On what grounds may one nation take military action against another.

Murray states that: “War is a ghastly evil that is always the consequence of sin.”[1] The question however, is whether it is itself sin and so prohibited in all forms by the law of God, or sanctioned on certain grounds. In answering this question, Christian involvement in war will only be mentioned as it pertains to the more general discussion (see Appendix A for a discussion of whether it is right for a Christian to take part in war). In surveying the biblical data, four key questions that reflect increasing degrees of specificity need to be asked: 1) Is force ever justified? 2) Is it justified for the purposes of war? 3) What are the criteria of its usage? 4) How do these criteria apply to contemporary situations?
A biblical survey

God created Adam as representative of humanity, to live in obedience to him. Such obedience was to be "good," where "good" is defined by the moral qualities of the one whose image they bear.[2] All humanity without distinction are therefore to reflect God's good character as enshrined in the principles of his law and wisdom.[3]

The law clearly forbids murder,[4] yet this was not a prohibition of all killing. Capital punishment for murder was instituted as just for all descendants of Noah,[5] whereas the Mosaic law ascribed it to a further twenty offences.[6] Here adequate evidence is a particular priority.[7][8] and freedom from prosecution in matters of self-defence is suggested.[9][10] unless contrary to the will of God,[11] and the exercising of all justice was to be impartial,[12] proportionate,[13] free from vengeance,[14] and for the purpose of upholding the rights of the oppressed,[15] and intervening to prevent evil.[16][17] The covenantal context portrays the goal of such justice as purity of religion, and subsequent social harmony. Although causing death by negligence is included as capital, a rule of manslaughter applies when killing is unintentional, Judicial authorities were to be submitted to Furthermore, it was a sin for authorities not to punish the wicked.

In terms of war, Melchizedeck's blessing after Abram's rescue of Lot may suggest divine approval for aiding those unjustly attacked and delivering the oppressed.[18] Furthermore, Joshua's defence of the Gibeonites may also suggest that treaties must be kept, even if not warranted.[19] Holy war was clearly sanctioned in some sense by God, who himself fought for Israel[20] and used the wars of nations as the means of his judgement.[21] Nevertheless, war was to be a means to an end rather than the focus,[22] and mercy[23] and freedom from vengeance[24][25] were to correct attitudes. A preference for peace is also suggested.

The OT thus makes clear that the use of force in matters of civil justice and war, are not sinful per se.[26] To say that they are would require charging God with transgression.[27]

Little has been gleaned from the holy wars themselves, because redemptive-historically, the establishment of Israel through Joshua and David patterns Christ's defeat of the powers and authorities on the cross.[28] The NT is clear that the kingdom is therefore established by suffering and speech rather than by the sword,[29] although the authorities are God's means of enabling this purpose to continue.[30] Thus war should not take place to further religious ends.[31]

For the proponents of pacifism, this typology is developed more radically. Hoyt's formulation of non-resistance[32] argues from an absolute separation of the church/Christians and the state/world. Israel were a theocracy that combined both and could therefore use force, an act he nevertheless describes as “evil.”[33] But believers are now to live by the kingdom principle of non-resistance as enshrined in Matthew 5v38ff, which is seen as a "higher standard" than OT law for those who have the Spirit.[34] Therefore, Jesus' command is not applicable to Governments because it addresses regenerate individuals rather than unregenerate institutions. Thus the state can employ force, but Christians cannot on its behalf.[35]

This view seems to imply that there are no right grounds for a nation to go to war as this is contrary to God’s law, yet nations do, and this is used providentially by God. However, as our OT overview shows, this is somewhat reductionistic, and wrong in its governing assumption that all killing/use of force is evil.[36] What God says to his people at least reflects that which he requires from all. "All murder involves the taking of life, but not all taking of life is murder."[37][38] However the exact punishments may be culturally and redemptively determined. The God who commands (and is) love, also commands justice. Peace may sometimes come only through war. Thus, setting the discussion over whether Christians may participate aside, it is clear that the law of God does sanction rather than just permit the use of force by Governments. Indeed, where injustice is taking place and cannot be dealt with by other means, it demands it. In such cases, it is therefore pacifism that is sin! In response, it might be argued that capital punishment is not asserted for the twenty-one offences today, therefore why should the principle of force be. But the difference between punishment and principle is an important one. The principle applies to government and is established in creation.

It is here that Romans 13v1-7 is pivotal. War is a governmental priority. Authorities “bear the sword” in fulfilling a threefold role: To (1) serve God by (2) benefiting the good and (3) executing God’s wrath on the evildoer.[39] In terms of war, this must cover at least civil war and any incursion into the state’s dominion that breaks its laws; and here the responsibility of the state is not merely defensive, but punitive.
The Just War

In principle then, a basis for “Just War” has been established. Holmes outlines seven rules for such a war that can be compared with the above data.[40] 1) The only just cause of defence. 2) The only just intention of just peace for all. 3) The requirement of last resort. 4) The requirement of formal declaration by government. 5) Limited objectives for the purpose of peace. 6) Proportionate means to this end. 7) Non-combatant immunity for those not actively involved.

By comparison, it is worth summarising the conclusions of our biblical survey. The use of force is: A) a moral requirement where necessary, but must be B) decided upon by government, C) not executed for the sake of religious ends,[41] D) restrained, E) impartial, F) proportionate, G) free from vengeance, H) based on sufficient evidence, I) for the purpose of upholding the rights of the oppressed, J) arbitrating between parties, K) intervening to prevent, L) bring to trial, or M) punish evil, and so N) establish a just peace.

Various problems with Holmes’ formulation are immediately apparent, and need to be highlighted to further clarify grounds for military action. First, the punitive warrant for war offers an alternative cause, and suggests the feasibility of war after the event for the sake of a) bringing individuals or a state to justice, or b) executing punishment on them where this is not possible. Likewise, “justice” is as important as “peace” in terms of intention. A peace that hasn’t seen the guilty punished is inadequate. Second, in matters of bringing offenders to trial or executing punishment, sufficient evidence must be presented, and guilt established. Third, the nature of “defence” itself is not easily defined. Intervention is at times necessary. Thus pre-emptive strikes seem sometimes warranted. Fourth, the absolute protection of non-combatants is assumed but is difficult to establish biblically.[42] It might even be argued that families, nations and races are treated in solidarity under their leaders,[43] and so should bear some of any punishment. However, where the just war is to first seek to bring offenders to justice rather than execute punishment, minimum force must be used in order to leave trial and punishment to more exact means through any respective courts. Nevertheless, unintentional rather than negligent killing may be permitted scripturally, although the principle of restraint and the contemporary possibility for "limited strikes" should stem this. Fifth, the aim of establishing a just peace for all also limits environmental, economic and political damage. However political change may be necessary to meet this aim, and if so, an acceptable alternative should be established. Sixth, action should only be taken if the aim of a just peace is likely to be achieved. Otherwise, further insecurity would result and lives would be wasted. Seventh, O’Donovan asks whether the inevitable lack of righteous motivation and absolute justice in going to war nullify the entire Just War theory? Indeed, how can an aggrieved state rightly act on its own behalf when impartiality and arbitration is required.[44] Third party arbitration would be preferable, but even this would not be fully impartial. In response, O’Donovan states that “absolute justice is never performed in real life,”[45] yet it is nevertheless to be attempted. Thus government has a “duty to do the more, rather than the less, just thing, to hold the more, rather than the less, just attitude.”[46]

The seventh problem is over the realm of jurisdiction of any government. When an attack has occurred within ones dominion, the attempt to bring aggressors to justice, or punish them if this is unfeasible, may require war elsewhere. Moreover, a certain moral problem comes from the awareness that evil is taking place outside ones jurisdiction when one has the ability to intervene. Furthermore, it must be asked to what extent do alliances or even mere consensus amongst governments establish wider governmental jurisdiction and so sanction for miliary action? If such broader jurisdictions can be justified, then war outside one’s dominion would be warranted on the principles enshrined in Romans 13. O’Donovan suggests two factors that define effective government: force to judge the oppressor, and “the general acceptance of those who are governed.”[47] Thus any arbitration between nations must have the consent of both parties. Although, where a government is acting as the aggrieved, consent would only be required by its people, because such a situation assumes a breach of the laws and jurisdiction of that government by the offender. Furthermore, alliances such as the UN and NATO, and even perhaps temporary consensus from a majority of world governments would perhaps sanction certain broader and even world-wide jurisdictions. The sanction of a relevant alliance would therefore be necessary to act outside ones immediate jurisdiction, and may even serve to de-politicise unjust motives and bring any action closer to the criteria of the just war. Where broader sanction is lacking, it would seem difficult to warrant forceful intervention of any means.
Contemporary issues

Space allows only a brief mention of how the above principles impact contemporary case studies. Such situations are inevitably complex and so any comment will be simplistic. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is one where two legitimate governments are asserted. Here, the principles of just war break down over the confusion of who is the aggressor and who is the aggrieved. Thus agreed arbitration, or forced intervention by a consensus of governments would seem the only options. However, these should be entered into only if peace is likely to be established. The response to “September 11” is an example of the punitive warrant for war and shows the necessity and benefit of gaining a “broader sanction” for action. Nevertheless, combating terrorism that has no clear state representation is difficult. Evidence for the guilt of the terrorists and the collusion of any particular government must be substantial, and shared with and agreed on by any coalition before action is taken; and any such action must prioritise the arrest and trial of perpetrators over the military dispensing of punishment. Furthermore, it must be established whether unwittingly harbouring terrorists itself warrants just intervention. If not, then authorities can only seek to persuade any respective but innocent government to act. Punitive nuclear action on a large scale is difficult to justify on the grounds of proportionality, last resort, limited objective, non-combatant immunity, and priority of trial. Although it is also difficult to rule out the use of nuclear weapons to a “proportionate end” simply because of the nature of the weapon.[48] In terms of defence, acting with anti-ballistic capabilities would clearly be preferable.[49] Here particularly, the question of whether just peace could actually be established, rather than simply escalation and resulting devastation, is key.


In describing the violent actions of Moses and David, Calvin writes; “both men, by executing the vengeance ordained by God, hallowed by cruelty their hands, which by sparing they would have defiled.”[50] It seems that in the area of national government, the same dilemma stands, yet the same duty is demanded. When then might a nation take military action against another? In short, when the action is just. However, Holme’s seven points may be altered to define this more fully. 1) The only just causes of defence, arbitration, or ensuring punishment, on behalf of the oppressed. 2) The only just intention of just peace for all. 3) The requirement of last resort. 4) The requirement of a non-religious formal declaration by a government or governmental coalition with effective jurisdiction in the matter concerned. 5) The punitive priority of bringing to trial. 6) the requirement of conclusive evidence of guilt when resorting to the execution of punishment. 7) Limited objectives for the purpose of just peace. 8) Proportionate means to this end. 9) Minimal non-combatant involvement. 10) Reasonable likelihood of success. Such action is always regrettable, and should be taken whilst groaning for the redemption.[51] Nevertheless, as O’Donovan states: “Justice is a harsh and tragic virtue, belonging to an age which has not yet seen the wiping away of tears.”[52]

Appendix A : Can the Christian take part in war?

What then of Matthew 5v38ff? As seen, the “eye for an eye” principle defines Israel’s system of punishment. However, agreeing somewhat with Hoyt, Carson comments that Jesus’ teaching does more than combat a merely personal use of the principle out of “vindictiveness.” Rather it does suggest enduring evil rather than seeking “recompense,” on the grounds of the “better righteousness” expected of those under the new covenant.[53] Nevertheless, before teaching non-resistance, Jesus has just asserted the continuation of the whole law understood Christologically, especially as outlined in the following discourse.[54] Thus, Jesus does not contradict or abolish the principle of v38, although he does urge individual believers to live differently with respect to it.[55] Furthermore, this “better righteousness” must not be made controlling, but be held against other concerns defined by the principle regarding justice for others. In the state use of “just force,” at issue is not an affront to the agent of the state who carries out any action (which would requiring non-resistance by the Christian), but to others (which requires proportionate justice). Hoyt and Ausburger’s eschatology is over-realised. Until the parousia, the need for a penal system remains. Church are state are both divinely ordained, with separate responsibilities.[56] The latter is not synomnous with “the world,” as Hoyt suggests, but morally neutral as a concept.[57] A citizen may therefore take their place in both church and state within the boundaries of God’s law;[58] and as seen, this law does not prohibit force.
Bibliography :

1. Attwood, D J E. "War" in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, (Leicester, IVP, 1995)

2. Ausburger, Myron S. "Christian pacifism" and "Reponses" in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G Clouse, (Downers Grove, IVP, 1991)

3. Boettner, Loraine. The Christian attitude toward war, (Phillipsburg, P & R, 1985)

4. Brown, Harold O J. "The crusade or preventative war" and "responses" in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G Clouse, (Downers Grove, IVP, 1991)

5. Calvin, John. Institutes of Christian religion: Volume 2, ed. John T McNeill, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press)

6. Carson, D. “Matthew” in The expositors bible commentary, ed. Frank E Gaebelein, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984)

7. Frame, John M. Pastoral and Social Ethics lecture outline, Part Five: Exposition of the law of God: Sixth through Tenth Commandments, IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 53, December 321 to January 6, 2001, www.thirdmill.org.uk

8. Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, (Leicester, Apollos, 1990)

9. Holmes, Arthur F. “The Just War” and "responses" in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G Clouse, (Downers Grove, IVP, 1991)

10. Hoyt, Herman A. "Non-resistance" and "responses" in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G Clouse, (Downers Grove, IVP, 1991)

11. Longman III, T. "Warfare" in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Leicester, IVP, 2000)

12. Murray, John. Collected writings of John Murray, (Carlisle, Banner of Truth, 1976)

13. O’Donovan, Oliver. In pursuit of a Christian View of War, Grove booklet on ethics no. 15, (Nottingham, Grove Books, 1977)

14. Reid, D G "Violence" in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Leicester, IVP, 2000)

15. Wright, Christopher J H. Living as the people of God: The relevance of Old Testament ethics, (Leicester, IVP, 1983)

[1] Murray, John. Collected writings of John Murray, (Carlisle, Banner of Truth, 1976), p.344

[2] The implication of God's calling his creation good and then creation man in his image (Gen 1v1).

[3] Lev 11v44-45, Prov 8 esp. v14-16, Ps 2v12. Thus Gentiles deserve death for breaching God's commandments (Rom 1v28-32), are accountable to their conscience (Rom 2v14-16), and are condemned by the fact that Israel could not keep the law (Rom 3v19-20). Wright argues a paradigmatic relationship between OT Israel and fallen Mankind. Wright, Christopher J H. Living as the people of God: The relevance of Old Testament ethics, (Leicester, IVP, 1983), p.100

[4] Ex 20v13

[5] Gen 9v6

[6] Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, (Leicester, Apollos, 1990), p.200

[7] Num 35v30

[8] Ex 21v29, Deut 22v8, Deut 19v1ff, Num 35v22ff, Josh 20v3. Frame suggests that the cities of refuge imply that death by manslaughter was still considered a crime. Frame, John M. Pastoral and Social Ethics lecture outline, Part Five: Exposition of the law of God: Sixth through Tenth Commandments, IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 53, December 321 to January 6, 2001, www.thirdmill.org.uk, p.202

[9] Ex 22v2-3, Ibid, p.204

[10] Deut 17v12, Prov 24v21. Not to do so was also a capital offence.

[11] Ex 1v17, 20-21, Dan 3, 6

[12] Deut 1v16-17, 16v19

[13] Ex 21v23-24, Lev 24v19-20, Deut 19v21

[14] Lev 19v18, Prov 20v22, 24v29, 25v21

[15] Jer 22v3 uses the word "oppressor" to describe those acting criminally to others. Ps 72 makes the same point v4, 12-14, cf. Pr 31v5, 8-9. Consider also Moses use of force to rescue his fellow Israelite from oppression, cf. Acts 7v24-27

[16] Is 59v15ff.

[17] Prov 16v12 and 12v26

[18] Gen 14

[19] Jos 9-10

[20] Jos 5v13-6v7

[21] Is 45v1ff.

[22] 1 Chron 22v18-19, Hab 1v5ff. Frame, Op Cit, p.206

[23] Prov 24v17

[24] Prov 20v22, 24v29, 25v21

[25] Deut 20v1-14. Cf. Is 65v17-25 The Deuteronomy passage describes holy war that is not with the surrounding nations, and describes the need to offer the possibility of surrender.

[26] Although both may be described as evil in the sense that they are responses to sin.

[27] Although scripture does portray God as providentially behind sinful acts, it is a different matter to say that he does what is morally wrong.

[28] Col 2v9-15, Eph 6, Heb 2v1-4v13, esp. 4v8-11

[29] 2 Cor 10v3-6, Rev 12v11. Likewise, on the model of Jesus himself, it is difficult to see warrant for personally resisting persecution. Jn 18v36, Mtt 26v51-56. Although as seen, self-defence in other matters may be acceptable. Yet Paul was prepared to enlist the use of force by the authorities to protect him. Acts 22v25-29, 23v16-23

[30] 1 Tim 2v1-4

[31] Of course, the state is to serve God and therefore should act justly by biblical principles. In a largely Christian country, this may in a sense then be "Christian" action, and could in theory be publically announced as being done in Christ's name. However, no such Christian country (predominantly believing rather than just nominal) exists, and as God doesn't direct specific acts of war as he did for Israel, it would be unwise to put "his name" to any such action unless it was most clearly justified anyway. Nevertheless, war is never a valid means of expanding or building God's kingdom which is done through the gospel and by the church.

[32] Hoyt, Herman A. "Non-resistance" in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G Clouse, (Downers Grove, IVP, 1991), p.29-57

[33] Ibid, p.32. This is an odd inconsistency. If it is evil, then how can it be valid for Israel?

[34] Ibid, p.52

[35] Ausburger's Christian Pacificsm is similar, although he speaks of a "higher" understanding with the "unfolding" of revelation which sees the issue of war similar to that of slavery; a tolerated sin. Thus the use of force by the state may be providentially sanctioned, but it is ultimately "outside the perfection or will of Christ." Ausburger, Myron S. "Christian pacifism" in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G Clouse, (Downers Grove, IVP, 1991), p.85 This difference with Hoyt means that Ausburger sees any non-combatant involvement in war as invalid, whereas Hoyt seems to still sanctions it because war itself is not quite sin, but a lesser moral standard.

[36] As Holmes writes: “A Christian may be called to go a second mile in love, but grace neither supersedes nor abrogates the morality that is universally binding.” Holmes, Arthur F. “The Just War” in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G Clouse, (Downers Grove, IVP, 1991), p.105

[37] Giesler, Op Cit, p.230.

[38] Gen 9v1ff

[39] The same three roles are evident in 1 Pet 2v13-17. Where the validity of Christian involvement in the judiciary is established, a Christian may therefore fulfil these roles according to the OT principles above, whether as judge, policeman or centurion etc.

[40] Holmes, Op Cit, p.29-57

[41] See footnote 32.

[42] Deut 20v1-15 deals with war against “towns that are very far from you,” which do not require extermination. Yet here, non-combatants are affected.

[43] 1 Sam 2v22-36, Gen 3

[44] O’Donovan, Oliver. In pursuit of a Christian View of War, Grove booklet on ethics no. 15, (Nottingham, Grove Books, 1977), p.15-16

[45] Ibid, p.17

[46] Ibid, p.19. This is neither a “greater good,” nor “lesser evil” argument, but simply one that acknowledges the complexity involved in ensuring a just outcome of what may very well be just intent.

[47] Ibid, p.11 Government is established providentially, and so its existence in “actually exercising authority,” by whatever means, grants its responsibility.

[48] Ibid, p.23

[49] Nuclear weaponry would be self-damaging when used in ones own territory, and the only alternative would be defence by attacking the oppressors territory.

[50] Calvin, John. Institutes of Christian religion: Volume 2, ed. John T McNeill, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press), 4.XX.10, p.1498

[51] Rom 8v18ff.

[52] O’Donovan, Op Cit, p.10

[53] Carson, D. “Matthew” in The expositors bible commentary, ed. Frank E Gaebelein, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984), p.156. Just as in divorce being sanctioned for the hardness of heart under the old covenant, Mtt 19.

[54] Matt 5v17-20

[55] This better righteousness may be hinted at by v20.

[56] Murray, Op Cit, p.253-254. Cf. Rom 13v1

[57] Although the book of Revelation suggests that the influence of the devil and the unregenerate on it may be considerable.

[58] Murray writes that this must be done “in their capacity as citizens of the state, not as members of the church.” Ibid, p.255