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Defenders of the Faith: Augustine, Aquinas, and the Evolution of Medieval Just War Theory

Defenders of the Faith: Augustine, Aquinas, and the Evolution of Medieval Just War Theory

By Robert Busek

Saber and Scroll, Vol. 2: Iss. 1 (2013)

medieval warfare -  Mediaeval and modern history (1905)

Abstract: The attempt to reconcile Christ’s injunctions against violence with the unfortunate necessity of war resulted in the development of what philosophers now call the “just war theory,” the conditions under which war can be waged without sin. It is fitting that the first great philosopher to write about the just war, Augustine of Hippo, lived during the death throes of the Roman Empire, in a world plagued by the strife of nations. Over eight hundred years later, the man who would further develop this theory, Thomas Aquinas, lived in a world where warfare had assumed a truly spiritual function through the concept of the crusade and the blending of monastic and knightly traditions. Faced with this new idea of positive warfare, Aquinas reinterpreted Augustine’s theology to fit this context.

Introduction: Christianity has always had a difficult relationship with the concept of war. After all, it is impossible to follow Christ’s command to “love one’s neighbor” on the battlefield. Indeed, “turning the other cheek” in such a situation is very likely to allow one to meet God face to face. Christian pacifism was particularly prevalent in the early years of the Church, when many Christians steadfastly refused to join the Roman army, a move that caused governmental authorities some concern. As the empire began to crumble in the third century, the Christian repudiation of violence eventually led to persecution by the state. Guided by the pacifist theology supported by the early theologians Origen and Tertullian, many Christians went meekly to their deaths, winning the crown of martyrdom.

By the fourth century, however, the relationship between Christianity and the Roman state had radically changed. Under the protection of Constantine the Great, Christianity had not only achieved legitimacy, but had also become an important arm of the state. Later, under Theodosius the Great, Christianity became the official religion of the empire, effectively marginalizing the pagan belief systems that had once tried to destroy it. However, with this political victory came a host of theological problems, including the question of whether or not Christians were permitted to wage war. The attempt to reconcile Christ’s injunctions against violence with the unfortunate necessity of war resulted in the development of what philosophers now call the “just war theory,” the conditions under which war can be waged without sin. It is fitting that the first great philosopher to write about the just war, Augustine of Hippo, lived during the death throes of the Roman Empire, in a world plagued by the strife of nations. Over eight hundred years later, the man who would further develop this theory, Thomas Aquinas, lived in a world where warfare had assumed a truly spiritual function through the concept of the crusade and the blending of monastic and knightly traditions. Faced with this new idea of positive warfare, Aquinas reinterpreted Augustine’s theology to fit this context.

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