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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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The natural counterpart of the Christian disapproval of war was the conception of peace as being of the very stuff and substance of the Christian life.

Peace, of course, meant a number of different things to the early Christian. It meant reconciliation between himself and God; it meant the stilling of turbulent passions and evil desires in his own heart; it meant the harmony and concord that normally reigned within the Christian community; it meant (to Paul, for instance, in writing 'Ephesians') the reconciliation of Jew and gentile; it meant immunity from annoyance and persecution at the hands of pagans; it meant also freedom from the distractions, toils, and dangers of actual war.

Little purpose would be served by attempting an analysis of all occurrences of the word 'peace' in early Christian literature according to the particular shade of meaning in each case, with the object of dissolving out the exact amount said about peace as the antithesis and correlative of war. The result would be little more than a general impression of the Christian inclination towards, and approval of, peace. That fact in itself is not without significance: for, while there are many places in which peace is mentioned without any apparent reference to the military calling--for instance, where Peter, shortly before baptizing the centurion Cornelius, gave him the pith of the Christian gospel as "the word which God sent to the sons of Israel, giving the good news of peace 

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through Jesus Christ"(1) -- yet the close and repeated identification of Christianity with peace even in a vague sense (e.g., in the opening and closing salutations of letters, and in phrases like 'the God of Peace') has an important bearing on the Christian attitude to war, particularly in view of the many direct and explicit allusions we find to peace in the military sense.

It will be sufficient for our present purpose to quote only a few of the more explicit passages. Paul, for instance, tells the Romans "If possible, as far as lies in your power, be at peace with all men"(2): similarly, the author of Hebrews: "Pursue peace with all (men)."(3) The evangelist 'Matthew' quotes the words of Jesus: "Happy are the peace-makers"(4); and Luke tells us that at the birth of Jesus the host of angels sang: "Glory in the highest to God and on earth peace among men whom He favours,"(5) and represents Zacharias as praying God "to guide our feet into (the) way of peace."(6)

In the liturgical prayer at the end of the epistle of Clemens of Rome occurs a petition for world-wide peace among men generally: "Give concord and peace to us and to all who inhabit the earth, as Thou gavest to our fathers."(7) Then he prays specially for the rulers:


Give them, Lord, health, peace, concord, stability, that they may administer without offence the government given to them by Thee. . . . Do Thou, Lord, direct their counsel . . . in order that they, administering piously with peace and gentleness the authority given them by Thee, may find favour with

1. Ac x. 36, 48.






2. Rom xii. 18.

3. Heb xii. 14

4. Mt v. 9.

5. Lk ii. 14: are the anthropoi eudokias men generally, or Christians only, or Jews?

6. Lk i. 79; cf the reference to national enemies in vv. 71, 74.


7. I Clem lx. 4.


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Ignatius exclaims: "Nothing is better than peace, by which all war of those in heaven and those on earth is abolished."(9) A Christian Elder quoted by Eirenaios said that King Solomon "announced to the nations that peace would come and prefigured the reign of Christ."(10) Justinus told the Emperors that the Christians were the best allies and helpers they had in promoting peace,(11) on the ground that their belief in future punishment and in the omniscience of God provided a stronger deterrent from wrongdoing than any laws could do.

The Christian Church appropriated to itself that old prophecy, found both in Isaiah and Micah, of the abolition of war in the Messianic age.


And many peoples shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and convict many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-knives; nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.(12)


This prophecy is quoted, in whole or in part, by a succession of Christian writers, who all urge that it is being fulfilled in the extension of Christianity, the adherents of which are peace-loving people, who do not make war. Thus Justinus quotes it in his Apology, and goes on:


And that this has happened, ye can be persuaded. For from Jerusalem

8. I Clem lxi. 1 f.


9. Ig E xiii. 2.


10. Eiren IV xxvii. i (ii. 240): the reference is apparently to Ps. lxxii. 7.

11. Just I Ap xii. I: 'Arogoi d'umin kai summachoi pros eirenen esmen panton mallon anthropon.









12. Isa ii. 3 f; cf Mic iv. 2 f.


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twelve men went out into the world, and these (were) unlearned, unable to speak; but by (the) power of God they told every race of men that they had been sent by Christ to teach all (men) the word of God. And we, who were formerly slayers of one another, not only do not make war upon our enemies, but, for the sake of neither lying nor deceiving those who examine us, gladly die confessing Christ.(13)  

He quotes it again in his Dialogue with Truphon the Jew, and insists in opposition to the Jewish interpretation that it is already being fulfilled: "and we," he goes on,


who had been filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness, have each one--all the world over--changed the instruments of war, the swords into ploughs and the spears into farming instruments, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.(14)

Eirenaios quotes it, and comments upon it as follows:


If therefore another law and word, issuing from Jerusalem, has thus made peace among those nations which received it, and through them convinced many a people of folly, it seems clear that the prophets were speaking of someone else (besides Jesus). But if the law of liberty, that is, the Word of God, being proclaimed to the whole earth by the Apostles who went out from Jerusalem, effected a change to such an extent that (the nations) themselves wrought their swords and lances of war into ploughs and changed them into sickles, which He gave for reaping corn, (that is), into instruments of peace, and if they now know not how to fight, but, (when they are) struck, offer the other cheek also, (then) the prophets






13. Just I Ap xxxix. 1-3.







14. Just Dial 109 f (728 f).


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did not say this of anyone else, but of him who did it. Now this is our Lord . . . 


Tertullianus quotes it, and asks:


Who else therefore are understood than ourselves, who, taught by the new law, observe those things, the old law--the abolition of which the very action (of changing swords into ploughs, etc.) proves was to come--being obliterated? For the old law vindicated itself by the vengeance of the sword, and plucked out eye for eye, and requited injury with punishment; but the new law pointed to clemency, and changed the former savagery of swords and lances into tranquillity, and refashioned the former infliction of war upon rivals and foes of the law into the peaceful acts of ploughing and cultivating the earth. And so . . . the observance of the new law and of spiritual circumcision has shone forth in acts of peaceful obedience.(16)  


He quotes it again clause by clause in his treatise against Markion, inserting comments as he goes along:


'And they shall beat their swords into ploughs, and their spears into sickles,' that is, they shall change the dispositions of injurious minds and hostile tongues and every (sort of) wickedness and blasphemy into the pursuits of modesty and peace. 'And nation shall not take sword against nation,' namely, (the sword) of dissension. 'And they shall not learn to make war any more,' that is, to give effect to hostile feelings: so that here too thou mayest learn that Christ is promised not (as one who is) powerful in war, but (as) a bringer of peace;

and he goes on to insist that it is Christ who must be referred 


15. Eiren IV xxxiv. 4 (ii. 271 f). Cf the use made by Eirenaios of Isa xi. 6-9 in Demonstr 61 (35).










16. Tert Jud 3 (ii. 604): the last words are in pacis obsequia eluxit.


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to.(17) He adverts to the prophecy again a little later: "And then 'they beat their swords into ploughs . . . ,' that is, minds (that were) once wild and savage they change into feelings (that are) upright and productive of good fruit."(18) Origenes quotes it:


To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have (for) a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take 'sword against a nation,' nor do we learn 'any more to make war,' having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of (following) the ancestral (customs) in which we were strangers to the covenants.(19)  

It is quoted in the Pseudo-Cyprianic treatise 'Against the Jews' and in the 'Dialogus de Recta Fidei' as a reference to the state of affairs inaugurated by Christ.(20) Lastly, Eusebios quotes it -- after referring to the multiplicity of rulers in pre-Christian times and the consequent frequency of wars and universality of military training--as prophesying the change that was actually introduced at the advent of Christ. True, he conceives the fulfilment to lie--in part at least--in the unification of all governments in that of Augustus and the resultant cessation of conflicts; but he goes on to point out that, while the demons goaded men into furious wars with one another, "at the same time, by our Saviour's most pious and most peaceful teaching, the destruction of polytheistic error 

17. Tert Marc iii. 21 (ii. 351).


18. Tert Marc iv. I (ii. 361).







19. Orig Cels v. 33. What exactly Origenes means by tas polemikas emon logikas machairas kai ubristikas I do not know: anyhow, the reference to actual warfare is clear.

20. Ps-Cypr Jud 9; Adamant i. 10.


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began to be accomplished, and the dissensions of the nations immediately began to find rest from former evils. Which (fact)," he concludes, "I regard as a very great proof of our Saviour's divine and irresistible power."(21)

Resuming our account of the various laudatory allusions of Christian authors to peace, we find Athenagoras saying to the Emperors: "By your sagacity the whole inhabited world enjoys profound peace."(22) Clemens of Alexandria says of the Christians: "We are being educated, not in war, but in peace"; "We, the peaceful race" are more temperate than "the warlike races"; among musical instruments, "man is in reality a pacific instrument," the others exciting military and amorous passions; "but we have made use of one instrument, the peaceful word only, wherewith we honour God."(23)

Tertullianus, defending the Christian meetings, asks: "To whose danger did we ever meet together? What we are when we are separated, that we are when we are gathered together: what we are as individuals, that we are as a body, hurting no one, troubling no one"(24): he calls the Christian "the son of peace."(25) The devil, says Hippolutos, "knows that the prayer of the saints produces peace for the world."(26) The Pseudo-Melitonian Apologist prescribed the knowledge and fear of the one God as the only means by which a kingdom could be peaceably governed.(27) The Bardesanic 'Book of the Laws of the Countries' foretold the coming 



21. Eus PE 10b-11a, cf 179ab.



22. Athenag Legat I (892), cf 37 fin (972).



23. Clem Paed I xii. 98 fin, II ii. 32, iv. 42.




24. Tert Apol 39 (i. 478).

25. Tert Cor 11 (ii. 92).

26. Hipp. Dan III xxiv. 7.

27. Ps-Mel 10 (ANCL xxiib. 121.)

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of universal peace as a result of the dissemination of new teaching and by a gift from God.(28) In the Pseudo-Justinian 'Address to the Greeks,' the Word of God is invoked as: "O trumpet of peace to the soul that is at war!"(29) Commodianus says to the Christian: "Make thyself a peace-maker to all men."(30) Cyprianus commends patience as that which "guards the peace."(31)

Arnobius tells the pagans:


It would not be difficult to prove that, after Christ was heard of in the world, those wars, which ye say were brought about on account of (the gods') hatred for our religion, not only did not increase, but were even greatly diminished by the repression of furious passions. For since we--so large a force of men--have received (it) from his teachings and laws, that evil ought not to be repaid with evil, that it is better to endure a wrong than to inflict (it), to shed one's own (blood) rather than stain one's hands and conscience with the blood of another, the ungrateful world has long been receiving a benefit from Christ, through whom the madness of savagery has been softened, and has begun to withhold its hostile hands from the blood of a kindred creature. But if absolutely all who understand that they are men by virtue, not of the form of their bodies, but of the power of their reason, were willing to lend an ear for a little while to his healthful and peaceful decrees, and would not, swollen with pride and arrogance, trust to their own senses rather than to his admonitions, the whole world would long ago have turned the uses of iron to milder works and be living in the softest tranquillity, and would have come together in healthy concord


28. ANCL xxiib. III.

29. Ps-Just Orat 5.

30. Commod Instr ii. 22.

31. Cypr Bon Pat 20: cf Clem Hom iii. 19, Recog ii. 27-31.


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without breaking the sanctions of treaties.(32)

The martyr Lucianus told the judge at Nicomedia that one of the laws given by Christ to Christians was that they should "be keen on peace."(33)

It might of course be urged that these expressions or at least the bulk of them voiced the sentiments of a community that bore no political responsibility and had been disciplined by no political experience. "The opinions of the Christians of the first three centuries," says Lecky, "were usually formed without any regard to the necessities of civil or political life; but when the Church obtained an ascendancy, it was found necessary speedily to modify them."(34)

It must of course be frankly admitted that the passages we have quoted do not explicitly handle the ultimate problems with which the philosophy of war and penal justice has to deal: but it is quite another question whether the policy of conduct dictated by what many might consider this blind attachment to peace and this blind horror of war did not involve a better solution of those problems than had yet been given to the world. The modifications of which Lecky speaks were due to other causes than the enlargement of the Church's vision and experience. The grave relaxation of her early moral purity had a good deal to do with it: and, as we shall see later, the early Church was not without at least one competent thinker who was fully equal to giving a good account of the peace-loving views of himself and his brethren in face of the objections raised by the practical pagan critic.

32. Arnob i. 6: the general prevalence of peace since the time of Christ is alluded to by Methodios (Symp x. i fin).

33. Routh iv. 6 (studere paci).





34. Lecky ii. 39.