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Was the Early Church Pacifistic? A Response to Paul Copan (#11)

In Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) I argue that Jesus and Paul instruct Christians to love and bless their enemies and to unconditionally refrain from violence (e.g. Matt 5:39-45; Rom 12:14-21). Moreover, I argue that this was the prevailing attitude of Christians prior to the fourth century when the Church aligned itself with the Roman Empire. In his critique of CWG that he delivered at the ETS in November, Copan argues against this, contending that I give “the false impression that Christians were uniformly pacifistic until Constantine.” He cites the work of David Hunter and several other scholars who note that we find a number of references to Christians serving in the Roman military in the writings of Tertullian, Lactantius, Clement of Alexandra and Eusebius. [1] Not only this, but we have found a number of tomb inscriptions to Christian soldiers in the second and third centuries. On this basis, these scholars argue that the earlier scholarly consensus that the early church was uniformly pacifistic must be nuanced. At least some Christians were apparently not opposed to Christians serving in the military.

The first thing I’ll say is that it is a bit odd that Copan would raise this objection against me, for while I defend “the predominant nonviolence of the early church” prior to “the Augustinian revolution,” I also explicitly note that the earlier unqualified depictions of the early church as uniformly against military service “were not sufficiently nuanced” ((CWG, 24, n.45). Indeed, I refer readers to some of the same works that Copan cites against me (and add a number that he omits).

Second, and more importantly, while I grant that the earlier consensus needs to be more nuanced, I would argue that Copan and some other scholars who emphasize the evidence of early Christians serving in the military could be charged with giving the false impression that the early church was not predominantly, if not uniformly, opposed to military service and all forms of violence. The question is, how significant is the evidence of early Christians serving in the military? In my estimation, not much. Three considerations put this evidence in a proper perspective.

First, in The Apostolic Tradition (c.200), Hippolytus addresses the issue of Christians serving in the military. He disallows Christians to enlist in the military, claiming that any Christian who did this “despises God” (Apostolic Tradition, 16). At the same time, Hippolytus allows soldiers who converted after joining the military to remain in it, but only if these soldiers are able to serve in a capacity that didn’t require them to kill and that didn’t require them to engage in idolatry (since the Roman religion permeated the military). While we of course can’t assume that the views of Hippolytus were shared by everyone at the time, it certain calls into question the assumption that the evidence of Christians serving in the military indicates that some early Christians were not committed to pacifism.

Second, it is highly significant that, while certain authors mention Christians serving in the military, no early Christian author defends Christians serving in the military or engaging in any other kind of violence. To the contrary, whenever early Christians mention war or other kinds of violence, it is to emphasize that Christians are to have nothing to do with it. For example, Tertullian addresses the issue of Christians serving in the military when he writes:

How will a Christian man participate in war? It is true that soldiers came to John [the Baptist] and received the instructions for conduct. It is true also that a centurion believed. Nevertheless, the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every solider. Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF, III. 73)

And again,

Is it lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword will perish by the sword? Will the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? Will he who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs, apply the chain, the prison, the torture, and the punishment. (ANF III.100)

Third, Tertullian clearly believed he was expressing the conviction of all Christians in his day when he wrote, and all indications are that he was correct. To demonstrate this, I offer the following (far from exhaustive) sampling of quotes of early church thinkers that reflect the early Christian view of war and violence.

I trust this sampling of quotes suffices to demonstrate that the pre-Constantinian church was indeed pacifistic, notwithstanding the fact that it permitted soldiers to remain in military service after they converted. And it was this strong stance against violence that motivated many early Christian thinkers to explore non-violent interpretations of the OT’s violent depictions of God. I wrote CWG (and Cross Vision) because I believe it is time for the church to reembrace the pacifism of the early church and to take up the challenge of finding the non-violent God revealed in Christ in the OT’s warrior portraits of God.

[1] David G. Hunter, “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service,” Religious Studies Review 18, n.2 (1989); Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (Abington, 1960).

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Was the Early Church Pacifistic? A Response to Paul Copan (#11)
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