Christians and War: The Early Church Speaks

‘We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.’
– (Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho 110.3.4 – written about 160 AD)
‘To begin with the real ground of the military crown, I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. What sense is there in discussing the merely accidental, when that on which it rests is to be condemned? Do we believe it lawful for a human oath to be superadded to one divine, for a man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mother, and all nearest kinsfolk, whom even the law has commanded us to honour and love next to God Himself, to whom the gospel, too, holding them only of less account than Christ, has in like manner rendered honour? Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? Shall he, forsooth, either keep watch-service for others more than for Christ, or shall he do it on the Lord’s day, when he does not even do it for Christ Himself?…


‘…Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed’ (i.e. in believer’s baptism), ‘there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured’ (i.e. martyrdom) ‘which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept’.
– (Tertullian [c. 160-220 A.D.], ‘De Corona’ Chapter 11)


‘Chapter 19: Concerning Military Service’

‘In that last section, decision may seem to have been given likewise concerning military service, which is between dignity and power. But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters— God and Cæsar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. 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…’
– (Tertullian, On Idolatry [c. 200 A.D.])

‘From the Lord’s advent, the new covenant which brings back peace, and the law which gives life, has gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and He shall rebuke many people; and they shall break down their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, and they shall no longer learn to fight. If therefore another law and word, going forth from Jerusalem, brought in such a peace among the Gentiles which received it (the word), and convinced, through them, many a nation of its folly, then it appears that the prophets spoke of some other person. But if the law of liberty, that is, the word of God, preached by the apostles (who went forth from Jerusalem) throughout all the earth, caused such a change in the state of things, that these’ (i.e. Christians throughout the world) ‘did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the corn, into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten,offer also the other cheek, then the prophets have not spoken these things of any other person, but of Him who effected them. This person is our Lord, and in Him is that declaration borne out’.

– Irenaus, Against Heresies IV.34 (c. A.D. 180)

‘In like manner, as the statement is false “that the Hebrews, being (originally) Egyptians, dated the commencement (of their political existence) from the time of their rebellion,” so also is this, “that in the days of Jesus others who were Jews rebelled against the Jewish state, and became His followers;” for neither Celsus nor they who think with him are able to point out any act on the part of Christians which savours of rebellion. And yet, if a revolt had led to the formation of the Christian commonwealth, so that it derived its existence in this way from that of the Jews, who were permitted to take up arms in defence of the members of their families, and to slay their enemies, the Christian Lawgiver would not have altogether forbidden the putting of men to death; and yet He nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to any one, however wicked. For He did not deem it in keeping with such laws as His, which were derived from a divine source, to allow the killing of any individual whatever. Nor would the Christians, had they owed their origin to a rebellion, have adopted laws of so exceedingly mild a character as not to allow them, when it was their fate to be slain as sheep, on any occasion to resist their persecutors…’

– Origen, Contra Celsus Book III Chapter VII (c. A.D. 218).

‘For what wars should we not be fit, not eager, even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay?’

– Tertullian (c. 200 A.D.), Apologeticum, 37.

Reading Robert Fagles’ translation of Virgil’s Aeneid


Over at Felix Hominum, my good friend Joe has begun a series of reflections on Virgil’s Aeneid. Joe is a Latinist and no doubt well able to read the original, though he’s being kind enough to us ordinary mortals to base his remarks on an English translation, that of Robert Fitzgerald.

I read the Aeneid about ten years ago, in Fitzgerald’s translation, and I have to say I found it hard work. However, for a few months now I’ve had Robert Fagles’ new translation on my bookshelves, and Joe’s series has motivated me to take it down and have another go at it. I’m glad I did. As I said, I’m no Latinist, so I have no way of knowing whether or not what I’m reading is an accurate translation of the Latin. However, it is some of the most vivid English I’ve read in a long time. Take this as a sample, from book I, an account of a storm at sea:


Flinging cries

as a screaming gust of the Northwind pounds against his sail,
raising waves sky-high. The oars shatter, prow twists round,
taking the breakers broadside on and over Aeneas’ decks
a mountain of water towers, massive, steep.
Some men hang on billowing crests, some as the sea
gapes, glimpse through the waves the bottom waiting,
a surge aswirl with sand.
Three ships the Southwind grips
and spins against those boulders lurking in mid-ocean –
rocks the Italians call the Altars, one great spine
breaking the surface – three the Eastwind sweeps
from open sea on the Syrtes’ reefs, a grim sight,
girding them round with walls of sand.
One ship
that carried the Lycian units led by stauch Orontes –
before Aeneas’ eyes a toppling summit of water
strikes the stern and hurls the helmsman overboard,
pitching him headfirst, twirling his ship three times,
right on the spot till the ravenous whirlpool gulps her down.
Here and there you can sight some sailors bobbing in heavy seas,
strewn in the welter now the weapons, men, stray spears
and treasures saved from Troy.
Now Ilioneus’ sturdy ship,
now brave Achates’, now the galley that carried Abas,
another, aged Aletes, yes, the storm routs them all,
down to the last craft the joints split, breams spring,
and the lethal flood pours in.
(Book I, 121-146).

This afternoon I’ve just finished reading Book II, Aeneas’ account of the fall of Troy, and I literally couldn’t put it down, it was so vivid and horrifying. If you’ve ever had a mind to try one of the classics, this translation of the Aeneid might not be a bad place to start. Fagles’ translation of Homer’s Odyssey is pretty good, too – I read it a couple of years ago.

Joe’s series on the Aeneid can be found here.

Nor Crystal Tears


I re-read one of my all-time favourite science fiction books this week, Alan Dean Foster’s Nor Crystal Tears. It’s a first-contact novel with a difference: it’s told from the viewpoint of the aliens, the insect-like Thranx, not the humans (who first appear as ‘fleshy monsters’).

The hero is a thranx named ‘Ryozenzuzex’ (i.e. Ryo, of family Zen, clan Zu, hive Zex) – or ‘Ryo’ for short. Ryo was an odd number hatching (apparently Thranx offspring almost always come in multiples of two), and the book lovingly tells the story of his days as a larva, his metamorphosis, and his early years as an agricultural specialist, while all the time he felt somehow out of place. But when he hears rumours of an encounter with a new spacefaring race who wear their skeletons outside, he just has to meet these ‘monsters’ and find out about them. So he travels from Willow-wane, his home planet, all the way to the frozen wasteland that caps the Thranx homeworld, Hivehom.

I love the imaginative way Foster portrays the differences between Thranx and Human, and how Ryo and his human friends bridge the gap. A comfortable climate to a thranx is unbearably hot and sticky to a human. Humans smell bad to Thranx, although the smell of Thranx is actually quite pleasant to Humans. And how can Humans learn the language of the Thranx, which includes intricate hand-gestures as well as clicks and whistles, when they don’t have enough hands to form the words (Thranx have four)?

Are humans really dangerously psychotic, as some Thranx scientists claim? Is it worth the risk to bridge the gap? Ryo thinks so, and he proves his point in ways that are surprisingly individualistic to such communally-minded beings as the Thranx.

Buy or borrow this book and treat yourself to a great read.