This is the 9th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (2). This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books: Paul Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.
Both Leithart and Stephenson agree that while there is a tendency in early Christianity to see military service and warfare as being inconsistent with Christ’s Gospel commandments. However, when the reasoning behind this “pacifism” is stated it often is not so much opposition to violence and warfare as it is a rejection of the pagan ritualism that was mandatory throughout the Roman military establishment.
“In several versions of the Apostolic Tradition (written ca 215AD), those who held public office, administered justice or were officers in the army were – like gladiators and prostitutes – expressly forbidden from receiving baptism, since their professions involved them in activities that were impermissible for Christians.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 280)
Of course because our modern perspective accepts many centuries of Christians being involved in governments and warfare, it is a little bit difficult for us to completely understand the early church’s attitude toward government let alone toward warfare. We can look at some of the attitudes towards war and the military that we find expressed in the Post-Apostolic period.
“Indeed, Tertullian’s (d. ca 220AD) disapproval of Christian participation in military matters is not principally provoked by the potential for violence occasioned by army life. Rather, his particular distaste is for the requirement for all soldiers in the Roman army to participate fully and regularly without fail or resistance, in state religio … Tertullian condemns Christian soldiers who do not display the courage of their convictions, but instead wear the symbols of idolaters…” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 56 )
Leithart agrees with Stephenson’s assessment of Tertullian: Tertullian expresses little about the violence involved in being in the army but is very concerned that Christians not participate in pagan sacrifice and ritual.
“His main argument against Christians in military service—not, to be sure, his only one—was that they would be required to participate in pagan rites. He argued that the military oath, the sacramentum, was incompatible with the Christian’s commitment to Jesus … His later treatise De corona militis… its focus was overwhelmingly on the idolatry involved in wearing the military crown, rather than on the issue of bloodshed.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 270)
Of course it is possible that the thought of Christians being involved in bloodshed seemed so appalling and remote that Tertullian didn’t even entertain that thought. He focused on what was much more obvious to him – Roman military personnel engaged in mandatory pagan rituals. Their service was not only to the empire but also involved loyalty to the gods their officers and emperors served. So Tertullian may never even get as far as commenting on Christians actually participating in military killings, as for him just putting on the military uniform is a form of denying Christ.
Origen had a slightly more sophisticated appeal regarding Christian military service: just as pagan priests were exempted from military service so that they could seek the favor of their gods on behalf of the empire, so too Christians, who all shared in the priesthood of all believers, should be exempt from military service since all of them wrestle in prayer with the righteousness of the empire; apart from that righteousness, the empire would not be worth serving militarily.
“Origen’s (d. ca. 254AD) arguments, however, were often linked with conceptions of pollution. He appealed to the pagan practice of exempting priests from military service, arguing that Christians are priests and thus fight in prayer and worship rather than with the sword. ‘Do not those who are priests at certain shrines, and those who attend on certain gods, as you account them, he asks Celsus, ‘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?’ Given this, ‘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.’ Christians wrestle ‘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 is destroyed!’ But more important, ‘we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace.’ Thus, Christians ‘are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. . . . 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.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, pp 268-269)
Thus Origen argues that Christians as priests are always engaged in a spiritual warfare on behalf of the empire – struggling to defeat those demons and gods who wish evil on the empire.
[As an interesting aside, Origen’s emphasis on Christians praying for those fighting for a righteous cause and for the righteous king very much echoes what a them found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. According to Richard Hays in ECHOES OF SCRIPTURE IN THE LETTERS OF PAUL, Paul uses the Old Testament not as a repository of wisdom but as a witness to the one truth, namely God’s righteousness which now includes Gentiles as the people of God. Origen was very attuned to this same theme of God’s righteousness which the Christians have received and must use to support righteousness in the empire. The Christians aren’t to kill others to enact this righteousness, but are to witness to it even to the point of their own deaths.]