The Early Christian Attitude to War

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Were the early Christians warmongers like too many Christians are today? Did they idolize the Caesars like some Christians idolize President Bush? Did they make signs that said “the emperor” similar to the ones we see on cars today that refer to Bush as “the president”? Did they make apologies for the Roman Empire like some Christian apologists make for the U.S. Empire? Did they venerate the institution of the military like many Christians do today?

C. John Cadoux would say no.

Some books are instant classics. Once published, they are the final word on a subject. Such is the case with Cadoux’s 1919 book, The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics (London: Headley Bros. Publishers, xxxii+272 pages). Although I have published a small collection of essays called Christianity and War, and have since written many more essays on this topic, Cadoux’s book is truly the definitive work on the subject of the Christian attitude toward war and military service. I am pleased to report that The Early Christian Attitude to War is now available online, both in PDF and HTML, and in a printed, hardbound reprint edition.

Although Cadoux’s book was written just after World War I, nothing written since then on this important subject is comparable in any way to it. Given the violent history of the twentieth century, and the continued participation by Christians in the state’s wars, this book is just as relevant today as when it was written. In fact, many statements Cadoux makes sound like they could have been written yesterday:

Among the many problems of Christian ethics, the most urgent and challenging at the present day is undoubtedly that of the Christian attitude to war. Christian thought in the past has frequently occupied itself with this problem; but there has never been a time when the weight of it pressed more heavily upon the minds of Christian people than it does to-day. The events of the past few years have forced upon every thoughtful person throughout practically the whole civilized world the necessity of arriving at some sort of a decision on this complicated and critical question — in countless cases a decision in which health, wealth, security, reputation, and even life itself have been involved.

The book is divided into four parts:

  • The Teaching of Jesus
  • Forms of the Early Christian Disapproval of War
  • Forms of the Early Christian Acceptance of War
  • Summary and Conclusion

These are preceded by a Foreword, a very detailed Table of Contents, a Chronological Table, and an Introduction. The book also includes an index.

Cadoux explains his purpose in his Introduction:

The purpose of the following pages is not to force or pervert the history of the past in the interests of a present-day controversy, but plainly and impartially to present the facts as to the early Christian attitude to war — with just so much discussion as will suffice to make this attitude in its various manifestations clear and intelligible — and to do this by way of a contribution towards the settlement of the whole complicated problem as it challenges the Christian mind to-day. Having recently had occasion for another purpose to work through virtually the whole of pre-Constantinian Christian literature, the present writer has taken the opportunity to collect practically all the available material in the original authorities. His work will thus consist largely of quotations from Christian authors, translated into English for the convenience of the reader, and arranged on a systematic plan.

And although he cautions that “the example of our Christian forefathers indeed can never be of itself a sufficient basis for the settlement of our own conduct to-day,” Cadoux believes that “at the same time the solution of our own ethical problems will involve a study of the mind of Christendom on the same or similar questions during bygone generations: and, for this purpose, perhaps no period of Christian history is so important as that of the first three centuries.”

The Teaching of Jesus

In part one, Cadoux readily acknowledges that the Lord Jesus “gave his disciples no explicit teaching on the subject of war.” But, since “the proportion of soldiers and policemen to civilians must have been infinitesimal,” and “no Jew could be compelled to serve in the Roman legion,” and “there was scarcely the remotest likelihood that any disciple of Jesus would be pressed into the army,” there was no occasion that “presented itself to him for any explicit pronouncement on the question as to whether or not his disciples might serve as soldiers.” Therefore, “the silence of Jesus” does not mean that “no definite conclusion on the point is to be derived from the Gospels.”

After discussing, among other things, the non-resistance teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and pointing out Jesus’ refusal to advance his ideals by political or coercive means, Cadoux concludes that his arguments

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.

Forms of the Early Christian Disapproval of War

In part two will be found the bulk of the material that substantiates Cadoux’s thesis. He divides it into five sections:

  • The Condemnation of War in the Abstract
  • The Essential Peacefulness of Christianity
  • The Christian Treatment of Enemies and Wrongdoers
  • The Christians’ Experience of Evil in the Character of Soldiers
  • The Christian Refusal to Participate in War

Cadoux properly opens the first part of this chapter with the statement: “The conditions under which the books of the New Testament were written were not such as to give occasion for Christian utterances on the wrongfulness of war.” The early Christians, however, did write on the subject, and were especially critical of the Roman Empire. Cadoux points out how Arnobius contrasted Christ with the Roman emperors: “Did he, claiming royal power for himself, occupy the whole world with fierce legions, and, (of) nations at peace from the beginning, destroy and remove some, and compel others to put their necks beneath his yoke and obey him?” Lactantius says of the Romans:

They despise indeed the excellence of the athlete, because there is no harm in it; but royal excellence, because it is wont to do harm extensively, they so admire that they think that brave and warlike generals are placed in the assembly of the gods, and that there is no other way to immortality than by leading armies, devastating foreign (countries), destroying cities, overthrowing towns, (and) either slaughtering or enslaving free peoples. Truly, the more men they have afflicted, despoiled, (and) slain, the more noble and renowned do they think themselves; and, captured by the appearance of empty glory, they give the name of excellence to their crimes. Now I would rather that they should make gods for themselves from the slaughter of wild beasts than that they should approve of an immortality so bloody. If any one has slain a single man, he is regarded as contaminated and wicked, nor do they think it right that he should be admitted to this earthly dwelling of the gods. But he who has slaughtered endless thousands of men, deluged the fields with blood, (and) infected rivers (with it), is admitted not only to a temple, but even to heaven.

Writing before Lactantius, Cyprian speaks of the idea that “homicide is a crime when individuals commit it, (but) it is called a virtue, when it is carried on publicly.” This idea that mass killing in war is acceptable but only the killing of one’s neighbor violates the Sixth Commandment is unfortunately a very prevalent idea among some Christians.

Cadoux concludes:

This collection of passages will suffice to show how strong and deep was the early Christian revulsion from and disapproval of war, both on account of the dissension it represented and of the infliction of bloodshed and suffering which it involved. The quotations show further how closely warfare and murder were connected in Christian thought by their possession of a common element — homicide; and the connection gives a fresh significance for the subject before us to the extreme Christian sensitiveness in regard to the sin of murder — a sensitiveness attested by the frequency with which warnings, prohibitions, and condemnations in regard to this particular sin were uttered and the severity with which the Church dealt with the commission of it by any of her own members. The strong disapprobation felt by Christians for war was due to its close relationship with the deadly sin that sufficed to keep the man guilty of it permanently outside the Christian community.

Cadoux then takes up the very nature of Christianity. If there was anything at all advocated by the early Christians it was peace. After all, they had some New Testament admonitions to go by:

  • “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9)
  • “Live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18)
  • “Follow peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14)

So, as Cadoux says: “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.” Although this was ultimately based on first having peace with God (“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” [Romans 5:1]), this private concept of peace was made into a public one. Cadoux quotes Justin Martyr, from his Apology and from his Dialogue with Truphon the Jew:

For from Jerusalem 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.

And we 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.

Cadoux also refers to the words of Tertullian:

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.

In his third section, Cadoux then explains how the attitude of the early Christians toward their enemies and wrongdoers also demonstrates the early Christian disapproval of war. First, since it is recurrent theme of the New Testament, Cadoux quotes, among others, these passages:

  • “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath” (Romans 12:19)
  • “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men” (Galatians 6:10)
  • “See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:15)

And second, he again refers to the Church Fathers. Cadoux wonders what Justin Martyr would have thought about Christians serving in the military when he said in his Apology:

We who hated and slew one another, and because of (differences in) customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate (us) unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same (reward) from the God who is Master of all.

Lactantius describes Christians as “those who are ignorant of wars, who preserve concord with all, who are friends even to their enemies, who love all men as brothers, who know how to curb anger and soften with quiet moderation every madness of the mind.” The just man, according to Lactantius, “inflicts injury on none, nor desires the property of others, nor defends his own if it is violently carried off, since he knows also (how) to bear with moderation an injury inflicted on him, because he is endowed with virtue, it is necessary that the just man should be subject to the unjust, and the wise man treated with insults by the fool.”

Unlike many Christians today who have a superstitious reverence for the military, the early Christians did not think too highly of the Roman legions, as Cadoux shows in section four. Ignatius referred to soldiers as “beasts.” Cadoux recounts case after case of Roman soldiers abusing, persecuting, and killing Christians. He refers to the account of Eusebius of the suffering of Christians in which “soldiers appear at every turn of the story, as the perpetrators either of the diabolical and indescribable torments inflicted on both sexes or of the numerous other afflictions and annoyances incidental to the persecution.” He also mentions the Didascalia, which forbids the acceptance of money for the church “from soldiers who behave unrighteously or from those who kill men or from executioners or from any (of the) magistrate(s) of the Roman Empire who are stained in wars and have shed innocent blood without judgment.”

If part two contains the bulk of the material that substantiates Cadoux’s thesis, then the fifth section, “The Christian Refusal to Participate in War,” is the quintessence of that material. Cadoux begins by quoting the church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851—1930) on the features of military life that would have presented great difficulty to Christians:

The shedding of blood on the battlefield, the use of torture in the law-courts, the passing of death-sentences by officers and the execution of them by common soldiers, the unconditional military oath, the all-pervading worship of the Emperor, the sacrifices in which all were expected in some way to participate, the average behaviour of soldiers in peace-time, and other idolatrous and offensive customs — all these would constitute in combination an exceedingly powerful deterrent against any Christian joining the army on his own initiative.

Cadoux’s extended quotations from Tertullian and Origen offer definitive proof that the early Christians were averse to war and military service.

Writing in defense of a Christian soldier who had refused to wear a garland on the emperor’s birthday, Tertullian addresses the question of whether a Christian ought to be in the military in the first place:

And in fact, in order that I may approach the real issue of the military garland, I think it has first to be investigated whether military service is suitable for Christians at all. Besides, what sort (of proceeding) is it, to deal with incidentals, when the (real) fault lies with what has preceded them? Do we believe that the human u2018sacramentum’ may lawfully be added to the divine, and that (a Christian) may (give a promise in) answer to another master after Christ, and abjure father and mother and every kinsman, whom even the Law commanded to be honoured and loved next to God, (and) whom the Gospel also thus honoured, putting them above all save Christ only? Will it be lawful (for him) to occupy himself with the sword, when the Lord declares that he who uses the sword will perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace, for whom it will be unfitting even to go to law, be engaged in a battle? And shall he, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs, administer chains and (im)prison(ment) and tortures and executions? Shall he now go on guard for another more than for Christ, or (shall he do it) on the Lord’s Day, when (he does) not (do it even) for Christ? And shall he keep watch before temples, which he has renounced? and take a meal there where the Apostle has forbidden it? And those whom he has put to flight by exorcisms in the daytime, shall he defend (them) at night, leaning and resting upon the pilum with which Christ’s side was pierced? And shall he carry a flag, too, that is a rival to Christ? And shall he ask for a watchword from his chief, when he has already received one from God? And (when he is) dead, shall he be disturbed by the bugler’s trumpet — he who expects to be roused by the trumpet of the angel? And shall the Christian, who is not allowed to burn (incense), to whom Christ has remitted the punishment of fire, be burned according to the discipline of the camp? (And) how many other sins can be seen (to belong) to the functions of camp(-life) — (sins) which must be explained as a transgression (of God’s law). The very transference of (one’s) name from the camp of light to the camp of darkness, is a transgression. Of course, the case is different, if the faith comes subsequent(ly) to any (who are) already occupied in military service, as (was, for instance, the case) with those whom John admitted to baptism, and with the most believing centurions whom Christ approves and whom Peter instructs: all the same, when faith has been accepted and signed, either the service must be left at once, as has been done by many, or else recourse must be had to all sorts of cavilling, lest anything be committed against God — (any, that is, of the things) which are not allowed (to Christians) outside the army, or lastly that which the faith of (Christian) civilians has fairly determined upon must be endured for God. For military service will not promise impunity for sins or immunity from martyrdom. The Christian is nowhere anything else (than a Christian)…. With him (i.e. Christ) the civilian believer is as much a soldier as the believing soldier is a civilian. The state of faith does not admit necessities. No necessity of sinning have they, whose one necessity is that of not sinning…. For (otherwise) even inclination can be pleaded (as a) necessity, having of course an element of compulsion in it. I have stopped up that very (appeal to necessity) in regard to other cases of (wearing) garlands of office, for which (the plea of) necessity is a most familiar defence; since either (we) must flee from (public) offices for this reason, lest we fall into sins, or else we must endure martyrdoms, that we may break (off our tenure of public) offices. On (this) first aspect of the question, (namely) the illegitimacy of the military life itself, I will not add more, in order that the second (part of the question) may be restored to its place — lest, if I banish military service with all my force, I shall have issued a challenge to no purpose in regard to the military garland.

Those who think the military is tame now compared to the military in days gone by have never read the testimony of veterans on the subject.

Turning next to Origen, Cadoux remarks that “his defence of the early Christian refusal to participate in war is the only one that faces at all thoroughly or completely the ultimate problems involved.” In his Against Celsus, Origen remarks:

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.

In response to the appeal of Celsus that Christians should serve as soldiers for the emperor, Origen says:

Celsus next urges us to help the Emperor with all (our) strength, and to labour with him (in maintaining) justice, and to fight for him and serve as soldiers with him, if he require (it), and to share military command (with him). To this it has to be said that we do help the Emperors as occasion (requires) with a help that is, so to say, divine, and putting on “the whole armour of God.” And this we do in obedience to the apostolic voice which says: “I therefore exhort you firstly that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanks-givings, be made for all men, for Emperors and all who are in high station”; and the more pious one is, so much the more effectual is he in helping the Emperors than (are) the soldiers who go forth in battle-array and kill as many as they can of the enemy. And then we should say this to those who are strangers to the faith and who ask us to serve as soldiers on behalf of the community and to kill men: that among you the priests of certain statues and the temple-wardens of those whom ye regard as gods keep their right-hand(s) unstained for the sake of the sacrifices, in order that they may offer the appointed sacrifices to those whom ye call gods, with hands unstained by (human) blood and pure from acts of slaughter; and whenever war comes, ye do not make the priests also serve. If then it is reasonable to do this, how much more (reasonable is it, that), when others are serving in the army, these (Christians) should do their military service as priests and servants of God, keeping their right-hands pure and striving by prayers to God on behalf of those who are righteously serving as soldiers and of him who is reigning righteously, in order that all things opposed and hostile to those that act righteously may be put down?

Forms of the Early Christian Acceptance of War

In part three, Cadoux turns from “the various ways in which the Christian abhorrence and disapproval of war expressed itself” to “the various conditions and connections in which war was thought of by Christian people without that association of reproach which so frequently attached to it.”

Cadoux begins by correctly noting the biblical use of military terms to illustrate the Christian life:

  • “Put on the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11)
  • “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3)
  • “War a good warfare” (1 Timothy 1:18)

He then further points out that the Church Fathers likewise used “military metaphors and similes” in their writings. But as Cadoux explains: “For the purpose of pointing an argument or decorating a lesson, a writer will sometimes use rhetorical analogies which seem likely to carry weight, but which do not represent his own considered opinions on that from which the analogy is drawn.” Thus, when the Bible says: “Then the LORD awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine” (Psalm 78:65), it doesn’t mean that God condones drunkenness.

What, then, caused some of the early Christians to “accept” war? In addition to the aforementioned biblical use of military terms, Cadoux gives six factors:

The wars of the Old Testament: some early Christians “accepted” war because they could not separate the divine sanction of war against the enemies of God in the Old Testament from the New Testament ethic that taught otherwise.

Apocalyptic wars: some early Christians “accepted” war because of references in the Old Testament and the Apocalypse that told of a victorious war to be waged by the Messiah against the enemies of God.

The destruction of Jerusalem: some early Christians “accepted” war because they believed that the destruction of Jerusalem “was a divinely ordained punishment inflicted on the Jewish nation for its sin in rejecting and crucifying Christ.”

War as an instrument of divine justice: some early Christians “accepted” war because of the generally accepted belief that war was a form of divine chastisement.

The Christian view of the state: some early Christians “accepted” war because they believed war to be included in their belief that “the State was a useful and necessary institution, ordained by God for the security of life and property, the preservation of peace, and the prevention and punishment of the grosser forms of human sin.”

The good character of some soldiers: some early Christians “accepted” war because they saw kindness exhibited by some pagan soldiers.

The fact that some early Christians were influenced by one or more of these factors is irrelevant. None of these influences necessitated Christian participation in war or military service. There is nothing in the New Testament from which to draw the conclusion that killing is somehow sanctified if it is done in the name of the state.

Regarding war as an instrument of divine chastisement, Cadoux explains that

a belief in the use of war for the divine chastisement of the Jews and of others who have been guilty of great offences, whatever theological problems it may raise, certainly does not involve the believer in the view that it is right or permissible for him to take a part in inflicting such penalties. While Christians agreed that the fall of Jerusalem and its accompanying calamities were a divine chastisement, no one thought of inferring from that that the Roman army was blameless or virtuous in the bloodthirsty and savage cruelty it displayed in the siege. And in regard to the more general view of war as a divine chastisement, if it could be inferred from the fact of its being so that a Christian might lawfully help to inflict it, it would follow that he might also under certain conditions help to cause and spread a plague or to inflict persecution on his fellow-Christians — for both plagues and persecutions were regarded as divine chastisements just as war was. The obvious absurdity of this conclusion ought to be enough to convince us that the Christian idea of war being used by God to punish sin certainly does not mean that the Christian may take part in it with an easy conscience: on the contrary, the analogy of pestilence, famine, persecution, etc., which are often coupled with war, strongly suggests that participation in it could not possibly be a Christian duty. And there can be no doubt that the vast majority of early Christians acted in conformity with that view, whether or not they theorized philosophically about it.

And regarding the state in particular, Cadoux adds:

There was nothing in the relative justification which Christians accorded to the ordinary functions of government, including even its punitive and coercive activities, which logically involved them in departing from the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and personally participating in those activities.

Cadoux’s conclusion: “None therefore of the various forms in which Christians may be said to have u2018accepted’ war necessarily committed them to participation in it.” This does not mean that there were no Christian soldiers in the Roman army. Cadoux freely acknowledges this fact, although he does point out that “there is no trace of the existence of any Christian soldiers” until about the year 170.

Summary and Conclusion

Cadoux very nicely summarizes his research into the early Christian attitude to war. He concludes that

the early Christians took Jesus at his word, and understood his inculcations of gentleness and non-resistance in their literal sense. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war for the bloodshed which it involved; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their policy to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.

Because of their new outlook on life, refusal to serve in the military was the normal policy of the early Christians. Soldiers left the army upon their conversion to Christianity. And while “a general distrust of ambition and a horror of contamination by idolatry entered largely into the Christian aversion to military service,” it was “the sense of the utter contradiction between the work of imprisoning, torturing, wounding, and killing, on the one hand, and the Master’s teaching on the other” that “constituted an equally fatal and conclusive objection.”

W.E. Orchard, who wrote the Foreword to Cadoux’s book almost ninety years ago, explains why Christians in the twenty-first century will reject Cadoux’s thesis:

The only real objection which can be urged against the revival of the early Christian attitude is that Christianity has accepted the State, and that this carries with it the necessity for coercive discipline within and the waging of war without; in which disagreeable duties Christians must as citizens take their part. To refuse this will expose civilization to disaster. It may perhaps serve to provoke reflection to notice in passing that this was the argument of Celsus and is the general attitude which determines German thought on this subject. The truth is that the way of war, if persisted in, is going to destroy civilization anyhow, and the continual demand for war service will, sooner or later, bring the modern State to anarchy.

Christians, of all people, should stop making excuses for the necessity of war. Cadoux’s work proves, at least on this point, that the early Christians had better sense.

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