Sub-Christian Nationalism? (Part 18)

It is useful to review Augustine’s humane account of just war to refresh our memories or to introduce the reader to Augustine’s approach to war, as a background to considering the Statement on just war.

In his Reply to Faustus (c. 397; Contra Faustum), who was a Manichaean (i.e., he saw the world as a duel between equally ultimate competing principles of good and evil—think of a typical political/cultural talk show), Augustine defended the legitimacy of the “wars of Moses” as wars conducted by divine command.1 God, in giving the command, “acted not in cruelty, but in righteous retribution, giving to all what they deserved, and warning those who needed warning.”2 “The real evils in war,” he wrote, “are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like.”3

He observed that John the Baptizer, when soldiers came for baptism, never counseled them to abandon the army.4 He knew that “such actions in battle were not murderous, but authorized by law, and that the soldiers did not thus avenge themselves, but defend the public safety.”5 According to the “natural order” of things (ordained by God), the king has the authority to undertake war “if he thinks it advisable” for public safety.6 The king may pursue only righteous wars.7 It may not be merely to satisfy human passion. When the conditions for a just war are met, even under an ungodly king, the soldier may fight. Augustine recognized the ambiguities inherent in determining whether a war is truly just.8 In some cases (e.g., an unprovoked invasion) a war is obviously just; but in other cases, “it is not so plain.”9 Even so, given that God has instituted all authorities, a soldier who follows an unrighteous command is innocent “because his position makes obedience a duty.”10

The New Testament does not fundamentally change the ethics of war. When Faustus appeals to our Lord’s command to turn the other cheek, he is confusing the private duty of the Christian with the public duty of the magistrate. Augustine recognized that every Christian lives in a twofold kingdom.11 Under the types and shadows, believers had an earthly kingdom. After the kingdom of God was revealed, “the apostles and martyrs had no kingdom here, to show the superior desirableness of the kingdom of heaven.”12 “Again, a man is just when he seeks to use things only for the end for which God appointed them, and to enjoy God as the end of all, while he enjoys himself and his friend in God and for God.”13 Thus, a war is just when it is aimed at the ends for which God appointed it, namely the preservation of public safety.

In the City of God (19.7) and in his Letter to Marcellinus (AD 312), Augustine discussed the evils, problems, and ambiguities of war and the theory of just wars with more care than we usually see, at least in popular discourse. As I write, the USA is funding a “just war” in Ukraine, conducting a bombing campaign in the Middle East against terrorists, opposing the growth of Islamist terrorism across the African continent, and has just finished a more than twenty-year “War on Terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. For fully half of my life the USA has been at war. In every case the wars have been declared “just.” Perhaps they were. Or perhaps those who declare them so have simply never seen a war that was unjust. I cannot tell.

According to Augustine, however, war is a horrible tragedy much to be avoided. In The City of God, the first source of conflict he mentions is the “diversity of languages,” which “separates one man from another.”14 Referring to two people who are ignorant of each other’s language, it is easier, he wrote, “for mute (muta) animals, even of different kinds, to associate together than for them, though both are human beings.”15 The effects of sin are such that “so far as social unity is concerned . . . a man would rather have his dog for company than a foreigner (alieno).”16

In the case of the Roman Empire, the second cause of war was the empire itself.17 The good news is that, in the empire, everyone spoke Latin. The bad news is that it was imposed by the empire upon conquered peoples. Rome created a kind of unity and a “bond of peace,” but “at what a cost has that unity been achieved, all those great wars, all that human slaughter and bloodshed!”18 Yes, the empire has enemies, who sometimes force war upon the empire, but the very fact of the empire is a cause of war (casus belli). The “very extent of the empire has begotten wars of a worse kind; I mean the social and civil wars, by which the human race is more wretchedly shaken.”19

For a moment, he almost seems to doubt the idea of a just war. He quotes an imaginary discussion partner: “But the wise man, they say, will wage just wars. As if he would not all the more, if he remembers his humanity, deplore his being compelled to engage in just wars; for if they were not just, he would not have to wage them, and so a wise man would have no wars.”20 This world being what it is, even a just war carries with it injustice and sorrow: injustice because it is injustice that imposes war on the just, and sorrow because of the great evils associated with war. “Let every man, then, reflect with sorrow upon all the great evils, so horrible and so cruel, and confess his misery. But if any man has no sorrow in his heart either when he suffers himself or when he imagines such suffering, his case is certainly far more miserable, for he thinks himself happy precisely because he has lost all human feeling to boot.”21

The humanism—in the Renaissance sense of the word—in Augustine’s doctrine of the just war is striking. It appears too in his Letter to Marcellinus (ep. 138.14) in AD 412. Marcellinus of Carthage (d. c. AD 413), a Roman tribune (a plebeian who represented the interests of other plebeians), died as a martyr after participating in a conference with Donatists. They accused him falsely of participating in an uprising against the empire. The government believed the Donatists and murdered him.22 Later he was vindicated.23

Augustine counseled Marcellinus about the role of the magistrate regarding the just war.24 The magistrate must not pursue war to recompense evil for evil.25 It is pursued for correction, in the way a father corrects his son. A “Christian commonwealth” carries on a just war with a “benevolent design” so that, “after the resisting nations have been conquered, provision may be more easily made for enjoying in peace the mutual bond of piety and justice.”26 Sometimes it is necessary that “wars might be waged by the good, in order that, by bringing under the yoke the unbridled lusts of men, those vices might be abolished which ought, under a just government, to be either extirpated or suppressed.”27

The Christian religion does not condemn “wars of every kind.”28 Otherwise, as we have seen, the Baptizer would have told soldiers “to cast away their arms, and withdraw themselves wholly from military service; whereas the word spoken to such was, ‘Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, and be content with your wages’ (Luke 3:14)—the command to be content with their wages manifestly implying no prohibition to continue in the service.”

Christianity is not incompatible with “the State’s well-being.”29 Were the citizens of the state, in whatever office they occupied (soldier, tax collector, husband, wife, parent, child, servant, king, or judge) to conduct themselves as required by the “doctrine of Christ . . . then let them dare to say that it is adverse to the State’s well-being; yea, rather, let them no longer hesitate to confess that this doctrine, if it were obeyed, would be the salvation of the commonwealth.”

All this background is necessary to evaluate article 18 of the Statement on just war:

WE AFFIRM that war is only to be waged: (1) for a just cause, by a just magistrate, involving the protection of human life from persecution; (2) as a last resort when peaceful methods of conflict resolution have been diligently pursued and exhausted; (3) in pursuit of achievable goals; (4) with the pure motive and intention of establishing peace and justice as quickly as possible; and, (5) by moral means that scrupulously avoid civilian casualties and only inflicts as much violence as is necessary for the achievement of the objective. We affirm that even when a war is just according to the above criteria, nations should be extremely cautious in discerning whether a proposed war is wise, taking every contingency into account. We affirm that many wars throughout history have been waged for sinful purposes, such as greed, revenge, and lust for power and fortune.

WE DENY that war is ever a means by which the gospel, or simply good ideas about government and society, are to be spread. We deny that holy wars are ever morally permissible. We deny that governments may coerce civilian participation in unjust wars.

I think I prefer this article to some things that Augustine wrote. As thoughtful as Augustine was, his idea that, after Theodosius instituted Christianity as the state religion, a “Christian emperor” was conquering pagan kings is scandalously retrograde. The history of redemption has progressed. As Augustine himself recognized, the hidden kingdom has come. He was quite right to observe that soldiers were not commanded by John (or our Lord himself) to abandon their office as soldiers (even though that question was debated in the ancient church and it was widely held that service in the Roman army was incompatible with the Christian religion), but the time of advancing the kingdom through the sword is past.

Even Augustine himself recognized that our Lord told Peter to put up his sword (John 18:11). Augustine was not a Christian Nationalist. That would be an anachronism. But he certainly favored a Christian empire. He was wrong about that, and the Christian Nationalists are wrong about Christian Nationalism, but this article of the Statement is helpful in its clarity and qualifications.


  1. Contra Faustum 22.74 in Augustine of Hippo, Reply to Faustus the Manichæan, in St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Richard Stothert, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 301.
  2. Contra Faustum 22.74, p. 301.
  3. Contra Faustum, p. 301.
  4. Contra Faustum, p. 301.
  5. Luke 3:14.
  6. Contra Faustum, 22.27, p. 301.
  7. Contra Faustum, 22.27, p. 301.
  8. Contra Faustum, 22.27, p. 301.
  9. Contra Faustum, 22.27, p. 301.
  10. Contra Faustum, 22.27, p. 301.
  11. See RSC, “Distinguishing Spheres Affirms Christ’s Lordship Over All Things (Part 2).”
  12. Contra Faustum, 22.76 (p. 302). To be sure, Augustine approved of “Christian emperors, who have put all their confidence in Christ” and who gained “splendid [military] victories over ungodly enemies…”
  13. Contra Faustum, 22.78 (p. 303).
  14. Augustine, The City of God Against The Pagans, trans. William Chase Green, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 416 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 19.7 (pp. 148–49).
  15. City of God, 19.7, pp. 148–49, I revised “dumb” to “mute” for clarity.
  16. City of God, 19.7, pp. 148–49.
  17. Some years ago, I commented casually to a couple of friends at dinner that America is an empire, and they seemed surprised, even shocked. It may be a benevolent empire, but by any measure it certainly is. Take a look sometime at a map of all its territories (beyond the fifty states), the American military installations across the globe, and who funds NATO.
  18. City of God, 19.7, pp. 148–49.
  19. City of God, pp. 148–51.
  20. City of God, pp. 150–51.
  21. City of God, pp. 150–51.
  22. This happened under an ostensibly Christian government. Let the reader understand.
  23. Michael J. Walsh, A New Dictionary of Saints (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), s.v., Marcellinus Flavius.
  24. Augustine of Hippo, Letters of St. Augustin, in The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. G. Cunningham, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 485–86.
  25. Letters of St. Augustin, Ep. 138.14, p. 485.
  26. Letters of St. Augustin, Ep. 138.14, p. 485.
  27. Letters of St. Augustin, p. 486.
  28. Letters of St. Augustin, Ep. 138.15, p. 486.
  29. Letters of St. Augustin, Ep. 138.15, p. 486.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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One comment

  1. Thought provoking essay in a good way.

    “Even so, given that God has instituted all authorities, a soldier who follows an unrighteous command is innocent “because his position makes obedience a duty.”

    I would have thought if a Christian is commanded to sin, (follow an unrighteous command), he must not, but must disobey and face the consequences.


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