Were the Church Fathers Consistently Pro-Life?
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.