War and the Christian Worldview: What Is Just War Theory?

soldier reading about the ethics of war

Part two in the seven-part series War and The Christian Worldview

Grand Canyon University integrates a Christian worldview into our curriculum and classroom discussions. This week, we look at the ethics of war from a biblical perspective as Dr. Paul Raabe discusses the moral principle behind the biblical view of Just War Theory.

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Below is a transcript of War and the Christian Worldview, episode 2, What Is Just War Theory:

I'm here to talk with you for a bit about just war. The old adage is true; war is hell. It brings loss of life, bloodshed. It destroys houses, buildings, villages, towns, farms. It forces people to have to leave their homes and flee for refuge elsewhere, run for their lives. It destroys enormous property.

Revelation 6 portrays war as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, along with conquering tyranny and famine and physical death itself. War brings devastation and we've all been watching this for over the last month, this war in Ukraine. So, we need to ask some basic Christian questions. Given that war brings bloodshed and death and all this misery, what do Christians say about it? Can Christians or Christian churches ever approve of a war?

And Christian theologians throughout the year have addressed this question and they said churches can approve a war only under certain circumstances, only when the war meets certain criteria, given that war is death and destruction. The great church father, Saint Augustine, started to articulate this, and he died in 430 AD, and he distinguished between jus ad bellum — right reasons for going to war, and jus in bello — right conduct in war. And he said, you know, a just war has to meet these criteria.

Moral Principles and Ethics of War

First a just war is a war that's the last resort. It is always preferable to have negotiations and diplomacy. This has to be a last resort. Second, a just war has to have a just cause. What's the cause? What's the reason for going to war? And is it just? It's a basic question. And generally speaking, a just cause is that it's a defensive war. You're protecting your property and people. Others can help in that protection, but it's basically a self-defense cause. A third criterion is, does it have a just goal, aim, purpose, intention? What's to issue forth from this? And there it's generally supposed to issue into a just peace between two nations. Fourth, are the costs and measures of the war proportionate to the cause? Not anything goes.

Fifth is the war legitimately authorized by a recognized legitimate authority, a legitimate government authority? So, for example gang fighting is not a just war. Those were the criteria they were laid out by Augustine and then Thomas Aquinas who died in the year 1274 AD developed these criteria even further. So, it's called the just war teaching. And Christians and churches have to ask about every war, this always has to be on the table, is this a just war?

If we look at this particular war, and it is a war, the whole world is watching this, we watch it we have video of it, we see satellite videos of tanks lined up for miles, we see the bombs destroying buildings, this is definitely a war, there is no doubt about it. Is this a just war? And it's clear; Russia's war against Ukraine, the Kremlin's war against Ukraine, the conclusion of this is as obvious as possible given the messiness of war. Russia's war against Ukraine is not a just war. Is Ukraine's fighting just? And the answer there is also as obvious as possible. Yes, Ukraine's fighting is just.

But the whole thing illustrates a bigger point and that is churches must never allow themselves to become an arm of a government's propaganda. Churches must never simply be a voice of nationalism. Churches have a higher allegiance. The higher allegiance of the Church is to the Lord God almighty, the maker of the heavens and the earth. The higher allegiance of the Church is the Lord Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, risen and exalted to the right-hand Lord over all nations.

The Church's higher allegiance is to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. The Church's higher allegiance is to the Lord of the nations and the Lord of our nation. So, I think there's a big thing at stake here and it's also a message for American churches. We must never allow ourselves to become simply part of the government's propaganda, simply an arm promoting a nation's nationalism.

We have a higher calling. It means, then, that whenever there's a war, anywhere in the world, including conducted by our own government, churches and Christians always have to ask this question, is this a just war? That question has to be on the radar, it has to be at the table.

Churches and Christians have to ask this question on every war; is this a just war? And we can go back to Augustine and Aquinas to relearn what the church's teaching is on just war. Now the second criterion is jus in bello — right conduct in the war. And basically, that means it's not excessive, minimal destruction, and that you don't target civilians. It's only to be targeted toward military.

So there's a concern for the reasons for going to war, there's a concern for the conduct in the war. Both are legitimate questions to be put on the table by churches, by Christians; is this a just war, is its cause just, is its aim just, is the conduct being conducted justly? These are legitimate questions, they always need to be at the table, on the radar. And so as we watch the horrors of this war, it kind of reminds us of this important traditional teaching, the church's teaching on just war.

And we pray; we pray to the Lord Jesus, who is exalted over all that he would restrain conquering tyranny, and war, and famine, and bloodshed; that He would establish civil righteousness in every land; that He would bring about a just peace between nations, and that He would open up avenues for the blessed gospel to spread into every land.

We pray to Jesus who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Thank you very much.

Read other blogs in this War and the Christian Worldview series and learn about theology and ministry degree programs offered by GCU's College of Theology today.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.