“UNBELTED EVERY SOLDIER”
A Brief Note on Pre-Montanist Tertullian’s Pacifism
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Jordan Daniel May
Princeton Theological Seminary
The subject of Christians’ involvement in the military has been a contentious issue for nearly two millennia. While many Christians follow the ‘Just War Theory,’ which states that Christians may at times pick up arms in defense of a nation or people, there are other Christians, usually labeled as ‘Pacifists,’ who reject any notion of Christian involvement in war or police actions. Both theological positions, however, claim to be the classical Christian position on the matter. Just War Theorists contend that Jesus never forbids Christians’ involvement in the military and that examples such as Jesus’ exhortation regarding the faith of the Roman soldier (Luke 7.1-10) and the Roman Centurion’s conversion in Acts (Acts 10) provide enough evidence for the belief that Christians may faithfully serve in the military. Yet Pacifists contend that Jesus did, in fact, forbid Christians’ involvement in any violent action—military or civil—with his commands to “love your enemies” (Matt 5.44) and to “not resist an evil person but… to turn the other cheek” (Matt 5.39). The spirited debate between these two camps does not appear to be on the decline; in fact, the events surrounding September 11, 2001 and the U.S.-Iraqi War have only fueled both camps’ heated rhetoric towards one another.
The majority of the scholarly debate on the subject surrounds either exegetical issues regarding the biblical texts or philosophical questions concerning Christian applied ethics. It appears, however, that most scholars in this debate both interpret the biblical texts or the philosophical questions through previously constructed grids of systematic theology or church tradition, and thus posit within this debate only what they already believe. In view of the theological stalemate, I propose an alternative approach to the debate in the form of a question: what did the early church believe regarding Christians’ involvement in the military? Since much of the debate surrounds Jesus’ own words, it is only logical to conclude (at least, in some measure) that those living closer to Jesus’ actual time period had a clearer grasp to whether or not Christians can serve faithfully within the military. Perhaps the answer to this question will shed some light on the modern Pacifist/Just War debate.
It will be my intent, then, to examine the issue of Christians’ involvement in the military from within the early church. Since Tertullian is the first Christian writer to give extensive attention to the idea of Christians in the military, I will use his theology as a case study. Before turning to his writings, however, a few notes regarding his literary chronology are warranted. The majority of Tertullian’s view(s) regarding Christian military service is found primarily within three texts: De Idololatria (196-197 C.E.), Apologeticum (197-198 C.E.), and De Corona (208 C.E.). Prior to T. D. Barnes’ seminal work, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (1971), virtually all scholars believed that Tertullian wrote De Idololatria rather late in his literary career, perhaps due to its theological similarities with De Corona. Regarding our study, this chronology would have made much sense, given that Tertullian’s Apologeticum appears to permit Christian military service while his De Idololatria and De Corona appear to condemn such service. With this old chronology in mind, many scholars saw in Tertullian’s position a steady trajectory from his early position represented in Apologeticum to the condemning position against Christian military service in his later treatises. As a result, many scholars viewed Tertullian’s position as divided by his pre-Montanist (196-206 C.E.) and Montanist years (206-212 C.E.), and thus any difference in position was explained by this theological shift. But Barnes’ work has challenged this notion and thus changed the scholarly landscape regarding Tertullian’s literary chronology; consequently, scholars now believe that Tertullian’s De Idololatria and Apologeticum come from approximately the same year. So, in view of this reality, my proposal is simply that Tertullian consistently rejected Christian military service—thus viewing military service the same way in his early literary career as he did in his later Montanist years. What is more, Tertullian rejected Christian military service, I believe, not only because of the pagan religious practices that take place within the Roman imperial army, as most scholars willingly concede, but also because of the possibility of Christians having to bear arms—a point in which most scholars object.
In the course of this study, I will evaluate only Tertullian’s earlier pre-Montanist De Idololatria (196-97 C.E.) and Apologeticum (197-98 C.E.). Most scholars view Tertullian’s Montanist theology as firmly pacifistic, so I will not analyze his later De Corona. Although there appears to be a contradiction in Tertullian’s pre-Montanist thought on the subject of Christian military service, I will show from both his De Idololatria and Apologeticum that he was firmly pacifistic even during his pre-Montanist years.
In Tertullian’s early De Idololatria, we get a foretaste of what, in his later Montanist years, will grow into a major theme in his writings: that life within the military forces one to choose that lifestyle over the Christian lifestyle and thus military service is set in total opposition to Christianity. Tertullian’s De Idololatria addresses Christians who live within the Graeco-Roman world where paganism is entrenched in almost every social situation. Since idol-worship permeated the Graeco-Roman society, Tertullian writes this treatise to deal with the broad issue of Christians living differently from others who are steeped in idol-worship within the Roman Empire. Within this treatise, Tertullian discusses directly the thought of a Christian joining the Roman army:
Now inquiry is made … whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Caesar. (Idol. 19.2-5)
Some Christians, according to Tertullian, evidently believe that the position of an ordinary soldier (“even the rank and file, or each inferior grade”) is not objectionable since, unlike the higher-ranked officers, they do not have to offer sacrifices or enforce capital punishment. Tertullian, however, refutes this belief by stating as his main protest against Christian military service that it necessitates divided loyalties: “one soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Caesar” (Idol. 19.5). The fact that soldiers had to swear allegiance to the Roman emperor provides much evidence for this reality. During this time in the Roman military, soldiers recited the sacramentum, a military oath, upon enlisting in the Roman army. The sacramentum was an oath of allegiance that soldiers recited not only initially upon military enlistment, but also biannually for the remainder of their military service. Prior to the imperial period (44 B.C.E. – 410 C.E.), however, soldiers took oaths to their individual military commanders. Yet due to the possibilities of military insurrections and revolts, where troops would thus follow their respective legion commanders, the soldiers later pledged their allegiances solely to the Roman emperor. As a result, the sacramentum demanded absolute submission to the Roman emperor as the highest authority. And since the Roman emperors were also appointed to the office of the Pontifex Maximus, the sacrementum involved implicit idolatry in Tertullian’s mind.
Roman soldiers also pledged their allegiances both to the patron standard for the Roman imperial army and to the military standards of their respective legions. The patron standard and symbol of Rome’s military might was the eagle, which symbolized Jupiter. The Romans believed that the eagle protected the empire from possible foreign invaders, and thus even their esprit de corps rested in their patron standard. Any legion that lost either the Romans’ patron standard or their own respective standard during battle would be dishonorably disbanded. Once a standard was lost, in fact, the Romans would not rest until they were able to return the standard successfully. In one such case, when the Germanic leader Arminius defeated General Varus in Germany in 9 C.E., it took close to thirty-five years for the Romans to successfully return their standard.
Furthermore, the eagle and the other lesser standards of the Roman army were the object of the Cult of Standards. The Cult revolved around devout allegiance to the standards and by Tertullian’s time, it had achieved a special prominence in the ritual life of the Roman army. In fact, a common practice among the Roman soldiers was to pay honor to the standards after a military victory. Roman soldiers believed that if they received protection from the god behind the standard, they should then in turn pay homage to the god with an honorary dedication. Speaking on the Roman military’s piety towards their standards, Tertullian states: “The camp religion of the Romans is all through a worship of the standards, a setting the standards above all gods” (Apol. 18). As cited above, Tertullian notes in his De Idololatria that there can be no agreement between the standards of the Romans and the standard of Christ. From Tertullian’s own pen, we can see that one of his principal objections against Christian military service is the fact that military life demanded divided loyalties from its Christian soldiers. Any allegiance to either an emperor or a standard is no different in the mind of Tertullian—both appear to be idolatrous. The fact that lower ranked soldiers are not forced to offer sacrifices and enforce capital punishment—which Tertullian certainly objects to—did not justify their military service. Rather, the mere fact that soldiers had to take an oath of allegiance to the emperor and to the different Roman and legion standards is enough for Tertullian to consider military service as idolatrous.
From this passage, we can see that Tertullian undeniably objects to Christian military service due to the idolatrous behavior within the imperial army’s ranks. And most scholars certainly locate Tertullian’s position on the military on this particular issue. But what does Tertullian say about the possibility of Christians having to bear arms? Tertullian continues his thought in the same passage:
And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (the Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the people warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man go to war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action. (Idol. 19.6-9)
It is astounding that many scholars read this chapter and still come away with the opinion that Tertullian was opposed to Christian military service solely on the grounds of the rampant idolatry within the Roman imperial army. In their work on patristic interpretation of Christian military service, Helgeland, Daly, and Burns note regarding this chapter:
As Tertullian saw it, the idolatry of the military forced Christians into two offenses against the faith: taking part in sacrifices and executing capital sentences. Nothing is said about combat. That is why Tertullian seems to be as concerned with the question of whether a soldier could serve in peacetime. … Nowhere is there any statement that a soldier should not enlist because killing in combat is wrong.
It seems as though many scholars miss Tertullian’s plain statements regarding the possibility of Christians in combat situations. While it is true that Tertullian objects to Christian military service because of the idolatry within the Roman army, as Helgeland, Daly, and Burns note correctly, he also objects because of the possibility of Christians having to bear arms.
Within this passage, Tertullian begins with a negative answer to the question of whether Christians of lower ranks can serve in the military. Tertullian goes on to affirm that Christians of any rank cannot serve in the military because of the idolatrous allegiances to the emperor and military standards. Tertullian then raises the issue, “one soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Caesar” (Idol. 19.5), thus implying that Christians in the military serve two different masters. It should be remembered, however, that Tertullian did not raise the initial question, but that Tertullian merely responds to the question regarding Christian military service. For scholars to allow this passage to dictate how one reads Tertullian’s position of Christian military service is to miss the point of the larger passage. Before the question of Christian military service, Tertullian discusses the issue of Christians and idolatrous attire. Immediately following his statements against military allegiances, Tertullian raises a related question: “how will a Christian man go to war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword”? (Idol. 19.7). Tertullian believes that in disarming Peter, Christ disarmed all soldiers (Idol. 19.8); thus Tertullian clearly believes that it was idolatrous for a Christian to wear a sword—even in peacetime. Further support for Tertullian’s view of the sword is found in his Adversus Judaeos, which belongs roughly to the same year as De Idololatria.
The old law being obliterated … For the wont of the old law was to avenge itself by the vengeance of the glaive, and to pluck out “eye for eye,” and to inflict retaliatory revenge for injury. But the new laws wont was to point to clemency, and to convert to tranquility the pristine ferocity of “glaives” and “lances,” and to remodel the pristine execution of “war” upon the rivals and foes of the law into the pacific actions of “ploughing” and “tilling” the land. Therefore as we have shown above that the coming cessation of the old law and of the carnal circumcision was declared, so, too, the observance of the new law and the spiritual circumcision has shone out into the voluntary obedience of peace. (Adv. Jud. 3)
In this passage, Tertullian affirms that the Israelites were correct in waging war and enforcing capital punishment, but he asserts that “the new laws” that point towards compassion now have precedence over the old. The new laws changed the former savagery of swords and lances into tranquility, and refashioned the former infliction of war into the “voluntary obedience of peace.” Tertullian makes it clear that the old law is the precursor of the new and that violence is not part of the new law.
We can thus conclude from this analysis of De Idololatria that Tertullian rejected Christian military service for two primary purposes: 1) idolatry in the Roman army and 2) the fact that Christ disarmed all soldiers. But what about Tertullian’s so-called approval of Christian military service in his Apologeticum? As already mentioned, most scholars find in Tertullian a constant rejection of Christian military service based on the extensive idolatry within the Roman army’s ranks or they see a steady trajectory from a position that supports Christian military service, such as that alluded to possible in the Apologeticum, to one that totally rejects Christian military service in his later De Corona. Yet, as already shown, this theory builds on an old and incorrect chronology that places De Idololatria and De Corona together towards the end of Tertullian’s literary career, during his Montanist years. In order to get an accurate view of Tertullian’s pre-Montanist understanding of Christian military service, we must consider Tertullian’s De Idololatria and Apologeticum together.
Tertullian’s apology, which addresses the “rulers” of the Roman Empire, is a written defense against the accusations that Christians fail to participate in the Graeco-Roman society. Within this defense, Tertullian asserts the legitimacy of the Roman Empire since the emperor came to power by the pleasure of God and as a result, Christians pray for him:
Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish. (Apol. 25)
As expected, Tertullian argues for the legitimacy of the Christians as a religious group among others within the Roman Empire. Tertullian knows that many within the Roman Empire made the charge that Christians refuse to participate in the Graeco-Roman status quo, perhaps he was aware of Celsus’ True Doctrine (ca. 180 C.E.) in which Celsus leveled the exact same charge. In attempting to refute these accusations, Tertullian notes that there are Christians who participate in every area of society. In doing so, Tertullian claims that Christians, because of their large numbers, could cause insurrection, but fortunately, for Rome, Christians are forbidden to practice violence.
If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands? … Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve an ample vengeance? … If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be any lacking in strength, whether of numbers or resources? … We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum—we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods. For what wars should we not be fit, not eager, even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay? (Apol. 37)
Within this passage, Tertullian mentions that Christians can be found everywhere within society with the one exception of pagan temples. Does this imply that Christians were in the military? Tertullian already mentioned that Christians pray for “brave armies” (Apol. 25) and here we see that Christians occupy “fortresses” (Apol. 37). Tertullian even goes on to directly state that Christians participate in the Roman military:
So we sojourn with you in the world, abjuring neither forum, nor shambles, nor bath, nor booth, nor workshop, nor inn, nor weekly market, nor any other places of commerce. We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings—even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit. (Apol. 42)
At face value there appears to be a contradiction within Tertullian’s thinking. In his De Idololatria there is a clear condemnation of Christian military service, and yet in his Apologeticum, while not at all condoning, there seems to be an acceptance of Christian military service. We appear to have a fight on our hands.
Both writings, early as they are in Tertullian’s literary career, give us good indication that there were some Christians serving in the Roman army during this time. In Apologeticum, Tertullian clearly informs his readers that Christians do serve in the Roman army. And in De Idololatria, there is not only evidence for soldiers turned Christians but also evidence for the enlistment of already baptized Christians (“Now inquiry is made … whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith,” Idol. 19.2). But Tertullian levels two primary objections to Christian military service. First, Tertullian emphatically rejects Christian military service based not only on certain pagan practices within the army (i.e., sacrifices), but also on the oaths of allegiances pledged towards the emperor and military standards. While the lower ranked soldiers did not have to partake in many of the pagan practices, they did have to pledge their allegiance to the Roman emperor and their respective military standards; thus Tertullian rejects even their military service. Second, Tertullian rejects Christian military service because Christians would then have to bear arms. As mentioned above, Tertullian believes that in disarming the apostle Peter, Christ disarmed all Christians. So, why then does Tertullian appear to accept Christian military service in his Apologeticum?
Some scholars, in fact, have even accused Tertullian of being dishonest or inconstant in boasting to the Roman officials that Christians served within the Roman army while at the same time arguing with Christians in his rejection of Christian military service. We should not be tempted, however, to separate Tertullian’s views from the history in which they first appeared. Tertullian wrote during a time when the Romans were suspicious of the growing Christian community. When Tertullian wrote to other Christians, such as in his De Idololatria, he expressed his personal views towards the subject of Christian military service, but when he wrote to the Roman officials, he was more careful in the presentation of his views. It is unfair to characterize Tertullian as dishonest when he simply adverted to the fact that some Christians served in the Roman military. In no way did Tertullian condone Christian military service in his Apologeticum, but rather he simply admitted the reality of Christians in the military and used that fact within his defense of Christians and their readiness to take part in the activities of society. It would have been ineffective, not to mention rather incongruous, to introduce an issue in his Apologeticum on which Christian opinion varied, unless his line of reasoning specifically called for its treatment.
Before concluding, perhaps we should pause to see where we are in our inquiry into Tertullian’s pre-Montanist pacifism. First, I have demonstrated from his own pen that, even though there were Christians serving within the Roman army, Tertullian rejected Christian military service for two primary reasons: 1) the rampant idolatry within the Roman army and 2) the possibility of Christians having to bear arms. Even if a Christian could serve in the Roman army without engaging in any of the idolatrous practices, he could not carry a sword according to Tertullian. In fact, Tertullian raises the important question: “how will a Christian man go to war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword” (Idol. 19.7). The obvious answer to Tertullian’s question is that a Christian cannot serve without a sword; thus Christians have no business serving in the Roman army. Second, I have shown that Tertullian consistently rejected Christian military service throughout his entire literary career. While Tertullian appears to accept Christian military service in his Apologeticum, in actuality, he only confirms that there were Christians serving in the Roman army. Tertullian only offered this information to the Roman rulers in order to calm their suspicions that Christians were socially subversive. Nowhere in his Apologeticum does Tertullian specifically condone Christian military service. Instead, we see such phrases as “to love our enemies,” “if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil,” and “better to be slain than to slay.” As a result, even though Tertullian acknowledged the existence of Christians serving in the Roman army, we can see clearly that he consistently rejected Christian military service.
While Tertullian’s theology is only one slice of the patristic witness on the subject of Christian military service, Tertullian is the earliest witness (not to mention the father of Latin Christianity) to gives us extensive attention on the subject. So, what then does Tertullian’s view on Christian military service contribute to the modern Just War/Pacifist debate, if anything? First, Tertullian’s writings indicate strongly that both Christians turned soldiers and already baptized Christians enlisted and served in the Roman army during the time of his writings. Although the number of Christians who served in the military was probably relatively small, the idea that Tertullian mentions the fact that Christians served in the military to the Roman officials and the reality that Tertullian debated the issue of Christian military service with other Christians confirms this thesis. Second, the idea that there was a debate (so-called) between Tertullian and other Christians who believed that soldiers of the lower ranks could serve in the military gives us good indication that there was not a universally accepted position on the matter. Moreover, the simple fact that Tertullian was consistent in his pacifism from both his pre-Montanist to his Montanist years further supports this notion. Scholars can no longer claim that Tertullian’s pacifism was solely the product of his later Montanist thinking, and thereby explain his position only as in rebellion from his early more ‘orthodox’ (or proto-orthodox) position. Third, in discussing his reasons for rejecting Christian military service, Tertullian expressed certain exegetical and hermeneutical tendencies. Among these, Tertullian appeared to reject Christian military service based on theological readings of 1) the historical event of Jesus disarming Peter and 2) the new law (i.e., New Covenant) surpassing the old. Any attempt to equate Tertullian’s pacifism with modern pacifism would thus have to examine extensively his exegetical and hermeneutical reasons for his pacifism. If modern pacifists wish to enlist Tertullian into their camp, in order to be consistent, they also would have to accept the exegetical and hermenitical reasons for his pacifism (or, at least, explain them). In conclusion, we can see from within Tertullian’s own writings that there existed two Christian positions concerning Christian military—one represented by him and the other represented by his interlocutor in De Idololatria. Thus, as far as the modern Just War/Pacifist debate is concerned, we can conclude safely that the debate is, in fact, much older than both sides usually want admit.
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