‘The Farthest Limits of the West’:
I will always remember my first visit to Bangor, North Wales (originally the furthest western outpost of the Roman Empire), to attend an interview for a university place in Biblical Studies and History. It was a long journey by train from Birmingham, where I grew up as the son of a Baptist minister, so I arrived in the January darkness and stayed overnight at the theological college in Upper Bangor, along the A5 (Watling Street) towards ‘Ynys Món’ (Anglesey). I had my first lesson in NT Welsh, not NT Greek when I opened the curtains the next warning. On the wall opposite, in large capitals, was the slogan ‘Cariad yw Duw‘ (1 Ioan 4: 8). From my knowledge of the KJV (1 Cor: 13) and what little schoolboy Latin I had learnt several years earlier, I recognised the similarity of ‘cariad’ to Caritas or charity, meaning love: Literally, “Love is God”, with the Welsh ‘inversion’ – I checked it with my hosts. At the end of my first year, I decided I would be better off learning Welsh than Greek, switched to ‘Single Honours’ and by the time I graduated with a certificate in Latin (below), I had little Greek but was making speeches in Welsh, albeit rather broken and anglicised! A favourite hymn that I first learnt in its Welsh version, is the one written by a young Welsh woman in the ‘Great Revival’ of 1904-5, Dyma’r Gariad: Here is Love, vast as the ocean, loving-kindness at the flood …
The Graeco-Roman World of The First Century C.E:
The Greek cities and the Roman colonies had alike had a democratic element written into their constitutions. In the NT period the popular assembly, or town meeting, still had an active, even if a restricted, part to play. But democracy was not flourishing in the first-century empire. Municipal communities tended more and more to reproduce the rigidly stratified structure of imperial society as a whole. At its head was the Roman patrician class, wealthy and amply privileged, with exclusive access to the highest offices of state. At its base was the slave class, upon whose labour the economic structure ultimately rested. Domestic slavery had its alleviations as some masters were considerate, and treated their slaves as subordinate members of their own families. A slave who was well educated, as many were, or demonstrated a skill for some specialist employment, was far too valuable to be treated recklessly. It was possible for a slave to be to earn and save enough to purchase his/her freedom, or s/he might hope for emancipation by testament on their master’s death. A steady stream of emancipated slaves passed into wider society and many who became employed in the imperial civil service were ‘rising men’.
Among the humbler orders of ‘free’ society, with little access to civic privileges, there were voluntary associations or collegia. Such voluntary associations, or clubs, had abounded among all classes in Graeco-Roman society, but the emperors looked on them with suspicion and disallowed them except in so far as their activities could be directed into obviously harmless channels. Associations of tradesmen were permitted, under supervision, and poor men’s ‘friendly societies’ were treated indulgently. They functioned as burial societies and could assure other benefits to their members. More widely, they enabled social intercourse, especially on occasions like the festivals of the deities which a club might have adopted as patrons. These ‘friendly societies’ included in their membership both slaves and free men of the poorest sort and helped to humanise the lot of the rootless proletariat. They seem to have provided a model on which the earliest Christian communities were founded. Their open membership, their regularly appointed officials, the common fund maintained by members’ contributions, and their social meals with a religious complexion, are all features that reappear in adapted forms.
Paul’s Mission & Final Journey – From Caesaria to Rome:
In the New Testament period, the imperial cities could still feel justified pride in their civil liberties. In most cities, there were colonies of Jews whom the Hellenistic monarchs had encouraged to settle, and the emperors continued to accord them favourable treatment. Among the populace in general, however, there was a continual undercurrent of anti-Semitism, sometimes breaking out into violence. On the other hand, there was widespread interest in certain aspects of Jewish thought, and its influence on Greek philosophy was by no means negligible. In the historical context of Paul’s ministry, while questions of individual sin and salvation are vital, but they function in a worldview different from the one Western Christians have normally assumed. As for all devout Jews, Paul’s major problem was with the idolatry of his contemporary world. Humans worshipped idols and therefore behaved in ways that were less than fully human. That was a core Jewish belief, and Paul shared it. What he did not share, as he thought through this tradition in the light of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, was the idea that the people of Israel, as they stood, constituted the answer to the problem, as if all that righteous gentiles had to do was to become Jewish and try to keep the ‘Torah’, and all would be well not only with Israel but with the world. Paul understood that view, having once firmly believed it, but he now firmly rejected it.
What Paul had been doing was undoubtedly ‘political’ in the sense that he was founding and maintaining an interrelated network of communities in contact with the synagogue communities on the one hand and the Roman army and civil service on the other. But Paul’s communities were very different from either. The synagogue told the longer of the two stories that went back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses and Joshua, to David and Solomon. Paul told the same story and regularly explained to the communities that they had been grafted into that great tradition. He was teaching them to claim that they too were a part of Abraham’s family. This, in Paul’s mission, was as much a social and communal strength as it was a theological one. Acceptance of Jesus’ message did not entail giving up an ‘old’ religion in favour of a new one, nor taking on a new philosophy taught by Paul. Rather, people who were used to one type of political reality, with its own peculiar history, were glimpsing a vision of a larger united and more diverse world, and when they looked around them, they discovered at the same time that Rome, after all, could not really deliver on its promises. But Paul was not just synthesizing the world of Israel, Greece and Rome; his was a firmly Jewish picture, rooted in Israel’s ancient story, with Israel’s Messiah firmly in the centre and the nations of the world and their best ideas brought into new coherence around him. Nor was he simply teaching a ‘religion’ or a ‘theology’; if we were to do Paul justice today, as Tom Wright writes, we ought to teach him in departments of politics, ancient history, philosophy and economics, just as much as in divinity schools and departments of religion. In the political world of ancient Rome, Wright points out, there appeared, …
… through the energetic work of this strange man, a vision of a different kind of community owing allegiance to a different kind of Kyrios, offering a different kind of unity, and within it, a different kind of diversity.
The New Commonwealth – Medicine, Education & Poverty:
When the new communities spoke of a different Kyrios, one whose sovereignty was gained through humility and suffering rather than wealth and conquest, many must have found that attractive, not simply for what we would call ‘religious’ reasons, but also for what we would call ‘political’ ones. This looked like something real rather than the smoke and mirrors of imperial rhetoric. But Paul had not articulated a political theory or philosophy to match that of Aristotle and his successors. Rather, this was a kind of social experiment, developing a new way of living together, that the ‘ecclesia’ of the second and third centuries consolidated. Paul seemed to have realised that the power to generate an alternative social and cultural reality, to announce to the watching world that Jesus was Lord and Caesar wasn’t. What Paul first articulated in his letters was reused to encourage Jesus-followers to practice a refreshingly new kind of human society. This included the centrality of the concept of ‘holiness’, counterintuitive for modern Westerners, who have traditionally been ‘turned off’ by the fussy moralism of home, school and church. In the ancient world, however, this was good news for many, especially those who were most vulnerable to patterns of pagan promiscuity – women, the poor, ethnic minorities and children. In his only mention of the Christian movement, the important second-secondary doctor Galen commented on two key points: their belief in the resurrection of the body and the observation that they did not ‘sleep around’ (Galen’s ‘Summary of Plato’s Republic’ in Mary Beard, et.al. (1998), Religions of Rome). Among Christians, the human body was attaining a new dignity, a new value and way of living that few had imagined, which they were modelling. Luke, widely recognised as the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s companion on his early missions, showed great interest in his accounts in matters of health and healing, especially with regard to women.
In particular, those who have studied the life of embryonic Church in the second, third and fourth centuries have emphasised that, against both contemporary and modern-day norms, the Christian message provided a much better prospect for women than a pagan world could. Pagans routinely practised infanticide for unwanted children in general and girls in particular, but Christians followed the Jews in denouncing such behaviour. The consequent shortage of marriageable girls among pagans and the surplus of them among Christians resulted in many marriages between Christian women and pagan men, who would then convert or at least give consent for the children to be brought up as Christians. The fresh evaluation of the role of women, though it came from Jesus himself, was mediated through Paul, who listed several women among his fellow workers, including one ‘apostle’. He saw early on that in the Messiah’s family there was ultimately neither “male nor female,” and entrusted Phoebe with the responsibility of delivering and expounding the letter to the Romans. Paul’s communities were essentially outward-looking and the face they turned outward was the face of active care. For example, Medicine in the ancient world was almost entirely reserved for those who could afford it: within a few generations, Christians were setting up hospitals and caring for all within reach. When a plague struck a town or village and the rich and respectable retreated to their country houses away from the risk of infection, the Christians would stay and nurse the sick, often at risk to their own lives. Nobody had ever envisaged living like that before. Paul didn’t mention this social imperative, but it belongs with the work of healing, which characterised his own ministry at times, and which flowed directly from the things he says about the life of a ‘commonwealth’ whose citizens were commanded to be shining lights in a dark world.
In a similar way, education in the ancient world was almost entirely for the élite. However, because Jewish boys were taught to read and write so that they could study the ‘Torah’, the early Christians were also enthusiastic about reading in a society in which the great majority of pagans were either functionally illiterate or able to read only what was necessary to perform their everyday tasks. Some estimates have put literacy levels at between twenty and thirty per cent. Some Greek cities and islands had rates in excess of this due to traditions of elementary education, but women and slaves were excluded from this. When Paul alludes to “teachers” in his communities, he was no doubt referring to those who taught reading to converts who needed to learn the scriptures of ancient Israel, involving basic skills that many of them had hitherto lacked. We know that the early Christians developed the codex, the ancestor of the modern bound book, which they would only have done to enable more of their fellows to read the texts the community was producing. This insistence on widespread reading and education can be traced directly back to Paul, who tells the churches in his letters to be “grown-up” in their thinking and to be transformed by renewing their minds. He wanted the followers of Jesus not only to think the right things but to think in the right way. As far as we know, they did not found distinct schools at first, but when these did come about, they owed their origins to Paul’s impetus to education.
“Remember the poor,” the Jerusalem apostles had urged Paul. “Yes, ” he replied, “that is precisely what I am most eager to do.” For Paul, this eventually took the form of the collection for Jerusalem, but all the signs are that each local Jesus community had the same priority, primarily due to the teaching and examples of Jesus himself. Paul congratulated the Thessalonians on their practical “love,” agapé, and urged them to continue with it. “Do good to everyone,” he wrote to the Galatians, “and particularly to the household of the faith.” The Gospel itself was designed to create a new kind of people, a people “who would be eager for good works”; in fact, the new kind of humanity that was brought to birth through the Gospel was created for the specific purpose of “good works.” (Gal. 2: 10, 6: 10; 1 Thess. 4: 9-10). People have often misinterpreted the phrase “good works” as simply meaning “the performance of moral rules,” especially when that has been played off against “justification by faith alone.” Morals matter, faith does also, but Paul’s emphasis here is all about communities through whose regular practice the surrounding world is made a better place. The early Christians of the second and third century were clearly doing things that really did transform the wider society they lived in. Their vision was of a society in which each worked for all, and all for each. The possibility they presented was that of escaping the older paganism and its social, cultural, and political practices and finding instead a new kind of community, a koinonia, a “fellowship”.
These communities were demonstrating, on the street, in the home, in the marketplace, what it meant to follow a different Lord, to worship the One God. It was Paul who also provided much of the major intellectual infrastructure for this community. This was not because the other major intellectual constructs of the ancient world had run out of steam. The Stoics, the Epicureans and Platonists all had serious and articulate spokespeople. With hindsight, however, Paul’s vision of The One God, creator of all, and his son Jesus Christ, was able to supplant these philosophies. They were all, in the final analysis, ways of understanding the world and of finding a coherent and meaningful path for humans through it. When later generations wanted to articulate the Christian way, it was to Paul that they looked to for help. It was his robust engagements with the worlds of Israel, Greece and Rome and his translation of them all into the shape of Jesus and the Spirit that offered a platform for the great Christian thinkers of subsequent generations.
But the thinkers were seldom the people who made the Gospel spread: it was the local communities that did this, living out the gospel imperatives, often under waves of persecution. But the Church would not have thrived without their work and its flourishing in subsequent centuries owes much to Paul’s teaching of his followers not only what to think, but how to think. He knew only too well what that would cost, but believed that it was the genuinely human way, a way that would establish itself precisely because of that genuine humanity. Paul’s vision of a united and holy community, prayerful, rooted in the scriptural story of ancient Israel, facing social and political hostility but insisting on doing good to all people, especially the poor, would always be central. His theological vision of the One God reshaped around Jesus and the Spirit and taking on the wider world of philosophy, would provide the robust framework for it all. Tom Wright concludes:
Paul’s work, so contested, so agonising, so demanding, so inevitably open to misunderstanding, would not go to waste, but would grow, would produce not just “a religion” but a new kind of community, a new world. A new polis. A new kind of love.
Injunctions to Loving-kindness & Evangelical Power:
The subsequent history of the Church demonstrates that when it abandons that theological task, we should not be surprised if unity, holiness and care for the poor are sidelined as well. This is why John insists that love of God is shown in the love of the brother (1 Jn.4: 20-21). So we pass from the love of God, Agapé, and through Philos, the love of fellow men and women. We find that the New Testament identifies three relationships in which love is shown. The first is within the church. Many of the injunctions to love in the epistles are primarily within the context of the church (e.g. Rom. 12: 10). To us today, this seems at first sight surprising, turning the church into a mutual admiration society, but this is because modern Christianity is tainted by the heresy of individualism. But very much of the Bible, and very much of life, is about corporate action, about community and about fellowship. Those of us who have experienced Christian fellowship know that it is perhaps the most joyful experience life has to offer. Conversely, when we are deprived of that fellowship, we know how isolating and alienating that can be. We know the evangelical power of koinonia and how people hungry for love have cried, How these Christians love one another! We know that a congregation that merely looks inwards is not a fellowship at all, and ceases to be attractive even to its members.
The second relationship of love is towards our neighbour (Luke 10: 27). For us today, there should be no question as to who the neighbour is. S/He is ‘Everyman’, everyone we encounter, the person we rub up against in life, the person in the next house, at the next desk in the office, next to us in the shopping queue or on the bus. Love has to be comprehensive: it excludes no one. The New Testament message is not Wouldn’t it be nice if we all loved one another! This is to misconstrue completely the nature of love, which does not depend on the character of those towards whom it is directed. Love is not enjoined upon us in Utopia. We do not turn the other cheek only when there is no one to strike the first blow or go the second mile only in a world in which there are no armies of occupation. This is the way in which the Christian is to meet the hoods and thugs and militarists of this world. Love is not sentimental: It does not pretend that evil people do not exist but offers a way to deal with them. Love is concerned with groups as well as with individuals, as noted that we are wrong to read back our largely post-Renaissance preoccupation with individual identity into Biblical times in which individual names were used to represent the collective identities of the Hebrew nations. For example, Love has to do with the corporate being of Jerusalem, over which Jesus shed tears. Love has to do with the Israel of which the prophets spoke and of whose vocation as a martyr-nation, the greatest of them, he was not afraid to speak, and with the new Israel which is the Church. In the New Testament, Love has to do with the relationship between the Jewish people and the Romans, and that between Judaea and Rome.
Throughout the New Testament, it is constantly asserted that love suffers. The suffering of Jesus is the supreme example of love which refuses to meet evil with evil, violence with violence, hate with hate. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes that It was clearly fitting that God for whom and through whom all things exist should, in bringing many sons to glory, makes the leader who delivers them, perfect through sufferings. It is also continually suggested throughout the NT that the Christian who accepts for his own life Christ’s way of love will expect to suffer. The great fact about the Cross, wrote John Ferguson, is that it is an act of God: God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself (II Cor. 5: 19). The Cross reveals God: It reveals the truth about the world and The Way to live through it. This is why Jesus says, “Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind; he must take up his cross and come with me” (Mk. 8: 34; Mt. 16: 24; Lk 9: 23). “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly father’s goodness knows no bounds” (Mt. 5: 48). Jesus did not simply go to the Cross himself, but also left it open for his disciples to go with him (Mk. 10: 38). In rejecting the Cross as ‘folly’, the worldly-wise are rejecting Christ. That is why Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “If you Christians rely on soldiers for your safety, you are denying your own doctrine of the Cross.” This is not a doctrine for a few religious eccentrics or ‘saints’, however, but one which is laid upon anyone who wishes to be a follower of Jesus, and upon the whole church. So Paul can tell the Corinthians, “Follow my example as I follow Christ’s” (I Cor. 11: 1).
‘Caritas’/ ‘Agapé’ – The Way of Love in the New Testament:
Taking a more comprehensive view of the New Testament, then, we can sum up the ‘Way’ of Christ proclaimed within it with one word, “love” or “loving-kindness”, Caritas in Latin (giving us the word charity in English) and Agapé in the original Greek of the Testament. The noun was to all intents and purposes, in the words of J. H. Moulton and George Milligan, born within the bosom of revealed religion. The verb also existed, within a strong tendency to mean “put up patiently with”. Even in the NT, ‘love’ as a verb is far more frequently found than the noun. Christian love is not an abstraction, it is an activity with an object. But it is first and foremost the very nature of God. “God is love” (1 Jn. 4: 8) is the great Christian affirmation. A man, therefore, who using the verb agapan, said “I love my wife” meant “I put up patiently with my wife”. “To love”, in this sense, does not mean just to be sexually and emotionally involved with a partner, but rather “to accept” in the fullest sense of that word, “to seek the well-being of”, no matter what the other person does or how s/he behaves. It is a word of the will and not of the heart. Anders Nygren, in his great study Agape and Eros, has shown that ‘eros’ is the love that seeks to possess, but ‘agape’ is the love that seeks to give. The noun is found in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, where it is used for sexual love. But there it is also used of Love shown towards God and towards that Wisdom which God ‘pours out’ (Wisd. 3: 9; 6: 18).
These uses apart, however, there are very few occurrences of Agapé before the New Testament. It makes only three appearances in the secular Greek of the contemporary period, and in all the reading is highly suspect. It was no doubt the rendering in Wisdom that suggested the Christian usage, but the latter went far beyond the Septuagint. Paul links this ‘love’, which is in God and which is God, with peace, and calls him the God of love and peace, in the very moment when he is urging his correspondents to live in love and peace; their behaviour is to take its well-spring in the very nature and being of God (2 Cor. 13: 11). One thing that the new theology of the 1970s has done is to bring God close, to get rid of the three-storeyed universe with heaven as the upper storey, earth as the ground floor and hell as the basement, and to seek for God not outside but within. If God is in very truth the depth of our being, of all being, as Paul Tillich and John Robinson insisted, we shall find our true way of life in the very nature of God. John Ferguson identified three important corollaries of the fundamental assertion that God is love. First, that:
… love cannot be defined, since to define it is to place limits upon it, and it is impossible to place limits upon God. Love can be apprehended but not comprehended. It can be exemplified but not exhausted.
Secondly, because love is primarily the very being of God and only secondarily seen in his relations with human beings, it is impossible for love to degenerate into any kind of legalism without ceasing to be love. The witness of both the gospels and the epistles in this is consistent. In the gospels, Jesus replaces the Covenant of Moses with the new covenant foreshadowed by Jeremiah (31: 31-33). In the epistles, Paul who had struggled himself to find fulfilment in obedience to the Law, writes of how he had found it in the free response of love to love. Thirdly, because love is God, because it is God’s nature to love, love is not called out by any merit in the recipient. It was not the merit in the lost sheep which sent the Good Shepherd out to find it:
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that is God’s own proof of his love towards us”Romans 5: 8.
When we come to the human response we find identified the directions in which love is expected to flow. First towards God. This is the first commandment (Mt. 22: 37; Lk. 10: 27). The Gospels do not say very much about the practical forms this should take, though John stresses our love for Jesus (Jn. 14: 15; 21: 15-17). Paul speaks naturally of loving God, as do James and the writer of the epistles of John (Rom 8: 28; 1. Cor. 2: 9; 8: 3; James 2: 5; 1 John 4: 20-21). The reason why there is not more stress upon this is partly that it is taken for granted of man as God’s creation, and partly that people cannot really be commanded to love God; it is either a natural impulse or nothing at all (1 Jn. 4: 19). It might seem nonsensical to speak of loving God or seeking his well-being. But as his ‘creatures’, God not only needs us, but he also needs us to love him. There is a mutual relationship, though not an ‘equal’ one, between the divine and the human. But God also needs us to act in loving him. That is what Jesus means in saying, if you love me you will obey my commands (Jn. 14: 15).
This is why John insists that our love of God is shown in our love of our fellows (1 John 4: 20-21). That shifts us from our love of God to our love for mankind. As we have already noted, the NT identifies three relationships in which love is shown. The first is within the church. The New Commandment which Jesus gave in the Upper Room to the first disciples is that they are to love one another (Jn. 15: 12), and many of the injunctions to love in the epistles are primarily within the context of the church (e.g. Rom. 12: 10). This seems surprising at first sight, but very much of the Bible, like much of life, is about corporate action, community and fellowship. The second relationship is towards the neighbour (Lk. 10:27). Jesus sharpens the point by giving an illustration in which the act of neighbourly love cuts across the boundaries of racial and tribal prejudice and depicting a member of a despised group, the Samaritans, giving practical help to a member of a privileged ‘caste’. The point is further sharpened by the third relationship in which love is specified. This is towards ‘enemies’, a word embracing both personal and political enemies (Mt. 5: 44).
The Early Church – War and Peace in the Roman State:
The rapid ‘coral’ growth and consolidation of the Christian Church in the second and third centuries, shown above, was therefore an important factor in moderating the worst excesses of the Roman State. Love is God’s means of meeting and winning over war criminals, imperialists and aggressors.
The New Testament is itself, as I noted in my previous article, a document of the second-century Christian Church, although some of the epistles and gospels were written towards the end of the first century. It was therefore a record not merely of the life and teaching of Jesus but of the beliefs and practices of Christians fifty years later. The simple fact is that for something like a century and a half after the ministry of Jesus, Christians would not do military service, and for more than another century, the predominant sense continued that Christianity and war were incompatible. Christians were therefore charged with undermining the Roman Empire by refusing military service and public office: they answered that human life was sacred to them, that they were given over to peace, that God prohibits killing even in a just cause, without exception, that the weapons of the Christian were prayer, justice and suffering. Even in the fifth century C.E., after the weight of a nominally Christian state authority had been placed in the balance against pacifism for nearly a century, one of Augustine’s correspondents was still complaining that Christian refusal of military service was endangering the empire.
Two factors exercised a pull in the opposite direction. First, from about 173 C.E. we can trace a certain number of Christians in the army. They were always a small proportion until well into the fourth century: only at the end of that century could Theodosius purge the army of pagans.
We can be fairly certain that Christians in the army were soldiers converted to Christianity during their period of service. Church orders from a later period, but incorporating earlier traditions, show that no catechumen (a person under instruction in the Christian faith) or believer might join the army, that soldier-converts were required to refuse to kill, even if commanded to do so, and that serving soldiers could not become full Church members until they had left the army. In the early fourth century, Martin of Tours (born in Szombathély, then part of the Roman province of ‘Pannonia’) converted while still a soldier, stayed in his normal duties till the battle was joined, then said:
“I am a soldier of Christ; I cannot fight”.
Martin was charged with cowardice and jailed, but in response to the charge, offered to show his sincerity by going out into the front line armed only with a cross. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was released from military service. We must remember, of course, that this was the period of the immeasurable majesty of the Roman Peace, and many soldiers would never see battle but were engaged in construction projects.
The second factor was the exploration of the concept of the just war by the Roman thinker, Cicero in the first century B.C. This was based on three principles: that there must be a just cause, that there must be a formal declaration of war by the constituted authority, and that the war must be conducted justly. A version of this doctrine was taken up by the Christian apologists, Tertullian and Origen. But it was not accepted as having any validity for Christians themselves. Both were determined in their belief that Christians must not be associated with the taking of life ‘even justly’. But both of them allow a relative justification of violent actions for good motives in pre-Christian lives or among non-Christians. What they were saying to their pagan critics was:
The standard laid upon us as Christians is to take no part in war: this we fulfil. The standard laid upon you as pagans is to take no part in any save just wars; you had best be careful that you fulfil this.
But they opened the door for Ambrose and Augustine to apply this standard to the nominally Christian empire of their own day.
The turning point was the ‘conversion’ of Constantine, whose family were worshippers of the Unconquered Sun, at some point following his victory in battle at Milvian Bridge in 312 (though he was not baptised until towards the end of his life). He was himself born to the purple and called to it by the will of his father’s soldiers. When he was marching to secure the supreme power for himself he saw a cross in the sky superimposed on the sun, a rare but attested version of the halo-phenomenon, and the words came to him, ‘triumph in this’.
He put the ‘chi-rho’, a pattern of cross and circle spelling the first two letters of the name of Christ in Greek on his soldiers’ shields, and he did indeed triumph.
This was the first form of syncretism, with a Christian symbol coming from the sun. His family had shown tolerance towards Christianity, and Constantine now brought in official policies of toleration. The Christians, now able to trade freely, began to taste worldly power and wealth. In the meantime, Constantine did not reject his past. Pagan gods were still officially honoured and pagan symbols appeared on his coins. Even when he established the new capital of Constantinople, the ‘Fortune’ of the City was still honoured and Constantine’s own statue was set up with the rayed crown of the Sun god formed, as he believed, from the nails with which Christ was crucified. Syncretism was limited. Constantine was baptised on his deathbed and though he had not been wholly insincere, he was ruthless in his pursuit of power. His understanding of Christianity was therefore also limited, since his god was always a god of power, never a god of love.
The fortunes of the Church were now tied up with those of the state. Yet the pacifism of Christ’s teaching remained. So Eusebius (see the inset below), writing in the reign of Constantine, advanced a new theory which, in fact, separated full Christian obedience from the political realm. According to this, there were two levels of Christian vocation. The clergy were to be totally dedicated to God and to live in accordance with the fullness of life shown in the New Covenant; the laity was to exercise the normal obligations of citizenship. The implications of this are first worked out by Ambrose and Augustine. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, prayed for the victory of the Roman armies, identifying the invading Goths with evil. The Old Testament is never far from his thoughts. The Church and the Empire were interdependent: the defence of the empire was a kind of holy war. But Ambrose, though less scrupulous than his more refined theories in dealing with heretical barbarians, applied Cicero’s just war doctrines, buttressed by the Old Testament, to form a Christian philosophy of war.
Ambrose’s philosophy was taken up and codified by Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius in Africa. Based on his interpretation of the Old Testament, he claimed that war was the instrument of divine judgement for wickedness, and tried to reconcile this with the obviously divergent teachings of the New Testament by interpreting it in an inward and spiritual sense, insisting on absolute pacifism in personal relations, but laying much stress upon the natural order. Augustine further enlarged Cicero’s doctrine of the just war by turning it into a kind of penal sanction. So righteousness became justice, and justice was interpreted in terms of law; love was left as an inner disposition that might be a proper motive for punishing a sinner. Augustine, though sceptical of power politics, dissuaded General Boniface from becoming a monk: there was a soldier’s work to do first, telling him that the object of war was peace.
The ‘Dark Ages’ and Middle Ages in Europe:
During the centuries known as ‘the Dark Ages’ which followed the end of the empire, it is not easy to discern that the New Testament made much difference to the public behaviour of lay Christians, despite the rather unjustified reputation of the period for killing and destruction. In this respect, it was no ‘darker’ than many other periods, except in the sense that we have fewer written records than exist for the Graeco-Roman era.
A famous story of Clovis, military hero of the Franks (see the timeline above), tells how he learned of the crucifixion and remarked, If I and my Franks had been there, it would never have happened.
Clovis and his army went on their way after his conversion to Catholic Christianity. The oldest surviving German poem actually exalts Simon Peter for drawing his sword in Gethsemane. Charlemagne fought against pagans and infidels with the papal blessing: military force compelled the conversion of the Saxons in these wars, in which even the clergy fought, whereas they did not, as a rule, take part in war. The Synod of Ratisbon in 742 had pronounced:
We absolutely and in all circumstances forbid all God’s servants to carry arms, to fight, and to march against an army or against an enemy.
The Church Council of Meaux in 845 declared:
Those who are members of the clergy are not to take up or carry arms … for they cannot be at the same time soldiers of the world and soldiers of God.
Pope Nicholas I (858-67) wrote:
The soldiers of the world are distinct from the soldiers of the Church. Hence it is unfitting to the soldiers of the Church to fight for the affairs of the world, which involves them inevitably in the shedding of blood.
Pope John VIII (872-82) wrote:
It is absolutely opposed to the service of bishops and priests and to the dignity of their character to engage in warfare.
Most ‘penitentials’ prescribed a forty-day penance for those who killed a man even in open battle under superior orders. The Arundel Penitential actually prescribes a one-year penance for the taking of life in a just war. Attitudes remained ambivalent, however, and those who died faithfully in war were widely considered to have ‘merited’ prayers, offerings and masses. Pope Leo IV, in the turbulent ninth century, supported the Frankish armies and expressed the hope that those who died in defence of the faith would merit eternal life. Later in the same century, Pope John VIII promised indulgences to those who died fighting infidels and pagans.
During the Dark Ages, Western Europe was in fact racked with wars both internal and external, from major international wars to petty private feuds between neighbouring city-states. In the tenth century, the Archbishop of Bordeaux attempted to control the devastation by initiating the ‘Peace of God’, to exempt from violence certain noncombatants, such as clergy, women, unarmed peasants and merchants. In the following century, the ‘Truce of God’ was an attempt to put an end to the unbroken hostilities by limiting them to certain days and months according to the Church calendar, but it is not clear how successful this was. Furthermore, there was sometimes a curious literalism that enabled the clergy to take part in battle. In 1182, the Archbishop of Mainz fought in battle with a mace, killing nine men, thus avoiding the stain of bloodshed through the use of a sword. But even among the laity, there was a continuing sense that the shedding of blood was incompatible with the New Testament and required expiation and penitentials, such as that of Egbert (c. 750).
From the end of the eleventh century, another ‘solution’ was sought through the Crusades. These were an attempt to discourage internecine strife by concentrating military energy on a single external enemy under the guidance and blessing of the papacy. This can be seen in the policies of Gregory VII (1073-85). In 1093 Urban II promulgated the Truce of God, and at Clermont two years later pronounced it a law of the Church, at the same time initiating the First Crusade, ‘the righteous war against the infidel’, promising those participating blessings in heaven and treasures of earth in the form of ‘booty’. This was not Augustine’s just war; it was more akin to Augustine’s use of ‘the secular arm’ to suppress heresy. But it was a course of action that enabled a man as spiritually sensitive and profound as Bernard of Clairvaux to divert the pacifistic message to the cause of war and make bellicose statements in its place. Monastic pacifism was confined to the abbeys, and the monastic military orders of the Templars, Hospitallers and Knights of St John emerged. The Crusades had behind them a strong element of high idealism. Probably no religion, not even Islam, has ever launched quite such an intensive succession of holy wars. But their motives were complex; they have been seen, for example, as a continuation in the movement of the Teutonic peoples of central Europe, and as an anticipation of the later expansiveness of western Europe. Nevertheless, the Crusades attracted people from all the countries of Europe, and they were a striking example of both the unity and the religious zeal of medieval Europe.
The Second Crusade actually became an attack on Christian Constantinople and had the effect of weakening the defences of Christendom against Islam. It was encouraged by the preaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, and was led by Louis VII of France and the ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. The expedition was marked by a series of disasters which culminated in the defeat of the Siege of Damascus. This astounded and angered its leaders and supporters, who began to blame the Greeks for their ‘treachery’. Consequently, Bernard began to preach that a campaign be mounted against Constantinople. In 1204 the Doge of Venice persuaded an expedition of knights (the fourth Crusade) to besiege and conquer the city. The ‘Rape of Constantinople’ made an indelible impression on the Orthodox people and whatever ties that still existed between them and Rome were severed. A Latin Empire in Byzantium was set up which lasted until 1261, with the lands of the Empire divided into feudal holdings and presented to the crusaders. A Latin patriarch was appointed, but the Roman Church made little impression on the Greek population. In general, the Crusades also left Muslims with the picture of Christians as militaristic imperialists, and the Crusaders’ camps did much to increase their contempt for Christian moral indiscipline.
Some contemporary Christian thinkers and writers were also among those who held the Crusades to be both cruel and useless; they believed that infidels should be converted, not attacked, and that they would be more likely to convert if the Christians were less aggressive and rapacious. In about 1140 a monk named Gratian compiled a volume entitled Concordia Discordantium Canonum, but generally known as Decretum. This is a major document in the history of Christian thinking about the Just War. Gratian borrows from Augustine and Roman law. According to him military service is not inherently sinful: its proper purposes are to repel injuries and to inflict punishment. A war is just if undertaken to repel enemy aggression or to recover stolen property; to avenge injuries through an authoritative edict; to assert a legal right. It requires authority, obedience, and a just cause. But Gratian is imprecise in defining legal authority, and still more imprecise in his remarks upon just means, though he declares immunity for clergy, women, pilgrims, monks and the unarmed poor. Gratian introduced the concept of the Just War into modern international jurisprudence. His views were taken up by Rufinus in 1157, who tried to sharpen Gratian’s definition: a war was made just in terms of three groups; the ‘person’ (those) declaring it, the soldiers fighting it and the enemies it was being fought against. It must be declared by a properly constituted authority, fought with worthy zeal and directed against a guilty party. Other followers of Gratian sharpened other parts of his definition.
There were a great many arguments and refinements produced throughout the Middle Ages as the technology of warfare, especially siege warfare developed with attempts to control these new means of war, but much of this seems to have been due to the fact that these technologies did not discriminate between the nobles and ‘the commoners’ as targets. Added to this, in the thirteenth century criticism arose of the crusading principle; men such as Raymond Lull argued for peaceful missions to convert the Muslims, rather than armed expeditions to subdue them. The Franciscans, who developed from the teaching of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) show the ambiguities of the period clearly. They were among the foremost exponents of the view that the Crusades were not the right way to spread the Christian Gospel among Muslims; they were among the most dynamic missionaries of the age, however. The whole tenor of Francis’s approach to life was pacifistic, yet it was the Franciscan theologians who were most concerned with the precise formulation of the Just War doctrine. They analysed the requirements into five: person, circumstances, cause, intention and authority. If any one of these criteria was deemed deficient by the Church, the war could be declared unjust.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Western Europe itself was more settled and the security of the cloistered monarchy was less necessary. Many clergymen recognised the need to bring a new form of spirituality to the people and found a method that would enable them to work in the world but at the same time live under a spiritual rule. Among the orders that operated in this fashion were the Premonstratensians, who had a rule resembling that of the Cistercians, and the Augustinians, who used the rule of Augustine. They followed as much of the monastic life as was possible, while carrying out their duties of preaching and teaching in the world. At the beginning of the thirteenth century new groups of preaching monks, the friars, arose.They won respect in society, preaching in the parishes and town squares, and teaching in schools and universities, while remaining ascetic in lifestyle. Besides the Franciscans, the Dominicans were founded by Dominic de Guzman (1170-1221) and their black cloaks, as shown in the central picture above, gave them the name ‘Black Friars’. They produced leading medieval theologians, including Thomas Aquinas.
The monumental genius of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) brought the whole doctrine of the Just War into a clearer and more systematic form, expressed in Aristotelian concepts which in his day were revolutionary. Aquinas began by countering the pacifist interpretation of the New Testament. To the statement that all who take the sword shall perish by the sword he asserted that this did not apply to those in public authority. To the words ‘Resist not evil’, he gave an inward and spiritual interpretation, and claimed primacy of the common good. To the exaltation of peace he answered that just wars are undertaken for the sake of peace. A just war requires authority, and primarily the mandate of a prince charged with the common good; a just cause, primarily a guilty enemy; and a just intention, to promote good or to avoid evil. This last extended the application of the criteria from ends to means. Aquinas’s achievement was to bring together Augustine’s concept of war as a punishment for sin and the Aristotelian emphasis on the common good. It formed a bridge between the knightly warrior and the standing army. There were other crusades, some pathetic, like the Children’s Crusade, others militarily effective, such as the one Frederick II embarked upon when he was excommunicated. But with the fall of the crusader states in 1291 the movement lost its impetus. As well as alienating the Eastern Christians, two centuries of contact with the East caused cultural changes which in turn had a lasting effect on life in the West.
Renaissance & Reformation:
When we come to the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, the story becomes inordinately complex. In the later middle ages, there were a number of pacifist groups, mostly among the unorthodox sectaries. These are dealt with by Norman Cohn in his ground-breaking (1957) book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, which I have written about in greater detail elsewhere on my website (see below). One early group were the Waldensians, based in central Europe (especially Bohemia), some of whom were persuaded to return to the Church and were granted exemption from military service. Another, the Cathari, who refused to take animal life, believing in transmigration, though some of them defended themselves with violence when attacked. One of these was Nicholas of Hereford, who declared: Jesus Christ, duke of oure batel, taught us laws of pacience and not to fight bodily. In 1395 the Lollards presented to Parliament their ‘Twelve Conclusions’. The tenth condemns war:
The tende conclusion is, that manslaute be batayle … with outen special revelaciun is expres contrarious to the newe testament, the qwiche is a lawe of grace and ful of mercy. This conclusion is opinly procud be example of Cristis preching here in erthe, the qwiche most taute for to love and to have mercy on his enemys and nout for to slen them … The lawe of mercy, that is the new testament, forbad al mannislaute … be mekenesse and suffraunce our beleve was multiplied, and fytheres and mansleeris Iehsu Crist hatith …
Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380 – 25 July 1471) wrote that for nothing in the world, neither for love of any creature is evil to be done. Love cannot use evil means to encompass a good end. “The end justifies the means” has been the usual cry of ‘Machiavellian’ politicians down the centuries since then, but it is antithetical to Christian teaching. If the means used are inherently ‘evil’, i.e. corrupt and immoral, the ends, however justified, will always be flawed, doomed to eventual failure. The formulation of the Just War theory was finalised by three great Catholic theologians of the sixteenth century: Vitoria, Bellarmine and Suarez. There were four basic criteria:
(i) it must be proclaimed by lawful authority;
(ii) the cause must be just;
(iii) the belligerents should have a rightful intention, to advance good or avoid evil;
(iv) the war must be fought by proper means.
It is hard not to see in the doctrine of the Just War a conformity of the Church to the unredeemed standards of the world. It was an attempt, accepting the fact of war, to keep it under control and enabled those in power to claim that any violence against them was automatically unjust; it was a consolidation of the authority of the pope, emperor and kings, who were granted a monopoly of violence. But it was subject to two major disadvantages. First, there was no objective tribunal to declare a cause just. The authority declaring the ‘just’ war is the advocate, judge, jury and executioner. If, as the biographer of Luther, Roland Bainton put it, all war is ‘self-vindication without due process of law’, then the doctrine of the Just War gives a veneer of self-justification but not an atom of legality. Second, it seems to have very little to do with the Christian faith. The arguments of Augustine or Aquinas are a substitution of the teaching of the New Testament by Greek philosophy or Roman law. There is nothing, literally nothing, distinctively Christian about the result. Yet these are the considerations that have dominated the thinking of the majority of Christians for most of the history of the Church to the present day, as the recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen have reminded us in this millennium.
The Hussites of Bohemia and Moravia owed a debt to John Wycliffe, especially for his translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible. They developed a pacifist wing through the leadership of Peter Czelcicky (c. 1390-1460). These brethren of the Law of Christ resolved that they would not defend themselves by the use of armed violence. New peace groups emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were very various; some were humanist. Christian humanism was not incompatible with nationalistic militarism, as we can see in Zwingli or Ulrich von Hutten. But, on the whole, humanism leant towards pacifism.
Erasmus of Rotterdam was the foremost exponent of humanistic pacifism. In theory, as a loyal Catholic he subscribed to the doctrine of the just war; in practice, he did not accept that any of the wars of his time were just.
His celebrated tract The Complaint of Peace is a blend of classical humanism and New Testament Christianity, a passionate deprecation of the horrors of war and plea for commitment to the Christ who is Prince of Peace.
Erasmus did not stand alone. Agrippa of Nettesheim listed the horrors of war, whose …
… whole art studies nothing else but the subversion of mankind, transforming men into beasts and monsters so that War is nothing but a general Homicide and Robbery by mutual Consent. He attacked ‘the many Orders of Holy Soldiers, all whose religion consists in Blood, Slaughter, Rapine and Pyracy, under pretence of defending and enlarging the Christian faith; Christ and the Apostles teach quite another doctrine.
Of more ultimate importance in the history of Christianity, however, was the emergence of the historic peace churches, the Anabaptists (developing into the Mennonites and Hutterites), the Brethren and the Quakers. They are often grouped together, and with all of them, the refusal to participate in war is based on their interpretations of the New Testament and the teachings and examples of Jesus. In 1539, the itinerant former priest, Menno Simons (1496-1561) wrote:
The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife. They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and know of no war … Since we are to be conformed to the image of Christ, how can we then fight our enemies with the sword? … Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine’s blood of well-nigh equal value …
Anabaptists also spread in large numbers eastwards to the Tyrol and Moravia. When the Tyrolean Catholic authorities began to persecute them intensely, many of them found refuge on the lands of the tolerant princes of Moravia. There they founded a very long-lasting form of economic community called the Bruderhof. In part, they aimed to follow the pattern of the early apostolic community as well as a means of group survival under persecution. Their communities attempted to show that brotherhood comes before self in the kingdom of God. Consolidated under the leadership of Jakob Hutter (d. 1536), these were the groups who became to be known as ‘Hutterites’. Three groups survived beyond the mid-sixteenth century; the Mennonites in the Netherlands and northern Germany; the ‘brethren’ in Switzerland and southern Germany; and the Hutterites in Moravia.
The pacifism of the radical Protestant sects has taken very different forms. The Anabaptists have tended to remain aloof from political activity and have been termed ‘apolitical’. John C. Bennett, a noted non-pacifist, saw the Mennonites as the outstanding example of the ‘strategy of withdrawal’. Over the centuries, the descendants of the early Anabaptists lost many of their distinct characteristics. Seeking purity, they became legalistic. In the interests of sheer survival, they lost evangelical fervour, but instead became known as excellent farmers, good people, and the ‘Quiet in the Land’. Not until the late nineteenth century did they experience revival. By then, many had resettled in North America, especially what by then had become the Dominion of Canada. A century later, in the 1970s they were experiencing rapid growth; between 1950 and 1975 their worldwide membership more than doubled to a total of 580,000. The Mennonites’ radical discipleship made them unique actors in the drama of the Reformation. George Fox and the Quakers also withdrew from military and political activity in the wake of the Civil Wars in Britain. Fox’s refusal to fight for Cromwell was expressed in classic words: I live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.
William Dewsbury, like many other Quakers in Cromwell’s army up to 1652, had seen the war against the King as a crusade, but then heard the word of the Lord say to him, ‘put up thy sword into thy scabbard’, and came to realise that he must use only spiritual weapons. So, too, Isaac Pennington wrote that fighting is not suitable to a gospel spirit, but to the spirit of the world and the children thereof. So the ‘Friends’ disowned what Fox called ‘carnal weapons’. People who believe in conscientious decisions are never good at blind obedience, and people who believe in social equality or ‘levelling’ disrupt the distinction between officer and private soldier, and people who respect the conscience of others find it hard to see the issues of war and peace in ‘black and white’ terms. At the same time, this very fact gave Friends respect for the conscience of the soldier, not least because many of them, like James Naylor (below), had served in the parliamentarian army and fought in the Battle of Dunbar (above) in 1651.
In their peace testimony of 1660, the Quakers were seeking to reassure the restored King that they would not return to arms against him. This was a promise of ‘passivism’ (or ‘Quietism’, especially after the Naylor incident) rather than the active ‘pacifism’ for which they were later renowned. This showed that there were other factors in play in this, as General Monck, Parliamentarian turned Coldstream Guard ‘restorer’ of Charles II (pictured right) ruefully observed. Later in the century they became more active in politics and William Penn, a former soldier, is an obvious example of this in the context of the New World. He was the founder of Philadelphia, the city of ‘brotherly love’, the concept based on the innate goodness of individual citizens:
Governments rather depend upon men than men upon governments. Let men be good, and government cannot be bad. If it be ill, they will cure it. But if men be bad, let government be ever so good, they will endeavour to to warp and spoil it to their tune.
Puritan Reformers & Radicals:
Traditionally, therefore, Quakers have started from an evangelical belief in personal testimony; among their ‘Advices and Queries’ is:
Are you faithful in maintaining our testimony against all war as inconsistent with the spirit and teaching of Christ? Do you live in the life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars?
The consequences of this for William Penn was that he went unarmed to meet the American Indians and to sign a treaty with them. But among the ‘Friends’, there remained a firm and dominant belief about the political consequences of their personal commitment. As George Fox testified:
We love all men and women, simply as they are men and women and as they are God’s workmanship, and so as brethren.
In many ways, however, the most profound of the early Protestant pacifists was the leader of the Swiss Brethren, Conrad Grebel, whose attitude was rooted in his understanding of the New Testament. He stood by a witness to absolute, non-resisting love, rejecting all forms of war and violence, personal and political. His interpretation was not simply based on selected texts, but upon a holistic view of scripture and in particular upon the concept of the suffering Church. So Grebel and his associates wrote to the militant Thomas Münzer, who was advocating the use of revolutionary violence to bring about the ‘End Days’:
The Gospel and those who accept it are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves. … Truly believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter; anguish and affliction, tribulation, persecution, suffering and death must be baptism; they must be tried with fire, and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest, not by killing them bodily, but by mortifying their spiritual enemies. Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since by them killing is entirely abrogated. … If you are willing to defend war, then I admonish you not to do so. … And if you must suffer for it, know well that it cannot be otherwise. Christ must yet more suffer in His members. But He will strengthen and keep them steadfast to the end.
These were all small minority groups, as were all the various sects of the radical reformation, whether violent or non-violent in their methods and social attitudes. The mainstream Protestant Reformers, on the whole, began from the Just War doctrine. Martin Luther offered a sharp dichotomy between the state and the Church, both ordained by God, the minister of the state, or ‘magistrate’ being armed with the sword and the minister of the Church with the Word. Luther believed that both were instruments of Christian love, which operated differently in different spheres: he would not have the gospel defended by violence and murder, but regarded the pacifism of Jesus as no more binding on his followers than his celibacy. The Christian might not fight the Turk for religious reasons, but the Emperor might do so for legitimate political ones. Further, the rejection of the monastic calling gave a stronger sense of divine vocation to lay occupations, including that of the soldier. Luther recognised three broad areas of vocation; agriculture (food and medicine), education (including the ministry) and government (including the military). But Luther was strongly opposed to the idea of ‘crusades’, and equally strongly opposed to Thomas Müntzer‘s revolutionary violence in the Peasants’ War of 1525. Luther bitterly opposed the uprising, which was supported by many and led by Münzer, who was himself able and and learned. During its course a hundred thousand perished, and indescribable misery followed the destruction of farms, agricultural implements and cattle.
Luther always attempted to work with a ‘godly prince’. He made a clear-cut division between the concerns and responsibilities of church and state. Inevitably, this brought him into conflict with the radical reformers who often expressed their theology in terms of the revolutionary and millennarian hopes of the age. The radicals, sometimes called ‘enthusiasts’, also wanted to carry out a complete spiritual reformation of the church, and expected Christians to live by the standards and teaching of Scripture. Their reform programme was more far-reaching than most people would accept. Zwingli and Jean Calvin, more theocratic in their belief in making the city a corpus Christianum, held to both the ‘Just War’ and the ‘Holy War’. Zwingli had once been close to Grebel, but moved far away from his theology of suffering love, advocated war in defence of the New Israel, and himself died fighting: Luther saw his death as a judgement for taking up the sword as a minister of the Gospel. Calvin was still more militantly theocratic, seeing the state as a positive instrument in support of true religion. His associate Theodore Beza justified violent rebellion; society is a covenant between God, the ruler and the people, and if the ruler violates that triangular relationship, the people under God may use violence to vindicate it.
The Anabaptists came to elaborate upon the ‘congregational’ view of Church government and authority, to which Luther and Zwingli had inclined in their earlier reforming years. In this view, all members were to be voluntarily baptised believers, having made a confession of faith. Decision-making was to be by the entire membership, based not on dogmatic tradition or an individual priesthood, but by the consensus of the local gathering. The members were therefore expected to act corporately, by assisting each other to live out their commitments faithfully. Together, they were committed to restoring the church to the vigour and faithfulness of its earliest centuries. In reading and interpreting the Scriptures, they believed that the early Christian congregations were not wealthy and powerful in worldly terms, but a brotherhood of love and a family of faith. That faith was viewed as a ‘free gift of God’ and that the civil authorities exceed their competence when they ‘champion the Word of God with a fist’. They also believed that the church was meant to be separate from society, even if that society claimed to be Christian. Christ’s true people are ‘a pilgrim people’. Following the events in Münster of 1534-35, ‘Anabaptism’ became a by-word for fanaticism and violence, but many of the principles of the Münsterites, especially the linking of Church and State, subsequently became more typical of the ‘established’ Reformed churches.
The results of these views were the wars of religion, fought with great bitterness and many atrocities, over the course of the best part of the following century and over most of Europe. Fairfax and Cromwell’s New Model Army is the great seventeenth-century example of Christianity in arms. The Puritans had clearly wrestled with the doctrine of the Just War, but that allowed no justification for rebellion against the ‘prince’. Following Calvin’s teaching, the religious and political ‘Independents’ in the Army and in Parliament ended the wars by arguing that a King who behaved tyrannically ceased to hold legitimate authority. Again, I have written extensively about the historical details surrounding these issues elsewhere on my sites (see ‘sources’ below).
World-wide Warfare in Modern Times:
In the eighteenth century, war became colonial, transcontinental and inter-continental, but was no longer justified on mainly religious grounds. After 1815, Europe enjoyed a century of relative peace, even though war continued to be exported to the rest of the world, developing ever-more industrialised methods of mass killing. The churches, apart from the traditional peace churches and a small but vociferous minority among Baptists and Methodists in Britain, held to the doctrine of the just war. For most Christians, it was unthinkable that nationalism and Christianity should pull in opposite directions, but if they did – in a time of declining church attendances – it was inevitable that nationalism would win out.
When a new and unprecedentedly devastating war shattered Europe in 1914, jingoistic ministers on both sides gave it their support as if it were a holy war. In December 1914, an English Quaker, Henry Hodkin, with the Presbyterian Richard Roberts and about 130 others, met in Cambridge and formed the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which later became international, and remains the principal ecumenical Christian pacifist movement. The basis of it was expressed in five points, the first two of which are:
That Love, as revealed and interpreted in the life and death of Jesus Christ, involves more than we have yet seen, that it is the only power by which evil can be overcome, and the only sufficient basis of human society.
That, in order to establish a world order based on Love, it is incumbent upon those who believe in this principle to accept it fully, both for themselves and in relation to others, and to take the risks involved in doing so in a world which does not as yet accept it. …Founding statement of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Between the wars, this pacifist understanding of Christianity became more widespread, though it did not touch more than a tiny fraction of the main branches of the faith – Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed. It was strongest in the English-speaking countries, and among the Nonconformist churches. Nazism led many Christians to oppose Hitler’s ambitions by violence, if necessary, and to shield and assist the Jews of Europe in whatever ways they could. Many theologians, churchmen and congregations saw opposition to German aggression as clearly falling within the scope of the just war, and as a kind of crusade for democracy and peace.
But many other Christian pacifists, like Canon Dick Sheppard (above), opposed any return to war in absolute terms, establishing the Peace Pledge Union in the mid-thirties in Britain. It became associated, perhaps unfairly, with the National Government’s policy of ‘Appeasement’.
Sheppard became depressed by the lack of support from his fellow Anglicans. Appealing on the radio for aid to the Abyssinian refugees, he let his feelings get the better of him:
“I cannot understand why professing Christians lack an overwhelming sense of mission – unless they do not believe in their religion.”
Such outbursts drew criticism from fellow churchmen and the BBC insisted that he did not preach pacifism on the airways. Many regarded his absolutist position as simplistic. He held that any resort to arms was contrary to the teaching of Jesus. Although his own pacifism sprang from faith, the PPU was open to all, whether believers or atheists. Few of its prominent pacifist supporters were Christians, which alienated potential members who were even more, especially when the writer Aldous Huxley rejected Christian belief in an ‘exclusive deity’ as leading inevitably to war.
After the former Labour leader, George Lansbury, visited Hitler in early 1936, Sheppard became increasingly depressed about the popular press portrayal of the pacifist movement as ‘cranky’. The celebrated Methodist orator Donald Soper helped to restore support among Christian support for it, as did Vera Brittain, who wrote:
What Dick Sheppard and his friends offered to their fellows was not … a policy but a principle – the revolutionary principle put forward and still rejected by the majority of mankind, in the Sermon on the Mount.Vera Brittain, Testimony of Experience, p. 170.
Many others were abandoning the absolutist pacifist view in the face of international events which shook any remaining ‘optimists’ out of their complacency. For Sheppard and the PPU the Spanish Civil War was just another sign of the pacifists’ impotence in the face of the shifting and clashing tectonic plates of history. Despondent, he died the following year, aged fifty-seven, alone in his garret in the narrow alleyway by St. Paul’s. Three years later, the great Cathedral was one of the few buildings in the neighbourhood to survive the Blitz on the City (see below). Meanwhile, in the USA, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, revolted by a convenient and sentimental pacifist mood not rooted in theology, was particularly influential in putting the alternative ‘pessimistic’ view that Christians live in an imperfect world, are imperfect themselves and cannot hope to live out the perfect way of Jesus against that background. The Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (above left) paid with his life for taking part in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
But following the Second World War, Christians have been increasingly uneasy with the extended use of just war theories to justify a series of proxy wars by rival superpowers and the escalation of nuclear weapons. Among the Catholic hierarchy, for example, Bishop Butler spoke at Vatican II:
Let us indeed show all sympathy for statesmen in their immense difficulties; let us gratefully acknowledge their good intentions. But let us add a word of reminder that good ends do not justify immoral means; nor do they justify even a conditional intention of meeting immoral attack with immoral defence. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
In the second half of the twentieth century, the phrases ‘ethical existentialism’, ‘situation ethics’ and ‘the new morality’ were all phrases coined or adapted by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s. He condemned the new morality insofar as it involved a tendency to subordinate the objective moral law to some kind of subjective judgement which the individual claims to be immediate and decisive, but not insofar as it involved the exercise of proper prudence to the application of Natural Law to particular cases. Cardinal Ottaviani pronounced bellum omnino interdicendum; ‘War is to be completely outlawed’. In his message of October 1975, Pope Paul VI spoke on the ‘implacable theme of peace’, and declared that arms and wars are to be excluded from civilization’s programmes, and that the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is no longer a simple, ingenuous and dangerous utopia, but the new Law of Mankind. Modern ‘situation ethics’ and ‘moral relativism’ made their impact on the relationships between Christianity and the State in democratic countries in the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, these have tended to underestimate the abiding strength of the factor of commitment, to faith in action, as set out so often in the NT (e.g. Lk. 9: 62).
Pacifism & the ‘Just War’ in an Age of Mass Warfare:
The doctrine of the Just War largely broke down in the face of the immensely destructive weapons available and incompatible with the limitations traditionally imposed by that doctrine. Probably the majority of ordinary Christians, however, thought of war not as just but as justified. They do not see how the Nazis could have been checked except by war and saw the war against them as justified because it ended the threat of a world dominated by totalitarian and fascist régimes. For the majority of the Christian laity at all times, the claims of their nation have been paramount, even when called to fight against their fellow Christians; often they have gone to war because they could see no realistic alternative. The historic association of the Christian faith with nations of commercial enterprise, imperialistic expansion and technological advancement has meant that Christian peoples, although their faith is one of the most pacifistic in its origins, have records of military service or activity (depending on our points of view) that are second to none.
The uneasiness which nuclear arms proliferation produced was evident in the World Council of Churches document Violence, Nonviolence and the Struggle for Social Justice in 1973, in which there were three major assertions. First, that non-violence is the only Christian method. Second, that violence is permitted only in extreme circumstances in which there must be a just cause, the exhaustion of other possibilities, a reasonable expectation of realising the attainment of the desired ends, just methods and a positive concept of the ensuing order. Third, that those in situations of violence cannot help but react with violence; non-violence means opting out; the Christian must stay in, humanise the means of conflict and build just structures for peace. Some types of violence were ruled out altogether: conquest, the oppression of class or ‘race’, torture, the taking of hostages and the killing of non-combatants. This was more concerned with revolutionary situations and civil wars, especially in the ‘liberation theology’ of Latin America at that time, which I have dealt with in a previous article in this series. Despite these limitations as a document, which Ferguson accepts, in its reappraisal of these issues, it was a great leap forward from the unthinking acceptance of the violence by most church leaders in 1914 or even 1939.
In this sea change, there were three major factors. First, the development of nuclear arms and other weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction has made it clear that no future international war could ever conform to the principles of the just war laid down by generations of church leaders to regulate ‘conventional’ battlefield warfare. Secondly, the work of concerned and committed scholars established, beyond many challenges, that the way of Jesus and the New Testament is pacifist, though it remains an open question as to how we are called to follow this in practice into the third millennium. Thirdly, the practical experience of a number of exponents of religion in politics, such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, much influenced by Christianity in South Africa and in India, Helder Camara in Brazil, and Martin Luther King in the USA (see inset above), showed in the last century that there are alternative methods which seem closer to the way of Jesus in effectively resisting violence and challenging tyranny without recourse to violence. Ultimately that way of love and nonviolence is identical with the Christian way of life, and non-Christians who take love seriously might also identify with these words of John Ferguson, concluding his exploration of the Politics of Love:
Christ showed us a new way, a way of life, a way of changing the world. It was politically relevant. It was in its own way revolutionary. …
Norman Cohn (1957, 1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. St Albans: Granada Publishing.
Robert C. Walton (ed.) (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.
John Ferguson (1973), The Politics of Love: The New Testament and Non-Violent Revolution. Cambridge: James Clarke (in association with The Fellowship of Reconciliation).
John Ferguson (1977), War and Peace in the World’s Religions. London: Sheldon Press.
Tim Dowley; Briggs, Linder & Wright (eds.) (1977), The History of Christianity, A Lion Handbook. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.
Tom Wight (2018), Paul: A Biography. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths. London: Allen Lane.
Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray.
See also my ‘archive’ of articles at chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com: