“The only excuse for war is that we may live in peace unharmed.” –Cicero, De Officiis
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven... A time of war, and a time of peace.” –Ecclesiastes 3:1,8b.
Last September, when President George W. Bush went before the United Nations and made a case for military action against the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, he set off a national and global debate on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of armed force against Iraq’s dictator. Inevitably, as members of society, Christians entered into the debate, and not all on the same side. Some vehemently protested the use of military action, while others just as vehemently supported it. The debate also re-opened the entire ethical and moral issue of a Christian’s beliefs regarding war. Is war right or wrong? If it is right, what kinds of wars are Biblically just? At times like this, it is helpful to step back and consider what the Bible and church history has to say about warfare and the Christian.
Very succinctly, it can be said that the summation of Biblical teaching is that nations may justifiably wage wars in self-defense. What is self-defense? In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, self-defense includes “all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.”1 If we turn to the Scriptures themselves, in the book of Genesis we see in seed form the beginnings of the concept of civil government and punishment for crimes: “From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.’” (9:5-6). Further on we see Abraham attacking and defeating Cherdorlaomer king of Elam and his allies in order to rescue his nephew Lot and his family. In the Mosaic law, God nowhere condemns war, but actually provides laws governing warfare (Deuteronomy 20). Throughout the book of Judges, God raises up leaders who deliver the people from foreign invaders. In the time of kings David and Saul fight valiantly against the invading Philistines.
What about in the New Testament? Do things change? It does not appear so. In Luke 3, when some Roman soldiers ask John the Baptist what they are to do, he does not tell them to leave the army, but simply “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”2 Likewise, when Jesus meets the Roman centurion with the sick servant, he does not condemn him for serving as a soldier. Neither does Peter tell Cornelius in the book of Acts to resign his commission as a centurion. And in Romans 13, Paul speaks of the civil government as wielding the sword to punish evildoers. The writer of Hebrews praises Old Testament warriors who “through faith subdued kingdoms…became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of aliens.” (11:33a, 34b). The nineteenth century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge concludes: “As the essential principles of morals do not change, what was permitted or commanded under one dispensation, cannot be unlawful under another, unless forbidden by a new revelation. The New Testament, however, contains no such revelation. It does not say, as in the case of divorce, that war was permitted to the Hebrews because of the hardness of their hearts, but that under the Gospel a new law was to prevail. This very silence of the New Testament leaves the Old Testament rule of duty on this subject still in force.”3
It is on the basis of these and other Scriptures that many Christian theologians throughout church history have supported the legitimacy of “just war”. It was St. Augustine who first began to hammer out this issue. Based on Scripture, he argued for defensive warfare as legitimate: “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”4 The purpose for war then becomes not conquest, but defense. As Augustine argues in City of God, “It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle.”5 The great Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica reiterated Augustine and expanded upon the just war theory by stating that three things are necessary for a just war. First is legitimate authority, which is the civil government: “For,” he argued, “ it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal [good] is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers.... so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies.”6 Second is just cause, “namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault.”7 Third is a right intent, “so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.”8
The Protestant Reformers continued in the same vein. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes: “If it becomes them [civil magistrates] to be the guardians and maintainers of the laws, they must repress the attempts of all alike by whose criminal conduct the discipline of the law is impaired. Nay, if they justly punish those robbers whose injuries have been afflicted only on a few, will they allow the whole country to be robbed and devastated with impunity? Since it makes no difference whether it is by king or by the lowest of the people that a hostile and devastating inroad is made into a district over which they have no authority, all alike are to be regarded and punished as robbers.”9
One of the greatest Protestant documents of faith, the Westminster Confession, states concerning civil magistrates: “they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.”10
Hodge also argued in his Systematic Theology: “Nations are bound to protect the lives and property of their citizens. If these are assailed by force, force may be rightfully used in their protection. Nations also have the right to defend their own existence. If that be endangered by the conduct of other nations, they have the natural right of self-protection.”11
It is clear then from the teaching of Scripture, and from the testimony of theologians throughout church history that war is a legitimate Christian practice when engaged in for the purpose of national preservation and defense.
With that said, war is still undesirable, because ultimately, war is the result of sin. “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war.” (James 4: 1-2). This means that every war is started because of someone’s evil desires. But it does not mean that both sides are sinning, for indeed, one may be involved in just and necessary self-defense against the wrongful encroachment of the other. But the point is that war is the result of evil. This is why, while Christians can support and wage legitimate wars, they should nonetheless hate war. It should be an unfortunate necessity. Christians should look for the day when the nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”(Isaiah 2:4). This then is the two-edged sword of war: force is sometimes necessary for nations to use in the defense against evil men, and force is also used in the desire for peace.
1.Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 68
2. Augustine says on this Scripture, “If the Christian Religion forbade war altogether, those who sought salutary advice in the Gospel would rather have been counselled to cast aside their arms, and to give up soldiering altogether. On the contrary, they were told: 'Do violence to no man . . . and be content with your pay' [Lk. 3:14]. If he commanded them to be content with their pay, he did not forbid soldiering.” (Quoted in Summa Theologica).
3. Systematic Theology, Volume III, Soteriology, (Hendrickson Publishers Inc. 2001), pg. 365
4. Quoted in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Part II, Question 40, “Of War”, (Benzinger Bros. Edition, 1947).
5. City of God, Book XIX, Chapter 7, (Encyclopedia Brittanica Edition, 1952).
6. Summa Theologica.
9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 2, pg. 661 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI, 1997) translated by Henry Beveridge
10. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 23, “Of the Civil Magistrate”.