A Biblical Theology of War, part 1

As promised in Adult Bible Fellowship last Sunday, I am posting my articles on what the Bible teaches about War. It is a controversial topic that I attempted to think through biblically a number of years ago. No doubt the subject is one about which godly Christians will disagree. Let me begin by sharing some of the reasons I believe Christians do disagree on the topic. Then in the next post I will try to compile and explain some biblical passages and principles in order to arrive at a biblical theology of war.

So, why is there such sharp disagreement among professing Christians on the topic of war? To begin, here is a quote from Andrew Kirk in his book Handling Problems of Peace and War: An Evangelical Debate.

Firstly, biblical Christians disagree among themselves largely because, in deciding on ethical issues, they use the Bible in different ways. Secondly, disagreements are also the result of a variety of views on the Church, the State and Christian involvement in public life.

I would like to briefly address and explain those two issues, and help us see how the Bible would have us think about those subjects. I will address them in the opposite order that he mentions them.

1. Christians hold differing views on the Church/State issues

This is perhaps the less significant of the two issues, because really it is the logical result of how a Christian differs in their use of the Bible. But it is still important for helping us recognize and define the differing positions.

While there is a sense in which every Christian should believe in the separation of Church and State, we should not be naive enough to promote a complete separation of God from government. Biblically this is impossible.

Romans 13:1 – Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established [ordained] by God.

God has an ordained purpose for national governments. We will eventually discuss what the Bible says those purposes are. At the same time, we would certainly agree that the government should not control or dictate to men how, when, or who they will worship. Within different Christian groups there are very few who believe in the joining of Church and State together. However, there have been consistently differing views on how Christians should view and/or support or participate in the affairs of state.

Historically, regarding the topic of war, there have been three basic positions about how Christians should think and interact with government as it relates to war. Those three views we will call Activism, Selectivism, and Pacifism. Let’s describe these positions.

  • Activism – Christians should support a military effort whenever their country declares war.

While few Christians will admit to holding this in theory, many tend to follow it in practice. Since they have a deep sense of patriotism (at least in the U.S.), and because the U.S. always presents some justification for every war, they will usually support all of our wars (and certainly our servicemen). This philosophy doesn’t always work well in other countries. We need only to recall the Lutheran church’s initial support of Adolph Hitler to make this point.

  • Selectivism (”Just War Position”) – Christians may support and fight in a war if it is waged for a morally defensible cause.

There are conditions necessary for declaring a “just war” (theologians have referred to this with the Latin jus ad bellum). The necessary conditions and principles that it has been taught define the declaration of “a just war” include:

  1. It can’t be a war of aggression; the nation must be pursuing a just peace, not for the purpose of revenge, taking over lands or resources, or for ideological supremacy (and certainly not religious supremacy).
  2. It must be in pursuit of a just cause; in other words, it must be defensive if attacked, it must be preventive of other injustice if they are preparing to attack, or it must be protective if conditions in another country are intolerably evil.
  3. There must be a reasonable chance of victory; wars you cannot win are not just, they are stupid.
  4. War must be a last resort; all diplomatic and political means must be exhausted before entering into war.
  5. The nation must consider the principle of general proportionality; this requires that the total good achieved by a war will, by all indications, outweigh the total evil and suffering the war will cause. No one should prescribe a cure that is worse than the disease.
  6. The war must be declared by a lawful entity for a defined reason and purpose, not by individuals or “splinter groups,” and only as a last resort, after all peaceful means of resolving the conflict have failed.

There are also conditions given for conducting war (jus ad bello). Primarily two are referred to, which are:

  1. The principle of noncombatant immunity. This forbids direct, intentional attacks on non-military persons.
  2. The principle of proportionate means. This limits the use of force and violence to genuine necessity, and ensures that the means of war are proportionate to the tasks of war.

Incidentally, from my reading it appears that most theologians would conclude that this precludes the use of nuclear weapons, except on remote military targets.

There is a third position that some Christians adopt regarding war.

  • Pacifism – No war is justified (or a Christian’s support or participation in it), because every war violates at least some of the criteria above.

Christians who hold this position conclude that any killing of civilians would violate the principle of noncombatant immunity, even if not intentional. They often claim that the principle of last resort, (exhausting diplomatic means) is often ignored, and the standard of what diplomatic means must entail is not usually agreed upon anyway. In their estimation, that makes viritually every declaration of war politically tenuous at best, and morally indefensible at worst.

There would also typically be an appeal to the example of Christ, and to the “New Testament ethic” He proclaimed (love your enemies, turn the other cheek, do unto others, etc.). This is often combined with an appeal to the sanctity of human life–that every life is sacred and a gift from God, and that no one has the right to end another’s life, even in the cause of war.

These are the common Christian views. Historically there has always been some disagreement, even in the Christian community, as to the propriety and/or necessity of war. This disagreement is not only due to differing views in regard to the Church and the state, but also due to differing approaches to understanding the Bible. In fact, as we will see, the different views above are largely a direct result of different approaches to Scripture. Which brings us to our second point.

2. Christians use the Bible in different ways

This point highlights the hermeneutical assumptions (the rules of Bible interpretation) that lead Christians to arrive at the positions above. Because it is foundational to understanding biblical teaching, this is the more important issue to discuss. Until we answer the question of how to properly approach the Scripture to discern a biblical theology of war, we will not even be able to begin to determine the mind of God on the issues involved in any particular conflict.

So, how should we approach Scripture to understand it properly, and particularly in regard to this issue?

First, it needs to be pointed out that many Christians simply assume that there is a marked difference in the perspective [teaching] of the Old Testament and the perspective [teaching] of the New Testament on the subject of war. You may hear people say, “War was ok for Israel, but it is not acceptable for the Church or for Christians.” Of course, no one is suggesting the Church as an institution should go to war. The church is not a lawful, national entity, ordained by God for the punishment of criminal or political evil-doers. When the church has engaged in that kind of activity (the Crusades or Protestants during the Reformation period), the results were disastrous and clearly unjustifiable from a biblical point of view.

With that in mind, what should be our hermeneutical assumptions as we investigate the whole of Scripture on this issue?

Let me say, first of all, that we must assume that the Bible, rightly understood, contains one consistent opinion about this subject from Genesis to Revelation. God never changes (He is the same yesterday, today, and forever; Heb. 13:8; Heb. 1:12). That is why I am calling these articles a biblical theology of War, and not a “Christian perspective” as some might suspect. If you are convinced God’s opinion of war has changed in this age, I believe the burden of proof is on you. The Bible is our rule of life, and you must be able to show from Scripture that God’s opinion has changed. Otherwise, I believe we must proceed on this assumption.

While I work with the assumption that God’s perspective on war itself has not changed in this age, clearly His redemptive plan took a sharp turn after the coming of Christ. This does have a significant bearing on our reading and approach to understanding both the Old and New Testaments.

After the coming of Christ the organization of the people of God in this age changed from a national entity (Israel), to an entity that transcends any and every racial, national, cultural, and political boundary (the church). Yet, despite this difference, there is still a degree of continuity from age to age, and certainly a consistency of character in the immutable God (immutable means “God never changes.” The Bible says He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever [Hebrews 13:8]).

If God is immutable, then His perspective of war hasn’t changed. Therefore, we must recognize a degree of continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is not right to speak of the God of the OT and the God of the NT, as though the coming of Christ has somehow changed the world in such a way that God deemed wars necessary before the cross, but unnecessary after the cross. He is the same God, and we live in a world where the hearts of men and the evil intentions of nations are also the same.

This raises the important question, often raised by the pacifist, of whether the “ethic of Jesus” is the same as the “ethic of the God of Israel.” I believe it is, and that it must be in order to understand the Scripture properly. But why have some drawn different conclusions?

I am convinced that differences in opinion about what the Bible teaches about war, and in how to use and understand the Bible in determining a biblical theology of war, really lie in failing to recognize the following principles. These principles relate to how we read and understand both the Old and New Testaments, both as a whole and in regard to “war theology” in particular.

First, we must remember that God was revealing Himself to mankind primarily through a relationship with a nation in the Old Testament. Therefore, we have clear and direct statements regarding His desire and will for men to war and bring about justice on the earth. These declarations are clear, but we must recognize that these wars, and the resulting justice and peace they would bring about, were only appropriately pursued by and through NATIONS! God has ordained national governments to accomplish His sovereign purposes. Israel was used by God for this purpose, and so were other nations.

That being said about nations in the Old Testament, we must also remember that the New Testament deals not primarily with nations, but with God’s relationship to individuals apart from their earthly national citizenship. Recognizing this distinction, we must understand that the Old Testament emphasizes the application of biblical ethics nationally–in the context of, and consistent with the proper function of the civil government of Israel. The New Testament emphasizes the application of biblical ethics personally–how are we to live and honor God personally. However, when the New Testament speaks of national ethics it is consistent with the Old Testament teachings, and when the Old Testament speaks of personal ethics it is consistent with the New Testament teachings.

This highlights why I am calling these articles a “biblical theology” of war and not a “Christian perspective” (which many would interpret to mean I must limit myself to New Testament passages). I believe as we unfold what BOTH testaments say, you will see how consistent the Old and New Testaments really are when approached honestly and consistently, without a predetermined conclusion about what our “theology of war” should be.

In our next post we will investigate what both the Old and New Testaments reveal about God, government and war.

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