St Augustine’s Mistake

By Jon Kauffman

Many, who support Christian use of violence, say that they base their position on the teaching of St. Augustine. Augustine based his teaching about war on the teachings of Ambrose, Plato, and Cicero.

After Constantine came to power in 306 AD the 300 Bishops in the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) called Christians to leave the military and this seems to be the official view of the Roman church at that time.

“Those who endured violence and were seen to have resisted, but who afterwards yielded to wickedness, and returned to the army, shall be excommunicated for ten years.” 
Excerpt from Cannon 12 of the Council of Nicaea.

Ambrose was the first Christian to write about just war. Ambrose was a highly loved and respected Roman Governor stationed in Milan and by popular demand became Bishop of Milan in 374 AD. Ambrose was a masterful politician and was able to overcome highly volatile situations using peaceful negotiation.

When Ambrose wrote about just war he was upsetting 350 years of Church teaching.

Did Ambrose write about just war because he realized that if Christians were to fully leverage their political positions then they needed the ability to ask young Christian men to slaughter enemies of the state at the state’s request?

With Ambrose did the Church begin to succumb to the third temptation of Jesus?

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Matthew 4:8-10 NIV

Ambrose was St. Augustine’s Bishop. Did St. Augustine write justifying war to bolster the ruling classes ability to maintain the status quo by allowing Christians to fight? Rome was in decline. St Augustine was arguing to give justification to leaders sending their constituents into battle. Did St Augustine write about just war because so many people were becoming Christian and the number of people available for battle was dwindling?

St. Augustine was teaching against the position of the Council of Nicaea. Should we expect him to have strong arguments demonstrating how the church teaching was counter to the teaching of Jesus? What did Augustine teach?

St. Augustine used Roman’s 13 to justify his position. As I have explained in a different blog post, Romans 13 does not justify violence on the part of Christians, but quite the opposite. (1) St. Augustine really did not bring his position back to the teaching of Jesus.

St. Augustine also tried to use the Old Testament to justify his position that Christians could join the military and follow Jesus. He tried to synthesize the love of Jesus with violence of God in the Old Testament.

Origen saw a problem with all that Old Testament violence.

If we agree with Origen that it is doubtful that a loving God would slaughter infants, we must look for alternative explanations of Old Testament violence attributed to God. If we follow Origen’s example we must remember that the Bible is infallible and we must find an explanation that reveals Jesus and God as loving us. We must read the story and interpret it as Jesus would interpret that story. See “God is not Violent, Korah’s Rebellion.” (2)

St. Augustine’s criteria for Just War included Just Authority, Just Cause, Right Intention, and Last Resort.

Does a Just Authority exist? If an authority contradicts the teaching of Jesus can it be just? Jesus refused to resist and died on the cross and said: “Take up your cross and follow me.” How can a Christian find greater authority than Jesus? If Jesus is the final authority on how we should live, and if we follow him, and if Jesus does not authorize Just War, then does a “Just Authority” exist who has the right to ask Christians to fight. If world leaders do not have Just Authority, Augustine’s other points – Just Cause and Right Intention are mute.

Does Just Cause exist? True justice replaces what was lost and brings reconciliation of the wronged party with the one who did the harm. Only Jesus can bring true justice. Someday he will he wipe away every tear. How can a government who is more interested in retaining power than following Jesus hope to determine Just Cause?

Is “Right Intention” a justifiable reason? I’m sure Winston Churchill thought he had right intention when he pushed for war against Germany prior to World War I. However had peaceful negotiations taken place instead, World War II and perhaps the Cold War with USSR could have been prevented. Our best intentions often end in disaster when we make mistakes. (3) If we are working with a government and military who are not following Jesus and if the foreign policy is formed by people who are not following Jesus, how likely is it that Right Intention in war will bring about results that follow the intentions of Jesus?

Is Last Resort a justifiable reason? “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28. Jesus holds the future, we can wait. We do not know when the last resort occurs.

Pax Romana lasted from the time of Jesus until 200 AD. Was this a result of praying Christians or brutal tactics of a brutal Roman government? 30 years after Christians began openly entering the military in 170 AD, Pax Romana ended. A few years after Augustine as theologians continued to justify Christian participation in the military Rome fell apart. Are the two circumstances related?

Do St. Augustine’s teachings on war conform to the teaching of Jesus? I have been unable to find anything that legitimately allows Christians to participate in violence in the teachings of Jesus. Many of Jesus’ teaching can be used to demonstrate that violence is unacceptable for a Christian.

St. Augustine, Ambrose, Cicero and Plato were all smarter than I am. They have been admired for centuries. Many followers of Jesus have agreed with their teachings. That certainly gives their teaching respectability.  But do the teachings of Augustine, Ambrose, Plato, and Cicero have the authority to trump the teaching of Jesus?

Cicero said, “In times of War, the law falls silent.”

Compare Cicero to Jesus:

Jesus said, “18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Matthew 5:18.

Both of these statements are true. If Jesus is suggesting that we are responsible for our actions when we break God’s law and if Cicero is suggesting that in war we will ignore the law to participate, how can such a situation contribute to a “Just War”? Should we participate in “Just War” if we must reject the teachings of Jesus to do so?

In 408 AD Augustine wrote, “The earlier time of that king represented the former age of emperors who did not believe in Christ, at whose hands the Christians suffered because of the wicked; but the later time of that king represented the age of the successors to the imperial throne, now believing in Christ, at whose hands the wicked suffer because of the Christians.” Augustine, Letter 93, Chapter 3, Vs 9, 408 AD. To Vincentius.

I find little similarity between Jesus and his command to love our enemies and Augustine’s statement in Letter 93.

Because of Augustine’s mistake in giving Christian’s “justification” to fight, maim and kill, he set the world up for constant war.

In the Magnificat in Luke 1, Mary says, “51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 2 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

When the US military bombed villages in Laos because the Laotians would not send their 13-year-old sons to fight against North Vietnam, were the US pilots fighting for the “rulers on their thrones” or the “humble”?

Where do we fit in when we join the US military? Where do we fit in when we sit in our fancy homes and enjoy the cheap oil brought about partly by US foreign policy and military action in the Middle East or enjoy cheap bananas and cheap coffee brought to us by the Central American poor, kept cheap partly by our foreign policy and military action?

Will we be the rich that he has sent away empty?

When we support American soldiers killing defenseless women and children with drones are we like the Rich Ruler?

The Rich Ruler came to Jesus seeking to inherit eternal life. “Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Mark 10:21.

Do we have the talent to be like a camel squeezing through the eye of the needle? If we are fighting to increase and protect our material wealth and are willing to kill the weak and downtrodden to do so, are we endangering our souls?

If St Augustine was intending to help the Church and political rulers retain political power, he was successful.

Was St Augustine successful in calling people to build the Kingdom of God by calling them to fight with violence? Refusing to fight and and as result dying like sheep worked very well for Christians to build the Kingdom of God during the first 3 centuries. If the Church had continued to be non-violent, perhaps the church would have been much more successful in building the Kingdom of God in the following centuries?

Some Christians do not even limit their wars to the Just Wars described by Augustine. These Christians blindly follow their political leaders and indiscriminately kill in any war the state desires to wage.

(1) Does Romans 13 Justify Christian Participation in Violence?

2) God Is Not Violent: Korah’s Rebellion

3) What About Hitler.

Reasons why other Christians participate in violence: Reasons Christians Give to Say Violence by Christians is Legitimate

Copyright © 2019 by Jon Kauffman Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit and a live link are given.

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Author: Jon

Jon Kauffman graduated from Goshen College, earning a BA in Religion. Jon attended a Mennonite Church while growing up and currently attends the Salvation Army Church. Jon works as a drafter at TrueNorth Steel, Fargo, ND.

2 thoughts on “St Augustine’s Mistake”

  1. Hello! I am enjoying your posts. I would like to see your take on two points.

    1. In defense of non-pacifism, I have heard people mention the encounter between Jesus and a Roman centurion. They point out that Jesus did not tell the man to quit being a soldier. Do you think there is a reason Jesus didn’t address that issue with the man?

    2. How do you square the message of Jesus with the conquests of the Old Testament, especially in Joshua? What is the difference between those wars and modern wars? I have been struggling to wrap my mind around it and would love to gain more understanding.



    1. Hi Lily,

      Thank you for your excellent questions.

      1. I think you are referring to the story found in Matthew 8:5-13. In the story, Jesus does not specifically mention the centurion’s career. We do not know that Jesus did not discuss his career with him also. The point of the story is the centurion’s faith. This story comes immediately after the ‘Sermon on the Mount” in chapters Matthew 5-8 where Jesus makes it very clear that we are to love our enemies.

      Jews felt Romans were their enemies. Seeing rebelling Jews on crosses around the country was a common sight. Later, at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Barabbas who was freed was a rebel against Rome and many Jews agreed with him. Most of those among the Jews following Jesus would not have considered joining the Roman military. Far more startling to Matthew’s audience was the fact that Jesus would offer healing and forgiveness to an enemy.

      This was a striking contrast to the disciple’s desire to see Jesus overthrow the Romans. One of Jesus’ disciples was a zealot. Zealots were a group of Jews fighting against Roman rule. I think the story should spur us to love and nonviolence against our enemies. Perhaps Matthew felt that discussing the centurion’s career built on violence was unnecessary. Far more important was discussing his audiences desire for violent rebellion. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and violence resulting from the rebellion of the Jews. In 70 AD this destruction occurred. Those who followed the advice of Jesus fled and survived. Those who participated in the rebellion died. A million Jews died in this destruction of Jerusalem.

      2. I think Joshua’s story is perhaps the most difficult hurdle in developing a reasonable position as a non-violent Christian. Although it may be easier than defending the position of joining the military in face of the teaching and example of Jesus loving enemies.

      I grew up attending a Mennonite Church. In Sunday school as a youngster, we were taught stories about Jesus, but we were also taught the Old Testament stories about Joshua and David and Goliath and the story about Elijah calling fire from heaven and then killing the prophets of Baal. As boys, I and my brothers played cowboys and Indians. I do not ever remember being told that it is wrong for a Christian to use violence, but I have always felt that it is wrong for a Christian to use violence. When I was young I did not try to reconcile the violence of the Old Testament with my non-violent views. I just knew that because Jesus taught and demonstrated a life of non-violence that that is the life we should live.

      In 2 Samuel 24: God incites David to count the fighting men. In the same story in 1 Chronicles 21:1 Satan incited David to take a census of fighting men. How much was God telling the children of Israel to fight and kill and how much was it the desire of the people to return to the land promised by God to Abraham. Perhaps some of it was political?

      In first Samuel 8, Samuel was displeased when the people asked for a human king because God was their King. Samuel warned the people if they took a human king, then the king would enslave them and their children and that is exactly what happened. How much violence in the Old Testament is due to disobedience? How much war and violence in the United States has been caused by Christian’s refusal to love their Christian brother who is also their enemy?

      The Proverbs and the Prophets often taught peace and forgiveness. We can see non-violent thinking developing. This non-violence was picked up by the Essenes who lived at the time of Jesus.

      For me the tension between the Old Testament violence and Jesus’ teachings of non-violence has not been a problem. I am planning to write a blog post about it but I have much studying to do before I can do that. Jon.


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