Christians and War (Part Two)

By Dr. Darrell Cole


Dr. Darrell Cole is a professor of Religious Ethics and Theology at Drew University and a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church. He has written and lectured frequently on the topic of “Just War.” We are pleased to have him share some thoughts on this relevant topic.

As Bible believing Christians we know that anything God tells us to do is good, for God is good. When God gave direct commands to the likes of Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and David to take up arms against Israel’s enemies, those acts of force were justified by the very fact that they were direct commands by God. We also believe that there will come a day (“The Day” as the prophets often put it) when there will be the last battle between the children of light and the children of darkness. On “That Day” the world will witness the ultimate just war directly commanded and determined by God. However, we would nowadays rightly be very suspicious of people who claim that they have been commanded directly by God to institute a war. This does not mean that there are no Christian political leaders who may, after much agony of prayer, believe that God’s will is for justice to be sought by force of arms in a particular circumstance. But it does mean that we would not be very confident of current politicians or military leaders making the claims of Moses; that sort of revelation ended with the last book of the Bible. So, what are we left with? Thank God! Very much indeed! We have the clear moral teaching found in Scripture that helps us formulate ethical principles in the here-and-now world and these principles extend to every area of our lives, including when and how we take up arms.

What counts as a just and necessary war? What Christians refer to as the just war tradition has provided helpful guidance in this area for centuries. The just war tradition represents the mainstream of Christianity both East and West since the time of its most famous (if not it’s first) expositor: Augustine (4th century). The tradition was maintained against the pacifist Anabaptists by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin at the time of the Reformation and has been affirmed by traditional Reformed Churches everywhere to this day. The just war tradition holds that certain criteria must be met for any war to be considered just. The criteria over the centuries have been specified in different ways but it boils down to these: a just cause, waged by a lawful sovereign authority, with good intentions, when reasonable peaceful alternatives have been tried, and fought with due regard for discrimination, with no intentional targeting of the innocent, and with proportion, which means we have reasonable expectations that more good than harm will result. A just cause is one of self-defense or others one has pledged to defend. In commenting upon the Larger Catechism’s teaching on the sixth commandment, Johannes Vos rightly points out the protection of ourselves and our neighbors “involves the right and duty of defensive warfare” (The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 363). Right intention means that we seek the common good and not merely personal gain or revenge. Reasonable attempts at peaceful alternatives recognizes that war means much suffering, which has to be balanced by the suffering we are causing, or may cause, by not resorting to arms. There is some debate in U.S. law about how much force a U.S. President can use without officially declaring a war with the consent of Congress, but no one denies the principle that the President can order limited uses of force for purposes of self-defense.

Thoughtful Christians may disagree over the facts of Iran’s threat to the U.S. but the moral principles that guide us in supporting the U.S. in this, or in any other possible conflict, remain unchanged. Insofar as Iran poses a real threat to the U.S. or its allies, that threat ought to be dealt with, preferably by peaceful means, but by some use of force if peaceful means fail. In contemplating how force might be used against any enemy, we must keep in mind the moral principles that justify any use of force. The innocent may die in a just attack, say, on weapons-producing instillations, but we may never target the innocent as such or we become like the wrongdoers we seek to stop. Augustine, Luther, Calvin and their countless followers have maintained that Christian support of a just war is a matter of love of neighbor. We cannot say that we love our neighbors while simply standing by and watching them get attacked by an unjust aggressor. It is an act of love toward our innocent neighbors when we use force against those who would use unjust aggression against them. But we may not directly target innocent people in order to get unjust aggressors to behave. We may threaten to kill a terrorist leader but we may not threaten his children. This may hamper military effectiveness but it must ever be so in a world where we are determined to obey the whole counsel of God and not merely save ourselves the trouble and risk that comes with the job of protecting our neighbors. We must never forget that, even with justice on our side, we can be tempted to resort to evil means to achieve our purposes. The just war tradition is a check on such temptations.

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