Monday, September 26, 2011

Was the Early Church Pacifist?

Lots of people recently have been convinced by John Howard Yoder that the pre-Constantinian church fathers were all pacifists and then, in the fourth century, like the French Communist Party receiving news of the new party line from Moscow in 1941, abruptly reversed themselves and suddenly people like Augustine became rabid theocrats. So the answer to the question in the title of this post would be "Yes!" First they were pacifists and then suddenly they did a 180 degree turn over night. Is this a convincing reading of early church history?

In this post at First Thoughts a while back, Matthew Lee Anderson tentatively suggested that J. Daryl Charles just might be right - and John Howard Yoder wrong - about the stance of the church fathers on pacifism. Yoder famously said that the fathers up to the end of the third century were pacifists (though he thought that their convictions unfortunately weakened a bit during the "long peace" in the second half of the third century between the 9th and 10th great waves of persecution). In opposition to this view, Anderson reports, Charles argues that there is a great deal of ambiguity in the teachings of the Fathers on the issue of serving in the Roman army and pacifism with no evident consensus.

Now, we also must remember that Yoder famously lumped Augustine in with Eusebius and Constantine as creators of what he called "Christendom," which according to Yoder means something like a totalitarian theocracy - kind of like contemporary Iran with bishops replacing the mullahs.

Anderson quotes me offering a rebuttal to Peter Leithart on the meaning of the term "Constantinianism" in Yoder's writings. I pointed out that for Yoder, Constantinianism is an eschatological heresy, not an historical conclusion about what happened in the fourth century. For Yoder, Constantinianism is an illegitimate attempt to reach forward into the future and pull the kingdom of God into the present as if the kingdom had already come in its fullness. This idea is wrong whenever it pops up in history and if it isn't in a particular century or place that does not affect its existence as a theological idea. Well, I still think that is true, but I think Yoder also did contend that the church from the fourth century onward did fall into Constantinianism and Leithart is right about that.

So is Yoder right about the pre-Constantinian Fathers? Is he right about Augustine? Is he right about the "Constantinian Shift"? Is he right about "Constantinianism" being an eschatological heresy? Let's go one at a time.

1. Is Yoder right about the pre-Constantinian Fathers being pacifists? I now think that Charles and those who see more ambiguity in the first three centuries have the better of the argument. It is difficult to be categorical but the most I think we can say is that some early Christians took a pacifist position. But there is nothing decisive like the inclusion of the homoousion in the Nicene Creed to prove that it was an agreed upon doctrine of the ecumenical church. Yoder's view is not supportable by the facts.

2. Is Yoder right about Augustine? I have now read Augustine for myself and I am a bit embarrassed to report that Yoder is spectacularly wrong to lump Augustine in with Eusebius. Yes, the young Augustine got caught up in the excitement of the Theodosian settlement after his conversion in 386. But from about the middle of the 390s onward he gradually worked his way free of these assumptions through his biblical studies and by 410 was in a position to articulate his mature eschatology in The City of God. He renounced Eusebian postmillennialism and adopted his amillennial eschatology of the two cities, in which the State becomes part of the secular - that which belongs to this age - and is thoroughly desacralized. The doctrine of the separation of church and state is rooted in Augustine's thought and there is no basis for theocracy in The City of God.

3. Is Yoder right about the "Constantinian Shift"? I have to say that I think it is overblown by Yoder for one very good reason. Although there is a shift in that the church embraces the state to a considerable extent, the pacifist impulse continues in the form of monasticism while the impulse of the church to partner with the state has more precedents in pre-third century thought that Yoder would have us believe. So there is evolution but not a sudden, wrenching, 180 degree about face.

4. Is Yoder right about "Constantinianism"? I think he is both right and wrong about what he calls "Constantinianism." I think that the term is unfortunate, as is the tendency to equate "Christendom" with "Theocracy." More is obscured by this terminology than is illumined. First, the theologically illegitimate reaching forward and pulling the kingdom back into the present is a perennial temptation of both liberal and conservative, or, better, Romantic Utopian and Coercive Theocratic theologies.

Liberal Pacifism is an example of the former tendency and it is heretical because it envisions the perfection of human nature by the reform of political institutions, which is impossible. The Spanish conquest of the Americas and forced conversion of native peoples is an example of Coercive Theocracy.

I do believe there are examples of tendencies toward theocracy in Western history, although one hates to say so just because the Left unfairly blows them all out of proportion and defines theocracy as Christian morality having any influence on public affairs whatsoever. But where theocratic tendencies do pop up, they are betrayals of Augustinian theology, not implementations of it.

The Bottom Line
The really important point to see is that both Romantic-Utopian and Coercive-Theocratic theologies are both rooted in the same postmillennialist attempt to bring about the kingdom of God here and now within history and without the spectacular Divine intervention the NT refers to as the Return of Christ.

One of the implications of this insight is that Romantic-Utopian and Coercive-Theocratic theologies are not as different from each other as proponents of both might think. Certainly, all attempts to impose Utopian schemes in history tend to degenerate quickly into coercion and violence. This is true of medieval millennial movements, the 16th century peasants revolts and various kinds of Marxist revolutions in the 20th century.

In contrast to all these stands the Augustinian amillennialist, two cities doctrine in which the state and church are kept separate and the state is seen as potentially good and potentially evil in this age. Christians are encouraged to work within the state, but not to sacralize it. Between pacifism and revolution lies the just war doctrine to guide moral decision-making on issues of defending good and repelling evil while realizing that the final defeat of evil will not occur within this age of history as we know it.

The bottom line is that the Church Fathers were neither Utopian pacifist nor warmongering theocrats and we ought to follow their example.


Unknown said...

The difficulty with your positioning of Augustine as the one to conceive the separation of church and state would lie in the results, would it not? As the most influential theologian for over a thousand years (and still of some influence today), the period during which his writings were most revered, were also the time when the marriage of church and state, of theocratic gov't, was the norm. That is what Yoder is referring to, and he's right to do so. This extends right through the bloody English civil wars and into the French revolution. No, it wasn't a 'true' theocracy, a la the Israelites in the time of the prophets, for example, but the marriage of power between the two would have been all but indistinguishable to the population.

Liberal pacifism does not "envision the perfection of human nature by the reform of political institutions." That's a caricature. As is saying that liberals worship gov't. We do not. But gov't does have a moral mission, and is called upon to enforce a common morality. Those values can come from Christian ideas, or not, but they must serve the culture at large. All cultures within a certain population. That idea in and of itself is a moral position of course, and one the Catholic church has ignored for most of it's existence. So too, of course, did early Protestant cultures such as those in Geneva and England.

An example of Christian coercion would be the enforcement of teaching Creationism as science, as an example. 1/4 of high school teachers in the US refuse to teach evolution because they don't "believe" in it." Another example would be Christian prayer in schools. The morality of separation of church and state, which you applaud here, is always more rapidly applied by those on the right. Certainly that has been the case in the last forty years. That isn't to say secularism holds all the answers, either. Adopting rationalism as a faith of the state, as has been done in France, for example, can produce the same results. For example, demonizing the hijab, and misinterpreting Islam completely so as to create "us vs. them." Ultimately, the moral mission of good government should attempt to work towards a better "us" without using the immoral tricks that come from a lust for more power, be they secularly or religiously excused.

Perhaps that, more than anything, is what I don't understand when I read you wrok here, Craig. Unless you see morality as obedience, in which case it makes sense. Otherwise, your tendency to side with those in power seems counter to anything the church fathers would have argued for, including Augustine.

The difficulty

Unknown said...

The other difficulty with the concept of "just war", a paradox to be certain, and as you studied Yoder you would understand this, is the complexity of determining a "just" war. Opposing narratives where the truth is obscured in light of a government's neccesity for justification. Take the Gulf War. Most Westerners believed that Iraq simply invaded Kuwait "unprovoked". Well, that wasn't true, was it. Kuwait has been stealing their oil, engaging on raids along the borders and raping raping their women in the Iraqi villages, among other things. They were asked to stop, of course, and did not. Did this "justify" Iraq's invasion? Perhaps not, but it certainly shifts the narrative, don't you think. The same could be said of WWI, which was not a just war. And WWII, which seems to meet more of what would be the accepted criteria of a just war, would never had happened if the first war hadn't happened.

In fact, pinpointing a "just" war is nearly impossible if all sides are rendered as equals in value and culture. What creates a "just" war then, is a "just" culture or race. The Israelites are examples of this. We excuse their 'harem' in the OT, the slaughter of innocent women and children, as being just because the biblical writers deem it so, though the writers are of the 'chosen' race. Therefore, as they are 'just', their actions must be just as well, even if they are not.

Relativism is often misrepresented here, I think, as a kind of 'anything goes' philosophy. On the contrary, it is an attempt to view each narrative independently and judge accordingly, much like we have a jury listen to evidence. It's an imperfect attempt, because no one is objective, but it is the best we have in light of the view that all humanity is equaly loved by God.

Benedict's tendency towards theocracy is much greater than John Paul's, which is sad, so his views on relativism are expected. And considering the Catholic Church considered Protestants heathens until the 1960's (Vatican II), and considering their past, that is not surprising. Disappointing, but not surprising.

As an aside, John Paul II was a thoughtful Pope, one of the few that is easily admired. He is still missed.

David said...

That a defender of relativism could criticize an interpretation of relativism as "a misrepresentation" is bizarre.
My hunch is that by "Relativism" Craig is referring to a position found in those whose ontology is determined by a perspectivist epistemology, such as in Nietzsche's attacks on truth from human all too human. Also Derrida and others too who offer something far more radical than the insipid account suggested below.

"Relativism is often misrepresented here, I think, as a kind of 'anything goes' philosophy. On the contrary, it is an attempt to view each narrative independently and judge accordingly, much like we have a jury listen to evidence. It's an imperfect attempt, because no one is objective, but it is the best we have in light of the view that all humanity is equaly loved by God."

If you think that Benedict has a tendency towards Theocracy then you've read very very little Benedict. Maybe this is a better definition of relativism -"Relativism is the guiding philosophy that allows someone to write with seeming confidence about things he hasn't read and clearly knows nothing about".

Peter W. Dunn said...

Craig, if you permit me to add to the conversation points that may be patently obvious:

(1) Pacifism would strictly require the forbidding of the baptism of soldiers (or the post-baptismal requirement that they resign from the army--which would likely lead to their execution for desertion). I know of no evidence that suggests that soldiers could not be Christians and strong evidence to the contrary:
(a) John the Baptist required that soldiers desist from extortion but not from their occupation. This admonition figured in the teaching of the gospels which were important parenesis in the early church (Luke 3.14). John the Baptist did not require that they desist from their occupation as a requirement for baptism.
(b) Peter had Cornelius baptized (Acts 10). He was a Roman centurion and a member of the Italian cohort. Peter did not tell him to stop being a soldier.

(c) Jesus heals servant of Centurion and praises his faith faith (Matt 8.9). He does not require that the soldier give up his trade.

(2) Other occupations were forbidden of Christians.

(a)Christians burnt magic books (Acts 19). A Christian could not also be magician or sorcerer.
(b)Christians gave up idolatry, so any profession related to paganism, such as priests or priestesses was be forbidden.
(c) Paul gives a long list of forbidden occupations (1 Cor 6). Solider is not on the list.
(c)The Tradition of Hippolytus gives a list of forbidden occupations (prostitute; magician; astrologer; pagan priest; maker of idols; actor). Soldiers must desist from executions but not from being soldiers (I'm using the translation of Dix-Chadwick). A governor and magistrates must desist from wearing a purple toga.A Christian may not be a gladiator or have anything to do with the Roman games.

According to the Traditions of Hippolytus, a catechumen or Christian must not enlist. However, in this period a person could be something and become a Christian, but not become that thing after baptism. This applied even to marriage--a person must be married before baptism or practice lifetime celebacy. Thus, it would be ok to baptise a soldier but not for a baptised Christian to become a solider. My hunch is that soldiers so often carried out the executions of Christians that it was inconceivable for a Christian to want to be solider, or for a Christian solider to carry out the execution of a Christian.

This brief survey of some texts would indicate a moderate position just as you suggest in your post. Otherwise, if the early church were pacifist, I cannot understand why Luke would say that Peter baptized the house of Cornelius without also telling us that the man stepped down from his position as centurion.

Craig Carter said...

Thanks, that is a fine summary of relevant evidence. As you make clear, the attitude of the early church extends back into the NT itself.

Unknown said...

And the love of Jesus be with you both. Oh, wait, I'm a liberal, I guess it's okay to be a jerk, eh David. Do you profess to be a teacher of students as well, or is that just your day job?

Yes, misrepresentation of relativism is "bizarre", isn't it? Just completely unthinkable. How could any position you disagree with be misrepresented?

And what would know of Derrida. Have you read him or do you simply scan to find where you disagree? I suspect it's the latter, and as evidenced by your angry, condescending, and jerkish response here, I suspect that you gave up learning a long time ago. But hey, confirmation bias can be fun, right. Hope you enjoy the new Ann Coulter book.:)

As to your comment: "My hunch is that by "Relativism" Craig is referring to a position found in those whose ontology is determined by a perspectivist epistemology."

Perhaps, but that wasn't made clear, and even still, the delineation between perspectivism and relativism is minimal in terms of how its perceived within the culture, both for conservatives and progressives. And if you missed it, that's what I was talking about.

Listen, I disagree with Craig, but my comments were delivered respectfully, David. My faith doesn't need anger or fear to be considered real, and I certainly don't need to mock people to help me feel more secure in my beliefs.

I would happily sit down and have a coffee with you at the Tyndale campus, to see if you would say those things to my face, or if you are another one of those angry, conservative so-called Christians who are more interested in pouring out their vitriol from behind the safety of their laptops then actually meeting people who disagree with them, mostly because they're cowards.

As a fighter friend would say, we would call you a "chickenhawk". If you won't meet me, then I'd ask you keep your comments civil and respectful.

And for the record, using big words isn't a sign of intelligence. Curiosity and the ability to take big ideas and make them understandable are the real tells. Your comment indicates the ability to read textbooks, but it doesn't make you smart, it just makes you a jerk.

In grace

David said...

A defender of relativism accusing someone of a misrepresentation of relativism is bizarre as a relativist, traditionally understood, denies the possibility of a privileged standpoint from which to make such an accusation. Either one is not a relativist in which case one holds there is a true correct representation of relativism, or one is, in which case one believes that all impressions about it are more or less equally valid. So a defender of relativism accusing an interpretation of relativism as being a misinterpretation is, I repeat, bizarre.

Also, it's often difficult to say politely that "based on what you wrote I don't think you've read much of someone". And your attack on the Catholic Church, holding that JPII was "one of the few" popes that are easily admired did peeve me, so yes, apologies for my snarkyness.

Having said that, if it wasn't for your statements about relativism above I'd find your accusing me of being impolite after you attack the faith of billions to be a bit, well, bizarre, but, this seems to be self contradictory way in which you roll :)

And as regards the "Chickenhawk" thing... I probably wouldn't make the arguments I've made here, in the tone I've made them, sitting down with you over coffee. I would make them in this fashion in a debating society or other such public forum for debate. I may be wrong to see this space as more akin to a debating society where satire has a role in rhetorically exposing fallacies than a chat with some stranger over coffee. And for that too I apologize (if not, according to your post, you'll think me an angry conservative and a coward and a whole host of other things!).

Anyway, I still find your comments on relativism self contradictory and I suspect that your knowledge of Benedict (and possibly Roman Catholic Theology in general) is very lightweight. I could be wrong though :)

Unknown said...


I wasn't attacking the faith of billions. Let's not confuse Rome with Roman Catholics, it's a big house. I was raised in the Catholic church, my parents are still Catholic. When I switched to Pentecostalism in my late teens and later got my B. Th from a Pentecostal Seminary, I had to put up with the students and professors, and of course, lay people and fellow pastors ripping the Catholics without having a clue what they are talking about. The "idols" that Catholics worship, for instance. Nonsense. When my parents would come and listen to me preach, they would inevitably be stopped by some well meaning but ignorant person asking if they were "saved." Little wonder that eventually I left the Pentecostal church, in large part due to its anti-intellectualism and ignorance. That pervasive anti-intellectualism now dominates the evangelical world in the US, especially with its increasingly dominionist influence, which then, of course, overlaps political discourse.

I actually have a deep respect for large parts of Catholic theology. Much more than I did twenty years ago. That is due, in large part, to my increasing difficulty with sola scriptura, and how that has played out in a consumeristic, capitalist society. I'm not against capitalism, per se, and I'm not a Marxist, as I've been accused of here, simply because I consider myself a progressive.

However, theology and culture are linked, as all our ideas our linked with our own time and space, with the environment we are raised in and the experiences of our life. Therefore, theology must, in my opinion, continue to arise out of time and space. Not evolving so much as adapting. Slavery, for example, was defended by Christians, Catholics and Protestants, for nearly two millenia, but the theology used to defend it is now considered, for lack of a better word, wrong. We learn and we grow, which isn't to suggest that Catholic theology does not do this, Vatican II being a good example there, I think.

What surprises me on this site, at least from what I've read, is the marriage between Catholics and reformed thinkers in the US, and their tendency towards a hard conservatism. I guess I expect more from Catholics. They should know their (our) history, or so it seems, to understand how much their own theology has changed. It seems they have lumped themselves together with the ignorant hordes who exude a narcissism that is impossible to ignore or deny.

As for your clarification regarding relativism, I understand (I think) where you're coming from, and why it would seem strange. I guess that I'm reflecting on a wider, less technical level, whereby I am often accused of being a relativist, which to some people means that I believe everyone has "their own truth and therefore there is no Truth". Now "truth" is not a word I like, it's too vague and overused, and it's mostly used as a weapon against people who don't share one person's ideas. However, that would be a misrepresentation of my beliefs. Does that make sense?

As for Pope Benedict, I have not read a great deal of his theology, you're right. I knew of him when he was Ratzinger and his job in the church was basically 'enforcer', for lack of a better term, and I read some when he was elected. If you can suggest a book or two I'll take a look.

As for Pope John Paul II, I grew up under his watch, remember what he did for Poland, among other countries, remember how he battled communism, loved his ecumenical nature. I even love the fact he worked with youth when he was a young priest. So yes, he is missed, and it is not a trite comment. :)
Thank you for the apologies, David.

DLW said...

My political relativism/pragmatism is based on my understanding that there is no universal rule of faith for Christians and politics. In other words, the life/death/resurrection of Jesus is to be source code for our local rules of faith. It provides both apophatic and cataphatic political theology.

Apophatically, we are to beware of the wrong politics of the Pharisees/ Sadducees/ Zealots/ Essenes or equivalently the Public Intellectuals/ Party Bosses/ Idealists/ Apoliticals.

Cataphatically, we are to engage in an open set of self-sacrificial acts as local communities of followers of Christ that help to remake the rules that govern us and our neighbors. But, since it's an open set, there's a lot of scope for local discernment as to which acts are to be done. In my view, whatever must be done should 1.) not tear us up as local communities, nor become central to our identities (We aren't to peddle "God's Politics".) and 2.) complement our much wider witnesses.

And, we should understand that all such "political acts" inevitably will potentially affect who wields the "sword of the state". Ie., we can participate in the circulation of the elites, without becoming or raising up our own elites, or identifying ourselves with existing elites. In today's terms, we would be either part of the backbone of political caucuses within a major (or a minor) party or a local third party.
(A note of my jargon: ltps are third parties that do not seek to rival or become a part of the major parties. They specialize in contesting "more local" elections and vote strategically together in "less local" elections as a part of their wider issue-advocacy.)

Thus, we are to subvert the military-industrial-congressional complex that makes our country so bellicose. This can include conscientious objection to (specific) military actions or it can include proffering the notion of a just war as a "useful fiction" to check imperialistic ambition or it can include elevating the professionalism of soldiers, in the spirit of George Washington and Dwight D Eisenhower.

This is my political theology.
It has benefited some from my (partial) study of Yoder and church history and contemporary dialogues on faith/politics and my study of Institutional Economics with Warren J Samuels at Michigan State, where I got my PhD in Economics.

Unknown said...

Thanks David,

I would agree with a great deal of what you said. (Yes, I'm surprised too.) However, individuals tend towards either an apophatic or cataphatic view of theology, depending on their personality, unless you are simply quantifying your political theology through the spectrum, which is what I suspect you are doing.

You've named Eisenhower and Washington as elevating the professionalism of soldiers. Do you mean by this creating a mythology around their profession, causing it to be treated as something sacred? This is clearly what has happened in the last twenty years, as "support the troops" has been added, for example, by Stephen Harper as a government tag line. This myth-making towards militancy would seem to be at odds with what you describe as your political theology, would it not?

In fact, in many ways your political theology could be described as progressive. Another quandry for me as so many here seem to adhere to the militancy of current conservatism. (Although I know Craig does not.)

Question: Do you consider WWI a 'just' war? I did notice that you did not include Wilson with Eisenhower. (Although, to be fair, Wilson was pressured in large part by the British and the American public to enter WWI)


DLW said...

Hi Steve, good to hear that we agree quite a bit (by the grace of God).

"However, individuals tend towards either an apophatic or cataphatic view of theology, depending on their personality, unless you are simply quantifying your political theology through the spectrum, which is what I suspect you are doing."

dlw: I think it's a left-hand/right-swing sort of deal and one needs to work on one's non-dominant swing to play tennis one's best... My bent is more cataphatic, I believe...

"You've named Eisenhower and Washington as elevating the professionalism of soldiers. Do you mean by this creating a mythology around their profession, causing it to be treated as something sacred? "

dlw: I don't mean to mythologize their profession. I mean to say that their professionalism were on display when: GW didn't become dictator and kept us out of the French-English war; DDE was a part of how the US didn't conquer the world at the end of WWII when we had the ability to do so and he later drew our attention to the Military-Industrial(-Congressional) Complex.

"Support the troops"-myth-making does complicate things, but the key is for the local communities to "support the troops" in creative ways that do not support the M-I-C-complex. One can play the game of "supporting the troops" as part of being as shrew of serpents or picking one's battles carefully. The fact of the matter is that it would have been in almost everyone's interest in the USA for us to have a more comprehensive system of checks and balances to keep us from over-extending our military. This ought to be a part of "supporting the troops"...

"In fact, in many ways your political theology could be described as progressive. Another quandry for me as so many here seem to adhere to the militancy of current conservatism."

dlw: I'm not in an ecclesial leadership position in a denomination or teaching in a church-supported college/university and thereby not as subject to what I like to call, "economics-driven church politics"...

"Do you consider WWI a 'just' war? "

dlw: As I said above, In my understanding, just war is at best a useful fiction. I believe that the political system in the USA had a more robust set of checks and balances back then, which made it so that when we did join WWI, we did more good than bad, ie. we helped to end the war sooner. As for Wilson's idealism at Versailles, I think of more significance is how US Christians were waning in their interest in manifesting the gospel holistically at that point. For I am just as interested in picking sides in an int'l rel(manipul)ations debate among "realists" and "idealists", as I am in picking sides between "Just War" advocates and "Pacifists". Christianity was never meant to be made into a state-based religion and so it's not up to us to either sprinkle holy water on the right wars or to kick the dust off of our sandals on all wars. In my view, Pacifism shows the marks of its dialogue partner of Constantinized Christianity, which inevitably makes it not completely kosher...

Anonymous said...

St. Marcellus of Tangier, anyone?