The Holy War

crusades A classic example for Holy War theology, for Jew and Christian alike, begins in the book of Joshua. For the Muslim, who is often participant in this type war, may be found in Sura 2, Al-Baqara verses 190-193 or 214-217. The book of Joshua, however, is “YHWH’s victory account.”[1] In fact, the Hebrew word (kherem) which refers to “utterly destroy” occurs frequently throughout the book (e.g. 6:17; 8:26).

By His own decree God has used progressive revelation. Essentially God has not revealed all truth about Himself at one time, rather He has revealed Himself portion by portion (e.g. Zechariah 14:9). This revelation is tending toward a goal, to different people in the space-time-matter continuum (c.f. Hebrews 1:1).

God has used men of God and the Scriptures to be recipients and appropriators of this revelation. For example, Noah and Abraham, or even David, had a different relationship with God than say Paul or Peter or you and I as New Testament believers. This does not mean that the object of faith has changed but that there is a difference between an old covenant and that of a new one. The particulars here are debatable. God called Abraham out of the heathen though. I believe that Israel, the “fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7 NRSV) became the sword of morality to the fallen men since Adam. It was a bright light, so to speak, in a dark world. Light can be bright and piercing at times. Man in his fallen nature was vile and yet God called a man out of that vileness to raise up a special people with which God will bless the nations of the earth.

The Love of God Revealed:

Eventually, through that Semitic line, from Abraham, came the Messiah. In Him we have forgiveness of sin and salvation from the fallen sin nature. God will return soon to take away His special people. Obviously, during the course of that journey God has dealt with and required different things of man. Christ has come to atone for the sin of humanity, essentially reconciling the world. Shedding abroad the love of God. Notice the following Johannine theology very early in Christian tradition:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16 NRSV
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
1 John 3:16 NRSV
God loved the world. This might have been a novel idea to some. Many Jews believed that God loved the Jew only, specifically a religious Jew. Some may have imagined God hated the Gentile world. Even though God had showed them His love towards any who would repent in the story of Jonah and the Ninevites. It is also a virtue that transcends the god represented in the Quran who seems impersonal, at the very least. Muslim defenders might reply with Sura 50, Qaf vs. 16 however this verse only suggest that God knows us very well. Consider these two Quranic translations:
“We created man: and We know what his soul whispereth to him, and We are closer to him than his neck-vein.”
Sura 50, Qaf. vs. 16 (J.M. Rodwell)[2]
“It was We Who created man, and We know what dark suggestions his soul makes to him: for We are nearer to him than (his) jugular vein.” (Yusif Ali)[3]
It says nothing about Allah desiring to have a personal or loving relationship with creation. God knows every man since He knows all actual and even potential knowledge. It is what God has decreed or chosen to do with man that is significant in Christianity. Even while knowing our human frailties and flaws God extends His love towards us. He desires a personal relationship with him. God’s entrance into time and space has indeed made history significant. By the Incarnation He has set into motion the means of reconciling and restoring fallen man to Himself by Jesus Christ and powered by the Holy Spirit.

The Quran commands Muslims to wage war against non-Muslims and apostates (Surah 5:33; 9:5, 29). The Quran is riddled throughout its pages with commands and innuendos to do violence to non-believers and the un-faithful. Of the 114 Surahs, 109 have identifiable war verses. One out of every 55 verses in the Quran is a war verse. What about the book of Joshua in the Christian Bible? There is much that could be said here but the significant distinction between an Islamic jihad (holy war) and a Christian holy war is that the believer in Christ is mitigated and controlled by love with an awareness of spiritual forces (Eph. 6:12). Being controlled by love however does not mean we are also inoculated from God’s justice. The Christian believer has a new covenant that introduces revelation about God and His love whereas the Quran has seemingly no ethical progression.

Western Inheritance of The Holy War:

Mennonite scholar John Yoder in his tome Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution noted that the advancement of Islam during the period of the crusades was the “dramatic equivalent of Marxism in the twentieth century.”[4] He goes on to note that “Islam was a threat on a world scale that called into question the very existence of Christian culture”. Yoder also agrees that “the Muslim holy war tradition is not very different from that of the crusade.”

Yoder suggests that two elements from the medieval crusade model are still resonating in our Western culture. Since the time of the Crusades our globe, and much of Western civilization, bears the scars of various wars (Korean War, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Desert Storm) He cites two elements that are still lodged in our thinking about war.

1. A transcendent cause justifies downgrading the rights of the enemy.
2. The value of martyrdom

We experience the first element still. This struggle was recently seen in the Guantanomo Bay prison proceedings. Dying though is usually not glorious or appealing to us. However, death coupled with a crusade or a just war is known to give death meaning. Death in this sense is viewed as righteous because it is has been coupled with a righteous cause.

The value of martyrdom is almost intrinsic in the fabric of early Christianity. The Greek  root word (Grk. martus) for the English “witness” or “testify” (Grk. marturion) is translated as “martyr”. Amazingly, until the peace of the Church in 315 A.D. the church or “Christians”, in any sense, were in season.  In fact, some of the greatest flourishing of the church occurred during this period of persecution. Michael Servetus was burned at the stake as late as 1553 for denying among other things the doctrine of the Trinity.

Yoder goes on to suggest that we juxtapose and consider afresh the idea of “martyrdom” over against the sacrifice of Christ. His point is valid and we should consider this more closely. The sacrifice of Christ pertains to the salvation and atonement of mankind. The sacrifice of Christ however cannot amount to a sacrifice of Christians. A “martyrdom” complex arises when one believes they are dying for a cause they firmly and wholeheartedly affirm. The Christian and the Muslim both experience this metaphysical impulse. Our religious preferences have a tendency to embed themselves deeply into the fabric of human emotion and intellect. We should also remember that just because Christ has died it does not also mean that there will never be a cause demanding our ardent reliance upon faith.  As we rely on faith must be resilient in standing for that faith.

Four Considerations:

1. Justice. The love of God is balanced by His divine justice. For example, God’s justice demanded retribution for sin but it was God’s love that reckoned His own righteousness on our account by the death of the Son of God. This is a judicial system and in such systems justice is distributed upon both the just and the unjust. In his letter to the church at Rome (13:1-7) God authorizes the state to punish the disobedient and even mentions the “sword” which refers to death—the ultimate punishment. This is fitting since man is responsible for his actions, as free moral agents. We can find God’s retributive justice being practiced in both covenants. Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and Herod (Acts 12:20-23) are examples where God directly kills people to exact His justice. The principle of retribution is also evident for those who will experience eternal torment if they reject Christ.

2. Some evil cannot be avoided. At times even inaction can be viewed as evil. J. Vernon McGee once commented “You have forgotten that you are not only a citizen of heaven, but you are a citizen of a country down here.”[5] For example, during WWII a Protestant scholar and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted the onslaught of the Third Reich. The fruits of his opposition to National Socialism grew to the place where Bonhoeffer was part of a conspiracy to kill another human being—Adolf Hitler. In his book Ethics Bonhoeffer noted the tension of guilt and freedom, or free-will:
“the structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom.” (Ethics, pg. 210)
During the 12th Century the Waldenses were a pre-Reformation group, led by Peter Waldo, that stressed a return to the Bible. They also rejected war and the taking of human life. After the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) the Inquisition was revived to stamp out heresy. This group was condemned as heresy and eventually forced to defend themselves.

Pacifism is not workable in all situations although it is, at times, the necessary or correct approach. The reason many theologians and Christians believed the West should intervene in WWII was because inaction, on their part, would have constituted an even greater war if Hitler had not been stopped. Even with the intervention of the British and the United States Hitler almost attained total European domination. Yoder himself notes that “Pacifism can aggravate the issues by siding with inaction or reaction.”

3. Natural Law. Plato, Aristotle and Cicero all believed that man naturally desired peace and a sense of order. This can only be achieved through right reason, which is granted us by God. For example, by use of reason we will come to establish certain norms or axioms that help to maintain peace and order. At times war, governed by moral law, must be appealed to in order to maintain that peace and order. Even the pax Romana of ancient times would not have flourished without protection and defense of its outer borders from less civil peoples.
4. Biblical Teaching.
a. The biblical view of man. Man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). Therefore man has intrinsic value and should be protected and his dignity and inalienable human rights defended.
b. The biblical view of the state. "Government originated as an ordinance of God. It is, in one sense, God’s response to the nature of the people themselves. While it cannot redeem the world or be used as a tool to establish the kingdom of God, civil government does set the boundaries for human behavior. The state is not a remedy for sin, but a means to restrain it.” ~Charles Colson
In Romans 13 Paul informs us that God has "appointed" government (vs. 1). Therefore, if government, is an establishment of God then it is to manifest the character of God in some way, e.g. justice balanced with love. Paul, in no way, is advocating our adherence to any government, then, that is indeed contrary to Himself. Government is God’s way of maintaining the public good and directing the affairs of state. It is a temperate hand resting on a restless humanity. Legitimate government then, is one instituted by God and consequently an exhibitor of His ways.
The implementation of justice is done so, by the government, to punish bad and approve good. It is interesting to note the use of the term "sword" in the text. "Because a sword is an instrument of death, the weapon here symbolizes the right of civil government to inflict punishment, including the ultimate penalty of death for crimes that deserve it. In the earliest period of human existence, the Lord instituted capital punishment. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6). When Jesus told Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52), he was reminding His disciple that the penalty for his killing one of Jesus’ enemies would be to perish himself through execution, which the Lord here acknowledges would be justified."[6]
*Note: There are more arguments that could be listed here but for the sake of brevity they have been omitted.
Man must not be governed by his passions but rather the rule of reason should prevail. Godly reason. Any war then should be limited to what is needed to maintain peace. Men like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin or modern scholars like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr have held a similar view. Pacifism may be ideal and strived for yet it is not workable in all situations.
In the twenty-first century we have changed. I noted the diplomatic efforts of Saladin and Richard the Lion Heart in my writings about the Crusades. First, in order to intimate Christian virtues such as patience and love diplomatic efforts should be exhausted. Second, we should also remember that the Church cannot be extended by purely physical causes but it is possible that it be defended in some sense. Defended foremost with godly and Christ-like love through character, writings, acts of benevolence, education, patience and turning the other cheek. However there was a time when even deity became irate at the behavior of the heathen in His House and drove them from it by force. We are not simply to look in the sky for redemption alone, as time and the lost pass us by, instead the believer can be willing to defend what God has given us in this present world, working until He comes again.
JN Anderson
[1] Barton, John. and Muddiman, John, et al. Oxford Bible Commentary. © Oxford University Press 2001 pg. 159
[2] Rodwell, J.M. The Koran. Ivy Books. Published by Ballantine Books (Edition April 1993)
[3] Ali, Yusif, The Quran http://www.harunyahya.com/Quran_translation/Quran_translation_index.php
[4] Yoder, John H. Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution. © 2009 by The Institute for Mennonite Studies. Brazos Press. pg.
[5] McGee, J. Vernon: Questions and Answers. electronic ed. Nashville : Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001, c1990, S. 218
[6] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. © 1955 by Mcmillan Publishing Company. New York, NY pg. 210
[7] MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Romans. (1996, c1991, c1994). Chicago: Moody Press. pg. 226

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Adversus Trinitas

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