Review: ‘The Early Church on Killing’

Introduction

It’s not always easy to find out what the early church believed about a particular topic. But if you want to know what post-biblical Christian leaders thought of violence—in particular, war, capital punishment, abortion, and the gladiator games—then Ronald Sider’s newest book The Early Church on Killing needs to be at the top of your to-read list.

The question of violence–and whether there is ever any justification to resort to it as a follower of Jesus Christ–is an important topic on which the Bible isn’t always clear. Does Jesus’ command to love our enemies prevent us from taking violent action if that enemy is trying to hurt someone we love? Is it right for a nation of largely Christian people to support their nation’s war, if the cause is just? Can Christians serve in the military, knowing they might be put in a position to kill someone else?

To be clear: the questions I presented are not all addressed in this book. I am trying to point out that we can agree that Jesus’ command to love our enemies is the right one—right before we disagree on what that means in practical terms. Sider’s book shows, with quote after quote, exactly what the early church thought of war and other means of violence.

The Book

The sections themselves cover different Christian persons or groups. The first section, for instance, covers notable figures such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, and Irenaeus, as well as the Didache. It’s here that you can find some great gems from some of the most well-known leaders of the post-biblical church.

On war, for instance, I found this quote by Cyprian to be worth remembering:

“The world is soaked with mutual blood, and when individuals commit homicide, it is a crime; it is called a virtue when it is done in the name of the state.” (To Donatus)

Arnobius of Sicca argued that the entire world would have peace if it obeyed Jesus’ commands.

“But if all without exception, who feel that they are people not in form of body but in power of reason, would lend an ear for a little to His salutary and peaceful rules, and would not, in the pride and arrogance of enlightenment, trust to their own senses rather than to His admonitions, the whole world, having turned the use of iron into more peaceful occupations, would now be living in the most placid tranquility, and would unite in blessed harmony, maintaining the sanctity of treaties.”

In the section on Origen, Sider quotes the infamous theologian, who clearly had trouble reconciling the book of Joshua and its conquests with the commands of Christ. It appears that Origen valued Joshua in so far that it taught people how to fight spiritual wars against “spiritual adversaries”:

“Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ, who came to teach peace, so that they could be read in the churches. … And in order for us to have examples of these spiritual wars from deeds of old, he wanted those narratives of exploits to be recited to us in church.” (Homilies on Joshua, Homily 15)

The book presents some strong statements against abortion; later, in the Afterword, Sider writes that there was a unanimous consensus in the early church that abortion is murder. The Apocalypse of Peter describes how people who committed abortions will be punished in hell. Tertullian is quoted as saying the following:

“In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier killing of a human being; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a human being which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.” (Apology)

The second section goes into church orders and synods, including the Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Constitutions. The former said that Christians serving in the military should refuse to kill another person, even if their personal convictions lead to their deaths. Likewise, someone with the “power of the sword”—that is, the authority to impose capital punishment—should relinquish their position if they wish to remain a catechumen. The Canons of Hippolytus say something similar:

“Whoever has received the authority to kill, or else a soldier, they are not to kill in any case, even if they receive the order to kill. … Whosoever is raised to the authority of a prefect of a magistracy and does not put on the righteousness of the gospel is to be excluded from the flock and the bishop is not to pray with him.”

The third section includes miscellaneous writings, such as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas and those from Paul of Samosata.

The fourth presents further evidence of Christian soldiers prior to Constantine, such as a group of Christians whose prayers to God were said to aid Marcus Aurelius in battle and a prayer hall discovered close to a military camp. Other examples are also provided.

Sider gives a summary of the quotes in the Afterword, as well as what he believes to be the general attitude toward serving in the military by the early church. It actually might help readers to read this section first before going over the rest of the book, as Sider’s summary is going to be an easier and quicker read than the quoted material.

The Great

– The direct quotes from various Christians, works, and stories might discourage some readers from digging into this book, as there is a lot of material to work through. But I promise: it’s worth it. The numerous quotes are the book’s main strength, and there aren’t a whole lot of popular-level books—at least, none that I’ve seen—that take an issue like violence and address it in a Christian perspective by quoting the post-biblical church.

– I never knew how many Christians quoted from passages like Isaiah 2 to show that Christians were not to kill. This is the passage in which the prophet says that nations will not wage war anymore but will instead beat their weapons into farming tools. (It’s also the passage that you can find inscribed on a wall near the United Nations building in New York City.)

– I wanted to review this book, in part, because I myself am trying to figure out the approach to war and capital punishment that most respects the Bible and especially the teachings of Christ. (On abortion, there’s never been much doubt in my mind as to where I stand on that.) It’s very helpful to have a book like this, which does a great job of showing the early church’s attitudes toward those very things.

– Seeing the direct quotes from early Christians for myself makes me think that Sider did not intentionally ignore quotes that would contradict his own tradition (Anabaptist). I can’t say that with other Christian books, as the authors don’t always provide quotes to support their claims, leaving me to wonder what material they might have ignored in order to say that so-and-so agrees with them. Sider covers such a large ground, though, that it’s hard to imagine that there’s a plethora of early Christian writings that contradict what he’s collected in his book.

The Not-So-Great

– Honestly, there’s not much I can say here. The way the book is laid out—by presenting quote after quote after quote, some of which are very lengthy–makes it more difficult to read through, but I don’t think that’s Sider’s fault. I’m not going to blame his book for being too thorough, although I will say that it doesn’t make the most engaging read, either. Informative? Absolutely, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I hope Sider isn’t offended if this book isn’t what I bring to the beach.

Conclusion

Sider’s book is great. It may serve readers better as a resource to be referenced occasionally instead of a straight read. But hey, if you’re looking to learn, you’re not going to complain.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book as part of Baker Academic’s blog-review program. I was not paid and am not obligated to give a favorable review.

Publisher: Baker Academic

Release Date: July 2012

Pages: 216, including the index

Format: Paperback

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