War and the justification of war has been a major topic in Christian history. As such, we will have a large quantity of history to discuss. First, we will go through the Scriptural history of warfare. Next, we will examine the history of ancient Christian thought on the topic, concluding with the development of the medieval Just War Theory. Finally, we will move into a philosophical debate to analyze this evidence, drawing our conclusions.
Scripture records a peaceful, idyllic Eden in Genesis 1-2: a garden in which man is innocent, God walks among His creations physically, and neither the blood of humans or animals is shed. Following the Fall of Man, however (Gen 3), violence begins to spread rapidly, eventually resulting in the Flood. After the Flood, God invokes a law requiring that anyone who sheds the blood of another man will be executed by his fellow men (Gen 9:5-6).
However, in all of Biblical history prior to Abraham, we have no guidance on warfare. We do have one example, however, of God choosing to punish wicked nations through natural disaster (the Flood).
Warfare and the Patriarchs
It is with the Patriarchs of ancient Judaism that we begin to see warfare in the Bible.
We first learn of organized military action under the leadership of Abraham. We see in Genesis 14:14 that Abraham had a standing army of 318 warriors, which were used at his discretion. The first example we ever see of war is when several kings rebel against Kedorlaomer of Elam to establish their independence; in the course of this battle, Abraham’s nephew Lot was kidnapped. Abraham sent his men in to free Lot (Gen 14:13-16). God obviously did not disagree with this action; in fact, His priest Melchizedek said that God delivered the enemies into Abraham’s hand, thus indicating Godly acceptance of the recovery mission (Gen 14:20). God would “sign” His covenant with Abraham in the next chapter.
Other than this one rescue mission, however, we see little warfare during Abraham’s time. We do, however, see many interesting matters of State, including:
• Abraham sacrifices land without a fight, drawing up new borders to ensure a secure peace with Lot (Gen 13)
• A diplomatic treaty is signed between Abraham and Abimelech to avoid warfare (Gen 20-21)
There are no other examples of warfare during Abraham’s life. So with Abraham we see a statesman who used diplomacy to deliver peace (even at the sacrifice of his own lands), but did resort to violence in order to free a kinsman wrongfully imprisoned.
The same continues with Isaac, when he inherits Abraham’s kingdom. When peace with Abimelech is threatened because of Isaac’s growing power, Isaac agrees to abandon his lands in order to secure peace (Gen 26:17), and makes peace treaties just as did his father (Gen 26:28-29).
The other patriarchs have similar history. Despite the famous bloodshed of the Old Testament, most of the Patriarch history is filled with peace treaties and self-sacrifice by nations. Jacob and Esau negotiate peace rather than war (Gen 33); when Jacob’s sons avenge the rape of Dinah by waging war against the city of the rapists, Jacob rebukes them (Gen 34:30).
We see no other wars in the Patriarchal history. Joseph’s reign in Egypt appears to be peaceful, as far as we can tell.
Conclusion: the Patriarchs of ancient Judaism were very non-violent. In the entire history from Abraham to Moses (c. 2000 BC – c 1500 BC), we see only one war (a rescue mission). In the case of the rescue mission, the Bible records that God delivered the enemies to Abraham. In all other cases, diplomacy was used to negotiate peace treaties, even if it cost the Patriarchs land.
War under the Mosaic Covenant
The Old Testament becomes more involved in warfare as we enter the Mosaic Covenant and the establishment of the nation of Israel. In Exodus, Moses gathers the Hebrews together and flees Egypt. God intervenes to destroy Pharaoh’s armies. During their travels, God chooses to keep the Israelites away from the Philistines (Ex 13:17) to avoid warfare.
In Exodus 17, the Amelekites attacked the Israelites, and the Israelites fight back in defense. God miraculously intervenes here as well (Ex 17:10-13), though the Israelites are involved in a great deal of bloodshed in self-defense. God promises that future punishments of the Amelekites would come from Him (v.14-17).
Beginning in Exodus 20, God establishes the Mosaic Covenant, in which He promises to take privileged care of the Jews at Sinai and their descendents, in return for their allegiance to His Laws. (Note, then, that all things which occur in the Mosaic Covenant apply only to orthodox Jews and the establishment of their State.)
In the Mosaic Covenant, God establishes a variety of laws and their punishments, both capital and non-capital. He establishes a theocratic government. Then, God promises to be the primary warrior for the Israelites against their opponents: He will provide a variety of natural disasters and miracles to protect them (though they, too, will have to pick up the sword and fight to drive out the evil inhabitants of their future land).
Under the Mosaic Covenant, for the first time we see God approving of (and sometimes even commanding) attacks and warfare. These battles were hand-to-hand, bloody affairs, and not for the faint of heart. Entire populations were often wiped out, including women and children, at God’s command. It is generally this period which is used by Christians to justify warfare, or by atheists to decry God as hateful. (It is true that it appears most of the cultures God sends the Hebrews against are evil—child-sacrificers, rapists, and bloodthirsty savages—but they are people nonetheless. And it is hard to justify in any case the slaughter of children.)
The history of Israel continues to be bloody for about five centuries, until David ascends to the throne. David is the great Israeli king, a warrior-poet, the man who unites Israel into a defensible nation and introduces a revival of Godly spirit; indeed, he wrote the majority one of the most-quoted books of the Bible (Psalms).
However, here we begin to see some hints that the bloody history of Israel (though perhaps necessary to establish Israel’s kingdom, per God’s covenant with Moses) is not what God intends for mankind at large. David—despite having engaged in many battles as commanded by God—is forbidden from building a house of worship to God; rather, Solomon (whose hands are not bloody) is allowed to do so (1 Chr 22:7-9).
As the nation of Israel became more solid, the God-commanded warfare ceased. Most of God’s later interactions were spiritual in nature: sending prophets to save Israel spiritually, or failing to assist Israel’s defense against nations like Babylon, because of the sinfulness of Israel.
War and Jesus
Jesus the Nazarene preached approximately from 30 -33 AD, establishing a new layer of Jewish ethics. Not much that Jesus taught was philosophically groundbreaking (most of it had been said before in the Old Testament, in one form or another), but His application of it, and personal claims, were astonishing. What made Jesus astonishing was that He taught an ethic of extremist love (particularly in the Sermon on the Mount), and stated that He would create a New Covenant with all mankind; He claimed this right as the Son of God and Mediator between man and God.
Jesus’ famous Sermon is, frankly, the greatest work of mercy preaching in history, and is a cornerstone (rightly so) of pacifist philosophy. He called the weak and humble powerful in God’s eyes. He blessed those who made peace rather than war. He taught that we must forgive and love our enemies as though they were friends. He taught that we must be willing to be insulted, beaten, even murdered without striking back. He taught that we were to care for those less fortunate. He said that hatred was equivalent to murder. He denied His followers the right to sue but instead preferred out-of-court settlements. He embraced loaning without expectation of return. He taught nonviolent resistance, rather than taking up the sword. He teaches that His followers should embrace all men of all races and all nations; that our home is in heaven and that earthly struggles are not our concern.
However, it is noteworthy as well that Jesus never explicitly discusses war, or the participation in it. The New Testament never, in fact, discusses war negatively at all. Jesus does not rebuke the Roman centurion, instead calling him a man of great faith (Lk 7:9). Paul does not rebuke military leader Sergius Paulus when preaching to him (Acts 13:6-12). Peter likewise did not rebuke Cornelius, another Roman centurion, but rather converted him to the faith (Acts 10-11). Paul baptized a soldier serving as a jailor (Acts 16:24-34). The New Testament, even while shifting a number of Mosaic Covenant laws into the New Covenant, never discusses warfare at all.
Without a doubt, we may agree that engaging in warfare and bloodletting is high against the thrust of Jesus’ beliefs, but we do not have sufficient evidence to conclude that He condemns all acts of warfare.
Taken in the context of discussing several thousand years of Ancient Near East history, the Bible talks relatively little about warfare. It is clear both from the teachings of Jesus, the idyllic Garden of Eden, and God’s anger at the time of the Flood that God disdains the spilling of human blood and violence in general. Throughout the patriarchal history (from the time of Adam until about 1500 BC), we see virtually no record of warfare being conducted (though all of the Hebrew patriarchs did maintain standing armies); only a single military action is spoken of positively during this period, and it is a rescue mission in defense of a family member.
It is when the Mosaic Covenant is signed that the often-disdained warrior-God emerges. God agrees to protect Israel and establish the Promised Land for them to inhabit; in the process, God approves of (and sometimes instigates) a number of bloody battles.
Looking at the entire history of the Scripture, we cannot definitively conclude a consistent and thorough ethic of warfare based purely upon the Scripture. We believe that we can say, however, that the widespread acceptable wars establishing Israel in the Mosaic Covenant are the exception of Scripture rather than the rule. (This belief is supported further by God's refusal to allow David to build His temple.) Furthermore, any war-related commandments therein would be applicable only to orthodox Jews.
If one removes the Mosaic Covenant commands and takes an honest look at the history of the Adamic Covenant, Noahic Covenent, patriarchal history, and ethics of Jesus, we must conclude the following: God prefers peace. Strongly. In the entirety of the Bible outside the Mosaic Covenant, there exists only one battle (of which I am aware) that meets God’s explicit approval, and that is a rescue mission after an invasion. In all other cases, God prefers diplomatic peace, even at the required sacrifice of lands.
Therefore, I would describe the Scriptural stance as one of practical pacifism: that is, the default position of Scripture is one of pacifism, with exceptions only in rare cases and with Godly influence.
Early Christian thought on warfare begins with the early church fathers and then evolves somewhat as we approach the Middle Ages. We will discuss briefly the Christian thought up through Thomas Aquinas.
The Early Church Fathers
There was some variation among early church thought as to pacifism or warfare. We will divide early Christians into pacifists and non-pacifists.
• Justin Martyr, the first Christian scholar and apologist and a major representative of early Christian philosophy, stated that Christians no longer take part in war (First Apology, XXXIX).
• Tertullian, one of the greatest writers in early Christianity, was a moderate pacifist for most of his career and an extreme pacifist after converting to the Montanist sect.
• Athenagorus, a Christian philosopher who defended Christians from charges of atheism, stated that Christians cannot watch a lawful execution, support abortion, or fight in retribution (A Plea for the Christians, I)
• Minucius Felix, a Roman lawyer and Christian apologist, said that Christians were so averse to seeing blood spilled that they could not even hear or see a human death (Octavius, XXX)
• Cyprian, a leader of the African church, considered war to be nothing but murder on a grander scale (Ad Donatum, VI:10)
• Lactantius was a teacher of rhetoric who converted to Christianity (though it should be noted that his grasp of Christian scripture is notably poor). He was also a pacifist until Constantine gained power, and then switched his philosophy.
• Clement of Alexandria, the first great Christian scholar, frequently used military terminology in his works. He argues, similarly to Paul, that the Christian life can be lived in whatever occupation or condition God found you during salvation. Thus, he says that if you became a Christian while in the military, you should continue to serve your commanding officer (Exhortation to the Greeks, X). However, he also opposes women in warfare and states that "we wish even the men to be peaceble." Thus, though Clement allowed exceptions, his preference was for men not to be involved in the military (Stromata).
• Ireneaus, another great Christian scholar, also used military analogies and allusions, though never explicitely endorsed or denied participation in war. We list him here as "tentatively non-pacifist."
• Origen, the greatest intellectual and a major influence on medieval Christianity, was not a pacifist. In his masterpiece, Contra Celsum, he reveals that his is moderately non-pacifist. He has no objection to Christians taking part in warfare, but only as chaplains, not as soldiers. (Contra Celsum, VIII)
As in modern days, ancient Christians had a mix of feelings about wartime activities. In general, they avoided war and most Christian founders were strongly pacifist, saying that military service is unacceptable. All early Christians seem to prefer the avoidance of miliary service and denounce the majority of wars; if military service is required, it should be in a chaplain role. Overall we must conclude that the early Christians were strongly pacifist, with only the rarest of exceptions allowed.
Medieval Christian Thought: the Just War Theory
As Christianity began to spread and became a political authority as well, situations arose in which Christians began to believe that the strict pacifism of the early church fathers was impractical. Medieval Christian thinkers began developing an ethic of warfare which has come to be called “Just War Theory”. Its major contributors are Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Just War Theory is the attempt by Christians to balance the abhorrence of shedding blood with the practical reality that bloodshed might be able to reduce worse bloodshed. Just War Theory is now an official doctrine of the Catholic faith, commonly used by Protestants, and is frequently used in political circles when debating the legitimacy of a war.
Now it must be stated that Just War Theory’s “default” position is that of avoiding war: it has become common among pro-war advocates today to twist Just War Theory in such a manner as to justify practically any action, but this is not the intention of the philosophy. The basis behind medieval Just War Theory is that going to war is the exception, not the rule; war can only be engaged in if the certain criteria are strictly met do we have a moral exception allowing us to engage in war. If any cannot be strictly proven, then we must not engage in war; we must err on the side of preserving human life.
These basic principles are, as described by the Catholic Church:
• the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the victim must be lasting, grave, and certain;
• all other means of putting an end to the aggression must have been exhausted;
• there must be serious likelihood of success (no “suicide missions”); and
• the evils, deaths, and bloodshed produced by the action must be less than the evils, deaths, and bloodshed which are certain to result from inaction.
Many cited Just War Theory at the outset of the Iraq War of 2003, saying that the horrors perpetrated by Hussein on the Kurds, combined with his likely (based upon CIA reports) possession of weapons of mass destruction, justified war. But can Christian Just War Theory be satisfied in this case? Did the U.S. truly exhaust all other means of ending the problem? Were we certain that failure to invade would result in a lasting and grave damage? Did we know enough about the expected damage to ensure that the bloodshed produced by the invasion would be less than the bloodshed produced by non-invasion? I would argue that we were incapable of demonstrating these three points of Just War Theory when invading Iraq in 2003. Furthermore, does not the identification of the enemy as an "aggressor" in Just War Theory imply that preemptive strikes are not acceptable? It is for this reason that we must reject the justification for the Iraq War of 2003, whereas we would accept the justification for the Gulf War of 1991.
In summary, we see the following history stances on war for the Christian:
• Most of Scripture can be defined as practical pacifism – it is generally pacifist and allows war only in the most extreme of circumstances. The Scripture implies that it is good to take extreme measures of diplomacy, including the sacrifice of lands if necessary, to secure lasting peace.
• For those associated with the Mosaic Covenant, God seems to imply a support for Israel to use war to enforce its boundaries, if and only if Israel is dedicated to God and loyal to His commandments. This allowance for war seems to apply exclusively to an orthodox Israel establishing national boundaries.
• Most early Christians practiced true pacifism, being encouraged not to be a member of any military unit or, if they were, to serve in a chaplain role.
• As Christianity grew into a political entity, it embraced Just War Theory to allow warfare in cases where the bloodshed was necessary to prevent wider-spread issues.
Therefore, we determine the following rules of warfare, which will call the Christian War Theory:
The Christian War Theory
War is antithetical to the Christian cause, and brings about death often on a wide scale. Thus, we see Scripture and tradition as imposing the following rules upon the Christian for war:
• Because Christians have no control over military decision-making of their superiors, a Christian should avoid joining the military if at all possible, so as to ensure that he will not be forced to take human life.
• If a Christian is drafted into the military his service is a matter of honor; however, he should require service in non-violent operations (chaplain, medic, non-strategic administration, or the like).
• Christians must prefer diplomacy and peaceful resistance whenever possible. This is applicable even if the lasting peace can only be bought at the sacrifice of land or economic advantage by the Christian.
• Christians can approve of war if and only if all of the following criteria are strictly met:
1. The nation being attacked must have acted in aggression;
2. The aggressor must be inflicting damage which is lasting, grave, and certain;
3. All diplomatic, economic, and other peaceful means of ending the aggression must have been fully exhausted;
4. There must be a likelihood of success;
5. The bloodshed produced by the resistance must be less than the bloodshed produced by not resisting; and
6. Innocent loss of life must be able to be minimized by the action.
We believe that the rules listed above allow us the greatest possible adherence to the ethics of Jesus and the non-Mosaic Biblical record on warfare, while still allowing for the practical reality that warfare does exist.