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Syria, Aquinas, Augustine, and Just War

When Christians are asked to evaluate the ethics of war, “just war theory”—that a war is justified— quickly enters the conversation. Here I offer some clarification, questions, and criticism of just war, not specifically with Syria in mind, but that lurk in the background of any discussion of just war thinking.

When we, in the Reformed churches say “We’re a just war church” it is more by convention and tradition than confession. The Heidelberg Catechism contains no question that asks, “What do you believe about warfare?” Given that our doctrinal standards were written in the context of Christendom—“Erastian” is the term sometimes used—it is not difficult to pick up the presumption of just war, but it is more implicit than explicit.

Moreover, just war is never a “one-size-fits-all” thing. Just war theory begins with the assumption that war is contrary to following Christ, and then, on a case-by-case basis, exceptions are made. But a specific case has to be made in each circumstance. With every newborn, we don’t debate “Do we affirm infant baptism?” But when facing a potential war, we cannot quickly or comprehensively say, “Well, after all, we are a just war church.” We need to say, “Stopping Nazi aggression is just” or “Siding with the government of Vietnam against the communist rebels is just.” “We are a just war church” is not a blanket statement.

How then do we make such determinations? Typically when discussing just-war, you will see a list of several criteria that must be met in order for a war to be deemed justifiable. These include things such as “proper authority” and “proportionality.” By and large there is agreement on these criteria, although you don’t have to look far to see that there are small disagreements about exactly what should be included.

More importantly, these specific criteria are really rooted in the Roman Catholic-Thomistic (from Thomas Aquinas) tradition. “Being Catholic” doesn’t make them necessarily bad or wrong. I hope this doesn’t itself sound like finicky thinking, as if we Reformed can’t or shouldn’t use the Thomistic-Catholic way of reasoning out of “purity” concerns. Rather the Thomistic approach to just war is one part of a distinct mode of moral reasoning that is somewhat at odds with the Reformed tradition specifically, perhaps even Protestantism in general. The issues at stake are not simply how to think about war. Larger issues about how to understand all human acts come into play. 

In a year when Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday, a former Roman Catholic asked her Reformed pastor, “If we come on Saturday night, does that count?” Count? For what? For the obligation of Sunday worship, of course! It feels like odd thinking to a Protestant. Not that we don’t use guilt and compulsion to encourage worship attendance, but “does it count” is probably not how we would phrase it.

In an indirect, but still important way, I want to claim that there is a connection between “Does it count?” and the Catholic-Thomistic approach to just war. This is not intended to be derogatory. Both indicate a belief that through careful analysis, clear cut conditions, and scrupulous implementation the moral path can be known and walked. Does it count?” and “Is this a just war?” are both indicative of an approach to the Christian life that is quite trusting in our rational and systematizing abilities. There is an attempt is to give a very specific account of the morality of human acts.

“If one can put a checkmark in all six boxes, then the war is just.”

Additionally, in the Thomistic approach there are situations where certain Christian directives—“Love your enemy,” for example—may be temporarily tabled or overridden. This temporary override is reasonable and morally acceptable.

In contrast, a Protestant view of just war (which is really more Augustinian) is much less precise and publicly-accessible, and much more intuitive and paradoxical. It is hard to discern and hard to explain. There is a reluctance to temporarily shelve statements like “Love your enemy,” instead struggling mightily, perhaps hopelessly, to hold violence and love together. There are misgivings about trying so thoroughly to slice and dice any human action as to arrive at a clear verdict. Every human act—whether warfare or driving your car—is done under the umbrellas of “Lord, have mercy” and “Sin boldly!” But this paradoxical, intuitive approach is difficult to teach or share. We Reformed haven’t done a very good job of giving people practical handles by which to live.

It is understandable that when war is in the air, Protestants also often turn to the Thomistic-Catholic approach. Its specific, rational approach seems clear and to have traction in public debate—even if doesn’t quite match our overall system. Nonetheless, challenges remain.

Recently people have asserted that many of the agreed-upon criteria for a just war need to be modified in changing circumstances. This was the argument in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.  It clearly did not meet the traditional criteria for a just war, but more than a few reputable Christian thinkers argued that this was a new situation where deterrence made the war justifiable. And now we have drones. Do they merit some revision of the just-war criteria? Or are a few drone shots, now and then, even considered “war”? While the specificity of the Thomistic approach is appealing, in reality, are the criteria so elastic as to be virtually meaningless?

Finally, who is doing the moral reasoning with the just-war criteria? There always are enough “court prophets” willing to declare any war “justified.” Political partisanship is so blatant as to make the whole thing seem not like a publicly-helpful Christian discernment tool, but rather one more charade that only discredits Christianity. A Facebook-friend, a staunch Obama-backer, keeps claiming an attack on Syria is Obama’s “Bonhoeffer moment.” I’m doubtful that Dietrich would concur. Republicans who made support for the Iraq invasion the litmus test for true patriotism, now find action against Syria deplorable.

Does any of this help give clear direction about Syria? Probably not directly. But before we declare a “just war,” some clarifications, cautions, and questions remain.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Mike Weber says:

    It seems to me that whenever we have gone to war there has been very little of the sentiment "Lord, have mercy", let alone "sin boldly." To sin boldly we must first acknowledge that what we are doing is a sin.

    When we go to war, we are quick to point out the sins of our enemy and demonize them. However, we do not seem to acknowledge our own sins. The enemy is "bad" and we are the "good guys in the white hats." There is no moral ambivalence in the public consciousness regarding the American exercise of power. Rather, war from the American perspective is not a "necessary evil" (with the emphasis on evil), put a positive act of self-righteousness and self-justification.

    That said, should we respond to the situation in Syria? Probably. However, if we do so it must be done with repentance and tears, not with flag waving and jingoistic chants of "USA!"

  • Josh Bode says:

    Helpful. Thank-you Steve.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes, Steve, very helpful.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    A few root studies might be helpful here:

    late Old English (c.1050), wyrre, werre, from Old North French werre "war" (Modern French guerre), from Frankish *werra, from Proto-Germanic *werso (cf. Old Saxon werran, Old High German werran, German verwirren "to confuse, perplex"). Cognates suggest the original sense was "to bring into confusion"

    late 13c., "physical force used to inflict injury or damage," from Anglo-French and Old French violence, from Latin violentia "vehemence, impetuosity," from violentus "vehement, forcible," probably related to violare (see violation). Weakened sense of "improper treatment" is attested from 1590s.

    early 15c., from Latin violationem (nominative violatio) "an injury, irreverence," from past participle stem of violare "to violate, treat with violence, outrage, dishonor," perhaps related to vis "violence, strength"


    1. The root of "war" makes "the fog of war" seem a redundant phrase. "War" is, by definition, confusing, perplexing – and any attempt to clarify "war" will be subject to the nature of the thing being defined.

    2. The root of "war" seems to confirm the wisdom of the phrase "war is hell," if indeed by "hell" one means "chaos." (That seems like it might be a fitting field of words for the ancient near east, with their myth of creation as the overcoming of chaos, fear of the sea, etc.)

    3. I wonder if it would be too raw for people to espouse a "just-violence" theory. But that, it seems to me, is what is going on. Not just generally justifying throwing the desired (if illusory and evanescent) stability of the world into manifest disorder, but justifying the vehemence that issues in violating the enemy — their physical bodies, or their honor, or their territory, or any mix of the three. Would anyone say "we are a just-violence church"?

    4. Which brings up the whole field of studies on violence, in psychology, in sociology, in Biblical studies, and not least, in theology. The most obvious observation: We Christians, and pastors in particular, wear a sign of violence around our necks. (We can get all sappy and call it the sign of God's love…..and, for us it is. Then ask a Jew what that looks like.)

    5. Nearly any behavior for a Calvinist or Lutheran will bear the stamp of simil iustus et peccator. Why "war" or "violence" should be any different is beyond me. (Most of us put our thumbs on the scale when we measure our "iustus" — which is evidence of "peccator"!)

    6. I've heard the story that Rowan Williams was once asked why the Protestant churches continued to exist. His answer (deliciously multivalent), I'm told, was "to maintain the peccability of the Church!" When the Church assumes a magisterial position vis a vis the world and informs nation when their battles are, or are not,
    "justified" (by whom? by God? hoooo boy……) it seems to me to have crossed some limit that current protestant thinkers, anyway, would maintain. Not so sure about the original, somewhat more bellicose reformers.

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