Getting History Wrong on Just War

Roland Bainton, who died in 1984, was a fixture at the Yale Divinity School for more than four decades and remained an influential Church historian over during two decades of retirement. His most popular book was Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther; but Luther scholarship has gone far beyond Bainton since Here I Stand was published in 1950. Bainton’s Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, however, which was first published in 1960, continues to exert a significant influence on Christian thought today. The question is whether that influence is helpful, or baleful.

According to Bainton, there are “three Christian positions with regard to war,” which evolved in “chronological sequence, moving from pacifism to the just war to the Crusade.” This evolution, Bainton suggested, was really a devolution or deterioration, reflecting an abandonment of primitive Christian purity and an untoward alliance with the state: after Constantine, the Church cut itself off from the moral purity of the evangelical counsels and the Sermon on the Mount and began, in Stanley Hauerwas’s memorable phrase, to “do ethics for Caesar.” A truly reformed Christianity—a Christianity true to its origins and to its Founder—is thus, necessarily, a Christianity that embraces pacifism.

That this historical schema is firmly fixed in many minds is self-evident to anyone who’s been involved in Christian debates over war and peace since Vietnam. That the prescription attached to the schema—a return to the purity of primitive Christian pacifism—has had a deep effect on the Catholic Church (which had long resisted Bainton’s understanding of the history of Christian thought on this point) is also obvious. Thus many Catholics who hold to some version of the just-war tradition now smuggle into it a pacifist premise: the just-war tradition, they argue, begins with a “presumption against war,” a “presumption” that goes far beyond the obvious moral truism that nonviolent problem-solving is preferable to problem-solving through war. That even Catholics who subscribe to this revised just war tradition feel somewhat guilty about doing so—and feel guilty on the ground defined by Bainton—is also obvious from the tenor of the Catholic debate before the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

Thus Bainton has cast a long shadow.  But did he get the history right? Does his simple, straightline schema—from pacifism to just war to Crusade—stand up to the best of contemporary scholarship?

In an important article in the spring 2010 issue of Logos, the quarterly published by the Catholic Studies Program of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., theologian J. Daryl Charles argues that Bainton got it wrong, by failing to give an “accurate accounting of the complexity and diversity of pre-Constantinian Christian attitudes toward the military.” Drawing on the last half-century of historical study of the early Church, Charles reminds us that, while there were indeed early Christian pacifists who took their moral cues for thinking about war and peace from the Sermon on the Mount, there were also Christians in Roman military service long before to the Constantinian settlement in the early fourth century.

Moreover, following the research of James Turner Johnson, Charles suggests that whatever difficulties military service posed for Christians in, say, the second century A.D., had to do with state-enforced idolatry rather than with soldiering per se. The early Church, as Charles puts it, lived with “divergent strands of thinking” on war and peace and the ethics of Christian participation in the military, a plurality of thought that “does not require” the assumption of a “universal or uniform conviction” that pacifism was the only imaginable Christian position, on the Bainton schema. Things were more complicated—and more interesting—than that.

The world being what it is—the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, Iran, jihadism and its lodgments in failed or dysfunctional states—the debate over the morally legitimate use of armed force is not going away; rather, it is going to intensify. Christians will best engage in those debates if they liberate themselves intellectually from the simplistic and inaccurate schema that Roland Bainton taught us 50 years ago.

oland Bainton, who died in 1984, was a fixture at the Yale Divinity School for more than four decades and remained an influential Church historian over during two decades of retirement. His most popular book was Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther; but Luther scholarship has gone far beyond Bainton since Here I Stand was published in 1950. Bainton’s Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, however, which was first published in 1960, continues to exert a significant influence on Christian thought today. The question is whether that influence is helpful, or baleful.

According to Bainton, there are “three Christian positions with regard to war,” which evolved in “chronological sequence, moving from pacifism to the just war to the Crusade.” This evolution, Bainton suggested, was really a devolution or deterioration, reflecting an abandonment of primitive Christian purity and an untoward alliance with the state: after Constantine, the Church cut itself off from the moral purity of the evangelical counsels and the Sermon on the Mount and began, in Stanley Hauerwas’s memorable phrase, to “do ethics for Caesar.” A truly reformed Christianity—a Christianity true to its origins and to its Founder—is thus, necessarily, a Christianity that embraces pacifism.

That this historical schema is firmly fixed in many minds is self-evident to anyone who’s been involved in Christian debates over war and peace since Vietnam. That the prescription attached to the schema—a return to the purity of primitive Christian pacifism—has had a deep effect on the Catholic Church (which had long resisted Bainton’s understanding of the history of Christian thought on this point) is also obvious. Thus many Catholics who hold to some version of the just-war tradition now smuggle into it a pacifist premise: the just-war tradition, they argue, begins with a “presumption against war,” a “presumption” that goes far beyond the obvious moral truism that nonviolent problem-solving is preferable to problem-solving through war. That even Catholics who subscribe to this revised just war tradition feel somewhat guilty about doing so—and feel guilty on the ground defined by Bainton—is also obvious from the tenor of the Catholic debate before the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

Thus Bainton has cast a long shadow.  But did he get the history right? Does his simple, straightline schema—from pacifism to just war to Crusade—stand up to the best of contemporary scholarship?

In an important article in the spring 2010 issue of Logos, the quarterly published by the Catholic Studies Program of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., theologian J. Daryl Charles argues that Bainton got it wrong, by failing to give an “accurate accounting of the complexity and diversity of pre-Constantinian Christian attitudes toward the military.” Drawing on the last half-century of historical study of the early Church, Charles reminds us that, while there were indeed early Christian pacifists who took their moral cues for thinking about war and peace from the Sermon on the Mount, there were also Christians in Roman military service long before to the Constantinian settlement in the early fourth century.

Moreover, following the research of James Turner Johnson, Charles suggests that whatever difficulties military service posed for Christians in, say, the second century A.D., had to do with state-enforced idolatry rather than with soldiering per se. The early Church, as Charles puts it, lived with “divergent strands of thinking” on war and peace and the ethics of Christian participation in the military, a plurality of thought that “does not require” the assumption of a “universal or uniform conviction” that pacifism was the only imaginable Christian position, on the Bainton schema. Things were more complicated—and more interesting—than that.

The world being what it is—the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, Iran, jihadism and its lodgments in failed or dysfunctional states—the debate over the morally legitimate use of armed force is not going away; rather, it is going to intensify. Christians will best engage in those debates if they liberate themselves intellectually from the simplistic and inaccurate schema that Roland Bainton taught us 50 years ago.

George Weigel

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George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Cooky642

    Mr. Bainton, being a Protestant, might never have heard of or seen St. Michael the Archangel. One has to wonder what he would have thought, how he would have interpreted St. Michael.

    My grasp of Mr. Bainton’s “simplistic and inaccurate schema” is that he was an early proponent of the Leftist-Progressive “can’t we all just get along?” mindset. Of course we can….when everyone is reasonable and willing to “agree to disagree”. But that isn’t always possible, as witness the usual list of unreasonable and unwilling suspects (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Obama). We may yet be subjected to the gray and gritty life of the Marxist stalag, but–old, disabled, and female–I intend to fight it every step of the way! Why? Because Jesus told us to love one another as He loves us, and He laid down His life to give us the opportunity for a better one with Him. Can I do less?

  • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com Arkanabar Ilarsadin

    “Agreeing to disagree” has brought the Anglican Church to the pass at which it finds itself. It’s something Fr. Longenecker goes on about quite a bit; here’s an example: http://gkupsidedown.blogspot.com/2010/07/muddle.html

  • Pingback: Has the Christian church really been historically pacifist? « Grateful to the dead

  • Pingback: Recalling the just war and Christian pacifism « Sanity and Social Justice .net

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