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So far we have only discussed transhistorical principles and biblical exegesis. But another important part of this debate requires discussion. In the final analysis, the strongest argument for pacifism comes not from the subjects we have already discussed, but from the early post-apostolic church. It is there where we find the first truly pacifistic Christians. And the eventual widespread presence of this opinion among believers does press a question upon historians: how did this happen? Pacifists have a straightforward answer: the widespread pacifism of the early church is explained through faithful transmission of apostolic tradition, which in turn derived from the founder of the religion, Jesus Christ himself.
But we have presented an argument in this series that this is an erroneous reading of the scriptures, and certainly has no foundation in timeless natural law. This leaves an important historical question for non-pacifists open: how do we explain the widespread pacifism of the early church?
The non-pacifist is admittedly at a disadvantage here: there is very little literature from the earliest days of the apostolic church that has relevance to this subject. Justin Martyr is arguably the first Christian to have enunciated a kind of pacifism, and he is followed by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, probably among others. 1 Between the writing of the last New Testament book and Justin’s writings there is probably around half a century where no strong evidence exists for either pacifism or a denial of it. Thus, from the very beginning, the non-pacifist is restrained to give only speculations about what might have happened. There is no early church text which says “The entire church became pacifist in 140 AD”; if something like that did happen, we will only be able to detect it indirectly.
Yet, if one agrees with the reading of the New Testament this series has provided, there are certain historical facts that might indicate how the shift happened. We will provide some of them below, though there are probably even more factors that may have enabled the transition in reality. A rough heuristic for sorting the various types of factors is as follows: causes arising from perennial aspects of life, from the church’s relation to Gentiles, from its relation to Jews, and causes internal to Christianity.
1. Passage of time: As noted above, a significant period of time passes before the first text that supports pacifism. With any tradition passed through history, the passage of time allows for greater chances of error spreading in the transmission. Even within the NT, while the apostles were still living, there are examples of ideas spreading that were mistakenly attributed to Jesus or the apostles. 2 How much more likely would the spread of error become once the apostles had passed from the scene?
2. Unnatural violence: Human beings naturally recoil from violence, especially violence against other people. This natural tendency is designed by God to limit violence; yet God also expects us to use our reason, and recognize when the greater good requires morally discriminating violence. However, the right use of reason can be difficult at times, as our passions can overwhelm our rational capacities if we do not train ourselves rightly, or receive bad training from others. The general (good) disposition to avoid violence, along with poor training in wisdom and virtue, could therefore incline any person in any age towards a pacifistic stance. Certainly it could do so to a first or second century Christian, especially given a superficial reading of Jesus’ teachings.
3. Complex subject: The ethics of violence is intrinsically complex. It requires some grasp of human nature, of the nature of justice, retribution, politics, God, wisdom, and the proper hierarchy of values. Further, when one has to factor in special revelation of some kind, the issue becomes even further complicated: then the ethical subject must have some knowledge of texts, interpretive rules, possibly knowledge of the original languages, and mastery with concepts like progressive revelation. With any subject, the more complicating factors that are involved, the more likely error becomes.
4. Minority tendencies: In any time or place, minority groups on the receiving end of persecution can tend to slide into a ghetto mentality. The pacifist or Anabaptist approach to in-group/out-group relations is a perennial option, and the early church was in a situation highly conducive to its adoption, suffering great persecution at times.
5. Hazards of war: War, being on the edge of legality and political order, has always provided occasion for sin. It is therefore unsurprising that people especially concerned with moral purity might regard war with ever increasing suspicion, to the point where they become convinced that it is intrinsically disordered. ‘
1. Abuse of execution: From very early on, Christians were executed by Roman governors for stubbornness and various other charges. The Christians regarded these penalties as unjust. It would not be surprising if the church, being faced with such systemic injustice, made a blanket judgment about all state violence, forbidding Christians to participate in a practice that was so often clearly evil. Further, the fact that Christians were still being executed during the periods when Christian soldiers might be ordered to perform executions would bring another factor into the mix, that of the proper behaviour of Christians toward their fellow believers. This would only tend to push the church further against all capital punishment.
2. The charge of insurrection: The Christians were constantly under suspicion of, and often openly charged with, being insurrectionists. Given the heinous punishments that would follow from such a conviction, the Christians had every reason to emphasize how non-violent they were. And of course, the polar opposite of revolutionary violence would be absolute pacifism. One can easily imagine the great motivation the early church would have had to argue the Christian religion was intrinsically pacifist.
3. Compulsory idolatry: Non-pacifist scholars of the early church have sometimes tried to argue that the compulsory idolatry involved in Roman military practices was the main objection the church had to soldiering. This is probably incorrect, but nevertheless, this aspect of military service could certainly incline many Christians towards blanket condemnation. Once it became clear policy that Christianity was not a form of Judaism, and so not deserving of the status of exemptions that Jews had from participation in Roman religion, Christians would have increasing trouble being part of Roman society. While there were probably de facto exceptions made for Christian soldiers on the ground, still the official attitude would not have been one of making exceptions. This general hostility would probably would encourage fewer Christians to be soldiers, which would in turn reinforce the perception that Christianity was a pacifistic religion.
1. Dr. David Instone-Brewer writes about the connection of the church to Judaism: “The Early Church lost touch with its Jewish roots in or before 70 C.E. Various passages in the NT suggest that Christians were excommunicated from the synagogue before the NT canon was completed, and certainly before 70 C.E. This marked the beginning of the loss of Jewish culture within the Church. A few Christian groups such as the Nazarenes and Ebionites continued to follow Jewish customs, but these soon died out. The Church very quickly forgot its Jewish roots, and thereby lost contact with much of the Jewish background of the NT writings.” 3 This loss of Jewish context would cause problems for understanding Jesus’ teaching, for he was directly engaging with ideas from the context. Indeed, with regard to the Sermon on the Mount in particular, it has been difficult for many interpreters to grasp that Jesus is responding to problematic practices in Palestinian Jewish culture, and not the Law itself, no doubt partly because that culture is less known than the Old Testament, especially to non-historians. But in addition, loss of contact with Jewish interpreters could increase the chances of misunderstanding the OT. Though in many ways their understanding was defective, nevertheless the disciplined way in which Rabbinic Judaism carefully approached the OT could certainly have helped Christians understand their own book. The loss of conversation partners within that tradition could easily lead to an impoverishment of knowledge on the part of the church.
2. At the same time, the Church was on hostile terms with Judaism from the very start. They were forced to dispute with those who stood in the line of the Pharisees, rejecting Jesus’ claims to be the OT’s promised Messiah. The church was therefore highly motivated to prove their religion was truer and better than Judaism, for they wanted to convert both the Jews, and undecided onlookers who might be tempted to become Jews rather than Christians. Yet, as Dr. Allison noted in a previous post, this would incline Christians to try to read the Sermon on the Mount against Judaism in a broad sense, and even the OT, insofar as Judaism held on to a proper interpretation of it. In other words, if the Jews argued for non-pacifism from the OT, the Christians might be tempted to argue that the New Testament religion was better and purer precisely in being pacifistic. The Jewish-Christian hostility would feed the divisions on this matter, and tend to exaggerate differences.
3. One possible instance of this point is in an early approach to the prophecies of Isaiah chapter 2, where the prophet foresees the future age when the Law would go out from Zion and judge between nations, leading to their beating their swords into ploughshares, i.e., world peace. Beginning with Justin, Christians appealed to their own pacifistic behaviour as the fulfillment of this prophecy, to prove that Christianity was the fulfillment of the Old Testament, even over against Judaism. Reading Isaiah in its original context does not naturally lead to this interpretation, though familiarity may lead people astray in this regard. Isaiah predicts an age of total global peace, not an age of a minority religious movement refusing to serve in the militaries of nations who are still at war with each other. Nevertheless, Christians did argue along Justin’s lines, and for the reasons suggested in the point immediately above.
4. Quasi-Marcionism: This separation from, and hostility to, Jewish religion, coupled with the hermeneutical techniques of the pagan Alexandrinian school, in some cases led to near-Marcionite approaches to the OT. Dr. Ronald J. Sider brings attention to one such passage (though he does not describe it this way) in his The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, And Capital Punishment, from Origen’s Contra Celsus 7.19: 4 “It is sufficient at present to refer to the manner in which in the Psalms the just man is represented as saying, among other things, Every morning will I destroy the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all workers of iniquity from the city of Jehovah. Judge, then, from the words and spirit of the speaker, whether it is conceivable that, after having in the preceding part of the Psalm, as any one may read for himself, uttered the noblest thoughts and purposes, he should in the sequel, according to the literal rendering of his words, say that in the morning, and at no other period of the day, he would destroy all sinners from the earth, and leave none of them alive, and that he would slay every one in Jerusalem who did iniquity. And there are many similar expressions to be found in the law, as this, for example: We left not anything alive.” The idea that the thought of judging sinners would be ignoble suggests a subtle moral criticism of political judgment, which would entail a rejection of moral principles the OT supports. From this to Marcionism there is but a hair’s breadth. And indeed, insofar as such attitudes were prevalent, even if only unconsciously, amongst Christians, the wide proselytizing successes of Marcionism are unsurprising. Marcion, of course, was a pacifist, and rejected the entire OT as the revelation of another god.
1. Easy mistake: Non-pacifists do need to admit that the tenor and surface meaning of Jesus’ teaching, especially in the texts discussed above, can easily lend themselves to a pacifistic interpretation. It is not at all surprising that the early church made this mistake, and that interpreters continue to do so today. Jesus really did teach about, and emphasize dramatically, practices such as mercy and love. He had almost nothing to say about the duties of magistrates. If the average Christian were to memorize Jesus’ most memorable and significant (for daily life) teachings, he probably would memorize the Sermon on the Mount. And if that was all he memorized, and did not think deeply about the context of the teaching along the lines we have argued in the previous posts of this series, pacifism would probably seem like the obvious import of Jesus’ words.
2. Limited knowledge of the Bible: We also have to remember that the early church lived before the age of Gutenberg. Most churches did not have complete copies of the canon, and certainly most individuals did not. It is highly likely that a large number of Christians heard only select portions of scripture, rather than the entire scope of it. The loss of the full counsel of the word of God could mean a loss of vital context, and therefore misinterpretation.
3. Wooden and rigid hermeneutic: Early Christians sometimes fell into rather rigid and strict interpretations of biblical teachings. The Shepherd of Hermas, a pseudepigraphon believed by many in the early church to be inspired scripture, taught that post-baptismal sin could be forgiven only once. Tertullian taught that remarriage was improper even after the death of one’s spouse. More to the point, Dr. Sider notes 5 Lactantius criticizing just war ethics in The Divine Institutes 6.9 and 6.18, an approach which would entail moral criticism of the OT, and again return us to Marcionism. One can sympathize with Christians of any age who, looking upon the moral compromises both unbelievers and professing believers inevitably make, read the demands of scripture in the most unyielding of ways. But we also must recognize that this attitude is a distortion of scripture just as much as its opposite, the loosening of demands beyond their natural meaning. Pacifism easily qualifies as a rigid overinterpretation of some of Jesus’ commands, and fits into this general harsh trend.
4. General non-violent practice: As a matter of statistics, most Christians were not magistrates or soldiers. As a consequence, most Christians would have no occasion in which to be physically violent. Further, Christians who happened to follow just war principles would also refuse to revolt against the state, or to fight in wars that were clearly unjust. The result of all this is that one could legitimately generalize, and say that Christians as a rule are not violent. Such a generalization might easily slip into a different conclusion, that Christians were as a rule not violent because their teaching absolutely prohibited it.
5. Cross-pollination: The early church communicated a great deal with itself. This includes the big thinkers of the church, who would naturally be more respected and trusted in their teachings. Irenaeus read Justin, as did Tertullian and Origen. And Justin probably was a pacifist. Is it surprising, then, that those who followed in his footsteps would have taken his view? No. Further, outside the issue of pacifism, there are several doctrines which probably spread throughout the church and were taken to be truth, though they probably did not originate with the apostles. One example would be Chiliasm (or, depending on your opinion, non-Chiliasm). 6 Another would be the virtually semi-Pelagian approach to free will that a lot of the apologists took. 7 The shift to monoepiscopacy happened without any explicit notice, though a shift it was. 8 The disagreement over the date of Easter implies either that the apostles taught different dates, in which case the belief that one date was mandated was very likely an error, or else they taught one date, in which case one of the camps was in error in believing the apostles taught the other date. And one early change from NT practice is visible in the catechumenate: an institution that did not exist during the time of the apostles, but became widespread very soon after. Along similar lines, one cannot miss the disparate practice regarding infant baptism from very early in the church’s history. All of these movements suggest that the spread of influence could be very fast, and even for ideas that were not apostolic though they soon were taken to be. Pacifism could be just another example of this.
6. Beliefs about Christian soldiers: Of course, one might object: would not these early pacifistic Christians have known about Christian soldiers in good standing with the church, if there were any such individuals? Probably; but they may have imagined most such soldiers were not violent, and so technically in obedience to the commands of Jesus as they interpreted them. They may have acknowledged a few were violent, but regarded them as sinful and in the minority. These would have been erroneous assumptions, but not impossible ones to imagine them making. And indeed, we must note that Tertullian, who in many places could speak of Christians as pacifist without qualification, in his Apology (42), can say of his fellow Christians to his pagan neighbours: “We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you.” 9 That he does not constantly qualify his unqualified pacifistic statements does not make this statement any less significant, though it does raise interesting questions about why he did not modify his language appropriately, and about whether historians should qualify similar statements among other early Christian pacifists.
7. Idealistic fathers: The final point to make regarding the early church is that most of the pacifistic texts we have come from church rules and Christian teachers. Both kinds of texts are written by people who are concerned to defend and shore up the distinctively Christian identity of their churches. Yet, as in other ages and places, such motivations can sometimes lead to a desire for the church to be a perfected society, and an imagination that it already is one. This can lead to both denials of on-the-ground divergence from the preferred ideal, and a ratcheting up of the preached standards for laypeople. The laypeople, as in other ages, may have taken a different view on the matters, not because they were simply unfaithful, but because they disagreed with the interpretations their intellectual heavy-weights offered. This could have been true in the case of pacifism as well. It would certainly explain the persistent presence of Christians in the army. It would not be the first time that laypeople disregarded the opinions of intellectuals in the face of practical realities.
We will conclude this series with the next installment, reviewing the previous posts and providing final observations.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.