Being the members of a minority group, the early Christians were focused on evangelization and the salvation of souls. It took generations for the Church to meditate on the proper relation of Christians in various states of life to the broader world. In the first flush of the early Church one would expect to see evidence of a radical living out of the Gospel of Christ, and indeed that is precisely what one finds. What is not seen however is any sort of commitment from the Church towards a theology of pacifism.
Within several generations Christians had converted from every social condition and manner of life. The Church contained rich and poor, great and small. There were some groups that took to Christianity more quickly however. Among these were the soldiery of the Roman empire. With their presence throughout the civilized world as well as their mobility, the soldiers of the Roman legions were some of the first to “hear the word of God and keep it.” As we have seen in the previous installment, the soldiers of the New Testament were a generally well-regarded class, often recognizing and following Christ long before others.
What we do not see is a wholesale abandonment of the armies of Rome by newly pacifist legionaries. Indeed the Christians in the Roman legions served with honor wherever their duties did not conflict with the demands of the Gospel. There is evidence of Christians even making up the majority of some legions by the middle of the second century. The vast preponderance of Roman military saints and martyrs is also ample testimony of their service. Men like Sts. Minas, Marcellus, Eustace, and Sebastian — among dozens of others — are remembered and invoked to this day.
Because most of these men ended up dying for their faith, a persistent and false rumor has sprung up surrounding Christian military service. Some have claimed that they were killed because they had refused to do their martial duty. This has been shown plainly to be false by scholars. These men served with honor and dignity in their units, until various imperial decrees attempted to force them to commit idolatry. It was then that they refused, and for that refusal faced execution. The military nature of their occupation was no hindrance to their practice of the Christian faith, but sacrificing to pagan gods certainly was.
One of the most famous of these stories is the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, one of the last casualties of the tens of thousands of Christians who perished in the Great Persecutions. These brave soldiers had supported the emperor Licinius against the aggressive pagan persecutions, but Licinius himself had reverted to pagan worship. These Christian soldiers were exposed on a frozen pond, with the promise of hot baths for any who apostatized. One man broke and ran to the baths. So moved by the constancy of the other 39, one of the centurions thought it unfit that their number be less than 40, so he became Christian, and joined them in death: a stirring testimony to the bravery of the Christian soldiery of Rome.
One might expect the Church Fathers to speak out against the participation of Christians in the military, and in opposition to the use of force by those in power. To the thousands of Christian men serving the Roman military, the Fathers of the second century only offer advice for proper moral behavior. There is no questioning of the legitimacy of public authority, or a call for Christians to lay down arms en masse. Even when a Church writer speaks strongly about military service (as Tertullian during his heretical period) it is because of the danger of idolatry, and not because of some innate evil in the military state. Yet when Tertullian still belonged to the Church he encouraged the soldiers to be brave and to defend the empire. Indeed Christians were indistinguishable from their Roman pagan neighbors, except for their exalted moral code and liturgical practices. They participated in public life, in the markets, went to the baths, and served in the military with honor and distinction.
Another slur cast upon the Church is the myth of a “Constantinian Fall,” an enduring nugget which traces the collapse of True Christianity to its legalization and toleration by the Emperor Constantine in 313 AD. This anti-Catholic slur had its origin among medieval heretics, and was later taken up by Protestants. What scholarship shows is that there was perfect continuity between ante-Nicene and Nicene Christianity in terms of approaches to war, wealth, and political power. After Constantine, there were simply new situations to understand within the purview of the faith.
While legalization truly was a windfall for Christianity after nearly seventy years of bitter persecutions, the stamp of the Faith was set long before Constantine and Nicea sealed it. Without the fear of idolatry, there was no longer any problem with participating in the military, nor the just uses of force it employed in the defense of the community. Nor was there any moral compromise in bearing the sword of the state, especially that now even the lawgiver was Christian and supposed to be subject to the law of God. In fact it is remarkable how stable the Christian Church was between the ages of Persecution to the ages of Legalization.
There is no dissonance to be found then in the writings of the Fathers which come after the Constantinian settlement. Just as in any age of the Church they were faced with new situations. Now Christians ruled and gave laws, they must execute justice, and they used the immemorial traditions of the Church to guide them. For instance St. Basil the Great counsels that the great tradition of the Church does not consider killing in war to be murder (Ep. 38 to Amphilochius).
It is St. Augustine, more than any other, who created the classical Christian conception of the state, law, and the proper use of force. In his letter of advice to Count Boniface, the man charged by the emperor to govern and keep peace in north Africa, Augustine laid out his programme, “”We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace” (Ep. 185). It would be the first statement of his grand theory of Just War that would be unfolded in the City of God (which I will address in a later installment).
It is fully in continuity with the spirit of the Fathers that Gaudium et spes of the Second Vatican Council declared “Those too who devote themselves to the military service of their country should regard themselves as the agents of security and freedom of peoples. As long as they fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace” (GS 79).
This is the fourth part of Dr. Donald Prudlo’s series Catholics & the Use of Force. See the other installments below: