The Options of Non-Violence or Gnosticism

Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1] Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2] Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it to be such. He was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself.

The confusion is not in regard to the Church’s stance toward violence. There is a unified voice in the first three centuries of Christianity ruling out this possibility. “Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength” (Origen Contra Celsius Book VII). “Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence” (Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV). “Christians are not allowed to correct with violence” (Clement of Alexandria).  As Justin Martyr (110-165) explained to Emperor Antonius Pius, Christians cannot be guilty of sedition as the Christian notion is a kingdom of peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, in which people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Citizenship in God’s Kingdom, Justin informed the Emperor, is a present tense reality which renders Christians nonviolent: “That it is so coming to pass, let me convince you. We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ” (The First Apology of Justin Martyr). There is an unequivocal stand against violence in the early Church.

The problem is not in determining whether violence was acceptable (it was not), the problem was in determining what constitutes violence. For example, is it acceptable for a Christian to accept a laurel crown as part of a military ceremony (the problem Tertullian deals with in On the Military Crown)?  A soldier, perhaps recently converted, refuses the honor and accepts martyrdom rather than to wear the crown. Tertullian argues that martyrdom is the correct choice, rather than to be associated, even by implication, in violence. He asks, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” His answer is a resounding “no.” To be associated with such things, even through a laurel crown, is not an option. One could argue the point – as some did. It could even be pointed out that there were Christian soldiers (occupied nonviolently or recently converted, as is clear in the example). What cannot be argued is whether Christians rejected violence, as they clearly did. The problem they were negotiating is determining what constitutes violence.

The conflict is not between pro and anti-violence but with how to follow Jesus, how to recognize violence and evil. Tertullian’s opponents are arguing that “a peace so good and long is endangered for them.” Their fear is that obstinance, an unwillingness to recognize nuance, is being confused with nonviolence. Tertullian argues, “they have rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit” and “are already turning their back on the Scriptures.” He suggests a certain cowardice is at work: “in peace, lions; in the fight, deer.” One might argue either side of the equation, but the lack of clarity is not in regard to whether one should be violent but how to best avoid violence.

The first Christians had recognized that shedding blood, no matter the circumstance, is sin. Even vague association with violence, or the improper curbing of anger which leads to violence, they considered sin. What they had not recognized is that oppressive treatment (including physical punishment) of social inferiors, of women, of slaves, was violence as well. Origen, in making the case that God employs discipline, uses an unfortunate example: “And just as when you, punishing a slave or a son, you do not want simply to torment him, rather your goal is to convert him by pains.”[3] That beating one’s slave might count as violence seems to escape this one who railed against every form of violence. The point is not that the early Church accepted forms of violence, but the sense of what counted as violence had yet to be fully and clearly articulated. This is the proper task Christians are to continue to engage.

 We, I would hope, have no problem in recognizing the incongruity of Christians advocating beating slaves. That incongruence or blindness points to the need in the Patristic period to continue to develop a nonviolent sensibility. It also suggests the possibility of a similar blindness among contemporary followers of Jesus. The incomplete non-violence of the Fathers is not an excuse for violence. It should not serve to convince us that we can indulge in violence but indicates that the work of the Gospel continues, through the ages, to penetrate notions of authority, relationships with others and even within ourselves.

There is the need, as John Howard Yoder recognized, to overcome the Constantinian error of fusing state violence with the Church. Certainly “the entire Christian gospel” cannot be restored without recognizing this error. But this overcoming – this recognition that violence is evil – is not itself the restoration of the entire Christian gospel. Prior to the failure of Constantinian Christianity we do not, as Jennifer Otto points out, encounter a golden age of a perfect worked out pacifism.[4] This, however, is not a license to read Constantinian violence into the first centuries, it is simply the recognition that naming and overcoming violence is not easy but is the primary Christian task, and failure in this task is the greatest of temptations.

The hard stance against violence in the early Church explains the looming gnostic temptation in Patristic Christianity. The temptation is to concede the physical realm to the logic of this world’s kingdoms, an unnecessary concession where a clear delineation is not drawn between the two kingdoms (that of Christ and the world). The threat of martyrdom, of not striking back, of not offering resistance, is a temptation to concede to the logic of violence. As Tatian recognized, following his master Justin Martyr, a stark choice is posed: “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command.” I must “die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”[5] Tatian recognized the “death to the world” Christ requires, but he could not endure it. With the death of his teacher, he takes up the gnostic religion of Valentinian.

Dying to the world, it turns out, is a continual process of repudiation. It is the process of the ages of cultivating peace, of continually recognizing and overcoming violence.  A Christianity that has relinquished this task of extending peaceful non-violence has already conceded to gnostic madness.


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[3] Origen, Homily on Jeremiah, 12

[4] Jennifer Otto, “Were the Early Christians Pacifists? Does It Matter?” https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[5]Tatian (120-180) Address to the Greeks.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

7 thoughts on “The Options of Non-Violence or Gnosticism”

  1. Hi Paul,

    Right on, again. The only”violence” that is allowed to a believer is self violence. Jesus’ admonition to”take up your cross daily” requires a regular practice of dying to self. Something I need to do every day.

    i

    1. I know it is a matter of semantics but I would suggest there is an inherent difference between taking up the cross and putting others on crosses – or between the discipline of the Christian life and what it is attempting to overcome. We need to distinguish, and perhaps we need two separate words, to talk about these two realms.

  2. I don’t think enough can be said about blindness to cultural influences when noting the kind of incongruities you label here. What compounds our struggle is the way that many cultural views about violence are almost hard-wired into people’s religious structures to the point that they see nonviolence as a worldly cultural (liberal) influence and resisting non-violence as the truly “Christian” thing.

    Somewhere along the way, one has to confront people with the truth of the cross and the call to share it as being counter-cultural.

  3. A lot of good stuff to chew on. I have been wrestling with even other forms of violence such as violence to the earth and land(Thanks Jason and Vangie). This whole taking Christ seriously has got my head spinning.