Were the Church Fathers Consistently Pro-Life?
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.