads him, from the following statement, taken from the same context (ICW 12): "The theory upon which the Inquisition acted, that physical sufferings are of no moment in comparison with the supreme importance of the spiritual welfare, is quite consonant with the tone of Christ's commands and teaching." The error here arises from the neglect of the vital distinction between the glory of enduring suffering and the guilt of inflicting it.

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alike.(10) Granting that the spirit is the more important side of the matter, we may well ask, If in our Lord's view the right spirit issues in a 'letter' of this kind, how can a 'letter' of a diametrically opposite kind be consonant with the same spirit?

Another hasty subterfuge is to say that these precepts are counsels of perfection valid only in a perfect society and not seriously meant to be practised under existing conditions.(11) The utter impossibility of this explanation becomes obvious as soon as we recollect that in a perfect state of society there would be no wrongs to submit to and no enemies to love.

A less shallow misinterpretation argues that Jesus meant this teaching to govern only the personal feelings and acts of the disciple in his purely private capacity, and left untouched his duty--as a member of society and for the sake of social welfare--to participate in the authoritative and official restraint and punishment of wrongdoers.(12) Whether or no this 

10. See Bishop Gore's article on The Social Doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount in The Economic Review for April 1:892, p. 149: "The vast danger is that we should avail ourselves of a popular misinterpretation of St. Paul's language, and observe these precepts, as we say, 'in the spirit,'--which is practically not at all in the actual details of life. . . Therefore we must apply Christ's teaching in detail to the circumstances of our day."

11. See for example Bigelmair 165: "The abolition of war and therewith the necessity of forming armies was indeed certainly one of those ideals which the Divine Master foreshadowed in the lie Sermon on the Mount and which will be reached some day in he fulness of time. But just as such an ideal appears to be still remote from our present day, so its fulfilment was unrealizable in the earliest times," etc. (see below, p. 253): cf also this author's treatment (100) of Jesus' prohibition of oaths: "The Divine Master had in the Sermon on the Mount . . . held out the abolition of all swearing as an ideal for humanity, an ideal which will first become attainable, when the other ideals of the Kingdom of God . . ., namely that unselfishness, of which the Saviour spoke in connection with the oath, shall have succeeded in getting carried out" (zur Durchfuhrung gelangt sein werden).

12. See, for instance, an article by Bishop Magee in The Fortnightly Review for January 1890 (pp. 33-46) on The State and the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Charles Mercier (The Irrelevance of Christianity and War, in The Hibbert Journal, July 1918, pp. 555-563) frankly recognizes that Jesus' teaching of gentleness cannot be harmonized with war; but be cuts the Gordian knot by dividing ethics into the Moral realm and the Patriotic realm, penning up the words of Jesus within the former as applicable only to individuals within the same community, and therefore its not forbidding war, which belongs wholly to the latter!

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interpretation be sound ethical teaching for the present day, the idea that it represents the meaning of Jesus cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. For in this very passage, Jesus exhibits society's authorized court of justice, not as duly punishing the offender whom the injured disciple has lovingly pardoned and then handed over to its jurisdiction, but as itself committing the wrong that has to be borne: "if anyone wishes to go to law with thee, and take away thy tunic," and so on.

But further than that, the Lex Talionis--that ancient Mosaic law requiring, in a case of strife between two men resulting in injury to one of them, "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe"(13) -- was no mere authorization of private revenge, permitting within certain limits the indulgence of personal resentment, but a public measure designed in the interests of society its a restraint upon wrongdoing and doubtless meant to be carried out by (or under the supervision of) the public officers of the community. Yet this law Jesus quotes for the sole purpose of forbidding his disciples to apply it. We are therefore driven to the conclusion that he regarded the duty of neighbourly love as excluding the infliction of public penalties on behalf of society, as well as the indulgence of personal resentment.(14)









13. Exod xxi. 23-25; there is some difficulty about the literary setting (see Driver's note on this passage in the Cambridge Bible), but the scope and purport of the enactment are clear.

14. Troeltsch (40) remarks, a propos of the teaching of Jesus about love: "Thus there exists for the children of God no law and no compulsion, no war and struggle, but only an untiring love and an overcoming of evil with good -- demands, which the Sermon on the Mount interprets in extreme cases."


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III. In entire harmony with this conclusion is Jesus' refusal to advance his ideals by political or coercive means. In the one corner of the Roman world where the passion for an independent national state still survived, he had no use for that passion.

As the incident of the tribute-money shows, he felt but coldly towards the fierce yearning of his fellow-countrymen for national independence and greatness, and he rejected the idea of the Messiah which was framed in conformity with these aspirations. At his Temptation, if we may so paraphrase the story, he refused to take possession of the kingdoms of the world, feeling that to do so would be equivalent to bowing the knee to Satan. It is difficult to imagine any other ground for this feeling than the conviction that there was something immoral, something contrary to the Will of God, in the use of the only means by which world-rule could then be obtained, namely, by waging a successful war.

The idea that the wrong he was tempted to commit was the indulgence of pride or an eagerness for early success does not meet the point: for was he not in any case invested by God with supreme authority over men, and was it not his life's work to bring in the Kingdom as speedily as possible? Assuming that the use of military force did not appear to him to be in itself illegitimate, why should he not have used it? Had he not the most righteous of causes? Would not the enterprise have proved in his hands a complete success? Would he not have ruled the world much better than Tiberius was doing? Why then should 

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the acquisition of political ascendancy be ruled out as involving homage to Satan? But on the assumption that he regarded the use of violence and injury as a method that was in itself contrary to the Will of God, which contained among its prime enactments the laws of love and gentleness, his attitude to the suggestion of world empire becomes easily intelligible.(15)

Other incidents bear out this conclusion. He refuses to be taken and made a king by the Galilaeans(16): he does not stir a finger to compel Antipas to release the Baptist or to punish him for the Baptist's death or to prevent or avenge any other of the many misdeeds of "that she-fox."(17) He was not anxious to exact from Pilatus a penalty for the death of those Galilaeans whose blood the governor had mingled with their sacrifices.(18) He made no attempt to constrain men to do good or desist from evil by the application of physical force or the infliction of physical injuries. He did not go beyond a very occasional use of his personal ascendancy in order to put a stop to proceedings that appeared to him unseemly.(19) He pronounces a blessing on peace-makers as the children of God and on the gentle as the inheritors of the earth.(20) He laments the ignorance of Jerusalem as to 'the (things that make) for peace.'(21) He demands the forgiveness of all injuries as the condition of receiving the divine pardon for oneself.(22)

His own conduct on the last day of his 



15. This view of the third temptation (Mt iv. 8-10 = Lk iv. 5-8) is substantially that suggested by Seeley in Ecce Homo, ch. ii.

16. John vi. 15.

17. Mk i. 14 f, vi. 14-29, etc., and parallels; Lk iii. 19 f, xiii. 31

18. Lk xiii. 1-3

19. The incident of Jesus' clearing the Temple-courts--often regarded as an exception to his usual policy of abstaining from violence--will be discussed later (see pp. 34 f).

20. Mt v. 5, 9.

21. Lk xix. 41 f (ta pros eirenen).

22. Mt vi. 12, 14 f; Mk xi. 25. The context shows that this type of forgiveness at all events is irrespective of the wrongdoer's repentance, though there may be another type which requires it (Lk xvii. 3 f; cf Mt xviii. 15-17, 21-35).

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life is the best comment on all this teaching. He does not try to escape, he offers no resistance to the cruelties and indignities inflicted upon him, and forbids his followers to strike a blow on his behalf.(23) He addresses mild remonstrances to the traitor and to his captors,(24) and at the moment of crucifixion prays to God to pardon his enemies: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."(25)

IV. The words in which Jesus expressed his 'disapproval of gentile authority' point in the same direction.


Ye know that those who are reckoned to rule over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men overbear them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life (as) a ransom for many.(26)  

The service rendered by the Master was thus to be the pattern of that rendered by the disciples. That this service did not mean the abnegation of all authority as such is clear from the fact that Jesus himself exercised authority over his disciples and others,(27) and furthermore expected the former to exercise it as leaders of his Church.(28) What sort of authority then was Jesus condemning in this passage? What difference was there between the authority of the gentile ruler and that of himself and his apostles? Surely this, that the latter rested on spiritual ascendancy 



23. Mt xxvi. 51 f ||s; John xviii. 36.

24. Mt xxvi. 50 ||; John xviii. 22 f.

25. Lk xxiii. 34.







26.   Mk x. 42-45 ||s.



27. Mt xi. 27, xxiii. 10, xxviii. 18; John xiii. 13.

28. Mt v. 5, xvi. 19, xviii. 17 f, xxiv. 45-47, xxv. 21, 23; Lk xix. 17, 19.


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and was exercised only over those who willingly submitted to it, whereas the former was exercised over all men indiscriminately whether they liked it or not, and for this reason involved the use of the sanctions of physical force and penalties. There can be no doubt that it was this fact that caused Jesus to tell his disciples: "It is not so among you."

V. Further evidence to the same effect is furnished by three incidental utterances of Jesus.

(a) The first of these occurs in the episode, of the adulteress who was brought to Him for judgment--an admittedly historical incident.(29) The Pharisees who brought her were quite right in saying that the Law of Moses required the infliction of the death-penalty as a punishment for her offence.(30) With all his reverence for the Mosaic Law and his belief in its divine origin,(31) Jesus here refuses to have any hand in giving effect to it, and sets it on one side in favour of an altogether different method of dealing with the guilty party. "Neither do I condemn thee," he says to her, "go, and sin no more."(32) The incident reveals the determination of Jesus to take no part in the use of physical violence in the judicial punishment of wrongdoers.

(b) The second utterance expresses a corresponding disapproval of participation in warfare on the part of his disciples. It occurs in his apocalyptic discourse, in which he






29. John vii. 53-viii. 11: cf Moffatt INT 555 f.

30. Levit xx. 10; Deut xxii. 22-24.

31. Mk vii. 8-13 ll.

32. Compare Jesus' announcement--perhaps literally meant--that he had been sent "to proclaim release to captives and restoration of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed at liberty" (Lk iv. 18), and his words in the Sermon on the Mount about judging others (Mt vii. 1 f; Lk vi. 37 f: the Lucan version has a distinctly legal ring about it). His refusal to be 'a Judge and divider' in a case of disputed inheritance (Lk xii. 13 f) may have an indirect bearing on the subject.

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depicts the devastation of Judaea and the defilement of the Temple at the hands of a foreign foe, and bids his followers in the midst of these distresses 'flee to the mountains.'(33) It is true that too much ought not to be built on this saying; for it occurs in a highly problematical context, and many scholars refuse to regard it as an actual utterance of Jesus at all,(34) and the whole passage, even if authentic, is not very easily explained. Still, if it be a fact that Jesus anticipated a gentile attack on Judaea and Jerusalem, and bade his followers flee instead of resisting it, that fact is not without significance for the question before us.

(c) The third utterance forbids the use of the sword in a case which, in many respects, appeals most strongly to the modern mind, namely, the defence of others. When Jesus was being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter drew a sword on his Master's behalf and attacked one of the High Priest's servants. Jesus, however, checked him: "Put back thy sword into its place: for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword."(35) It is only by an unreal isolation of the events of Jesus' passion from the operation of all the usual moral and spiritual laws which govern humanity, that one can deny some sort of general application to the words here used. The circumstances of the case were of course in a measure special, but so is every incident in actual life: and, inasmuch as the grim truth with which Jesus supported his injunction was perfectly general, one



33. Mk xiii. 2, 7-9, 14-20 ||s; cf Lk xvii. 31-37.

34. On the theory that Mk xiii contains (7 f, 14-20, 24-27) a 'little apocalypse,' dating from 60-70 A. D., see Moffatt INT 207-209.






35. Mt xxvi. 51 ff: cf Lk xxii. 50f; John xviii. 10 f, 36 (Jesus says to Pilatus: "If my Kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, in order that I should not he handed over to the Jews: but now my Kingdom is not from thence").

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might reasonably argue that the injunction itself was more than an order meant to meet a particular case, and had in it something of the universality of a general principle of conduct.(36)

To sum up, whatever may be thought of the weakness or the strength of any one of the various arguments that have just been adduced, it can hardly be questioned that, in conjunction with one another, they constitute a strong body of evidence for the belief that Jesus both abjured for himself and forbade to his disciples all use of physical violence as a means of checking or deterring wrongdoers, not excluding even that use of violence which is characteristic of the public acts of society at large as distinct from the individual. On this showing, participation in warfare is ruled out as inconsistent with Christian principles of conduct.(37)

36. The question has been asked, how Peter came to be carrying a sword at all, if his Master discountenanced the use of weapons (J. M. Lloyd 1 Thomas, The Immorality of Non-resistance, p. ix: E. A. Sonnenschein, in The Hibbert Journal, July 1915, pp. 865 f). The answer is that Peter may very well have failed to understand his Master's real meaning (particularly perhaps the 'two swords' saying--which we shall discuss presently), and, apprehending danger, may have put on a sword without Jesus noticing it.

37. Well may a present-day scholar, not himself a pacifist, say "I think, then, it must in fairness be admitted that there is a real case for the plea of the conscientious objector that Jesus totally forbade war to his followers. . . . I cannot shut my eyes to the possibility that Jesus Himself may have been a pacifist" (Dr. A. S. Peake, Prisoners of Hope, pp. 28, 30).