Christian Pacifists: Lactantius


Lactantius was a famous teacher of Latin rhetoric who was known to be incredibly elegant. He converted to Christianity late in life and wrote so elegantly that he has been dubbed a “Christian Cicero”. He became the first advisor to Constantine, the first Christian emperor. His most important work is The Divine Institutes which is the only of his works that will be referenced here. The Divine Institutes is an example of early Christian systematic thinking which was written in order to combat the ideas of paganism by showing the superiority of Christian thought. Although his theology and knowledge of scripture is criticized, the work still offers a very beautiful presentation of Christian ideas.


Pacifism

Lactantius posed an interesting dilemma for this series. In Lactantius we get the most fierce and thorough condemnations of all killing, not least war. However, after the rise of Constantine, Lactantius wrote in support of his violent victory, contradicting much of what he had written before. He did not write an explanation as to what made his views change nor did he try to explain how this apparent change was actually consistent. Thus, I have decided to make sure the reader is fully aware of the change in views of Lactantius, yet feel no need in this essay to consider why such a change took place. His arguments against violence, despite an apparent change of heart later on in his life, remain.

Lactantius was absolutely fierce in his condemnation of killing of any kind. This was because of the God whom he worshipped. To him it was a given that were one to worship the true God, one could not end the life of another. They would “maintain concord with all.. even to enemies, love all men as brethren.. restrain anger and soothe every passion.” They would not “be at enmity with any human being nor desire anything at all which is the property of another.”

The Divine Institutes 5.8

But if God only were worshipped, there would not be dissensions and wars, since men would know that they are the sons of one God; and, therefore, among those who were connected by the sacred and inviolable bond of divine relationship, there would be no plottings, inasmuch as they would know what kind of punishments God prepared for the destroyers of souls, who sees through secret crimes, and even the very thoughts themselves.

Lactantius blamed pagans’ unjust ways (which included all kinds of violence) on the types of gods they followed. “Thus it comes to pass that the god fashions the life of his worshippers according to the character of his own will, since the most religious worship is to imitate” (5.10). To him, the Christian God is one who abhors violence and is thus against it. If we are to follow God then, we too should refrain from all violence.

The Divine Institutes 5.10

What then, or where, or of what character is piety? Truly it is among those who are ignorant of wars, who maintain concord with all, who are friendly even to their enemies, who love all men as brethren, who know how to restrain their anger, and to soothe every passion of the mind with calm government.

In the 17th chapter of the fifth book of his Divine Institutes, Lactantius quotes the Greek philosopher Carneades who said that, although it is normally not a just action to shed blood, we are often forced to do so, in which case it becomes just. He uses several examples including that of a shipwrecked person holding onto a plank of wood. It would be unjust to push someone off the plank if both could grab hold and live, but if only one person can fit, then it is not unjust for the stronger to push the weaker off. If we are in war, it is not unjust to kill an enemy lest you yourself are killed by them. Lactantius rejects this splitting up of justice and insists that justice is not folly (refusing to steal a horse from a wounded enemy and thus dying yourself), but that the philosophers, wise are they were, simply did not understand the justice of God. In responding to the argument set forth by Carneades he says,

The Divine Institutes 5.17

First of all, I deny that it can in any way happen that a man who is truly just should be in circumstances of this kind; for the just man is neither at enmity with any human being, nor desires anything at all which is the property of another. For why should he take a voyage, or what should he seek from another land, when his own is sufficient for him? Or why should he carry on war, and mix himself with the passions of others, when his mind is engaged in perpetual peace with men? Doubtless he will be delighted with foreign merchandise or with human blood, who does not know how to seek gain, who is satisfied with his mode of living, and considers it unlawful not only himself to commit slaughter, but to be present with those who do it, and to behold it!

So, according to Lactantius, one who is just won’t have to worry about such things because, being content with what they have and engaging in perpetual peace with all, they will have no desire to fight wars or gain possessions. He admits though that at times “it is possible that a man may be compelled even against his will to undergo these things” and thus gives a more direct answer. Is one ever just in pushing someone else off a plank? Even in order to survive? He answers with shockingly blunt *no*.

The Divine Institutes 5.18

I am not unwilling to confess he will rather die than put another to death. Nor will justice, which is the chief good of man, on this account receive the name of folly. For what ought to be better and dearer to man than innocence? And this must be the more perfect, the more you bring it to extremity, and choose to die rather than to detract from the character of innocence.

Taking the argument in the complete opposite direction Carneades was directing it, Lactantius says that in these situations, *all the more* would a just person preserve the life of another. He is able to maintain such a stance while others cannot because, unlike him, they do not believe in eternal life. He admits that it would be folly to let another live at the cost of your own life, but his understanding that through God we have eternal life changes everything. He explains why Christians endure even torture than to retaliate or defend.

The Divine Institutes 5.19

For to choose to be tortured and slain, rather than to take incense in three fingers, and throw it upon the hearth [in honor of other gods] , appears as foolish as, in a case where life is endangered, to be more careful of the life of another than of one’s own. For they do not know how great an act of impiety it is to adore any other object than God, who made heaven and earth, who fashioned the human race, breathed into them the breath of life, and gave them light… How much more so does he who forsakes God [than one whom forsakes an earthly master], in whom the two names entitled to equal reverence, of Lord and Father, alike meet? For what benefit does he who buys a slave bestow upon him, beyond the nourishment with which he supplies him for his own advantage? And he who begets a son has it not in his power to effect that he shall be conceived, or born, or live; from which it is evident that he is not the father, but only the instrument of generation. Of what punishments, therefore, is he deserving, who forsakes Him who is both the true Master and Father, but those which God Himself has appointed? Who has prepared everlasting fire for the wicked spirits; and this He Himself threatens by His prophets to the impious and the rebellious.

Many of Lactantius’ defenses against “virtuous violence” relate to the idea that true virtue “especially consists in the acquisition of those things which neither any man, nor death itself, can take away from us.” (6.6) It is our desires for what others have which leads to such seemingly difficult situations.

In Divine Institutes 6.6 he gives a scathing attack on the Roman ideas of a just war.

He begins by criticizing the notion that virtue is being loyal to the state, for virtue is not dependent on something which can change.

The Divine Institutes 6.6

It is not virtue, therefore, either to be the enemy of the bad or the defender of the good, because virtue cannot be subject to uncertain chances…

When the agreement of men is taken away, virtue has no existence at all; for what are the interests of our country, but the inconveniences of another state or nation?— that is, to extend the boundaries which are violently taken from others, to increase the power of the state, to improve the revenues — all which things are not virtues, but the overthrowing of virtues: for, in the first place, the union of human society is taken away, innocence is taken away, the abstaining from the property of another is taken away; lastly, justice itself is taken away, which is unable to bear the tearing asunder of the human race, and wherever arms have glittered, must be banished and exterminated from thence…

He continues to criticize this argument as ignorant. Even the wise philosophers fell to such faulty logic, contradicting their own definitions and justice and virtue due to their lack of understanding of God.

The Divine Institutes 6.6 (Last sentence is 6.9)

Whoever, then, has gained for his country these goods — as they themselves call them — that is, who by the overthrow of cities and the destruction of nations has filled the treasury with money, has taken lands and enriched his country-men — he is extolled with praises to the heaven: in him there is said to be the greatest and perfect virtue. And this is the error not only of the people and the ignorant, but also of philosophers, who even give precepts for injustice… Therefore, when they are speaking of the duties relating to warfare, all that discourse is accommodated neither to justice nor to true virtue, but to this life and to civil institutions…  If therefore wisdom is taken away from the philosophers by their own confession, and justice is taken away from those who are regarded as just, it follows that all those descriptions of virtue must be false, because no one can know what true virtue is but he who is just and wise. But no one is just and wise but he whom God has instructed with heavenly precepts… Civil law is one thing, which varies everywhere according to customs; but justice is another thing, which God has set forth to all as uniform and simple: and he who is ignorant of God must also be ignorant of justice.

In 6.20 Lactantius criticizes all forms of killing. He begins with decrying gladiatorial games and continues on to include all forms of ending life, including capital punishment and war.

The Divine Institutes 6.20

For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.

Therefore let no one imagine that even this is allowed, to strangle newly-born children, which is the greatest impiety; for God breathes into their souls for life, and not for death… Wherefore, if any one on account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from marriage than with wicked hands to mar the work of God…

If, then, it is in no way permitted to commit homicide, it is not allowed us to be present at all, lest any bloodshed should overspread the conscience, since that blood is offered for the gratification of the people…

Therefore all spectacles ought to be avoided, not only that no vice may settle in our breasts, which ought to be tranquil and peaceful; but that the habitual indulgence of any pleasure may not soothe and captivate us, and turn us aside from God and from good works.

I also include an argument of his against suicide. I almost did not include it since the only controversial view towards suicide would be one which condoned it, but in it one can see his arguments against killing of all kinds.

The Divine Institutes 3.18

For if a homicide is guilty because he is a destroyer of man, he who puts himself to death is under the same guilt, because he puts to death a man. Yea, that crime may be considered to be greater, the punishment of which belongs to God alone. For as we did not come into this life of our own accord; so, on the other hand, we can only withdraw from this habitation of the body which has been appointed for us to keep, by the command of Him who placed us in this body that we may inhabit it, until He orders us to depart from it; and if any violence is offered to us, we must endure it with equanimity, since the death of an innocent person cannot be unavenged, and since we have a great Judge who alone always has the power of taking vengeance in His hands.



Further Reading

Everything is found in his The Divine Institutes The first number is the book and the second the chapter.

1.18, 3.18, 5.8, 5.10, 5.17-19, 5.23, 6.5 6.6, 6.9, 6.18, 6.20

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Entering the Kingdom, Step by Step

Jesus came proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was here. He knew it was, because he himself was living in it. While the rules of the earthly kingdoms are selfishness (however cleverly disguised), Jesus lived by the rules of gentleness, kindness, self-control, faithfulness, hope, meekness and peacefulness. When we look at Jesus, we get a glimpse into the Kingdom of God. He invites us to live there with him now.

This is not to deny the afterlife nor to say that life right now is Heaven. But we can live in the Kingdom now amidst the earthly kingdoms.

A whale comes to the surface to take a deep breath of air before diving back into the depths of the water. It sustains itself on the air it took in from the surface. It may look similar to a fish who filters out its oxygen from the water, but inside the whale is fresh air from the surface itself. The whale must resurface eventually, but back down into the sea it will return as soon as it’s caught its breath. We are living in the world — we are surrounded by water. Through prayer, we take a deep breath of the Spirit. It is this Spirit which sustains us while we mingle around the watery depths. Surely it would be better to be able to walk on land with air surrounding us, but we are not there yet. We can, however, hold that Spirit within us wherever we go. And this is how we enter into the Kingdom of God.

If we abide in the Spirit, then we shall bear the fruits of the Spirit. These fruits are what the Kingdom look like. When someone is in a country with no rights and a poor economy, they move to a country with freedoms and benefits. As we bear these fruits, others will see and wish to join the Kingdom as well.

This begs the question: If I wish to do my part in spreading the Kingdom, what should I be doing now?

I’ve been wondering about this for years now. The seed that would germinate into what I am talking about now was planted a few years ago. The bold part is what struck me so hard. I included the rest because he says so much of what I’d love to say so well.

To do this thoroughly, Love must come at the centre of our lives in such a manner that each of us is prepared for any sacrifice. .. We must be ready like Jesus himself to pray for our murderers if ever the occasion arises. That is His absolute standard, and He will never lower it.

Let us, first of all, get as far together as we can in those matters wherein most of us would be agreed. Even today it is surely practicable and feasible for Christians, not only individually, but in groups, to renounce superfluous wealth and live in the simplest manner possible, which will make them more at one with their poorer neighbor…

If groups, as well as isolated individuals, sprang up everywhere, inspired by such a love of Christ for humanity, they would form ‘cells’ of a new ‘peace’ and ‘love’ in the Body of Humanity which would multiply by their very contagion of attractiveness wherever the faith of Christ was truly held and taught…

We each must take the next step forward from where we are. Perhaps this means opening your house to travelers. For someone else they may just need to smile at a beggar instead of scoffing or looking to the ground. Someone else may need to give up even a single coffee a week and use the money to help someone who needs it. Of course, from there we need to keep taking steps further and further along the path. Our pilgrimage will never end on this earth, but it almost always progresses one small step at a time.


Some things we as a community could stand to do starting today:

Reduce spending: Figure out where you are spending needlessly and stop. Use that money for someone who needs it.
More responsible spending: Avoid companies which exploit workers and needlessly destroy the environment. Ethically sourced coffee etc. Of course it’s probably impossible for most to completely switch over to ‘ethically sourced’ goods and it’s certainly impossible to know for certain what it took for the goods to reach you, but we can do the best we are able.
Work on your attitude: Behave with love and kindness, firmness when necessary but always in the pursuit of peace. Cultivating our love for people as well as the rest of creation. In each interaction with people that we have, be it face to face, on the internet or just sitting next to them on the bus, we must cultivate Christlike behavior in order to truly bear the image of God so all may see Him.
Engage in Community: All of this should be done in view of community. Sometimes we may be acting alone, but we are always part of the larger community. No one bear all burdens alone. I will not always use my money as wisely as I should. At times I will be grumpy to children of God. As an individual I am a poor representation of Christ, but as a community we can pull on the strengths of each of us and truly be Christ’s body.

Christian Pacifists: Cyprian


After two heavy posts, we have a nice, lighter post. Well, lighter in content and quotes, but the narrative is quite heavy indeed. I really had a desire to write on Cyprian, but there just isn’t much there for our purposes. I sat at the computer several times trying to come up with a way of putting this post together, but I came up empty each time. Then one late bus ride home it all fell into my lap. With the other posts I wrote mainly about the teachings of the featured Christian. Cyprian frankly didn’t write a whole lot about war, and when he did, it wasn’t as much of an explicit call against violence as much as some passing comments on its horrors or some encouragement for those suffering. I found what struck me most about Cyprian was not his writings as much as his life. So this post will mostly be a short biography of his life as a Christian before a brief explanation of his pacifist views.


Bio

Cyprian was born in Carthage c. 200 where he received a classical education. He converted to Christianity later in his life in 245. He wrote a letter to his friend Donatus shortly after his conversion discussing his change of heart. In it he describes his disgust it the incredibly brutal nature of the world around him. He said that if his friend were to imagine himself high on a mountain, far away from the world, that he would look down and feel compassion for it. At the same time though, he would be glad that he was high above and not mingling in the events of the world for:

To Donatus, Chapters 6-7

the roads blocked up by robbers, the seas beset with pirates, wars scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the plea that they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale.

And now, if you turn your eyes and your regards to the cities themselves, you will behold a concourse more fraught with sadness than any solitude. The gladiatorial games are prepared, that blood may gladden the lust of cruel eyes. The body is fed up with stronger food, and the vigorous mass of limbs is enriched with brawn and muscle, that the wretch fattened for punishment may die a harder death. Man is slaughtered that man may be gratified, and the skill that is best able to kill is an exercise and an art.  Crime is not only committed, but it is taught. What can be said more inhuman,—what more repulsive? Training is undergone to acquire the power to murder, and the achievement of murder is its glory.1

Shortly after converting to Christianity he became a priest and two years later a bishop, though against his will. His rule as a bishop was not easy and not without controversy. In 250, the new Emperor Decius issued an imperial edict which required that all “inhabitants of the empire sacrifice before the magistrates of their community ‘for the safety of the empire’ by a certain day.”2 Christians were then faced with a dilemma: Should they sacrifice to the Emperor and publicly deny their faith? Or refuse and risk torture and even death? Many Christians sacrificed (claiming that it was *on behalf of* the Emperor, not *for* him) and many faced death for their refusal. Cyprian did neither, but instead fled for safety. He was criticized by some for being a coward, but he defended himself with scripture and claimed that it was better for him to continue to shepherd his flock, even if only from afar.3

The persecutions died down after a few years and Cyprian was able to safely return. Persecution was especially severe in Carthage and large numbers of Christians had given in to fear and sacrificed. Now that the persecutions had died down they wanted to be accepted back into the church. Some priests were accepting the apostates back with no penance while another group refused to readmit any apostates. Cyprian sought to find a middle ground. He proposed that the apostates only be allowed back with varying degrees of public penance. The worst offenders, who had actually sacrificed and not just bought a forged certificate claiming they had done so, were only to receive Communion at the hour of their death if they had continued life long penance.

During this time, a horrific plague, now often referred to as The Plague of Cyprian due to his detailed description of it, ravaged Rome. This was a particularly difficult time for Christians because, in addition to being blamed for the plague, they were troubled by the indiscriminate nature of the disease. They were given no special protection by God for being Christians. *On the Mortality* was a letter of encouragement to the Christians enduring such trials. He also encouraged Christians during the plague to give aid not only to fellow Christians, but even to non-Christians because *what credit was it to them if they only helped those who help them, but not their enemies as well* (Matt 5:43-48)?4 This, of course, included those persecuting and blaming Christians.

The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Chapter 9

It becomes us to answer to our birth; and it is not fitting that those who are evidently born of God should be degenerate, but rather that the propagation of a good Father should be proved in His offspring by the emulation of His goodness.

Only a few years later in 256, the new Emperor Valerian began persecuting the Christians once again. But whereas Decius wasn’t specifically targeting Christians, Valerian was.5 Christian bishops in particular were being targeted which resulted in many more Christian deaths, including two popes and Cyprian himself.


Pacifism

Cyprian was heavily influenced by Tertullian and it’s evident in his arguments against using violence. In his letter to Demetrian, a persecutor of Christians, he urges Demetrian to “cease to hurt the servants of God and of Christ with your persecutions, since when they are injured the divine vengeance defends them.”(Ch. 16) In the next chapter he says that Christians refuse to retaliate against violence because “our certainty of vengeance makes us patient.” He gives sources for this reasoning in Testimonies Against Jews referencing Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 32:35 and Zephaniah 3:8. Like Origen combating Celsus, Cyprian made it clear to Demetrian that, though Christians don’t participate in armies, they do pray for the Emperor.

Chapter 20

Only when we go to God will we receive the promised rewards. Nevertheless, we always pray that enemies be kept at bay, that rains be granted, and that adversities either be taken away or mitigated; day and night we pour out our supplications beseeching and placating God, earnestly and continually pleading with him for your safety and peace.

In Testimonies Against Jews he quotes Luke 6:32 and Matthew 5:44-45 to support the fact that Christians love their enemies. Earlier in the same treatise he quotes Proverbs 16:32 and 12:16 as well as Ephesians 4:26 and Matthew 5:21-22 to show that we should not even be angry with others.

His On the Advantage of Patience makes it very clear that he did not believe that Christians should kill, even in self defense. Instead, growing from his experience of persecution and disease, he told his readers to maintain a patience in God that he would avenge those who harm them and that he would take them away from the pain of this world.6

Chapter 14

Adultery, fraud, manslaughter, are mortal crimes. Let patience be strong and stedfast in the heart; and neither is the sanctified body and temple of God polluted by adultery, nor is the innocence dedicated to righteousness stained with the contagion of fraud; nor, after the Eucharist carried in it, is the hand spotted with the sword and blood.

Chapter 16

What beyond;—that you should not swear nor curse; that you should not seek again your goods when taken from you; that, when you receive a buffet, you should give your other cheek to the smiter (Matt 5:33-42); that you should forgive a brother who sins against you, not only seven times, but seventy times seven times (Matt 18:22) but, moreover, all his sins altogether; that you should love your enemies (Luke 6:27); that you should offer prayer for your adversaries and persecutors? (Luke 6:28) Can you accomplish these things unless you maintain the stedfastness of patience and endurance? And this we see done in the case of Stephen, who, when he was slain by the Jews with violence and stoning, did not ask for vengeance for himself, but for pardon for his murderers, saying, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge…” (Acts 7:60)

What shall I say of anger, of discord, of strife, which things ought not to be found in a Christian? Let there be patience in the breast, and these things cannot have place there; or should they try to enter, they are quickly excluded and depart, that a peaceful abode may continue in the heart, where it delights the God of peace to dwell. Finally, the apostle warns us, and teaches, saying:  “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, in whom ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and anger, and wrath, and clamour, and blasphemy, be put away from you.” (Eph 4:20-31) For if the Christian have departed from rage and carnal contention as if from the hurricanes of the sea, and have already begun to be tranquil and meek in the harbour of Christ, he ought to admit neither anger nor discord within his breast, since he must neither return evil for evil, nor bear hatred.

He says much about martyrdoms, but I think the following is particularly relevant to our topic. He saw the martyrs, in their refusal to hurt another human being, as battling with Christ against the executers, with their worldly weapons. Though the martyr died and the executor lived, he saw it as a spiritual battle in which the martyr, wielding the weapons of faith, actually won.

In an epistle addressed to martyrs he said

The multitude of those who were present saw [the martyrdoms] with admiration the heavenly contest,—the contest of God, the spiritual contest, the battle of Christ,—saw that His servants stood with free voice, with unyielding mind, with divine virtue—bare, indeed, of weapons of this world, but believing and armed with the weapons of faith.



Verses

Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 32:35; Proverbs 12:16, 16:32; Zephaniah 3:8; Matthew 5:21-22, 33-45, 18:22; Luke 6:27-28,32; Acts 7:60; Ephesians 4:20-32, 6:10-18

Notes

1 This is clearly talking about gladiatorial games and not specifically war.

2 This wikipedia article cites The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180–395 by David Potter as the source.

3 On the Lapsed, Chapter 10. This was also argued Pontius in The Life and Passion of Cyprian at the end of chapter 2.

4 The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Chapter 9

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians_in_the_Roman_Empire#Valerian

6 On the Mortality discusses the idea of being rescued from the plight of this world more extensively.

Further Reading

Cyprian’s Writings

To Demetrius Chapters 16, 17, 20; To Donatus Chapters 6-7,Testimonies Against Jews Book III Chapters 8, 49, 106; On the Advantage of Patience, Epistle VIII To Martyrs and Confessors, On the Lapsed Chapter 10

https://erenow.com/ancient/early-christianity-and-paganism-1902/36.html

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/St._Cyprian_of_Carthage

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C.F. Andrews on Peacemakers

Charles Freer Andrews, now mostly forgotten, was instrumental in the Indian Independence Movement. He was given the nickname “Christ’s Faith Apostle” (from his initials) by Gandhi and was known as “Deenabandhu”, or friend of the poor, throughout India.

I discovered him in my early days at college in the University library. I had just stumbled upon the ‘old book’ section of the library and found a rough blue book titled Christ in the Silence. I don’t quite know why, but the title really enticed me and I sat there for the next hour skimming through it.

At the time I didn’t care much for the book, but still, a certain sentence stood out to me. It’s on page 84 ‘..for love can only win its way by suffering; love has no other weapon’. I ended up not reading anymore of the book, but that line haunted me for years. Finally I was able to track down a version of it and it struck a deep chord within me.

The power of much of the book, and all of his books in general, comes less from the words and prose and more from the life behind the man who wrote them. These words put forth such power because they are written in light of personal experience.

In his fight for the freedom of the Indian people, C.F. Andrews was often called a traitor of England, his own people. There were times when he chastised the Indian workers for trying to oppress other people groups and they called him a traitor to the cause. He never backed down though, despite long periods of loneliness. His devotion to his Lord and master Jesus wouldn’t let him lower his standard and his standing strong was largely responsible for the change of essentially slavery laws in many British provinces, Fiji in particular.

The last writing that C.F. Andrews finished was The Sermon on the Mount. Published posthumously in 1942, it is out of print but can be bought easily enough either second hand or PDF. It’s an incredibly simple book, one that a brand new Christian could easily read and glean helpful knowledge from. I also think it provides such deep truths that even those more experienced in the faith will find it beneficial.

Below is a section from The Sermon on the Mount regarding the beatitude “blessed are the peacemakers”.

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.”

At first sight this blessing may appear to be easier than others to attain; for there is a natural tendency among us to praise those who get on well with other people and are not quarrelsome; and this is supposed to be the essence of ‘peacemaking’.

But in reality such easy-going natures may be just the opposite of those that truly make peace; for they are inclined to slur over deep-seated evil in order to create a superficial appearance of harmony and goodwill. No, it is really one of the hardest things in the world to be a true peacemaker; just as it is one of the most fatal things to go on “crying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14 and 8:11). A mere patchwork peace will only result in a more virulent form than before.

For this reason, perhaps, Christ places the peacemakers side by side with the persecuted. For those who “seek peace and ensue it” find out that if the work is to be followed out to the end it must inevitably involve great suffering (1 Pet. 3:11).

We must first of all bear the burden on our hearts of that which has caused offense between those who are thus at enmity with one another. Then, further, we must remain absolutely fair to both sides. While doing so we are likely to be regarded as unfair; and you may have to bear with patience this reproach. Then the change of heart that is needed if a true peace is to be won at last can only come about through the power of love and prayer.

If we keep in mind what has been already said about the earlier Beatitudes, we shall be able to understand how the peacemaker must carry all these earlier blessings with him. He must be utterly humble and conscious of his own failings; he must be ready to stand rebuffs like the meek; he must hunger and thirst after righteousness; he must be pure in heart; he must be full of divine compassion; he must be ready joyfully to suffer persecution. To put the whole matter in a single word, the peacemaker must be Christ-like.

St. James, in his epistles remembering his Lord and Master, gives the character of the Christian. He contrasts the worldly wisdom, which creates “strife and confusion and every evil work,” with the heavenly wisdom which is of God. “The wisdom,” he writes, “that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle , and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:17-18).

For those who are humbly seeking to be true peacemakers, and are waiting upon God to give them the strength they need, we have this gracious promise: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the fee of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace” (Isaiah 52:7). And St. Paul has this same verse from Isaiah evidently in his mind when he describes the Christian warrior, going out to do battle against the hosts of darkness, as “having on the breastplate of righteousness,” and his “feed shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15).

The book can also be checked out for free at Archive.org

Christian Pacifists: Origen


Intro

So far all of the authors we have encountered have emphasized the nonviolent teachings of the New Testament, particularly those of Jesus. They were convinced that followers of Jesus could not harm others (and they speak as though their contemporary Christians did well in following that path). However, there has not been a huge attempt to reconcile the violence of the Old Testament with the peaceful calling they speak of. Tertullian did some when he addressed Marcion, but it is Origen, as far I as know, who is the first to thoroughly tackle this problem.

Origen has been controversial from his own time all the way up through to today. Here is not the place to discuss these controversies, but it must be addressed in some form so the reader understands the relevance of including him in this series. How is including Origen in this series any different than someone such as Marcion, who is considered an ‘arch-heretic’?

Origen was widely read throughout the days of the early church, even centuries after his death. He led a powerfully pious life and was probably the most prolific writer in all of ancient times. His greatest accomplishment was the Hexapla: a critical edition of the Hebrew scriptures with a Hebrew translation and five different Greek translations side by side for easy comparisons. He also wrote hundreds of homilies on almost every book of the Bible. Near the end of his life, his patron Ambrose requested that he write a response to a treatise written by a pagan named Celsus about a hundred years earlier. The treatise by Celsus, called The True Word was a scathing attack on Christianity. Origen countered each point one at a time. For many, it was this work that brought Christianity from a folk religion to an authentic philosophy. Due to Celsus’ attack on Christians’ refusal to partake in the state, particularly the army, many of the quotes given in this post will reference Against Celsus.

Origen is sometimes considered the first major Christian theologian and has influenced every Christian theologian who has come after him at least in some way, and was seen as a “bastion of Orthodoxy” for centuries after his death. So why was he never considered a saint?1 Why are some of views considered heretical? Well, it’s hard to say exactly. Many of the heretical views come from his followers, such as overemphasizing subordinationist views so much that they deny the trinity. There is controversy over what exactly was deemed heretical in Origen (and which of that was actually his teaching), but it basically comes down to his belief in the pre-existence of souls and a certain type of universalism. Since neither of those has any bearing on our subject, you can rest easy as we take a very brief look at the most brilliant theologians of the early church.


Biblical Hermeneutic

Origen read everything through the lens of a crucified Christ. He appealed to scripture for everything that he wrote. However, he believed that there were different levels of scripture.

He saw three levels, or layers, of scripture though he often didn’t distinguish much between the deeper two. The outermost layer was the literal meaning. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll get the moral meaning. The core of the scriptures were in the spiritual understandings of them. He likened these three levels to a wedding. The literal meaning is the actual wedding reception. The moral or emotional level was the form of a union of Christ within the church. The spiritual was the image of the soul’s union with the Logos. He did not explain each meaning for every passage, sometimes only one or two meanings were brought out. One of his supports for this method was Paul’s declaration that the “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).

Origen did not see violence as being compatible with Christians, yet he held all of the scriptures as “inspired by the Holy Spirit”2. How did he approach the violent portions of the Old Testament then? He did not throw out the old violent scriptures like Marcion did, but instead let “Jesus read it” to him.<sup3

Joshua, Chapter 9

 For we who are of the catholic (universal) Church do not reject the Law of Moses, but we accept it if Jesus reads it to us. For thus we shall be able to understand the Law correctly, if Jesus reads it to us.”

The literal reading of the scriptures was often not be be followed. It was the spiritual that followers of Jesus were supposed to take to heart.


Spiritual battles

Appealing to several verses in the New Testament, Origen makes it clear that we are not to follow suit in the wars waged in the Old Testament. We are not to harm anyone, not even for vengeance. What else would we expect from followers of Jesus who said that he was leaving his peace with us?

Joshua 15

Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ, who came to teach peace, so that they could be read in the churches. For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, “My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you” (John 14:27), and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, “Not avenging your own selves” (Rom. 12:19), and, “Rather, you receive injury,” and, “You suffer offense” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:7)? In short, knowing that now we do not have to wage physical wars, but that the struggles of the soul have to be exerted against spiritual adversaries, the Apostle, just as a military leader, gives an order to the soldiers of Christ, saying, “Put on the armor of God, so that you may be able to stand firm against the cunning devices of the Devil” (Eph. 6:11). And in order for us to have examples of these spiritual wars from deeds of old, he wanted those narratives of exploits to be recited to us in church.

Joshua, Chapter 14

So what are we to do with these numerous passages of war we find in the Old Testament then? We are to see them as describing spiritual wars. This is not to say that they did not actually happen, but that Christians are not to follow suit.

When that Israel that is is according to the flesh read these same Scriptures before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, they understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood… But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is “our peace,” (Eph. 2:14) he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies – sins and vices- are expelled from it. Therefore… when we indeed read these things, we also equip ourselves and are roused for battle, but against those enemies that “proceed from our heart”.


Views on (Physical) War

Origen believed that the wars were necessary for Israel, but never for a Christian.4

The following passage shows the classic brilliance of Origen. He finds meaning in every word and phrasing of scripture. So he doesn’t just say that all Christians were disarmed with Peter, but that we are to remain armed, just in a very different way.

Commentary on Matthew 26:52

Soon Jesus said to him who had used the sword and cut off the right ear of that servant, “put up your sword into its place”—not “take away your sword”; there is therefore a place for a sword from which it is not lawful for anyone to take it who does not wish to perish, especially by the sword. For Jesus wishes his disciples to be “pacific,” that putting down this warlike sword they should take up another pacific sword, which Scriptures call “the sword of the spirit.” (Eph. 6:17) In a similar way he says, “all who take the sword shall perish by the sword,”(Matt. 26:52) that is, all who are not pacific but inciters of wars, shall perish in that very war which they stir up. . . . But taking simply what He says, “those who take the sword shall perish by the sword,” we should beware lest because of warfare or the vindication of our rights or for any occasion we should take out the sword, for no such occasion is allowed by this evangelical teaching, which commands us to fulfill what is written, “with those who hated me I was pacific.” If therefore with those that hate peace we must be pacific, we must use the sword against no-one.

Against Celsus 3.7

The following passage shows that the Christians up to Origen’s time had not rebelled nor even acted in a way in which “savors” rebellion. Also note that he acknowledges that the Jews before Christ were permitted to fight and kill.

Neither Celsus nor they who think with him are able to point out any act on the part of Christians which savors 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 defense of the members of their families, and to slay their enemies..

He continues with an explanation that Christians are forbidden “to offer violence to anyone”. What’s particularly interesting here is that he sees more than just teaching and example from Jesus. For him, Jesus ushered in a new age. Jesus’ laws came “from a divine source” and had Jesus or his followers achieved the numbers they had by Origen’s time by a violent rebellion, they would not have had the “exceedingly mild character” that they did. For Origen, Jesus’ entire nonviolent defeat of the forces of evil was setting the path for how his followers should live.

..the Christian Lawgiver would not have altogether forbidden the putting of people to death; and yet He nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, 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.


Views on Kings and Rulers

In The True Word, Celsus argued that if everyone was to reject military service like the Christians did, then the empire would fall to the barbarians. Origen’s reply to this is in Against Celsus book 8, chapters 65-75. He starts off by explaining that Christians “despise ingratiating ourselves with kings or any other men, not only if their favour is to be won by murders, licentiousness, or deeds of cruelty, but even if it involves impiety towards God, or any servile expressions of flattery and obsequiousness” (ch. 65). However, he continues on to say that “whilst we do nothing which is contrary to the law and word of God, we are not so mad as to ‘stir up against us the wrath of kings and princes, which will bring upon us sufferings and tortures, or even death.” He supports this decision by referencing Romans 13:1-2. He explains further that Christians refuse to “swear by the fortune of the King” because that would either be swearing by nothing itself (if the term fortune is nothing but an empty saying) or by demons. According to Origen, Christians would sooner die than to swear by demons.

In claiming that barbarians would conquer Rome if everyone became a Christian, Celsus scoffed at the idea that God would save them and he used the Jews’ current subjection to the Romans as proof. Origen confirmed that he did believe God would protect them. “But if all the Romans.. embraced the Christian faith, they will, when they pray, overcome their enemies; They will not war at all, being guided by that divine power which promised to save five entire cities for the sake of fifty just persons.”  God would do this, he continues, because “people of God are assuredly the salt of the earth; they preserve the order of the world.” (ch. 70)

He explains this further in chapter 69:

We say that “if two” of us “shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of the Father”[Matt. 18:19] of the just, “which is in heaven;” for God rejoices in the agreement of rational beings, and turns away from discord. And what are we to expect, if not only a very few agree, as at present, but the whole of the empire of Rome? For they will pray to the Word, who of old said to the Hebrews, when they were pursued by the Egyptians, “The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace;”[Exod. 14:14] and if they all unite in prayer with one accord, they will be able to put to flight far more enemies than those who were discomfited by the prayer of Moses when he cried to the Lord, and of those who prayed with him.

So what about Celsus’ claim that God never protected the Jewish people? Origen claims that it was not due to God, but to the people not obeying God. If the Romans were to all obey God, which was essentially the claim, then God would protect them and they would not need to war(69). He also claimed:

Against Celsus 8.68

In these circumstances the king will not “be left in utter solitude and desertion,” neither will “the affairs of the world fall into the hands of the most impious and wild barbarians.” For if, in the words of Celsus, “they do as I do,” then it is evident that even the barbarians, when they yield obedience to the word of God, will become most obedient to the law, and most humane; and every form of worship will be destroyed except the religion of Christ, which will alone prevail. And indeed it will one day triumph, as its principles take possession of the minds of people more and more each day.

When criticized for not helping the King and empire maintain it’s safety and power, Origen simply claimed that Christians did support the King, and more effectively than soldiers. To Origen, Christians were priests to the one true God, “keeping their hands pure” to ensure God’s favor and support. So whereas a few centuries later fighting was seen as a way to enforce the favor of God, Origen taught that restraint from fighting was the way to do it. (ch. 73)

..We do, when occasion requires, give help to kings, and that, so to say, a divine help, “putting on the whole armour of God.” And this we do in obedience to the injunction of the apostle, “I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority;”[1 Tim. 2:1-2] and the more any one excels in piety, the more effective help does he render to kings, even more than is given by soldiers… And to those enemies of our faith who require us to bear arms for the commonwealth, and to slay men, we can reply: “Do not those who are priests at certain shrines… as you account them, keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods; and even when war is upon you, you never enlist the priests in the army. If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!”

And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army–an army of piety–by offering our prayers to God.


Conclusion

Commentary on John: 20.292

And if the only way one becomes a son of the Father who is in heaven is by loving one’s enemies and praying for those who persecute one, it is clear that no one hears the words of God because he is of God by nature, but because he has received power to become a child of God and has made proper use of this power, and because he has loved his enemies and prayed for those who abuse him, and has become a son of the Father who is in heaven.



Verses

Exodus 14:14; Psalm 101:8; Matthew 5:39, 44-45, 10:29-30, 18:19 (Masses of Christians praying together is effective), 26:52;Luke 14:34-35, 24:27, 44-45; John 14:27, 16:33; Romans 12:19; 1 Corinthians 6:7; 2 Corinthians 3:6 (Used to interpret violent passages of the OT); Ephesians 2:14, 6:11; Philippians 4:13; 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (We should support Kings by prayer)

Notes

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origen#Influence_on_the_later_church

2 On First Principles, Book I Chapter 3

3 Luke 24:27, 44-45

4 Against Celsus, Book VII, Chapter 26

Further Reading

Early Christian Writings

Homilies on Joshua

Article on Origen’s Allegorical Method

On First Principles: 4.18; Homilies on Joshua: In particular 14, 15; Commentary on Matthew: Commentary on 26:52; Against Celsus: 1.1, 2.3, 3.7,3.8, 4.82, 4.83, 4.9, 5.33, 7.18-20, 7.22, 7.26, 7.58, 7.59. 7.61, 8.35, 8.55, 8.65-75; Commentary on John: 20.290, 20.292

More in the Series

Spreading the Gospel in Light of the Crucifixion

I’m going to start with a lengthy quote from John Cecil Cadoux’s The Early Christian Attitude to War p. 63. I apologize for it’s length but it’s so well written I felt I needed to include it nearly in full (emphasis mine).

..Was he not in any case [when tempted in the desert] invested by God with supreme authority over men, and was it not his life’s work to bring in the Kingdom as speedily as possible? Assuming that the use of military force did not appear to him to be in itself illegitimate, why should he not have used it? Had he not the most righteous of causes? Would not the enterprise have proved in his hands a complete success? Would he not have ruled the world much better than Tiberius was doing? … But on the assumption that he regarded the use of violence and injury as a method that was in itself contrary to the Will of God, which contained among its prime enactments the laws of love and gentleness, his attitude to the suggestion of world-empire becomes easily intelligible. Other incidents bear out this conclusion. He refuses to be taken and made a king by the Galileans : he does not stir a finger to compel Antipas to release the Baptist or to punish him for the Baptist’s death or to prevent or avenge any other of the many misdeeds of “that she-fox.” He was not anxious to exact from Pilatus a penalty for the death of those Galileans whose blood the governor had mingled with their sacrifices. He made no attempt to constrain men to do good or desist from evil by the application of physical force or the infliction of physical injuries. He did not go beyond a very occasional use of his personal ascendancy in order to put a stop to proceedings that appeared to him unseemly. He pronounces a blessing on peace-makers as the children of God and on the gentle as the inheritors of the earth. He laments the ignorance of Jerusalem as to ‘the (things that make) for peace.’ He demands the forgiveness of all injuries as the condition of receiving the divine pardon for oneself. His own conduct on the last day of his life is the best comment on all this teaching. He does not try to escape, he offers no resistance to the cruelties and indignities inflicted upon him, and forbids his followers to strike a blow on his behalf. He addresses mild remonstrances to the traitor and to his captors, and at the moment of crucifixion prays to God to pardon his enemies : “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

I thought this was a powerful example of how Jesus, despite being able to use violence to further his agenda, refused. He lived in a critical time when the Jews were under Roman rule and his purposes are certainly more important than ours, and yet he apparently didn’t think using violence was necessary nor would it hurry along his message. This reminded me of something Origen wrote in Against Celsus 3.7

[If he had begun his ministry with a violent revolt, he could have allowed his followers to take up arms in defense and kill their enemies] and yet He nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, 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.

For Origen, Jesus’ refusal to begin his revolution violently was a condemnation of his followers to continue it violently. Though we have no records of Jesus bringing up our nuanced scenarios to justify violence, whether it be defending ourselves, defending the innocent or obeying the ruling powers, Jesus lived through all of those scenarios and yet never once did he engage in or promote violence.

He could have invoked a rebellion against the Romans as the Jews did before and after him, surely God could win it for the underdogs as is shown repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, but he did not. Instead he warned that ‘those who live by the sword, die by the sword’. He could have led a rebellion against the slavery that was destroying people’s lives around him, saved John the Baptist’s life, fought against those dehumanized through the painful execution of crucifixion (we know he had thousands of followers listening to him at least twice) but he never did. He could have become ruler of all the kingdoms of the earth, and yet he rejected the offer. He could have defended himself against the soldiers who were to crucify him, and yet he remained silent. I think it’s important to note that his followers did the same in the coming years.

The world he lived in was less different to ours than we sometimes realize. The Jews were not living in a peaceful little enclave where Jesus was able to give only nice, peaceful advice without threat from the outside world. He lived in a violent world within a small group of people who were occupied by a violent government. He led a peaceful life among violent people. His entire ministry came to a head at his crucifixion where he refused to strike back, refused to hurl threats or insults and instead begged for them to be forgiven. His refusal to begin his revolution with violence but instead with love and forgiveness is a powerful statement as to how he wanted the movement to spread throughout and shape the world.

Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Path – A Review

Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Path

This book runs just under 100 pages, but it packs quite a punch. It’s written by an ex-marine gone pacifist, but it is very clear from the very start that the way of pacifism is not the mark of only true Christians. As he says, “Pacifism, or any other fruit of the Narrow Way, is not a precondition for salvation, but Christ’s followers should desire to bear as much fruit for our Lord as is made possible by His power.” He knows many who are not pacifists yet love God and follow him in many ways. They may be mistaken here, he believes, but that is no call to belittle their faith or salvation in God.

Starting off I’ll make it clear what the purpose of this book is as I see it. It’s a concise book with a testimony and some powerful words to chew on. It is not nor does it claim to be an extensive refutation of Christian violence, but simply to offer some wise words. Don’t think that I mean this book doesn’t offer much fruit, certainly it does, but one needs to realize just what is trying to be accomplished in these 100 pages.

The first chapter is his testimony. I enjoyed it. It tells of a bit of his upbringing and how his attitudes towards war and killing began to slowly crumble as he served in the army. The most interesting part was how he quotes from a speech he gave as a marine in favor of the Vietnam War and contrasts it point by point with his views now. It was the second and third chapters that really shined in my opinion though.

The second chapter discussed some of the convincing words he found in the New Testament, particularly those of Jesus. These words seemed to be the ones which burned most in his heart as he turned away from violence as an option. None of it is particularly revolutionary, though Snow’s writing really shines through here as he illuminates the text in a very vivid way. He strongly emphasizes our need to follow Jesus as close as we can in every way. “With our hand in His, we grow and mature as daily we learn the lessons of love.” Engaging in violence is turning away from the given example of Jesus to do things our own way even if just for a bit.

The third chapter was one of my favorites. It discussed violence in the Old Testament. It is in no way trying to tackle that entire issue – if you want a book that does that then check out Greg Boyd’s 1400 page tome Crucifixion of a Warrior God – but it definitely offers food for thought that would be good at planting a seed in a field of doubt. Some look through the Old Testament and think there is no possible way to reconcile those scriptures with a nonviolent God. While this chapter probably won’t entirely convince you that a nonviolent reading is the most accurate (and if it does, you need to dig deeper), it will surely show you that perhaps it’s possible. His method is to a take a few of the bigger scenarios and point out where we can see God’s nonviolent nature burning through the murk. He discusses how God’s promise to give the promised land to Moses was thwarted by Moses and Joshua themselves as they feared the occupying forces and took to arms. He discusses how David, the warrior after God’s own heart, was forbidden by God to build His temple not because of adultery or cold blooded murder or polygamy, but because he was a warrior with blood on his hands And he discusses how Elijah, despite being the catalyst to end the three year drought, was on the run from Jezebel and wishing for death because of his violent act of killing pagan worshippers. We get a glimpse of how God wanted to work when Elisha feeds and cares for the enemy in 2 Kings 6-7. Instead of attacking the enemy, Elisha shows love and God scares away the army without having to use violence. When the Israelite’s trust God, they do not need to fight. When they put fear ahead of God, they live, and die, by the sword.

The last two chapters were more practical in nature. I found the second half of chapter five especially encouraging. Snow has such a gracious tone towards those who don’t agree with his views, yet he never steps down from his convictions even for a moment.

I was honestly surprised at how much I loved this book. It was simple, but offered so many gems along the way. The only reason I cannot give this five stars is because the editing was quite bad. There were many typos. Mostly easily understood ones like writing ‘and’ for ‘an’, but there were a few that made me stumble for a bit. But at this price, I can’t say it should deter anyone too much.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free for reviewing purposes. This fact had absolutely no influence on my opinion of the book nor this review.