WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland
It is difficult to understand how the oracles
of the Latter Prophets of Israel, demand-ing the repudiation of war, continued
to co-exist in the scriptures with religious calls to arms. And because there
are no extant records from antiquity that supplement the biblical record, it is
not possible to trace the ways in which the pacifism espoused by the Latter
Prophets was eroded.
But the history of Christianity does supply
the king of ongoing record that shows how a gradual rejection of nonviolence can
take place. The record shows that the pacifism preached by Jesus was eroded by
the exceptions and exemptions that were allowed after his death.
Until the end of the second century A.D. there
is no evidence of debates concerning whether Christians should/could go to war.
Their pacifism was an established fact, although it was neither acceptable nor
admired by the Pagan majority among whom they lived.
Celsus, a Pagan philosopher who lived in the
second century, derided the Gospel stories of Christ,
as well as the nonviolence of those who said Jesus demanded pacifism of His
followers. “If all men were to do the same, there would be nothing to prevent
the king from being left in utter solitude and desertion and the forces of the
empire would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarism.”
In 217, the Apostolic Tradition of
Hippolytus was published. That document lists the kinds of restrictions that
would keep someone from being accepted into the fellow-ship of Christian
believers. And after excluding brothel owners, gladiators and idola-ters, it
deals with military service.
“The soldier who is of inferior rank shall not
kill anyone. If ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take
the oath. If he does not accept this, let him be dismissed. Anyone who has the
power of the sword let him give it up or be dis-missed. The catechumen or
believers who wish to become soldiers shall be dismissed, because they have despised God.”
But by the time this was written, various
practical considerations had already begun to militate against Christian
pacifism. As increasing numbers of people from diverse backgrounds converted to
Christianity, there were those who decided that some reasonable accommodations
had to be made. And these included allowing loopholes in the prohibition against military service.
This process of accommodation was helped by
the fact that it was possible to serve in certain sections of the Roman Army
without violence or the shedding of blood. In 211, Tertullian wrote about those
Christians who were part of the benefiiarii: soldiers who served only as
administrative aids to the governors of various provinces.
And in the city of Rome, there was a military
unity known as the Vigiles who were non-combatants.
They functioned as a civil police force and were fire fighters. There are also
records of Christians serving in the Roman military who were known as
protectores domestici. Their duties included guarding the Emperor, acting
as prison guards and assuring the safety of public transport and the mail. In
earlier times, those functions would have been fulfilled by the centurions who,
unlike the domestici, had to be available to engage in battle. But at
this time, Army service did not have to include the violence of war.
As late as the year 360, the Emperor Julian (called The Apostate) was
attacking Christianity for its nonviolence. Raised
as a Christian, he converted to Paganism as an adult. One of the reasons he did
this was because of the contempt he had for pacifism. In writings still extant,
he denounced Christianity in general and the teachings of Jesus, in particular.
He made short shrift of the value of the precepts against killing given by
Jesus, derisively contrasting them to the great and ongoing contribution to
civilization made by a warrior like Alexander the Great.
But even as Julian was deriding the pacifism
of Christianity, it had already been dealt a mortal wound by the military
exploits of Constantine. He became Emperor after defeating other Pagan rivals to
the throne in a battle for Rome. He believed he was victorious because he had
fought in the name of Christ. He said he had been inspired to do this by a
visionary experience in which he saw a flaming cross in the sky. And written
beneath the cross was the Latin inscription hoc vinces -- in the sign you
will conquer. So off he went to kill his enemies, his battle flag emblazoned
with the sign of the cross on which Jesus had died, rather than resort to violence.
Jubilant over his victory, Constantine signed
the Edict of Toleration. Issued in 313, it ordered that property confiscated
from Christians be returned to them and that, in the future, they would be
allowed to hold public office. No longer relegated the status of second class or
outcast citizens, becoming a Christian was now a viable option for Roman citizens.
A decade after he signed the Edict of
Toleration, Constantine called together the Council of Nicea. It was an effort
to unite disparate Christian groups who each had their own authority figures and
their own doctrines. The Emperor was well aware that without a central source of
authority, neither a religious nor a secular group could exercise any meaningful power.
The council was concerned with legislating
what kind of Christian beliefs were acceptable (orthodox) and which were
unacceptable (heretical, schismatic). To those in attendance, the most important
decision of the council was the declaration that Arianism was a heresy. It
claimed that Jesus Christ was the most highly developed man who ever lived and
as such, he was worthy of being the intermediary between God and man. But he was not God.
After much political maneuvering, those who
claimed that Jesus was God, incarnated as man, won the debate. From then on,
official Christian doctrine said that he was fully God and fully man. Having
come to that conclusion, it would seem logical to assume that whatever Jesus
taught would have the highest authority for Christians. But it didn’t. Instead,
it was the beginning of numerous religious councils in which men continued to
endlessly debate matters of doctrine, large and small and which, for the most
part, ignored the pacifistic teachings of Jesus.
One of those who had been summoned to the
Council of Nicea was Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea. Constantine was quite
impressed with him, extolling his character and declaring him worthy to be
“bishop of the world.” This high praise is not surprising; Eusebius believed the
Emperor was a god-given gift to Christianity and that his military battles,
carried out under the banner of Christ, were engineered by God. He wrote
“Calling in prayer upon God who is in heaven, and his Word, even Jesus Christ
the Savior of all, as his ally, (Constantine) advanced in full force, securing
for the Romans their ancestral liberty.”
Just as the prophets of Israel had given
conflicting oracles regarding war in the centuries before Jesus was born, after
his crucifixion various Christian clergymen issued opposing doctrines.
Eusebius had put his ecclesiastical authority
at the service of war, Emperor and state; but thirty years after he died a new
Bishop of Caesarea, St. Basil, spoke out against the “glory” of war. He said
although the one-on-one murder of a man by another man was punished by the laws
of the community, the mass murders of battle were celebrated and rewarded.
“Many gain glory from the valor they show in battle. They go so far as to boast
of the murder of their brother. Indeed, military courage and the triumphal
arches erected by a general or the community exist only because of the magnitude
of the murder.”
But even as Basil spoke out against war, the
Christianity of his time was developing the justifications for war that would
eventually overcome the teachings of all those who tried to preserve the
nonviolent teachings of Jesus. And even before Basil died, there was a young man
seeking fame and fortune as a rhetorician. He would finally achieve the power
and influence he craved when he converted to Christianity.
His name was Augustine and ultimately his
doctrines eclipsed and replaced the pacifistic teachings of Jesus. He became the
Patron Saint of Christian Warfare and the spiritual Father of the Inquisition.
He was born in 154, a decade after the Emperor
Constantine died. His mother and father were Roman citizens- - she a Christian
and he a Pagan. Both agreed that their son was especially bright and talented
and by the time he was fifteen, he was winning prizes for his persuasive speeches.
Even as a young child, Augustine was well
aware of the power words could have. In his autobiography he wrote: “I would
endeavor to express the intentions of my heart to persuade people to bow to my
will. But I had not the power to express all that I wanted nor could I make my
wishes understood by everybody.”
Unfortunately, for Christian pacifism, he
eventually learned how to bend people to his will; he spent most of his adult
life learning how to do that. His university training was in rhetoric, a
powerful skill developed by the ancient Greeks as a method of changing the minds
and hearts and consequently the actions of people. The principles of rhetoric
were said to be effective whether the desired results were noble or ignoble.
After university, Augustine funded two
schools, wrote books, lectured extensively and ingratiated himself with various
important Romans. He also embraced and taught Manicheism. It was a popular
Christian sect that also recognized the value of spiritual teachers like Plato,
Moses, Buddha and Zoroaster. Augustine eagerly embraced and taught the
theological/mystical doctrines of the sect, but rejected the lifestyle of its
Nonviolence/non killing of either humans or
animals was observed, as was celibacy. This ruled out eating animal flesh,
hunting and sexual license. But these were activities that Augustine enjoyed
and continued to indulge. He could do this because Manicheism had two member
classes, the Elect, whose lifestyle embraced the principles derived from their
teachings and the Hearers, who did not have to practice what they preached.
Augustine was a Hearer.
At the age of thirty, he abandoned Manicheism
and the nonviolence it espoused. He went off to seek success in Rome and was
living in Milan where he was appointed official Orator and teacher of Rhetoric.
It was a job that included applying his powers of persuasion to writing speeches
for those at the imperial court. Then, as now, the abilities of a talented
spin-doctor were highly valued.
At the time, Milan was the western seat of
government for the Roman Empire and the kind of militant Christianity
established by the Emperor Constantine was flourishing there. Also flourishing
in that milieu was Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who was to become Augustine’s
mentor. Born into an influential Roman family, he had no qualms about a
Before he became Bishop of Milan, he lived there as Provincial Governor of
Northern Italy. It was while serving in this influential post that he was
acclaimed by the church members there, as Bishop of Milan. He accepted this post
although he was not yet a Christian, much less a priest. After he was elected
Bishop, he hurriedly got himself baptized and then began his study of theology.
Almost immediately, he was interpreting the
scriptures, explaining the sacraments and setting church policy. He was a
persuasive and powerful man whose writings still influence Christian thought.
Ambrose also became a close advisor of Emperor Theodosius and is acclaimed by
church historians as “one of the first church leaders to use his Episcopal
office to influence and coerce civil leaders.
Augustine had great respect for Ambrose’s stature and eloquence. . .and they
were significant factors in (his) conversion to the Christian church.”
There can be no doubt that when Augustine came
in contact with the secular and religious power of the Bishop, he knew he had
found his role model and his mentor. After Ambrose baptized him into orthodoxy,
Augustine wasted no time in publishing scathing denunciations of Manicheism. It
was the beginning of a long and successful career of denouncing and eventually
vanquishing, any group that did not adhere to his ideas of orthodoxy. It was an
orthodoxy that relied heavily on the need for the power and authority of the
church to be supported by the Roman state.
In The City of God, Augustine had
piously written “if God does not rule and guide our minds with his inward grace,
no preaching of the truth is of any help to man.” But when he found that there
were far too many who were not persuaded by either God’s grace or his own
rhetoric, he devised another tactic: “Cogite intrare! - - Compel them to
enter.” And he soon had the power to force people into accepting his own
ideas of orthodoxy.
Ordained a priest in 391, he was consecrated a
Bishop in 395, just eight years after he had been baptized as a Christian. And
from that power position he was able to use the authority of the state to force
those he labeled heretics, to recant. In 411 Augustine dominated the Council of
Carthage which condemned the Donatist Christians
as heretics. And by this time the church had enough secular power to use Roman
guards to compel orthodoxy. Those who would not recant had their property
confiscated, lost all legal rights and were sent into exile. All monies and
property that were seized from the Donatists became the property of the church.
Augustine piously proclaimed that all this was
done out of love for heretics and for the good of their souls. It is the same
justification he used when he decreed that although in certain circumstances
Christians had to go to war, they had to be sure that when they killed their
enemies they were motivated by love for them [sic!]. They also had to
make sure that they went to war only because they desired peace [sic, again].
These were only two of the rationalizations
that Augustine provided for those Christian’s who, like himself, did not want to
accept the nonviolent teachings of Jesus. The Bishop of Hippo had decided that
Jesus didn’t really mean it when he told his followers to reject the ancient
ethic of eye for eye, tooth for tooth; that instead, they were to turn the other
cheek. Augustine explained why he rejected that command.
“If it is supposed that God could not enjoin
warfare because it was said by the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘I say unto you, Resist
not evil,’ the answer is that what
is required is not a bodily action but an inward disposition (52). . .The love
of enemies admits of no dispensation. . .but love does not exclude wars of mercy
waged by the good.”
For Augustine, wars waged by the Roman Empire under the rule of a king who
professed Christianity, were ipso facto,
wars that are “waged by the good.” Conversely, there could be nothing good about
the claims of the other side; they were, ipso facto, evil and a sham.
In his theology of war, Augustine inextricably
joined together the authority of the church and the power of a Roman government
that now operated in the name of Christianity. And he gave to that civil
government the power to decide when, how and whom to kill. In order to do this,
he had to reject the command of Jesus that, under no circumstances, were his
followers to take up the sword: not even against their enemies; not even in
defense of the highest good.
The Gospel of Mark reports that when the
authorities came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he told the
Apostle Peter to put away his sword. Even in the defense of his Lord he was not
to use violence because no matter the circumstances, “he who lives by the
sword shall die by the sword.”
But having already established an alliance of
church, state and military; Augustine had no intention of letting the Gospels
call to nonviolence interfere with his plans. So 350 years after the death of
Christ, the Bishop of Hippo explained that Jesus didn’t really mean that his
disciples were not to take up the sword against another person. What he actually
meant was that a man could not kill another man unless he had the permission of
the civil government and the sanction of its laws.
Augustine explained that it was because Peter
lacked government/civil permission to use violence against another person, that
Jesus told him to put away his sword. In Contra Faustum he wrote that
Peter was going “to use a weapon against a man’s life, without the sanction of
the constituted authority.” However, Augustine was magnanimous about this lack
of understanding on the part of the Apostle, attributing it to the fact that God
had not enlightened Peter about the matter. Of course, implicit in this
statement is the claim that although the Almighty had not bothered to enlighten
Peter, He had enlightened Augustine in the matter.
Augustine also wrote that taking part in
state-sanctioned wars was legitimate and necessary, for Christians, because
“Peace is the end sought for by war.”
He also in-formed those who claimed to be Christian that murder is not a sin
when it is sanctioned by the state.
“If to kill a man is murder, this may happen
sometimes without any sin. When a soldier kills the enemy, when a judge or an
executioner kills the criminal I do not think they sin by killing a man. . .When
a soldier kills the enemy he is enforcing the law, and so had no difficulty in
carrying out his duty without passion.”
Thus spake Augustine, Patron Saint of
Christian War. It is not surprising that he, like so many other power-driven
men, would use his energies to create an alliance between church, state and the
military. What is surprising is how quickly he and other like-minded men of his
generation overcame the pacifistic teachings of Jesus and re-established war as
a God-blessed and God-driven undertaking.
It was nearly two hundred years after Christ’s death that Celsus gave
the world the story that Jesus was born of the union of his mother Mary
with a Roman soldier. This story has remained a perennial favorite of
those who think they are discovering new “facts” about the life of Christ.
Cited by Origen in Contra Celsum. VIII, 68 - 69
The Vigiles of Ancient Rome, P. K. Baillie Reynolds, Oxford Press 1926
Julian The Apostate, To the Athenians, Ed. & trans. W.C.
Wright, Loeb Classic Library
It Is Not Lawful For Me To Fight. Jean-Michael Hornus, Herald
Press, Scotdale, PA © 1980, p.178
Basil of Caesarea, Homilies on the Psalms. 61 - 4
 Confessions, 1. 8. 13
Augustine And His World, Knowles and Penkett, Intervarsity Press, Page 66, © 2004
 A member of a rigoristic, schismatic
Christian sect, strongly opposed by Saint Augustine, that arose in North
Africa in the fourth century A.D. and believed in sanctity as requisite
for church membership and administration of all sacraments.
Contra Faustum, XXII. 76; Epistle 138 ii,15
For a more detailed discussion of this incident, see Chapter 24 of this book.
 City of God, 19, 12
On The Free Will, I, 4, 9;1, 5, 12. Also City of God I, 21, 26
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