When God Says War is Right

  • Darrell Cole
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Cole, Darrell When God Says War is Right: The Christian's Perspective on When and How to Fight. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press. 2002. 160 pages, no index.

In our historically impoverished culture (including Christian culture), few benefit from two thousand years of Christian reflections on war and peace carried out under the "audit of eternity" (to steal an adroit turn of phrase from Kierkegaard). We often approach recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as the diffusive and protracted "war on terrorism" in general) more on the basis of feelings, impressions, sound bites, and headlines than on the basis of sustained, biblical, and historically informed moral reflection.

Darrell Cole's excellent primer helps rectify this deficiency. Cole, an Assistant Professor of Religion at Drew University, canvasses the historic just war position with clarity, urgency, and cogency. He not only surveys the material, but advocates the just war position as biblically sound and morally superior to its rivals. In this, he appeals principally to Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. Cole challenges the commonly asserted idea (by historian Roland Bainton, theologian John Howard Yoder, and others) that pacifism was the dominant position in the first three centuries of Christianity. Although the position was voiced by some, it was not the consensus. As Cole notes, "We have little evidence that any early Church Father (besides Tertullian, who was later declared a heretic) held an unambiguously negative view of war. In fact, there is little evidence of any unified Christian attitude toward war during the earlier years of the Church era. It simply cannot be demonstrated that early Christians, in general, viewed either the military or the state as inherently evil, and hence completely off-limits to their participation" (p. 8). While the Christian understanding of just war was first developed principally by Ambrose (339-397) and more systematically by the great Augustine (354-430) in the early part of the fourth century, seeds of the idea can be found much earlier.

Cole notes that both Christian pacifists and Christian realists (such as Reinhold Niebuhr) "are in agreement about an essential point: Both assert that all use of force is evil and that the teachings of Christ forbid violence" (p. 7). The pacifist, therefore, shuns all military involvement, while the realist sanctions war only as a "lesser of two evils." Cole and the just war tradition employ another approach by arguing that the use of force is sometimes virtuous, not merely necessary. That is, some situations demand a proper use of force in the name of love and for the glory of God. It is true that there would be no war in a world without sin (see James 4:1-2), but in this sinful world force is sometimes required to protect the innocent and to right terrible wrongs. It can be, in fact, a positive good in a bad world. "Modern Christian pacifists have argued that a presumption against violence is what led Christians to create just war criteria in the first place. But this claim is historically false. Christians did not create just war criteria out of a disregard for violence but because they wished to bring some sort of justice and order to this temporal existence. Aquinas and Calvin certainly knew of no such presumption against violence" (p. 71).

Pacifists argue that Christ's meekness under persecution is the normative model for all Christians with respect to war, and that his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount exclude any use of force. But Cole argues from Scripture and from leading theologians that this interpretation is mistaken. He cites Calvin to good effect on this issue. "For Calvin, Christ's pacific nature carries little normative weight for Christians, for that pacific nature is located in Christ's priestly office of reconciliation and intercession-an office that Christians can in no way fulfill or reproduce. Christ's pacific nature-His willingness to suffer death at the hands of unjust authorities both Jewish and Roman-is inextricably tied to His role as Redeemer and is not meant to be a complete model for Christian behavior. No Christian can follow Christ as Redeemer, but all can follow Christ as One who obeys the commands of his Father" (p. 75).

But if pacifism is not the solution, what are the criteria for a just war? The first set of criteria addresses the question of when to go to war (or jus ad bellum). Although Cole does not explicitly put it this way, each of these five criteria is necessary for stipulating a just war. Jointly all given criteria are sufficient for establishing a just war.

First, proper authority must be used in declaring and carrying out a war. A band of rebels with no social standing cannot do this. Secondly, there must be a just cause. Expropriating land from another nation simply in order to broaden a nation's wealth and influence (consider Iraq's invasion of Kuwait) fails this test. Defending a nation's borders against attack would pass the test. Third, a right intention should govern the leaders who decree the war. Fourth, because it involves so much suffering and death, war should be the only way to right the wrong in question. So, if other reasonable courses of action fail to achieve the just goals-such economic sanctions, mobilizing world opinion, or threats of force-war is justified. Fifth, there must be a reasonable hope of success in warfare. Otherwise, it is pointless and merely destructive.

The second set of criteria concerns how war should be fought in order to be just (or jus in bello). Again, each of these three criteria is necessary for stipulating a just war. Jointly they provide sufficient criteria for conducting a just war. First, the most overarching principle is that there should be no consent to evil. That is, we should never do evil that good may come (see Romans 6:1-2). If any act is intrinsically evil (such as rape), it is not allowed in warfare. The two following rules flow from the first principle and are interrelated. Second, discrimination should be used in warfare such that noncombatants are not deliberately targeted. This is also called noncombatant immunity. Third, the use of force should be proportional to the ends desired. An entire town should not be destroyed to neutralize a weapons facility, for example. (This act would also be barred under the criterion of noncombatant immunity).

Cole takes these just war principles-which he defends on the basis of both Scripture and the work of theologians (principally Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin)-aand briefly applies them to evaluate the specific cases of World War II, the Vietnam War, as well as to the war on terrorism. These reflections are significant, if not entirely adequate for the depth of the subjects addressed. Nevertheless, they provide some concrete applications for the principles he so carefully elucidates throughout the book. In a fallen world, no war is likely to be completely just, either in its inception or execution. Nevertheless, just war thinking gives a roadmap for evaluation and judgment.

In one way or another, we all face the agonizing matters of war and peace until the King comes again. When God Says War is Right is an excellent introduction to the just war tradition. While intellectually solid (and well documented), it is readable enough to be used in nonacademic settings such as adult education classes in churches. It is an able antidote to the superficial, a-historical, and unbiblical reactions that are all too common today.

Douglas Groothuis
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary