Chapter 2c

The Lawfulness of War

by Hugo Grotius

Part 7

The right of war is not taken away by the law of the gospel. This is proven by St. Paul’s Epistle to Timothy

All, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks should be made for all men; for Kings, and for all that are in authority so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty" 1 Eph. ii. 1, 2, 3.

From this passage, the following conclusions may be drawn:

  1. Christian piety in kings is acceptable to God.

The kings’ profession of Christianity does not abridge their rights of sovereignty.

Justin the Martyr has said, “that in our prayers for Kings, we should beg that they may unite a spirit of wisdom with their royal power,” and in the book called the Constitutions of Clement, the Church prays for Christian rulers, and that Christian Princes may perform an acceptable service to God, by securing to other Christians the enjoyment of quiet lives. The manner in which the Sovereign secures this important end, is explained in another passage from the same Apostle. Rom. xiii. 4. “He is the minister of God to thee for good.

But if thou do evil, fear, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon them, that do evil.”

By the right of the sword is understood the exercise of every kind of restraint, in the sense adopted by the Lawyers, not only over offenders amongst his own people, but against neighboring nations, who violate his own and his people’s rights. To clear up this point, we may refer to the second Psalm, which although it applies literally to David, yet in its more full and perfect sense relates to Christ, which may be seen by consulting other parts of scripture.

For instance, Acts 4. 25. 13. 33 exhorts all kings to worship Jesus as his ministers.

It also says that:

  • we should honour and obey the king, from motives of conscience
  • those who resists him, is resisting God.

If the word ordinance meant nothing more than a bare permission, that obedience which the Apostle so strenuously enjoins would only have the force of an imperfect obligation. But as the word ordinance, in the original, implies an express commandment and appointment, and as all parts of the revealed will of God are consistent with each other, it follows that the obedience of subjects to sovereigns is a duty of supreme obligation.

Nor is the argument at all weakened by its being said, that the Sovereigns at the time when St. Paul wrote, were not Christians. For it is not universally true, as Sergius Paulus, the deputy governor of Cyprus, had long before professed the Christian religion. Acts xiii. 12. There is no occasion to mention the tradition respecting Abgarus the King of Edessa’s Epistle to our Saviour; a tradition mingled with falsehood, though, in some measure founded upon truth.

For the question did not turn upon the characters of the Princes, whether they were godly or not, but whether THEIR holding the kingly office was repugnant to the law of God. This St. Paul denies, maintaining that the kingly office, even under all circumstances, was appointed by God, therefore it ought to be honoured from motives of conscience, which, properly speaking, are under the controul of God alone.

So that Nero, and King Agrippa whom Paul so earnestly entreats to become a Christian, might have embraced Christianity, and still retained, the one his regal, and the other his imperial authority, which could not be exercised without the power of the sword. As the legal sacrifices might formerly be performed by wicked Priests; in the same manner regal power would retain its indelible sanctity, though in the hands of an ungodly man.

John did not command them to renounce their military calling, which he ought to have done, had it been inconsistent with the law and will of God, but to abstain from violence, extortion, and false accusation, and to be content with their wages.

In reply to these words of the Baptist, so plainly giving authority to the military profession, many observed that the injunction of the Baptist is so widely different from the precepts of Christ, that He seemed to preach one doctrine and our Lord another.

Which is by no means admissible, for the following reasons.

Both our Saviour and the Baptist made repentance the substance of their doctrine; for the kingdom of heaven was at hand. By the Kingdom of Heaven is meant a new law, as the Hebrews used to give the name of Kingdom to their law. Christ himself says the Kingdom of Heaven began to suffer violence from the days of John the Baptist. Matt. xi. 12. John is said to have preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Mark i. 4. The Apostles are said to have done the same in the name of Christ. Acts xi. 38. John requires fruits worthy of repentance, and threatens destruction to those, who do not produce them. Matt. iii. 8, 10.

He also requires works of charity above the law. Luke iii. 2. The law is said to have continued till John, that is, a more perfect law is said to have commenced from his instruction. He was called greater than the prophets, and declared to be one sent to give the knowledge of salvation to the people by announcing the gospel. He makes no distinction between himself and Jesus on the score of doctrine, only ascribing pre-eminence to Christ as the promised Messiah, the Lord of the Kingdom of Heaven, who would give the power of the holy spirit to those, who believed in him. In short, the dawning rudiments of knowledge, which proceeded from the forerunner, were more distinctly unfolded and cleared up, by Christ himself, the light of the world.

If then it had been the intention of Christ to introduce such an order of things as had never been heard of, he would undoubtedly by the most express and particular words, have condemned all capital punishments, and all wars, which we never read that he did. For the arguments, brought in favor of such an opinion, are for the most part very indefinite and obscure. Now both justice and common sense require such general expressions to be taken in a limited acceptation, and allow us, in explaining ambiguous words, to depart from their literal meaning, where our strictly adhering to it would lead to manifest inconvenience and detriment.

Indeed on the contrary, St. Paul says, that the High Priest was appointed to judge according to the law of Moses. Acts xxiv. 3. And Christ himself, in the introduction to his precepts, declares that he came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it. Matt. v. 17. The application of his meaning to the ritual law is very plain, for it was only the outline and shadow of that perfect body, of which the Gospel formed the substance. But how is it possible that the judicial laws should stand, if Christ, according to the opinion of some, abolished them by his coming? Now if the law remained in force as long as the Jewish state continued, it follows that the Jewish converts to Christianity if called to the magisterial office, could not refuse it on the score of declining to pass sentence of death, and that they could not decide otherwise than the law of Moses had prescribed.

Upon weighing the whole matter, the slightest ground cannot be discovered for supposing that any pious man, who had heard those words from our Saviour himself, would have understood them in a sense different from that which has been here given.

Before the Gospel dispensation permission or impunity was granted to certain acts and dispositions, which it46 would neither be necessary nor proper to examine at present, upon which Christ did not allow his followers to act. Of this kind was the permission to put away a wife for every offence, and to seek redress by law for every injury.

Now between the positive precepts of Christ and those permissions there is a difference, but not a contradiction. For he that retains his wife, and he that forgoes his right of redress, does nothing CONTRARY to the law, but rather acts agreeably to the SPIRIT of it. It is very different with a judge, who is not merely permitted, but commanded by the law to punish a murderer with death, incurring guilt in the sight of God, if he should act otherwise. If Christ had forbidden him to put a murderer to death, his prohibition would have amounted to a contradiction, and it would have abolished the law.

The example of Cornelius the Centurion supplies a sixth argument in favor of this opinion. In receiving the holy spirit from Christ, he received an indubitable proof of his justification; he was baptized into the name of Christ by Peter, yet we do not find that he either had resigned or was advised by the Apostle to resign his military commission.

In reply to which some maintain, that when instructed by Peter in the nature of the Christian religion, he must have been instructed to form the resolution of quitting his military calling. There would be some weight in their answer, if it could be shown that an absolute prohibition of war is to be found among the precepts of Christ. And as it can be found nowhere else, it would have been inserted in its proper place among the precepts of Christ, that after ages might not have been ignorant of the rules of duty.

Nor as may be seen in the xix. chap. of the Acts of the Apostles and the 19th ver. is it usual with St. Luke, in cases where the personal character and situation of converts required an extraordinary change of life and disposition, to pass over such a circumstance without notice.

The seventh argument is like the preceding, and is taken from the example of Sergius Paulus, which has been already mentioned. In the history of his conversion there is not the least intimation of his abdicating the magistracy, or being required to do so. Therefore silence respecting a circumstance, which would naturally and necessarily have been mentioned, may be fairly taken as a proof that it never existed. The conduct of St. Paul supplies us with an eighth argument on this subject.47

When he understood that the Jews lay in wait for an opportunity to seize and kill him, he immediately gave information of their design to the commander of the Roman garrison, and when the commander gave him a guard of soldiers to protect him on his journey, he made no remonstrance, nor ever hinted either to the commander or the soldiers that it was displeasing to God to repel force by force. Yet this is the same Apostle who, as appears from all his writings, 2 Tim. iv. 2. neither himself neglected nor allowed others to neglect any opportunity of reminding men of their duty. In addition to all that has been said, it may be observed, that the peculiar end of what is lawful and binding, must itself be lawful and binding also. It is lawful to pay tribute, and according to St. Paul’s explanation, it is an act binding upon the conscience, Rom. xiii. 3, 4, 6. For the end of tribute is to supply the state with the means of protecting the good, and restraining the wicked. There is a passage in Tacitus very applicable to the present question.

It is in the fourth book of his history, in the speech of Petilius Cerealis, who says, “the peace of nations cannot be preserved without armies, nor can armies be maintained without pay, nor pay supplied without taxation.” There is a sentiment similar to this of the historian, in St. Augustin, he says, “for this purpose we pay tribute, that the soldier may be provided with the necessaries of life.”

The tenth argument is taken from that part of the xxv. chap. of the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul says, “If I have wronged any man, or done any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die.” From whence the opinion of St. Paul may be gathered, that, even after the publication of the gospel, there were certain crimes which justice not only allowed but required to be punished with death; which opinion St. Peter also maintains.

But if it had been the will of God that capital punishments should be abolished, Paul might have cleared himself, but he ought not to have left an impression on the minds of men, that it was at that time equally lawful as before to punish the guilty with death. Now as it has been proved, that the coming of Christ did not take away the right of inflicting capital punishments, it has at the same time been proved, that war may be made upon a multitude of armed offenders, who can only be brought to justice by defeat in battle. The numbers, the strength and boldness of the aggressors, though they may have48 their weight in restraining our deliberations, cannot in the least diminish our right.

The substance of the eleventh argument rests not only upon our Saviour’s having abolished those parts of the Mosaic law, which formed a wall of separation between the Jews and other nations, but upon his allowing the moral parts to remain, as standing rules, approved by the law of nature, and the consent of every civilized people, and containing whatever is good and virtuous.

Now the punishing of crimes, and the taking up arms to avenge or ward off injuries are among those actions, which by the law of nature rank as laudable, and are referred to the virtues of justice and beneficence. And here is the proper place to animadvert slightly upon the mistake of those, who derive the rights of war, possessed by the Israelites, solely from the circumstance of God having given them the land of Canaan and commissioned them to drive out the inhabitants. This may be one just reason, but it is not the sole reason.

For, prior to those times, holy men guided by the light of nature undertook wars, which the Israelites themselves afterwards did for various reasons, and David in particular, to avenge the violated rights of ambassadors. But the rights, which any one derives from the law of nature, are no less his own than if God had given them: nor are those rights abolished by the law of the Gospel.

Part 8

In the first place, the prophecy of Isaiah is generally alleged, who says the time shall come, “when nations shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and turn their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” ii. 4. But this prophecy, like many others, is to be taken conditionally, alluding to the state of the world that would take place, if all nations would submit to the law of Christ, and make it the rule of life, to which purpose God would suffer nothing to be wanting on his part.

If all people were Christians, and lived like Christians, there would be no wars.

Arnobius says: “If all men, knowing that it is not their corporeal form alone which makes them men, but the powers of the understanding, would lend a patient49 ear to his salutary and pacific instructions, if they would trust to his admonitions rather than to the swelling pride and turbulence of their senses, iron would be employed for instruments of more harmless and useful operations, the world enjoy the softest repose and be united in the bands of inviolable treaties.”

Lactantius reproaches the Pagans with the deification of their conquerors and says:

“what would be the consequence, if all men would unite in concord? Which might certainly be brought to pass, if, abandoning ruinous and impious rage, they would live in justice and innocence.”

This passage of the prophecy must be understood literally, and, if taken in that sense, it shews that it is not yet fulfilled, but its accomplishment must be looked for in the general conversion of the Jewish people. But, which ever way you take it, no conclusion can be drawn from it against the justice of war, as long as violent men exist to disturb the quiet of the lovers of peace.7


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