Defending Constantine— Part Seven– Is Yoder Yoda?

As I begin this particular post,  I need to come clean and say,  I am in fact a pacifist, and have been all my adult life.  But as a responsible historian, I do not think good theology should be based on bad history.  John Howard Yoder’s reading of early Christian history is about as flawed as that of  George Barna’s in Pagan Christianity, though in some different ways.

Part of the problem stems from the exegetical gymnastics required to maintain a Yoderian reading of texts like  Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2.13-14.    I think a good positive case can be made for Christians adopting a stance of personal pacifism based on the Sermon on the Mount, and texts like Romans 12.     What I do not think is that one can also argue that God and Christians and the kingdom for that matter,  has nothing to do with or should have nothing to do with establishing or sustaining governments or rulers or whole cultures or the like.  It is possible to be a good citizen of the Kingdom of God and to some extent of some kingdoms in this world without selling one’s soul for a mess of pottage.

For me where the rubber meets the road is when one asks ‘what roles can a Christian committed to the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount play in governmental affairs?’   I must and do draw the line on any role which potentially requires the use of violence or the taking of human life.  I can’t serve as a soldier in the military, but I could serve as a medic or perhaps a chaplain.  I can’t serve as the executioner for death row, but I could serve as the prison chaplain, and so on.   I can serve in VISTA or the Peace Corps or work for the NIH,  or the National Park Service etc.   You catch my drift.

In the end,  I don’t think the NT endorses either a radical rejection of human governance nor does it affirm a legitimized  ethic of violence for Christians.  This makes one’s ethical decision-making more difficult when it comes to parsing out roles in society and roles in the church, than say it might be for an Amish person.   What the Book of Acts  and the letters of Paul suggest to me is a world transforming religion, and only to a much lesser extent a world negating religion.   As one person says of the Christian missionaries— these are the persons who turned the world upside down,  not the person who withdrew from the world and started a separate society.  What that meant in the era of Constantine is that eventually the church won the battle with the Empire— not only did the Empire stop persecuting and make legal room for Christianity, it capitulated to various Christian views and values of things, including about the stopping of pagan sacrifices and coercion when it comes to a person’s religion.    So back to historical evidence.

Was it true that pacifism was the universal ethic of Christianity before the time of Constantine?   On this issue one needs to consult the work of  David G. Hunter ” A Decade of Rsearch on Early Christian Military Service,”   (Religious Study Review 18.2  (1992), pp. 87-94.   What the evidence shows is that there was at least one strain of early Christian pre-Constantinan tradition and thought that reflects the attempts of some Christians to justify participation in warfare, at least for what was deemed a just cause.   While I certainly agree that the evidence from important Christian thinkers such as Athenagoras or Tertullian or Origen suggest that a dominant strain of Christian thought was pacifistic in the early church, it was not the only strain.

The truth is, we don’t know whether Christians much served in the military before about the late second century and the time of Marcus Aurelius.  The record is silent, and we must be wary of reading too much into silence.  I do not agree with Leithart’s rather lame attempt to find Christians in the military in the NT (based on texts like Acts 10-11  see pp. 260-61).   The Gospel texts are irrelevant because Jesus’ encounters with centurions and the like are silent on the matter, one way or another, and Acts 10-11 presents us with the story of the conversion of a centurion at the point of conversion. We don’t know what he did thereafter,  but in any case considering the fact that he has a home and family and is living with them, it suggests he has already mustered out!!    There is for example the clear story of Christian soldiers in Marcus Aurelius’ army praying for water for the troops a story related by both Tertullian and by Eusebius.   Furthermore, there are some pre-Constantinian Christian tomb inscriptions of soldiers  which prove not only the existence of such folk, but furthermore that the Christian community did not prohibit their bragging about it on their tombstones!  (see Leithart pp. 261-62).   Even Tertullian reluctantly must admit some Christians served in fortresses and military camps.   One of the reasons for Tertullian’s powerful rhetoric against serving in the military is likely his knowledge that some were definitely doing so, hence the need for the polemic and warning.   One of the great historians of my era,  Roland Bainton, is perfectly clear that we have clear evidence of Christians serving in the military in the West, in North Africa, and especially on the Eastern frontier where military action was more regularly required to maintain borders  (see the full length study of Bainton— Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace). I leave out of account the numerous numerous stories of Christian doing violence to each other, including killing each other in the first four centuries of Christian history.     My point is simply this—- the notion of  a dramatic Fall precipitated by Constantine (or even his offspring) from aboriginal pacifistic universalism in the early Church is a myth.  It is pleasant fiction, but nonetheless a fiction.   Yoder’s fall back position with a text like Romans 13 is that we are talking about a dagger for protection by the police perhaps the tax police.  Even if that were true,  Paul says they do not bear the dagger in vain, and he relates it to the matter of justice.

What Leithart shows quite ably is that after Constantine, there continued to be a strong strain of pacifistic thought in Christian writers– including writers such as Lactantius,  Basil,  Ambrose and others.    The summary of Leithart in Chapter 12 bears quoting (p. 278):  “Where Yoder needs an unanimous consensus in the early church, the evidence is indeed small, divided and ambiguous. Where Yoder needs a uniform pro-Constantinian consensus after the fourth century, the evidence continues to be divided and ambiguous. There was certainly a shift., After Constantine, when the Roman emperors began to look to the church for ethical guidance, the church began to be more overt in making discriminating decisions that characterize the ‘just war’ tradition. But the shift is more plausibly a result of a change in the church’s political position than a result of a fundamental theological modification.  Some Christians after Constantine maintained the pacifist views expressed by some of the earlier fathers.”

In short,  Christians were divided early, middle, and on to today on this issue, and caricaturing Constantine or painting a picture of a universally pacifistic early church is not good history in either case.   Of course we all like to have scapegoats,  but when it comes to scapegoating Constantine, as we would say in N.C. and to mix my metaphors—- ‘that dog won’t hunt’  as a historical thesis.  Yoder is not Yoda when it comes to a wise and accurate reading of early Christian history.   I do think the majority of Christians, and particularly a majority of the early theologians of the church were pacifists.  It seems to have been the dominant view.  But even church history is messy, and while the old joke is that where you find four rabbis you find five opinions,  it could equally well be said that where you find four early Christians, you find at least more than one opinion on military service.

  • bill

    A very balanced view. I can see different strains in the early church. I have grown into pacifism. I used to feel it was inconsistent with Scripture. But as I no longer accept inerrancy and have looked into church history, I became open to some views that I found in the early Church Fathers. Anyway, I am still growing. Thanks for the article.

  • David

    Thanks for this enlightening series on Leithart’s book and some of Yoder’s way as well as your theology and thoughts of others about Christian pacifism and secular government. It seems to me that the various Jewish factions in 1st c Judea also gives a picture of a not so uniform religious culture with single minded theology concerning how to work with Rome’s militaristic empire surrounding the days of King Herod. Jesus did not whip up a new pacifist theology in the midst of and contrary to whitewashed OT theology. Relating NT pacifism to OT pacifism as seen in the sermons and examples of Jesus the Jewish sermonizer/ Son of God (who claims a particular purpose for the Hebrew to bring peace to individuals, a church, a pre-apocalyptic world) might be another project for a mind more academic than my own. Must governments like Constantine’s empire as you have depicted remain in OT Joshua & King David like paradigms for justice on earth while Jesus speaks of “loving your enemy” while serving the ememy’s theology of violence as a way for our life here in the world.

  • JoeyS

    I really appreciate Yoder. It doesn’t seem as though his main contentions are really damaged much if his history is a bit shotty. Especially in regards to his exegesis of passages like Romans 13.

    What are your main contentions with his grappling of Romans 13? He seems to interpret it squarely in regards to its biblical context – at least his interpretation makes more sense than those who try to give governments a free pass to use violence.

    And what do you think about folks like Claiborne who come from Yoder’s perspective yet engage with the world around them quite actively?

  • Laurie Schlaepfer

    I do wonder why Paul would use military analogies if he was truly opposed to Christian participation in the military. (Ephesians 6:13-18; 2 Tim. 2:3-4; 1 Cor. 9:7). Paul uses illustrations from farming, building, athletics, etc. But he doesn’t use illustrations from prostitution. Can you imagine: “No prostitute hides where no one can see her–on the contrary, she goes where she is most likely to find customers. In the same way, let your light so shine . . . ” So it makes me wonder if in using the military as an illustration Paul was indicating that he didn’t have a particular problem with a Christian being in the military.

  • Lawson Stone

    You illustrate here something worth celebrating, namely, that a good historian can have his own views, i.e.your very strongly held and consistent pacifist position, and still be a fair and open, factually grounded historian. In a world in which the inescapability of our biases is celebrated rather than lamented, it’s refreshing to see you parsing the evidence and arguments so carefully. I’ve followed this series with great interest mainly as my own amateurish forays into early Christian thought have set me to re-thinking Constantine and his decriminalization of Christianity.

    Thanks for the sharp, discriminating assessment of these important questions.

  • ben witherington

    Some of these comments are answered in the final post on this book, which follows tomorrow.


  • Eric Sawyer

    I’m very impressed with you honesty and boldness. I am going to copy this and take my time reading and thinking and enjoying. God bless you Ben.

  • Curtis

    I think your question is valid, and I think the distinction that you are looking for is description and prescription. My previous pastor generally used sports illustrations in most of his sermons. But was he prescribing an ethic of participation in sports for spiritual growth? No, he was just using something that was common and present to people’s experience, to illustrate is point.

    The military, like farming, building, athletics, marriage, economics (including slavery), and family were ever present, unavoidable realities of the world Paul’s audience inhabited. Parts description of himself as a slave or a prisoner did not justify, legitimate, or prescribe slavery or inhumane prison conditions as acceptable or praiseworthy conditions. But they became descriptions of what the Christian life is to be like.

    The way he then described the kingdom application of these common realities often worked to subvert those realities and suggest new ways of participating in the world. (i.e. household codes, battle not against flesh and blood, Philemon and slavery)

  • Barry Applewhite

    I enjoy your blog a lot, which is why I list it on my own blog and direct people toward individual articles you write (particularly those that oppose Bart Ehrman’s distortions).

    While I have not read Leithart’s book or his exegesis of the creation account, I write today to take exception to the following comment you made in your post: “his exegesis of the creation order mandate is atrocious. Adam was not called upon the guard the garden!”

    The relevant verse is Gen. 2:15, which commentator Gordon Wenham translates by saying: “Then the Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and guard it.” (Genesis, page 44). Note that the next usage of the relevant Hebrew verb occurs in Genesis 3:24 when God puts an angel with a flaming, whirling sword “to guard the way to the tree of life” (ESV). The commentary of Victor Hamilton (Genesis, page 171) also supports the idea of guarding in Genesis 2:15.

    It is true that many translations of Genesis 2:15 say something like “to work it and keep it” (ESV) or “to work it and take care of it” (NIV 2011), the weakness of that translation is that the author’s statement becomes redundant, like saying “work it and put effort into it.” It is a bit more plausible to assume the author used two different verbs to say two different things.

    Thanks for all the effort you put into keeping all of us informed about books we might otherwise never read.!


  • Laurie Schlaepfer

    Thank you Curtis. That gave me some food for thought. Since so many in the Greco-Roman world did participate in the military, I do wish Paul would have been more “prescriptive” about whether or not a Christian could participate. He was quite clear about other common activities–visits to prostitutes, idol feasts, and many other things. And while not explicitly forbidding slavery, he certainly brought that 1st century reality into the “New Creation in Christ” perspective. I just don’t see that he specifically addresses military participation in any way–nor any kind of “law enforcement”. When he says our struggle is “not against flesh and blood” was he saying therefore the military was off limits for a believer? And since Paul did say that governing authorities are “God’s servant” (Rom. 13:4, NIV), why would it then be wrong to be a member of the governing authorities who “bear the sword”?

    Again, thanks for the response!