The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment

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Toward the end of the period, we find evidence of Christians in the Roman military.

Were the Church Fathers Consistently Pro-Life?

How do you understand the gap between what the teachers of the church wrote and the apparent practice of believers beginning at the end of the second century? First, the evidence we have is modest, and so we have to be careful when drawing conclusions about how many Christians were in the military until the last decade of the third century. It's clear from the Thundering Legion story , which probably goes back to an actual event, that there were at least a few Christians in the military in There is other scattered evidence in the first part of the third century.

It's significant that Origen in the middle of the third century, —, responds to the pagan critic Celsus. Celsus said, If everybody was like you Christians, the Roman Empire would collapse. Origen responded, In fact, if everybody was like us, the Roman Empire would be safe, and we wouldn't need to kill people.

So in the middle of the third century, the most prominent Christian author writing at the time responded in a way that only makes sense if Christians by and large didn't join the military. By the last decade of the third century and the first decade of the fourth, it's clear that there were growing numbers of Christians in the military. Here's how I understand that disconnect between what every extant Christian writer we have says, Christians don't kill, and the growing frequency of Christians in the military: There has always been a disconnect between what Christian teachers have said and what average Christians did.

In addition, historians for the Roman army make it quite clear that you could be in the Roman army for long periods of time in the second, third, and fourth centuries and never be in a battle. There was widespread peace for a lot of this period. One author says you could be in the Roman army for many, many years and never get in a fight beyond the tavern.

In this book, I'm not trying to talk about the implications for how we should think or what we should do today. I will do that in the update of my nonviolence book, telling some of the best stories on peacemaking and nonviolence in the twentieth century. I'll have that done by the end of this year. After that, I'm going to write what I hope is my best book on biblical pacifism. But that's not what I'm doing here.

I'm just trying to be an historian. At the same time, obviously, I care about the implications. I think the most important thing to say is that the biblical revelation and Jesus led Christians to have a very deep, profound commitment to the sanctity of every human life, and that that shapes Western culture in very important ways and it has also shaped global culture substantially. I wasn't surprised by the evidence of the early church.

But I was somewhat surprised with the power, clarity, and consistency of Lactantius, who was one of the greatest orators at the time when the emperor Diocletian summoned him to the court. He may very well have written his great treatise in the early part of the first decade of the fourth century, even at the imperial court. This is a time when Diocletian was engaged in widespread persecution of Christians. And Lactantius is very clear that the commandment against killing is universal.

It doesn't matter if you give a death sentence as an official or actually kill somebody, you're killing persons either way. Abortion is wrong, infanticide is wrong, gladiatorial games are wrong, war is wrong, et cetera, et cetera. The consistency in the face of power that late is striking. But it's also striking that Lactantius joined Constantine, and in his writings after Constantine became emperor, Lactantius changes and doesn't say the same things against killing.

The other thing I found striking is the extent to which modern just-war writers are actually not careful with the evidence. One example is Peter Leithart's recent, quite good book on Constantine. Unfortunately, he goes as far as to say that Origen and Tertullian represented a "small, articulate minority" in the Christian church. There's just absolutely no evidence to support that. Every single Christian writer we have up until Constantine who talks about killing says that Christians don't kill.

So it astonishes me that contemporary writers are that careless with the actual evidence. The same thing would be true with what I take to be the best, most careful work on this whole topic from the just-war side: John Helgeland says that the evidence for, say, Roland Bainton's position is small, divided, and ambiguous.

Yes, it's small in the sense that there aren't a whole bunch of big treatises on it, although there is an entire treatise by Tertullian, and there is quite an extensive discussion by Origen. To say it's divided is simply not true. Every single text that we have on the topic says that Christians don't kill. And it's not ambiguous, except that in the later third century we have substantial numbers of Christians in the military.

In terms of practice, it's divided, but in terms of the statements of Christian writers, it's not divided at all.

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The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment

Description "In a time when violent death is all too common and wars of choice are undertaken all too readily, it is bracing to be reminded by this cloud of witnesses from the early church of the value that early Christians placed on human life and the severe judgments they issued on those who took it without cause. Ronald J.

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