Were the Church Fathers Consistently Pro-Life?
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.