Tag Archives: war

Were Disagreements Over Christian Doctrine the Main Cause for European “Religious Wars” of the 16th and 17th Centuries?

Many people assume the separation of church and state established in the US Constitution resulted from 16th- and 17th-century “religious violence” and “religious wars” in Europe. The wars of this period included the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the English Civil War (1642–1651).

These wars were foundational to the development of the political institutions of the West. They were part of a vast social/cultural/political process that ultimately replaced feudalism and the “divine right of kings” with the centralized, capital-based governments that dominate the world today.

The ferocious wars of these centuries made a deep impression on the collective memory of European people. Estimates of Central European deaths in the Thirty Years’ War run from 3 to 7 million (many of these resulting from starvation and disease among the civilian population). Deaths from war, disease, and starvation during the English Civil War have been estimated at around 800,000, or 4 percent, 6 percent, and 40 percent of England, Scotland, and Ireland’s populations respectively. Because nearly all of the participants in these wars had religious loyalties and convictions, religious feelings were often exploited by rulers. But religion was not the underlying motivation.

Two well-known examples involved the establishment of Lutheranism and Anglicanism. In the 16th century, Martin Luther’s reasons for breaking with the Catholic Church were theological, but the Reformation would have been quickly crushed if it hadn’t been supported by powerful European rulers whose motivations were primarily political and economic. King Henry VIII of England separated from Rome and formed the Anglican Church for pragmatic, nonreligious reasons—largely due to the refusal of the pope to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He believed the Catholic Church was interfering with the internal affairs of his kingdom. He also wanted to nationalize the vast holdings of the Catholic Church in England to consolidate his power.

In The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford Press), William Cavanaugh refers to recent scholarship to show that the underlying causes of the “religious wars” of the 16th and 17th centuries weren’t religious. Cavanaugh includes eight pages of examples, of which the following quotation is only the first:

If there truly were a war of all sects against all, one would expect that war would have broken out soon after Europe split into Catholic and Protestant factions. However, between the time that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 and the outbreak of the first commonly cited religious war—the Schmalkaldic War of 1546–1547—almost thirty years would pass. The Catholic prosecutor of the Schmalkaldic War, Holy Roman emperor Charles V, spent much of the decade following Luther’s excommunication in 1520 at war not against Lutherans, but against the pope. As Richard Dunn points out, “Charles V’s soldiers sacked Rome, not Wittenberg, in 1527, and when the papacy belatedly sponsored a reform program, both the Habsburgs and the Valois refused to endorse much of it, rejecting especially those Trentine decrees which encroached on their sovereign authority.” The wars of the 1540s were part of the ongoing struggle between the pope and the emperor for control over Italy and over the church in German territories (The Myth of Religious Violence, 143-44).

Cavanaugh provides massive documentation showing that rather than the state being the peace-making force that eventually solved the problem of religiously motivated violence, the process of centralizing public authority in a secular state was itself the most significant cause of violence. “There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the transfer of power to the emergent state was a cause, not the solution, to the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (ibid., p. 162).

These wars replaced the religion of the church with the religion of the state.

The historical evidence renders . . . the idea that the modern state saved Europe from religious violence . . . unbelievable. State building . . . was a significant cause of the violence. An important aspect of state building was the absorption of the church by the state, which exacerbated and enforced ecclesial differences and therefore contributed to warfare between Catholics and Protestants. In the process, the state did not rein in and tame religion but became itself sacralized. The transfer of power from the church to the state was accompanied by a migration of the holy from church to state (ibid., p. 176).

(The reason many still consider religion the primary cause of war and violence is discussed in (Is Religion Evil?)

 

 

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What View Did Early Christians Have of Involvement in the Military?

At the time of Christ, Roman power had neared its peak. Roman troops controlled a vast area stretching from England to the Black Sea and from the Rhine River to the deserts of North Africa. Though it was the most powerful government in the world, the Republic had fallen and been replaced by military dictators. Rome was notorious for its decadence and corruption. In spite of Roman corruption, the apostle Paul clearly set forth the principle that secular government is God’s agent to maintain the rule of law on earth (Romans 13:1-7). Because Paul addressed this principle to the Christian community in Rome, it is clear that the fact of governmental corruption doesn’t overrule the need for governmental authority. Human nature as it is, it’s hard to imagine civilized life without the influence of governmental power through police, courts, and legislatures. In fact, it was Roman justice, as flawed as it was, that protected Paul from certain death at the hands of his fellow Jews (Acts 23).

It is interesting that in spite of Rome’s corruption, her centurions were widely respected as men of competence and integrity. Polybius wrote that centurions “were chosen by merit, and so were men remarkable not so much for their daring courage as for their deliberation, constancy, and strength of mind.” All of the centurions mentioned in the New Testament are praised as Christians, God-fearers, or men of good character (Matthew 8:5,8,13;27:54; Mark 15:39,44-45; Luke 7:2,6;23:47; Acts 10:1,22;21:32;22:25-26;23:17,23;24:23;27:1,6,11,31,43;28:16).

Although honorable men of a pagan background served as officers in the Roman army, the early church was opposed to Christians in the military. Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote:

For the first three centuries, no Christian writing which has survived to our time condoned Christian participation in war. Some Christians held that for them all bloodshed, whether as soldiers or as executioners, was unlawful. At one stage in its history the influential Church of Alexandria seems to have looked askance upon receiving soldiers into its membership and to have permitted enlistment in the legions only in exceptional circumstances (A History of Christianity, pp. 242-243).

Adolf von Harnack summarized the reasons for Christian opposition to involvement in the military:

The shedding of blood on the battlefield, the use of torture in the law-courts, the passing of death-sentences by officers and the execution of them by common soldiers, the unconditional military oath, the all-pervading worship of the Emperor, the sacrifices in which all were expected in some way to participate, the average behaviour of soldiers in peace-time, and other idolatrous and offensive customs—all these would constitute in combination an exceedingly powerful deterrent against any Christian joining the army on his own initiative.

The early church, having a realistic view of the necessity for governmental authority but no illusions about its primary loyalty to Christ, didn’t approve Christian military involvement. Only after Constantine’s conversion made Christianity the favored religion in the empire did a destructive process begin that merged the religious authority of the church with the political and judicial power of the state. Soon Christians could no longer easily distinguish between the authority of Christ and of Caesar–usually with tragic consequences

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Why Is New Testament Christianity Opposed to War?

Although most Christians agree that war is sometimes necessary in self defense (See the ATQ article When Is a War Just?), and nominal “Christians” have often wrongfully launched or participated in wars of aggression, genuine, New Testament Christianity would never be the cause of war.

The New Testament is neither hostile towards non-Christians, nor does it rationalize aggression against them.

Christianity’s core beliefs are clearly defined by the New Testament:

1. Humanity is sinful and needs redemption.

2. God loves the entire human race, regardless of race, gender, or cultural background.

3. The perfect life and atoning death of Jesus Christ provided our redemption.

4. Jesus is the “firstborn of many brethren” (Romans 8:29), the model for Christian living (John 17:16-26).

The New Testament views all people—including Christians—as sinners in need of forgiveness and calls on them to repent their sins, accept God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and live gratefully, lovingly, and obediently with Jesus as their model. It portrays all people as equal in spiritual worth, whether rich, poor, male, female, slave, or free (Acts 17:26; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:9-11; 1 Peter 2:9). It also separates spiritual authority from governmental authority (Mark 12:16-17, John 19:11, John 18:36-37).

The New Testament requires Christians to be concerned for their enemies (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:20-34; Acts 7:60; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 13; Ephesians 5:1-2); to shun self-righteousness (Matthew 7:3-5; John 8:3-11; Romans 5:8-11; Galatians 6:1); to repudiate the idols of ethnic pride and privilege (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 10:30-37; Luke 17:11-19; John 4:9); to refrain from judging other people’s hearts (Matthew 13:24-30); to realize that one’s responsibility to God is of a higher order than one’s responsibility to the state (Mark 12:13-17); and to forgive repentant sinners and forswear revenge against them (Luke 23:34; Romans 12:14-21; Ephesians 4:31).

Only when flagrantly distorted and misapplied can the words of the New Testament be taken to imply that Christians should forcefully impose their faith on others. The gospel of Jesus Christ commands Christians to overcome evil with good; realize that love and forgiveness are essential to the establishment of God’s kingdom; be conscious of the distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world; and be humble as sinners who have not only been forgiven but graciously given the power to live an obedient life.

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