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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 25: JUST WARS
From Jesus to Augustine

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,[1]  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.”[2]

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.[3]  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.[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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 committed devotees.

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 militaristic Christianity.

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.”[8]

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[9]  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.”[10]

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.”[11]

 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.”[12]  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.”[13]

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.


[1]  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.

[2]  Cited by Origen in Contra Celsum.  VIII, 68 - 69

[3]  The Vigiles of Ancient Rome,  P. K. Baillie Reynolds, Oxford Press 1926

[4]  Julian The Apostate, To the Athenians, Ed. & trans. W.C. Wright, Loeb Classic Library

[5It Is Not Lawful For Me To Fight. Jean-Michael Hornus, Herald Press, Scotdale, PA © 1980, p.178

[6]  Basil of Caesarea, Homilies on the Psalms. 61 - 4

[7Confessions, 1. 8. 13

[8Augustine And His World, Knowles and Penkett, Intervarsity Press, Page 66, © 2004

[9]  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.

[10Contra Faustum, XXII.  76; Epistle 138  ii,15

[11]  For a more detailed discussion of this incident, see Chapter 24 of this book.

[12City of God, 19, 12

[13On The Free Will, I, 4, 9;1, 5, 12. Also City of God I, 21, 26

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