Were the Church Fathers Consistently Pro-Life?
Early Church on Killing, The: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment
Ronald J. Sider
July 1, 2012
Ron Sider is best known as an advocate for the poor. His 1977 book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger sold over 400,000 copies and was ranked by this magazine right below the Living Bible and Knowing God as one of the 50 most influential books on 20th-century evangelicalism. Sider, who founded Evangelicals for Social Action, has written on a variety of ethical issues: poverty, hunger, abortion, creative nonviolence, nuclear arms, and generosity. He has been a crucial force in shaping Christian consciences.
But Sider's academic training was not in ethics or public policy, but in history. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Yale. In The Early Church on Killing (Baker Academic, 2012), Sider turns from advocacy to scholarship, compiling every extant extrabiblical passage on killing from Christian writers in the centuries leading up to Constantine, the time when Christianity began its shift from minority religion for outcasts to majority religion for Roman society.
CT's former editor in chief David Neff recently talked with Sider about the importance of this historical material for our understanding of Christian ethics.
Why has no one compiled all the patristic writing on killing before this?
Given the degree of interest on both sides and the extent of the disagreement about the Christian ethics of war, I think it is astonishing and puzzling. There are works with extensive quotations, but as far as I know nobody has ever tried to collect everything we have extant in one volume.
It is overdue given that even the best, most careful just-war historians, like John Helgeland, make sweeping statements that are simply inaccurate when you take the whole body of data together. I'm glad I had the privilege of finally doing it.
It's not just just-war theory versus pacifism. The book covers war, capital punishment, gladiatorial games, infanticide, abortion, and so forth. Did the early Christian writers tie those together, or did they treat them as separate ethical issues?
They definitely tied them together. A number of times different authors—like Lactantius writing at the time of the Diocletian persecution, and earlier writers—are very clear. They explicitly say we don't kill, and that means we don't go to gladiatorial games, we're opposed to abortion, capital punishment is not acceptable, and we don't kill in war.
Did the early Christians oppose capital punishment as a social institution? Or did they just say that a Christian couldn't be an executioner or a magistrate who might give someone a death sentence?
They clearly stated the latter. They said Christians cannot participate in capital punishment. For them, a Christian could not have a political or judicial office where he would have the authority to pronounce a judgment of capital punishment.
Then they weren't out of step with Paul when he wrote that rulers bear the sword as God's agent.
They were not. To my knowledge there's no extant comment on that text and no substantial comment on whether government in their time ought to do that. Origen talks about how in an earlier dispensation it was legitimate for Jews to have an army and to engage in capital punishment, but now under the new dispensation Christians don't do that.
You mention the way Origen contrasted the Christian way with Judaism. Some of the writings you compiled include strong anti-Jewish comments. Can we lift up Jesus' command to love enemies and his love ethic without sounding anti-Jewish?
There was a growing tendency in the early church to say things about Jews that they shouldn't have said. But we can promote Jesus' way without putting down Judaism.
In the texts I collected, they often cite the passage in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 about how when the Messiah comes they will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. They explicitly say that Jesus as the Messiah fulfilled that text. They don't always go on to say, and now we don't kill. But sometimes they do.
Let's talk about the reasons early Christians abstained from bloodshed: They talked about Jesus' command to love our enemies, about the Mosaic command not to kill, and about the prophecy of messianic peace. Is any one of those reasons foundational to the rest?
Their most frequent statement is that killing is wrong. Killing a human being is simply something that Christians don't do, and they'll cite the Micah passage or Jesus' "love your enemies" to support that. But the clear statement that Christians don't kill is the foundation.
The most frequently stated reason that Christians didn't join the army and go to war is that they didn't kill. But it's also true that in Tertullian, for example, idolatry in the Roman army is a second reason for not joining the military. But it's not true that idolatry is the primary or exclusive reason that the early Christians refused to join the military. More often they just say killing is wrong.
You interact with German historian Adolf von Harnack, whom evangelicals love to hate because he was the father of liberal theology. Karl Barth broke with von Harnack precisely because he endorsed Kaiser Wilhelm's militarism. Did that cultural influence color von Harnack's pro-military reading of these texts?
I've not made a study of Harnack, so I don't know the answer. But it's true that all of us are located in history, and we're all shaped by our particular setting.
Nevertheless, I vigorously resist the idea that this is simply the way historians are. In the book, I argue that it's immoral for a historian to try to interpret the texts to fit his own ethical, religious, socioeconomic, or political context. It's impossible to totally escape your particular interests and biases, but it's good to acknowledge where you are coming from so that the reader can see where you may possibly be doing that.
We ought to vigorously try to free ourselves from cultural biases when we try to do history—and that's what I try to do in this book. This is not a book on whether Christians should be pacifists or just-war people. I'm going to do a book on that in a couple of years, but that's not what this book is about. This is a book of history.
Why should we care what the writers of those first three centuries say?
I don't think that what the early church in the first few centuries said and did is the final norm for Christians today. Our decisive norm is biblical revelation. Nevertheless, I think we need to take seriously what the Christians in the first three centuries thought Jesus was saying. They were much closer to him in time than we are, and there is reason to think they would have had a pretty good understanding of what he meant. Therefore, given that every single Christian text we have on killing from the first three centuries, whether war, capital punishment, or abortion, says that Christians don't do that, and with some frequency they say that's because of what Jesus said and did, I think Christians today ought to listen to them with some seriousness. But it's not the ace of spades, you know. It is one significant piece of what we should consider when we ask whether Christians should be pacifists or just-war people.
Toward the end of the period, we find evidence of Christians in the Roman military. 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 173. 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, 248–250, 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.
What do these texts say to us at this particular moment in history?
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 think David Gushee's 2013 book on The Sacredness of Human Life is a masterpiece that lays that out.
Were you surprised by anything as you gathered the material for this book?
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.
David Neff is the former editor in chief of Christianity Today and of Christian History. He writes a regular column for CT connecting current events with our imperfect past.
Ron Sider's Unsettling Crusade: Why Does This Man Irritate So Many People, by Tim Stafford, CT, March 2000.
See also David Neff's October 2013 column on David Gushee's The Sacredness of Human Life.