Redeemed Natures: Chapter Six – Nonviolence & The Early Church (Part 3 of 3)

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Chapter Six

Nonviolence & The Early Church (Part 3 of 3)

““If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies … whom have we to hate?

– Tertullian, Apology. Chap. 37

(Be sure to read Part 1 and 2 of this chapter first)

Constantine & Shortly After – 306 – 380 A.D.

As written in my chapter on Romans 12 and 13, I believe that the Christian’s ultimate authority comes from God, and when that allegiance is divided, problems arise in the form of people accepting something as the truth, that is not with the Will of God.  The reason why Constantine is important in this discussion is because his relationship with Christianity started in the form of a vision, and his legacy led to Christianity being named the State Religion of the Roman Empire after his death.  

The Vision

The story of Constantine seeing a vision which instructed him to paint crosses on his army’s shields in order to win a battle took place in the year 311,   although I enjoy Mark Kurlansky’s thoughts on that story in his book Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea:

“Constantine had a dream in which Christ had appeared, commanding him to carry the sign of the cross into battle. By this time Constantine had numerous Christian soldiers in his ranks, and for the first time in history they went into battle with an emblem of Christianity, the cross, painted on their shields. Just a generation earlier, to have placed a symbol of Christianity on a weapon would have been an outrage for Romans and an unthinkable blasphemy for Christians. Before the battle, Constantine was said to have seen a flaming cross in the sky with the words “In this sign thou shalt conquer,” words that were in complete contradiction to Christianity and would have been unutterable for Jesus.” (Kindle Locations 407-412)

Kurlansky recognizes the conflict between the teachings of Jesus, as well as the early church, and the involvement of Christians and Christianity in warfare.  He correctly wrote that Christ himself would have been abhorred at the sight of crosses associated with him because used as a sort of “blessing” of war. The spread of this story within the Roman Empire would lead to Christians believing that Constantine possibly had some special connection with God, and because of that, their view of God might begin to become distorted by the belief that God was on the side of the Romans, and against its enemies.

The Edict of Milan

Because Christians were seen as cultish, and, in some cases, as rebels, persecution of them was a recurring issue in the Roman Empire. There were times, and areas, where this persecution was worse than others (Colosseum, anyone?), and there were times and areas where Christianity was just not as tolerated as other religious faiths were.

The Edict of Milan was issued in 313 by the Roman Emperor of the West – Constantine, and the Roman Emperor of the East – Licinius.  Its role was to put an end to less than tolerant behavior towards Christians, and those in other religions.  An excerpt from this edict, as seen in Christianity Today’s article on it, shows that the interest of stopping the persecution was not purely selfless, and it certainly was not because these two emperors were Christian themselves:

“Our purpose is to grant both to the Christians and to all others full authority to follow whatever worship each person has desired, whereby whatsoever Divinity dwells in heaven may be benevolent and propitious to us, and to all who are placed under our authority. Therefore we thought it salutary and most proper to establish our purpose that no person whatever should be refused complete toleration, who has given up his mind either to the cult of the Christians or to the religion which he personally feels best suited to himself.” – excerpt from The Edict of Milan as seen in Christanitytoday.com

The Edict came to be, at least partially, because these pagan Roman Emperors were basically trying to get all the blessings they could get over their territories and conquests. Nevertheless, it was a fundamentally good thing because it caused a spread of Christianity within the empire because Christians no longer had to fear persecution by the government.

The First Council of Nicaea

The first council of Nicaea happened in 325 A.D., and it was the first eccumenical council of the Christian Church in which they met together to discuss several things, particularly the rise and problem of Arianism – which was a heresy that denied the full deity of Christ and said that He was a created being, subordinate to the Father.  The council, desiring a document that established the basic truths of the faith that were agreed upon, created the first writing of what is known today as the Nicene Creed. Constantine called for this council to take place, presided over the opening of the council, and took place in the discussions, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Though Constantine did not consider himself a church leader, he still desired to be a part of the Council because he was quoted in saying:

You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the church,” he told them. “But I also am a bishop, ordained by God to oversee those outside the church.”  – Constantine, according to the article referenced before on Christianity Today.

Constantine was also very helpful in managing the event in arranging ceremonies, introductions, and in mediating the event. (Christianity Today)

This first eccumenical council improved relations within the Church, and was also a huge step in Christianity becoming more widespread.

Edict of Thessalonica

In 380 A.D., Roman Emperor Theodosius issued what is known as the Edict of Thessalonica amidst the widespread popularity of Arianism, and even Nicene Christians persecuting Arian christians.

“This edict commanded everyone to be a Christian–but not just any kind of Christian. A Catholic Christian, it said, was one who held that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Godhead and equal in majesty. This, of course, was the position of the Nicene Creed.” – Dan Graves at Christianity.com

Theodosius considered himself to be a Christian in the Nicene Tradition, and was baptized as such.  However, this does not mean that his character and his works/fruit looked like a Christian’s should.

“In 387, When the city of Thessalonica rioted because a favored charioteer was imprisoned (for homosexuality), Theodosius ordered revenge: a chariot race was announced, citizens gathered in the arena, the gates were locked, and soldiers were set upon the crowd. By the end of the day, 7,000 had perished.” -Christianity Today

This is not to say that Theodosius was not a Christian, but to give perspective on how the Roman Christians must have felt in regards to Christianity and the military when they had a publicly declared Christian Emperor who made Christianity the State religion, while at the same time wielding a sword in a particularly violent manner.  

In the same way that celebrities have influence over people today, and their views on faith, if they are Christian, is idolized by their fans, the same could have happened with Theodosius who married the Church with the State, and Violence with Christ.

John Howard Yoder was a renowned Mennonite theologian, author, and professor who perhaps wrote some of the heartiest works on the subject of Christian Nonviolence, and he has this to say about the curious shift from the nonviolence of the early church fathers, to the acceptance of the use of violence post-Constantine.

“The progressive decay of the primitive Christian rejection of Caesar’s wars had many causes that built up gradually, although the Constantinian transition was the weightiest.  Instead of being a small band of believers, each of whom had counted the cost before making the commitment of discipleship, everyone who counted was now a Christian; it was now costly to be a pagan or a Jew. Since everyone was a Christian, Christian morality had to be tailored to the capacities and motivation level of “Everyman.” Instead of looking to their risen Lord to bring history to a triumphant conclusion in his own time and way, Christians now knew that the Roman emperor and their God were allies and that the forward movement of history was enforced by the legions.” – The War of the Lamb. Yoder, 45.

Yoder made the case here that instead of being a separated group from society, to be a Christian was now an important component of being a good Roman citizen, and so instead of theology being instructed from the church fathers, uninfluenced by the government, theology was taught by church leaders, and politicians alike.  To be a Roman was to be a Christian.  Thousands of pagan converts came into the faith out of following the Edict of Thessalonica, and would have outnumbered the Christians who were trying to follow the Will of God all along without the influence of the state.

The result is a Christianity that incorporates Nationalism, and Nationalism that incorporates Christianity.  In order for this to work, the components of the Church which conflicted with the State had to be diminished.  Nonviolence and Nationalism didn’t get along.

Chapter Conclusion

In the first section of this chapter, we went over several early church fathers who wrote against the Christian use of violence, and in the second section we saw how church and state began to mingle, and how that ultimately changed people’s perspectives on the issue of Christian Nonviolence.

My hope is that more and more people see the radical call of Christ for nonviolence in the Christian’s life, and if they accept it, for their allegiance to Christ to take precedence over all else.

Nonviolence is not a hippie idea implanted in theology by liberalism.  Nonviolence was something that was followed out of a literal interpretation of Christ’s words by the early church.  Nonviolence continues to arise in various movements within Christianity because of that same literal interpretation of the words of Christ; words that are worthy of our reflection.


 

Works Referenced

“Council of Nicaea”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2016

“Didache.” Early Christian Fathers. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. ccel.org, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

“Didache”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2016

Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen. “Constantine.” Christian History. Christianity Today, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2016. From the book: “131 Christians Everyone Should Know”

Galli, Mark and Ted Olsen. “Justin Martyr.” Christian History. Christianity Today, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2016. The text in the article was taken from “131 Christians Everyone Should Know”

Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen. “Theodosius I.” Christian History. Christianity Today, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2016. From the book: “131 Christians Everyone Should Know”

Graves, Dan. “Theodosius Issued an Edict.” Christianity.com. N.p., May 2007. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

“Irenaeus, The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching.” Trans. Roger Pearse. Tertullian.org, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2016. Text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2003.

Kurlansky, Mark (2009-01-16). Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Modern Library Chronicles) (Kindle Locations 356-358, 407-412). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

McKnight, Scot. ““It’s Easy to Be Pacifist in Indiana. Try Gaza!”.” Jesus Creed. Patheos.com, 2 July 2013. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Sider, Ronald J. The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. Pages 24-25, 26, 28, 29-30, 45, 50-51, 70, 72, 110. Print.

Yoder, John Howard (2009-12-01). The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (p. 45). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Redeemed Natures: Chapter Six – Nonviolence & The Early Church (Part 2 of 3)

Click Here to see all posts in this series

Chapter Six

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

(Be sure to read Part 1 of this chapter first)

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.

Against Celsus

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*