Nonviolence & The Early Church (Part 2 of 3)
““If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies … whom have we to hate?”
– Tertullian, Apology. Chap. 37
Origen – 185 – 254 A.D.
Origen was “one of the most important, and certainly one of the most prolific, Christian authors before the time of Constantine” – Sider, pg. 67. He was a student of both Greek philosophy and culture, as well as the Scriptures and Theology, and so his writings had a profound impact on the Early church. When he was only 18, he became the master of the Catechetical school at Alexandria, and he moved on to write extensively on theological and cultural issues of the day, landing him an important figure in Church History.
Homilies on Joshua
Origen expressed, specifically in Homily 15 in this work, his questions regarding the purpose of reading and preaching the war passages in a church when Christ gave a message and example of nonviolence and peace, and the Apostle Paul told his audience to not avenge themselves in Romans 12:19.
“In short, knowing that now we do not have to wage physical wars, but that the struggles of the soul have to be exerted against spiritual adversaries, the Apostle, just as a military leader, gives an order to the soldiers of Christ, saying, “Put on the armor of God, so that you may be able to stand firm against the cunning devices of the Devil” [Eph. 6:11]. And in order for us to have examples of these spiritual wars from deeds of old, he wanted those narratives of exploits [from Joshua] to be recited to us in church.” – Origen in Homily 15 of Homilies on Joshua. Sider, 70.
To Origen – warfare and Christianity are simply not compatible and so his answer as to why the conquests of Joshua should still be read in church was because they conveyed an example in which God was with the people of God, and was actively involved in their conquests over those whom would corrupt them, just as he is with us in our spiritual warfare against the evil forces of the devil, which manifest themselves in temptations that would draw us away from God, and following His will.
Commentary on Matthew
In Origen’s commentary on Matthew 26:52, which is when Jesus told Peter to put his sword back into its place, he argues that Disciples of Jesus Christ should put down the sword of war, and pick up the sword of the Spirit, which again ties in the Apostle Paul’s description of the armor of God from Ephesians 6. Origen argues the following:
“For Jesus wishes his disciples to be “pacific”, that putting down this warlike sword they should take up another pacific sword, which Scriptures call “the sword of the spirit.” In a similar way he says, “all who take the sword shall perish by the sword,” that is, all who are not pacific but inciters of wars, shall perish in that very war which they stir up….But taking simply what He says, “those who take the sword shall perish by the sword,” we should beware lest because of warfare or the vindication of our rights or for any occasion we should take out the sword, for no such occasion is allowed by this evangelical teaching, which commands us to fulfill what is written, “with those who hated me I was pacific.” If therefore with those that hate peace we must be pacific, we must use the sword against no-one” – Origen in Commentary on Matthew on Matt. 26:52. Sider, 70.
Origen echos Tertullian in making the point that by disarming Peter, he disarmed all believers, though Origen utilizes this passage to also state that instead of Christians being armed with swords of war, they are to be armed with swords of the spirit; thereby, they still have a means to combat evil, but violent combat/vengeance is not their prerogative.
The last two sentences in this excerpt make the point that if Jesus commands us to be peaceful and nonviolent to those who hate peace, we have no right to use the sword against anyone, on any occasion.
In Against Celsus, Origen refutes the second century Greek Philosopher Celsus’ arguments against Christianity, and he also defends Christianity, and the Christian way of life. Origen writes the following on the topic of Christians and violence:
“He[Christ] nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For He did not deem it in keeping with such laws as His, which were derived from a divine source, to allow the killing of any individual whatsoever. Nor would the Christians, had the owed their origin to a rebellion, have adopted laws of so exceedingly mild a character as not not allow them, when it was their fate to be slain as sheep, on any occasion to resist their persecutors.” – Origen in 3.7 of Against Celsus. Sider, 72.
In this excerpt, Origen is arguing against any accusations that the early Christians were a violent and rebellious group. Like the quotes from Origen before this one, Origen writes strongly against Christians using violence.
Lactantius – 250 – 325 A.D.
Lactantius was an appointed teacher of Latin Rhetoric at Nicomedia, which is where the Emperor Diocletian lived ( Sider, pg. 103). When the Emperor issued a widespread persecution of Christians, Lactantius responded by defending and explaining Christianity in his Divine Institutes.
The Divine Institutes
“For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among people. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in military service, since his military service is justice itself, not to accuse anyone of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a person to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all but that it is always unlawful to put to death a person, whom God willed to be a sacred creature.” – Lactantius in 6.20 of The Divine Institutes. Sider,110
What is lawful is not always what is right. This quote not only forbids Christians serving in the military, but it also forbids Christians from calling for the death penalty for reasons that would contradict following the Will of God. Lactantius goes so far as to say that there should be no exemption at all to the command not to kill for followers of Jesus.
Early Church Writings – Summary
All of the quotes that I have provided in this chapter, from various sources dating from the first to the fourth century, give clarity as to the opinions of the prominent church figures in the early church. All of these writings have a very literal interpretation of Christ’s teachings on nonviolence, and enemy love. I say this not to say anything that is from an early church father is right, but I will say that the agreement among various writers in different times, and locations, SHOULD speak to the legitimacy of the argument. These early writings, not far removed from the actual human presence of Christ on earth, not yet influenced by the marriage of church and state…should mean a lot to us.
I realize that the majority of my readers are not catholic, and so I know that most of my readers reject the weight of tradition, saints, and early church fathers that the Catholics place upon them… but even still, I believe that these quotes from the early church are interesting if nothing else.
For some, this chapter is insightful so far, for others, this chapter is boring as it’s a bunch of quotes, and is not about bible passages. But regardless on where you fall, I believe that this chapter is important in our discussion about this topic because it shows that Christian nonviolence is not a hippie view that was placed upon Jesus in recent times by liberal Christians and society…Instead, Christian nonviolence was birthed out of the words of Jesus according to first through fourth century Christian leaders.
Scot McKnight, New Testament Scholar and author has this to say about the early church and nonviolence on his blog “Jesus Creed”:
“Early-church writers, living in various parts of the empire, all agreed: Christians should not kill. These writers didn’t just condemn immoral killing (abortion, murder, etc.), but all types of killing. Most of these same writers didn’t think Christians should serve in the military. But even those who allowed converted soldiers to remain in the service instructed them not to kill. This is because early Christians believed that enemy-love is the hallmark of Christianity. You can mock us. You can torture us. You can even throw us to wild beasts. But we will still love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. And the church increased. Without the sword, the church spread. With no religious freedom, the church grew—like a mustard seed—shouldered by the stiff, persistent enemy-love of martyred saints.” – from the article “It’s Easy to Be Pacifist in Indiana. Try Gaza!”
So what happened? Why did this seemingly popular opinion fade out?
*All Sources Quoted in parts 1-3 of Chapter 6 will be in the Works Referenced section at the conclusion of part 3*