The Teaching on Peace in the Fathers

By Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

The following essay will appear as chapter 6 of Fr. Stanley Harakas' forthcoming book, Wholeness of Faith and Life: Orthodox Christian Ethics, in Part One, "Patristic Ethics." The publisher is Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Originally published in "Un Regard Orthodoxe sur la Paix", Chambésy, Geneva: Editions du Centre Orthodoxe du Patriarcat Oecuménique, 1986.


It has been customary when approaching the social teachings of the Fathers of the Church, to speak of the patristic teaching on the topic of war rather than to speak of the Church Father's teaching on peace. Nevertheless, it is certainly more within the spirit of the tenth topic of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council, as presently formulated, to speak of peace, rather than war, even though the two topics are far from being unrelated.

In 1978, I published a small, popular study on the topics of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council to which I would like to refer briefly in these introductory remarks1.This study referred to an agenda item on the list of topics for the forthcoming pan-Orthodox Council: item ten was "the contribution of the local Orthodox Churches to the adoption of the Christian ideals of peace, freedom, brotherhood and love among the peoples of the world and the elimination of racial prejudice."

The inclusion of this topic in the list of agenda topics was heartening to me because it reflected a need of the Orthodox Church to address the problems of our age from the perspective of the Orthodox Christian truth, a truth which is not merely a sectarian affirmation, but which the Church teaches is, in fact, the actual description of the human condition and the response of God to it.

Until now, it has been a bit disheartening, however, to note that only two of the Orthodox Churches, Greece and Czechoslovakia, offered to address the topic. To my knowledge only Czechoslovakia's Orthodox Church has responded to it with a significant and substantial document. In a sense, this is quite sorrowful, for the potential of an Orthodox contribution is significant in this area. Nevertheless, individual studies have been made and conferences have been organised over the past few years on some of these topics, notably on the topic of "Peace," with the Orthodox Churches in socialist countries taking the lead on this topic.

In some of my comments on the tenth topic after the publication of my little work on the forthcoming Great and Holy Council, I have tried to show the wisdom and balance with which it was formulated, especially as it appealed to the social concern interests shown by the First, Second and Third Worlds. Though all nations in the world have a vested interest in the maintenance of peace and the avoidance of the nuclear holocaust, it is in large part resolvable only by the major First World powers. Anyone who has travelled knows that the Peace topic has become a favourite popular cause in the socialist nations, who accuse the Western democracies of promoting war, a charge denied and reciprocated by the West.

The favourite popular cause in the capitalist countries, in contrast, is the issue of personal freedom. The West charges the Eastern bloc nations with a suppression of freedom, a charge vehemently denied by the socialist nations. Second and Third World nations find themselves particularly resonant with the issues raised in the tenth topic of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council under the rubrics of brotherhood and the struggle against racism, charging both of the blocs with insensitivity to the need for a more corporate world concern for the requirements of the less powerful nations and peoples of the world, and with intemperate and degrading racism.

The topic, therefore, in my judgement is well formulated, and it is particularly welcome at this time that the Patriarchal Centre at Chambésy should choose to focus on one of its chief elements, "Peace." The topic calls for the "adoption of the Christian ideal of peace...." And so it is appropriate to concern ourselves with its clarification and study.

In my brief discussion of the topic of "peace" in the above mentioned book, I wrote the following words of caution:

There are very few Orthodox writers and thinkers who have dealt deeply and thoughtfully with these issues. Still fewer, if any, have provided the theoretical underpinnings for a consistent and authentic Orthodox Christian Social Ethic. Because of this there is the danger that our social concern will become subject to mere sloganeering and, worse yet, become the tool of alien forces. For example, Peace as an ideal for the Christian Church is almost self-evident. Yet there is no such thing as a coherent body of Orthodox peace studies. Few, if any, Orthodox theologians have concerned themselves with the problems of pacifism, disarmament, nuclear war, just war theory, peace movements, etc. There is a danger on this issue that we will allow ourselves simply to be used as a propaganda outlet2.

It is for this reason that the sustained study of the topic of peace in this seminar is most welcome, and I am sure will supply the Orthodox world with some worthwhile resources for the development of the tenth topic of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council. Without question a development of an uniquely Orthodox Christian approach to the issue of peace in our day cannot take place without some study of the Patristic teachings on peace, and the related issue of the Christian approach to war. In this paper, unfortunately, only the surface can be dealt with; neither can this presentation be one of the "in depth studies" which I called for in the quotation above, because of the breadth of the topic. We are, however, fortunately assisted in our work by a number of new writings on the topic3.

In this paper, I propose to survey the subject by treating the topic in three parts. In the first, I will survey and illustrate the stance of the Fathers of the Church on the ideal of peace, as a normative and determinative patristic stance. Part two will seek to apply the peace bias of the Fathers to its military dimensions. In the third part, the paper will delineate Eastern and Western Church approaches to the peace ideal in the post-Constantinian period. I would remind you that the treatments of these topics cannot be exhaustive, and can only, at this stage, be suggestive and illustrative.

The Pro-peace Patristic Stance

The Background

The concern for peace as a desired spiritual, moral, social and political good did not begin with the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church. Both the cultural environment of the Roman Empire and its Greek philosophical tradition, on the one hand, and the Old Testament and Jewish roots of the Christian tradition, on the other, provided significant antecedents for the Fathers of the Church regarding their views on peace4.

Among the ancient Greeks, the fundamental characteristic of the use of the term eirene was to denote the state or condition of non-war, the interlude, so to speak, between stages of almost continuous war. The Romans provided, with their term "Pax", an instrumental connotation to the same goal with its understanding as "a reciprocal legal relationship between two parties", thus used in phrases such as a "treaty of peace", "the conclusion of peace," and the "conditions of peace5." As "absence of war," peace took on metaphorical meanings as applied to the individual, essentially signifying the absence of hostile feelings, a sort of Stoic Aataraxia."

The Old Testament term "Shalom" is an extremely rich and variegated word, fertile with multiple levels of meaning. It certainly connotes more than "peace."

At its root, "Shalom" means "well-being", with a heavy emphasis on the material side of life. As such, it often refers to bodily health, or to the nation enjoying prosperity. Numerous Old Testament passages use the term -- by extension -- to indicate a relationship between political entities, as well as among persons, rather than just as a state of being. It follows that the word "Shalom" found occasional use to connote the practice of making covenants. By extension, thus, it referred to the inner dispositions of those involved in them. For example in Isaiah 54:10 we read: "My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed".

A few other things need to be noted about "shalom". It was always seen as a gift of Yahweh, and as such connected with the saving and redeeming work of God. Often genuine prophets would condemn false prophets who were inspired by self-interest and not God, as proclaiming "peace, peace, when there was no peace", in truth (Jeremiah 6:14). The term, however, also carries with it, in the Old Testament, elements of eschatological anticipation. It expresses an expectation of a final condition of unending peace, both on earth and in heaven. And significantly, the Messianic King in Proto-Isaiah carries as one of his titles, the appellation "Prince of Peace", but all of the titles can be subsumed or closely related to the broad term "Shalom" (Isaiah 9:6). What is notably missing, however, in the Old Testament, is a specifically spiritual connotation to the word, the inner disposition of the soul as spiritual. In fact, "Shalom" in the Old Testament is an almost exclusive public and social term.

Regarding the Septuagint let it suffice to say that the Hebrew word was translated in most cases as eirene and that the Septuagint served admirably to convey to the Greco-Roman world the senses of well-being and of salvation characteristic of the Hebrew understanding of the term. The social dimension is strong, as well, however, as the absence of war. The Septuagint conveys as well the source of peace as being God.

"Shalom", widely used in rabbinical literature as a frequent greeting, connotes "well-being." Seen as a gift of God, it is a summary word for the blessings of the messianic period, with almost exclusive limitation to concord within Israel. What is new, however, in the rabbinical literature is that peace is also strongly applied to individual relations, and not just as among nations. Thus, the Rabbis frequently refer to the making of peace among men. It is the judgement of some scholars that "peacemaking" in the sense of eliminating strife among persons in Judaism takes on the same significance which the love commandment has for the New Testament and subsequent Christianity. Strife and enmity among people is contrary to God's will. The rabbinical literature also focuses strife and peace on the relationship of humanity with God. Sin creates strife and the proper relationship of God and man restores peace between them.

In the Apocryphal writings, eirene, of course, is used with variety. Of interest is that in some writings, such as the Testament of the 12 Patriarchs and the Ethiopian Enoch, the opposite of peace is not "strife between God and Israel or humanity", as is found in the rabbinical literature, but "the judgement of God", conceived in much more personal terms. Peace is the absence of the judgement of God upon the righteous. Philo, strongly within the Greek philosophical tradition, sees peace as the political state of the absence of war and the inner rest which is the absence of desire, with the inner conflict deemed worse, even, than the outer lack of peace.

In the New Testament, there is a continuation of the rabbinical tradition in terms of greetings. Also, eirene as salvation, as peace with God, and as concord among people, are prominent in the New Testament. Further, the New Testament presents peace as the appropriate and fitting normal state of things under God. The opposite of disorder is peace, for, as in I Corinthians, 14:33, "God is not a God of confusion but of peace". Eirene is also a catchword for "the eschatological salvation of the whole man"6. Thus the angelic announcement of "peace on earth" is incarnational and salvific peace, neither limited nor primarily focusing on social or political peace. Thus Jesus Christ gathers together for the New Testament the major senses of peace. He is "the King of Peace" (Hebrews 7:2).

In the framework of salvation, sanctification and peace are closely aligned and we are instructed to seek them. "Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Eirenen diokete meta panton, kai ton aghiasmon, ou choris, oudeis opsetai ton Kyrion) (Hebrews 12:14). Further, the New Testament closely associates the term eirene with the powerful salvific term zo, life, which serves almost as a summary term for the whole consequence of Christ's saving work, the very opposite of thanatos, death. Its positive, personal, social, holistic and eschatological dimensions are expressed powerfully in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 "May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ". Rarely, the New Testament understands eirene as "peace with God", mostly in the sense of salvation and the result of reconciliation, katalage between sinful humanity and God. Not absent, as well, from the New Testament is the sense in which eirene is concord, harmony and order among human beings, for the Kingdom is "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). But there is also the sense of "eirene" as inner peace, much richer than the Greek and Stoic sense of the absence of disturbance, ataraxia. Peter speaks of the "inner person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit" (I Peter 3:4). The wisdom which comes from above is "peaceable," according to James 3:17.

By its association with joy, hara (Romans 15:13) and in the context of the salvation meaning of peace, as the normative human condition, peace of soul points to the content of the spiritual and moral life, and its reflection in our relations with others. Thus in I Timothy the Christian's goal is to "lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way (2:2). Thus the disciples are instructed "to keep the peace" (eireneuete) among themselves (Mark 9:50), and with all people (Romans 12:18, 2 Corinthians 13:11). Hebrews teaches that the heavenly Father's and the earthly parent's discipline yield "the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11). Most significantly, Jesus' Beatitudes call blessed those who are peacemakers, as establishing peace and harmony among people, in imitation, in the likeness of, and parallel to Christ's work of salvation and reconciliation, according to which He makes "peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:19). Thus the making of peace between God and humanity and among human beings becomes a function of the loving and salvific work of God for us, but also a reflection of the will of God for the relations of human beings among each other. On this basis, the Fathers of the Church build their teachings on peace.

The Patristic Teaching on Peace

The Christian emphasis on love, brotherhood, reconciliation, and peace rooted itself in the moral standards of the Christ-like and Christ-ordered life in the early Church. The Evangelical Ethic7 picks up many of these themes in the focus on peace in the patristic corpus. It must, however, be seen as providing the background for the patristic desire for peace, and also for the sense of its harmony with the spiritual and moral character of Kingdom living. The Sermon on the Mount commandments of non-resistance to evil, the return of good for evil, the spirit of reconciliation and brotherhood underpin for the Fathers the reference to, and the understanding of, peace. In the synoptic account which I am going to present now, I will not focus on the issue of peace as contrasted to war, but on the broader based conceptions as delineated in the background material which we have just surveyed. I will follow this with a more careful attention to the issue of peace and war.

For the Fathers of the Church the source of peace, and its fundamental meaning, come from God as a gift to humanity. Clement of Rome's 1st Epistle serves as a patristic example:

...let us run on to the goal of peace, which was handed down to us from the beginning. Let us fix our eyes on the Father and Creator of the universe and cling to his magnificent and excellent gifts of peace and kindness to us... Let us consider how free he is from anger toward his whole creation8.

In the same vein, Chrysostom teaches that "the true peace is from God".9 Clement of Rome also attributes the source of peace to Christ and associates it with the Holy Spirit. He says: "Content with Christ's rations... you were all granted a profound and rich peace and an insatiable longing to do good, while the Holy Spirit was poured out upon you all10."

St. Basil says in his Homily on the Psalms "he who seeks peace, seeks Christ, for he is the peace..." When commenting on the Lord's farewell gift of peace to His disciples, he adds "I cannot persuade myself that without love to others, and without, as far as rests with me, peaceableness towards all, I can be called a worthy servant of Jesus Christ12." In the Divine Names of Dionysios the "reopagite several paragraphs are committed to the discussion of the name of peace as attributed to God and its embodiment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. There, he writes:

Now, the first thing to say is this: that God is the Fount of True Peace and of all Peace, both in general and in particular, and that He joins all things together in an unity without confusion... There is no need to tell how the loving-kindness of Christ comes bathed in Peace, wherefrom we must learn to cease from strife, whether against ourselves or against one another, or against the angels, and instead to labour together even with the angels for the accomplishment of God's Will, in accordance with the Providential Purpose of Jesus Who works all things in all and makes Peace, unutterable and foreordained from Eternity, and reconciles us to Himself, and, in Himself, to the Father13.

As such, since God is the source of all good, peace is taught by Gregory of Nyssa to be an essential good, a necessary concomitant to every other good in which the faithful participate14. Thus the Letter of Barnabas calls the Christians "children of love and peace15," and Chrysostom says that the peace from God is the Christian's "nurse and mother", arising from spiritual harmony in the Christian from the "peace which is in accordance with God16 ."

One of the major emphases in the patristic corpus which does not appear strongly in the earlier traditions described above is the patristic emphasis upon peace as a personal spiritual phenomenon. Seen from the perspective of the inner spiritual life, with some clear philosophical overtones, is Origen's expectation that the mind and reason of Christians must be formed with God's "free co-operation ... when the soul is quiet and in the enjoyment of that peace which passes all understanding, and when she is turned away from all disturbance and not buffeted by any billows17." Similarly referring to the "peace which passes all understanding," St. Basil holds that if such a peace "guards our hearts, we will he able to avoid the turbulence... of the passions18." Thus, for Basil, spiritual peace is "the most perfect of blessings," which he defines as a "kind of stability of the rational ability19." The ascetic side of Basil is highlighted, nevertheless, when he emphasises the view that "true inner peace comes from above... and that one should "seek peace, which is the separation from the turbulences of this world... so as to obtain the peace of God20."

That this inner peace should express itself in outward behaviour and external relationships, as a function of the proper relationship with God, and the control of the passions, as well as love and forgiveness, is the next emphasis of the patristic tradition on peace. Thus the following progression in Theodore of Mopsuestia's commentary on Romans serves to illustrate the point: "peace is release from invisible enemies, from whom Christ frees us, and for the body not to rebel against the thoughts of the soul's dispositions, and the pious harmony with others21."

Thus the patristic understanding of eirene has a decided social and moral application as well. Clement of Alexandria identifies eirene and dikaiosyne in the Stromateis 22. He denotes the Christians as the "peaceable generation", (eirenikon genos 23) and identifies the moral role of the believer in establishing peace: "man is a pacific instrument ... the one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honour God is what we employ24." Therefore, for Clement, Christ uses the Christians as his soldiers of peace:

This is the proclamation of righteousness: to those that obey, glad tidings; to those that disobey, judgement. The loud trumpet, when sounded, collects the soldiers, and proclaims war. And shall not Christ, breathing a strain of peace to the ends of the earth, gather together His own soldiers, the soldiers of peace? Well, by His blood and by the word, He has gathered the bloodless host of peace, and assigned to them the kingdom of heaven25.

As His soldiers, the Christians fight evil for the sake of bringing about a moral and spiritual peace. Thus, writing in his 114th letter, To Cyriacus, at Tarsus, enjoining steps for the reunion of divided Christians, St. Basil opines that "nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker, and for this reason our Lord has promised us peacemakers a very high reward". And before him, the Didache admonished, "You must not start a schism, but reconcile those at strife (eireneueseis de machomenous )26.

The striving for peace among men, of course, is not unconnected with the other virtues, such as justice and righteousness, but in particular, as we have noted above, it is intimately related with the chief of the Christian virtues, love. Chrysostom thus teaches, "if there be peace, there will also be love; if love, there will be peace, also" in his Homilies on Ephesians (24, v.23).

When this range of patristic thought is coupled with the teachings of the Gospels on non-retribution, the avoidance of violence, the returning of good for evil, it forms a holistic view which sees peace, peacemaking, and the harmony of peoples among themselves as a normative good which Christians must seek to realise with God's help. This is the background for seeking to understand the patristic stance toward civil peace, and peace among nations.

Peace and War in the Early Church

The teaching of the Fathers of the pre- and post-Constantinian Church on War in general, on Christian participation in the military, and on whether the early Church was pacifist or not, has a huge bibliography. Important studies have exhaustively grappled with these issues. Certainly we cannot, nor is there need to reproduce here, what has been fully and adequately described in great detail elsewhere27.

The Pacifist Strand

Let it suffice to briefly document what we can properly call a pro-peace stance of the Fathers of the Church. A few examples are all that is needed for this purpose. Around the end of the first century, in the 1st letter of Clement, there are petitions to God for the civil rulers of the Roman Empire. We read: "It is you, Heavenly Master, Ruler of the Ages, who give to the sons of men glory, honour and power over earthly things. Guide their decisions yourself, O Lord, according to what is good and acceptable in your eyes, so that by dutifully wielding in peace and gentleness the authority you gave them, they may gain your favour28." Obviously based on the New Testament injunctions regarding the Christian attitude toward the civil rulers in Romans and the pastoral epistles, such prayers focusing on the role of civil rulers in the maintenance of peace are fairly common in the second century. Justin Martyr perceives the messianic period prophesied by Isaiah when the peoples will beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks, as having arrived with the Christians, for the Christians, he says, "who formerly killed one another... refuse to make war on (their) enemies."29 In his treatise On the Crown, Tertullian makes a sustained argument against the idea of Christians serving in the military of the pagan empire. Arguing both from the idolatry connected with that service and the taking of life, he holds that "the sons of peace" cannot be soldiers: "Will a son of peace who should not even go to court take part in a battle? Will a man who does not avenge wrongs done to himself have any part in chains, prisons, tortures and punishments?" Tertullian asks rhetorically30.

In a third century document attributed to Hippolytos of Rome, there is the expectation that lower rank soldiers may not obey orders to kill anyone, and if they do, that they are to be expelled from the Church31.

In his writing To Donatus St. Cyprian of Carthage decries war:

...everywhere wars have broken out with the ghastly bloodletting of the camp. The world is drenched with mutual bloodshed. When individuals slay a man, it is a crime. When killing takes place on behalf of the state it is called a virtue. Crimes go unpunished not because the perpetrators are said to be guiltless but because their cruelty is so extensive32.

In this same spirit, Origen maintains the total impropriety of Christians going to war themselves, but he does commend the rightness of the Roman emperor in waging war "in a just cause". Nevertheless, Origen notes in his Against Celsus, that Christians do support the effort with their prayers: "We do not go out on the campaign with (the emperor) even if he insists, but we do battle on his behalf by raising a special army of piety through our petitions to God33."

Elsewhere he says of the Christians, that "we no longer take up the sword against any nation, nor do we learn the art of war any more. Instead,... we have become sons of peace through Jesus our founder34."

Other pre-Constantinian writers such as Lactantius also clearly present to the reader a sense of the wrongness of war, and a bias toward peace. No less so, does this same predilection for peace and against war continue into the post-Constantinian patristic period. Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine's staunch supporter, praises the pax Augusti that permitted the uninhibited spread of Christianity35. For Eusebius, the coming together of the Church and the Empire meant that "the whole human race was converted to peace and friendship when all men recognised each other as brothers and discovered their natural kinship," a sign for him that the Constantinian synthesis was the fulfilment of scriptural prophesies for peace on earth36. Thus, the priority of peace for the Christian conscience remained strong. No less a figure than Chrysostom embodied this patristic bias for peace in his writing and preaching. In his 14th Homily on Philippians, Chrysostom states:

God is not a God of war and fighting. Make war and fighting to cease, both that which is against Him, and that which is against thy neighbour. Be at peace with all men, consider with what character God saveth them. 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.' Such always imitate the Son of God: do thou imitate Him too. Be at peace. The more thy brother warreth against thee, by so much the greater will be thy reward. For hear the prophet who saith, 'With the haters of peace, I was peaceful' (Psalm 120, 7, Septuagint). This is virtue, this is above understanding, this maketh us near God; nothing so much delighteth God as to remember no evil. This sets thee free from thy sins, this looseth the charges against thee: but if we are fighting and buffeting, we become far off from God: for enmities are produced by conflict, and from enmity springs remembrance of evil37.

The Endorsement of Christian Involvement in War

My purpose in bringing these few quotations is to emphasise the patristic commitment to peace. I have not entered into the debate as to whether the pre-Constantinian Church was pacifistic. I tend to agree with modern scholarship which rejects -- as overly simplifying the issue -- the view that the pre-Constantinian Church was fully pacifist, and that the post-Constantinian Church compromised its peace principles. Scholarship, which focuses not only on the patristic writings but also on Christian practice, such as that of Helgeland38, Daly and Burns39, Ryan40 and Swift41, seems to show that the early Church had elements in its teaching which supported a pro-peace, but not a pacifist position. Considerations founded on the stories of soldier saints and martyrs, the goodness of the state, the rightness of the exercise of the sword by the state, prayers for the state and spiritual support of military actions of defence, as well as the need for the defence of order and the protection of the innocent, lead to the view that these pre-existing factors came to the fore when the danger of pagan pollution and compromise was eliminated and the Christians and their Church assumed responsibilities of governing.

Nevertheless, my point is that in the patristic mind, the bias for peace continued. How that bias for peace was handled, however, differed in the East and in the West.

Eastern and Western Patristic Approaches to Peace and War

It is clear that the early Fathers saw war as an evil in which it was perceived that Christians should not participate. It is also clear that they recognised the important and necessary role of the state to use "military force for the protection of the temporal order as a function proper to the governance of the empire," in the words of one new study of the subject42.

Pacifistic Emphasis Retained: Liturgy and the Clergy

The exuberant enthusiasm of Eusebius of Caesaria for the new situation, as it impacted on peace and war perspectives of the newly established Church, did not find much endorsement in the rest of the patristic conscience. On the other hand, the benefits of the end of persecution, the establishment of the Church, the support for the spread of the Gospel, the eradication of heresies, and the incorporation of Christian values into the legal and social system of the Empire, seemed great enough benefits for the Church so as to outweigh some of the concerns which the earlier Church found so ready to promote in a radically different social, religious and moral climate43.

Nevertheless, in both East and West, there were efforts to preserve in the life of the Church a witness to the earlier emphasis which did not approve of military service for Christians. This is to be seen in the Church's disapproval of military service by the clergy and by the continued heavy emphasis in the liturgy of the Church on the theme of peace. In the latter case, there is an unbroken liturgical tradition based on the Old Testament, Rabbinical, New Testament tradition of the "giving of peace" in the form of blessings. For example, the blessing "May the peace of God be with you all" is to be found in the Liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions. There is no need, I believe, to document the continued tradition of prayer on behalf of peace both within and outside the Church in the liturgies of both East and West to this day.

The continuity of the pro-peace bias of the Church can be recognised in the ready agreement of the consciousness of today's Church with the early second century sentiments of St. Ignatius. As he was being escorted by a military guard on the way to his judgement, taught, according to his Letter to the Ephesians, that "There is nothing better than peace, by which all strife in heaven and earth is done away44." Involvement in the empire's public life meant for the post-Constantinian Church an enhanced appreciation of those elements in the Christian tradition which affirmed the need for order, the punishment of evil doers, defence of the innocent and other such conditions. These new conditions also permitted and even enjoined the involvement of Christians in the military, though there were steps to preserve, in the life of the Church, the earlier pacifistic tendencies of the pre-Constantinian Church.

In addition to the liturgical emphasis on peace, this was accomplished by what I have called elsewhere the "stratification of pacifism" with the canonical requirement that at least the clergy not be involved in military service45.

In seeking to deal with these two tendencies in the revelatory teaching upon which it based its life, that is, the moral repugnance of war and all it stands for, and the need to support order and defend and protect life, one solution was to embody the peace ideal in its fullest sense in the clergy:

...the Church decided to require monks and clergy to be the pacifists in a Church which spoke for the whole of society. Thus, canon 83 of the Apostolic Canons says that a priest or bishop may not engage in military matters. Also prohibited to clergy is government service (Apostolic Canons 6 and 81, canon 3 of the 4th Ecumenical Council and canon 10 of the 7th Ecumenical Council), because one thereby compromises his priesthood. Canon 7 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council combines both injunctions: "We have decreed in that those who have once been enrolled in the Clergy or who have become Monks shall not join the army nor obtain any secular position of dignity. Let those be anathematised who dare to do this and fail to repent, so as to return to that which they had previously chosen on God's account46.

While a solution of sorts, it also reflects serious problems, not the least of which is the ecclesiological problem of the place of the laity in the Church for whom no such requirement is made, and who must meet the question of participation in war by Christians on the basis of different criteria. This stratification of the pacifistic tendencies of the early Church was common, and continues to be common to Eastern and Western Christianity, at least, to Roman Catholicism.

Variant Responses in East and West

Not shared, however, in my judgement, are the theological rationales used in the East and the West in dealing with the participation of Christian laity in the military. It is not necessary at this point to delineate the development of the "Just War" tradition in the West. I believe that it is sufficiently familiar47. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine are its clear founders. These two Western Fathers drew on the scriptural and patristic sources which in one way or another validate the participation of Christian laity in government and in military service. These two seminal writers led the Western Church, not only to an acceptance of the military role by Christians, but its enhancement into a positive virtue through the development of criteria by which a war could be distinguished from an unjust war, and be called "just."

It is my contention that the East developed a different approach to the issue. Rather than seek to morally elevate war and Christian participation in it so that it could be termed "just," the East treated it as a necessary evil. I have previously developed this idea in an evaluation of the United States Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops' recent encyclical letter on war and peace48. I present here a somewhat revised version of that argument.

Contrary to Augustine, "who called it a Manichaean heresy to assert that war is intrinsically evil and contrary to Christian charity49," the Eastern Patristic tradition rarely praised war, and to my knowledge, almost never called it "just" or a moral good. Two cases, only, are known to me where it might be implied that, in passing, wars were characterised as possibly just. These references are to be found in Origen and Eusebius. Origen, in an argument specifically rejecting Christian participation in the military service of the Empire, appears to acknowledge the possibility of just wars. He says, "Though they keep their right hands clean, the Christians fight through their prayers to God on behalf of those doing battle in a just cause and on behalf of an emperor who is ruling justly in order that all opposition and hostility toward those who are acting rightly may be eliminated50." In the same manner, in his Demonstration of the Gospel, Eusebius, while speaking of the distinction of the clergy and laity life styles in the Church, refers by way of illustration only, and in passing to "practical rules for those "serving in the army, according to justice"51.

Whatever meaning and value these passages may have, they do not seem to be in the mainstream of Eastern thinking on the matter. I believe that Louis Swift is correct in substance, but wrong in tone and implication, when he notes that "the whole problem of public and private responsibility in this area and the moral limits surrounding the ius belli and the ius in bello were never serious topics of interest in the minds of eastern writers52." The East did not seek to deal with just war themes such as the correct conditions for entering war, and the correct conduct of war on the basis of the possibility of the existence of a "just war," precisely because it did not hold to such a view of war. Its view was different from that of the West. The East's approach to war was that it was a necessary evil. The peace ideal continued to remain normative and no theoretical efforts were made to make conduct of war into a positive norm.

The locus classicus illustrating this view is the 13th canon of St. Basil from his first Canonical Letter to Amphilochius . The canon struggles to free killing during war from the ethical judgement of being equivalent to murder, while concurrently refusing to call the act good or just. Here is the text:

"Our Fathers did not consider murders committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defence of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that they are not clean handed53."

The major early patristic passage, which Basil may have been referring to, is found in St. Athanasius' Epistle to Amun 54. In passing, and by way of illustration, as he seeks to show that circumstances serve to modify moral judgements, St. Athanasius refers to killing in war: "...thus it is not right to commit murder, but to kill enemies in war is lawful and praiseworthy55."

His conclusion, however, does not place him so far from Basil as might first appear. "Therefore, the same thing on the one hand according to which at one time is not permitted, is on the other, at appropriate times permitted and is forgiven56."

The inclusion of "forgiveness" needs to be understood as reflective of the strong tradition in Eastern Christianity of the concept of "involuntary sin". This widely documented teaching acknowledges the lack of direct and willed responsibility for an act, while concurrently acknowledging the involvement of the moral agent in an act which in itself is not good and not in accordance with the divine will. In fact, St. Basil's 13th canon follows on a canon where this concept is discussed in the context of "involuntary murder". In the case of "involuntary murder", Basil imposes a penance of abstinence from communion for eleven years (not a small period, compared to twenty years for a voluntary murderer), because "the man who struck had no intention of killing him". Nevertheless, he adds, "we deem the assailant a murderer, to be sure, but an involuntary murderer57."

Clearly, Basil, like Athanasius, evaluates killing in war to be less of an evil than a face-to-face killing between non-military persons, albeit involuntary, since in canon 13 he provides for three years of abstinence from Communion, rather than eleven years of abstinence in the preceding canon58. Other Patristic sources for the concept of "involuntary sin" are the 5th Canon of St. Gregory of Nyssa59, and Canon 23 of Ancyra (c. 314-331)60.

This view is characteristic of Byzantine society, even the military establishment. In an anonymous manual of strategy, written in the sixth century during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, war is acknowledged to be "the greatest of evils", though often necessary.

I know well that war is a great evil, even the greatest of evils. but because enemies shed our blood in fulfilment of an incitement of law and valour, and because it is wholly necessary for each man to defend his own fatherland and his fellow countrymen with words, writings, and acts, we have decided to write about strategy, through which we shall be able not only to fight but to overcome the enemy61.

A careful study of the chapters of this work will show that most military definitions are couched in defensive language. Further, it will be seen that the majority of tactics espoused seek to embody subterfuge, cunning, deception, tricks, and hoaxes in order to avoid battle, and to cause the enemy to withdraw of his own volition. The Byzantines also preferred the payment of tribute rather than the doing of battle.

This is not the only evidence. Walter Kaegi, a historian of Byzantine military strategy, summarises a late 6th or early 7th century major Byzantine strategic treatise, known as the Strategikon of Maurice, which shows that every means possible was used to avoid open warfare62.

The author of the Strategikon advises his readers to fashion craftiness and cunning in war and to avoid open battles, that it is often preferable to strike the enemy "by means of deceptions or raids or hunger" instead of open battle.

He cautions against using open warfare. The object of warfare is the defeat and disruption, not necessarily the slaughter, of the enemy. In fact, the author of the Strategikon counsels against using the technique of encirclement because it would encourage the enemy to remain and to risk battle. He advises that it is better to allow an encircled enemy to flee to avoid forcing him to take a life-or-death stand, which would be costly in casualties to the encircling party. There is no more eloquent testimony to the desire to avoid decisive battle63.

We are not here primarily interested in Byzantine military strategy, of course. The purpose of quoting the passages above is to show that, both religiously and militarily, the East recognised the necessity for war, as well as its evil and the need and desire to mitigate its consequences. Though one might question the practical outcome of such a view, it is considered by some to have been an important contributing factor to the long life of the Byzantine Empire64. In the last analysis, it would appear that the Eastern approach served to limit and reduce war and its evil consequences, in practice, while neither making it into a good, nor following the path of pacifism.

I believe that these approaches express well the viewpoint of the Eastern Orthodox Church on war. Thus in a strict sense it cannot speak of a "good war", or even a "just war." There are, of course, problems on both sides of this issue. For example, seeing war as a necessary evil, rather than as a "just" and thus morally approved practice, raises the question of motivation for the waging of war, since calling it a necessary evil can hardly be encouraging to a strong military élan. Consequently, some might be motivated to charge the Eastern approach as guilty of contributing to the possibility of defeat and failure by fostering the begrudging taking up of arms. Nevertheless, it is perhaps because of some such considerations (with the possible exception of Heraclius' Persian campaign), that crusades were noticeably absent from Byzantine imperial military policy. All that this does, however, is to re-emphasise the great difficulties for the Church in dealing with the pro-peace bias in a world fraught with sin, evil and injustice. My point is that the East has responded to the issue in a way that is different from that of the West.


All the evidence, I believe, points to the realisation that the patristic sources see peace as an integral aspect of the Christian truth. For the Fathers, whether one speaks of the inner world of the soul, the intimate relationship of the soul with God, the life in the Church, the social relationships among believers, the encounter of believers with the world at large, the enforcement of justice within societies, or the defence of nations from external threat, there is a bias for peace.

That emphasis on peace is an ongoing and permanent focus of the Christian teaching as it addresses the issues of today's nuclear-threatened world, and justifies its inclusion in the topics of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.

endnotes for this essay:

1 Stanley S. Harakas, Something is Stirring in World Orthodoxy. Minneapolis: Light & Life Publ. Co., 1978.

2 Ibid., p. 65.

3 In English, three volumes are of particular interest: Louis J. Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service, Vol.19; 1983 and Peter C. Phan, Social Thought, Vol.20, 1984, in the series Message of the Fathers of the Church. Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, Inc. See also the study, by John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly, and S. Patout Burns, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

4 I am here closely following Gerhard von Rad and Werner Foerster, in Gerhard Kittel, ed Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol.11. Tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964, pp. 400-420.

5 Ibid., p. 401.

6 Ibid., p. 412.

7 Stanley S. Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life: The Theoria of Eastern Orthodox Ethics. Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Co, 1983, chapter 7.

8 19:2, 3.

9 Homily I on 1st Corinthians.

10 op. cit., 2,2.

12 Letter 203, 2.

13 II,2,4

14 On the Beatitudes, 7.

15 21, 9

16 Against the Jews, 3, 6.

17 Commentary on John, 6, 1.

18 Homily on Psalm 29.

19 Homily on Psalm 28.

20 Homily on Psalm 33.

21 1:7.

22 4, 25.

23 Instructor, 2, 2.

24 ibid., 2, 4.

25 Exhortation to the Heathens, II.

26 4, 3.

27 A few representative titles in English are: Cecil J. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, Oxford, 1919; _________,The Early Church and the World. A History of the Christian Attitude to Pagan Society and the State down to the Time of Constantinius, Edinburgh, 1925; C.E. Caspary, Politics and Exegesis: Origen and the Two Swords. Berkeley, 1979; H.A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. New York, 1963; A. von Harnack, Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries. Philadelphia, 1980; G. Zampaglione, The Idea of Peace in Antiquity. Notre Dame, 1973.

28 28 61, 1-2.

29 First Apology, 39:3.

30 II, 1-7.

31 Apostolic Tradition, XVI.

32 6.

33 7, 73.

34 5, 33.

35 Demonstration of the Gospel, 3, 7, 140; Preparation for the Gospel 1, 4.

36 In Praise of Constantine, 2, 3.

37 On v. 8.

38 Christians and the Roman Army: A..D. 173-337, Church History, 43, 1974, pp. 149-163.

39 Christians and the Military: The Early Experience, op. cit.

40 "The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians", Theological Studies, 13, 1952, pp. 1-32.

41 The Early Fathers on War and Military Service, op. cit.

42 Helgeland, Daly, Burns, op. cit., p.89 of the page proofs. I am grateful to Fr. Robert Daly who made the page proofs available to me, shortly before the publication of the book.

43 8, 13, 1.

44 13, 2.

45 Stanley S. Harakas, "The Morality of War", Joseph J. Allen, ed. Orthodox Synthesis: The Unity of Theological Thought. New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981, pp. 67-94.

46 Ibid, p.85. See also Swift, op. cit. pp.88,92-93.

47 See bibliographical references above.

48 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. Washington, DC, 1983. The paper, under the title "The NCCB Pastoral Letter: 'The Challenge of Peace' -- An Eastern Orthodox Response" was published in 1985 by the Catholic University of America Press.

49 Quoted in footnote 31, The Challenge of Peace, Sec. 82.

50 Against Celsus, 8'73

51 1,8.1 do not think that Swift's translation "practical rules for those fighting in a just war" is adequate.

52 Ibid., p.96.

53 The Rudder, Chicago: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1957, p.801.

54 MPG, 26, 1169-1180.

55 Ibid., 1173B.

56 Ibid. Emphasis mine.

57 Canon 11, ibid., p.800.

58 For more on "involuntary sin", see Stanley S. Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life. op. cit., p. 84.

59 "Canonical Epistle to Letoius, Bishop of Melitine." Canon V. The Pedalion. Ibid., pp. 874-875.

60 Ibid., p. 502.

61 "Der Byzantiner Kriegswissenschaft", 4.2 in Griechische Kriegsschriftsteller, ed. H. Koechly and W. Rustow. Leipzig, 1855, vol. 2, p. 56.

62 Das Strategikon des Maurikios, ed. George T. Dennis and German translation by E. Gamillscheg, and the Dennis English translation, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

63 Walter Emil Kaegi, Jr., "Some Thoughts on Byzantine Military Strategy," Brookline, Ma.: Hellenic College Press, 1983, p. 8.65.

64 Ibid., pp.9-10.

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