READ PART 1: HERE

This week we are diving into the theological arguments of the Early Church Fathers regarding the use of weapons (the sword in their day, the gun in ours) and their use (or lack thereof) to the Christian in responding to evil.

Tertullian’s Argument from Gethsemane

The theological argument for the pacifism of the church fathers comes directly from scriptures, and Tertullian made much of the interactions of Christ with weapons of war in his day.

Matthew 26 records an incident in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus and his disciples were directly confronted by men with swords (1st-century form of law enforcement) seeking to arrest Jesus and have him tried on trumped-up charges. One of the disciples, in an attempt to defend Jesus using violence, draws his sword, and according to Luke, striking a soldier with it. Instead of commendation from Jesus for standing his ground in defense, he receives a rebuke and a command to put the sword away.

So why did Jesus tell them to bring a sword if they weren’t allowed to use it? Luke (22:36-38) informs the readers that the reason he carried the sword was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 (that the Messiah would be seen as a violent insurrectionist), and so that he could teach them that the kingdom of God would not be established through the sword, but rather through the cross.

Tertullian, referring to this episode in Gethsemane, says: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1]

Skeptics will point out that chapter nineteen of Tertullian’s “On Idolatry” pertains explicitly to military service. However, Tertullian’s argument is not merely that a Christian cannot serve in the military because it is a rival master (although that argument is made there as well), but rather that a Christian cannot serve in the military because the Christian cannot bear the sword. The problem is not merely idolatry, but the use of violence against the image of God in others.

In Tertullian’s day, as well as our own, some choose to look past Christ to the Old Testament in order to justify the use of violence for modern Christians. We can see from his writings that some were arguing that, since Moses carried a rod, and since Aaron carried a buckle (to secure a weapon to his side), and since Joshua led a warring army, then it follows that the Christian might find it acceptable as one of Gods people to also engage in military service.[2]

However, Tertullian will not allow Jesus to be silenced by the Old Testament. He points to Jesus, who heals the soldier that Peter struck with his sword and proclaims: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” [3]

For Tertullian and the early church fathers, Jesus is the full expression of God, and he has revealed God to be completely and utterly non-violent; choosing to go to the cross rather than to wield the sword.

A Unique People in the World

It is a fundamental understanding of the ancient church in the first two centuries that the Christian community is to be sanctified, set apart from the ways of the world. Paul, speaking directly to the church in Rome, did not diminish the importance of the uniqueness of the Christian life. In Romans 12, Paul explicitly instructs both Jewish and Gentile Christians gathering there to “not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.”[4]

Paul is expectant that the follower of Jesus will live a life that is remarkably different from the Roman culture that they are immersed in every day. For Paul, this uniqueness of life comes from the revelation of Christ, whose response to sin and violence leveled against himself on the cross was a willingness to forgive and restore.

Like Paul, Justin Martyr reflected on the words and the revelation of Christ. He describes the church as:

“we who hated and slew one another, and because of customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same from the God who is Master of all.”[5]

Justin considers the rejection of violence and the ability to forgive and pray for enemies as one of the marks of God’s people; it is a part of our unique identity in the world.

Elsewhere Justin references the prophecy of Isaiah and says that Christians have “changed the instruments of war, the swords into plows and the spears into farming implements, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.”[6] The implication here is that the church is a kingdom without weapons of war, for the church does not see war as a tool of any use to the world that they are working towards.

The fundamental answers that the church has to offer the world in response to evil is not the same answer that the kingdoms of earth are offering. If the church’s answer to evil is war, bloodshed, and violence, then our king is not unique, and our kingdom is just as “of this world” as any other. The church fathers understood that the power of the church to bring restoration to the world was rooted in its other-worldly answers. The strange dichotomy of the gospel is that victory comes through defeat, that life comes through death, and that peace comes through the cross, and not the sword.

Next Week:

We will look at how the sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world, and indeed became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire.

 

[1] Tertullian, On Idolatry,XIX.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 26:52). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The New International Version. (2011). (Ro 12:2). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Justin, Apologia I, XIV. 3.

[6] Cadoux, Cecil John. 2015. The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics. Kindle Location 1954.

2 thoughts on “The Peace-makers: War, violence, and the response of the Church Fathers. Part 2

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