Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Church Fathers and Capital Punishment: Tertullian

TERTULLIAN, THE FIRST of the Latin Church Fathers, is frequently invoked as witness that the early Church viewed capital punishment as a moral offense. Tertullian's death penalty views are found in a number of his extant texts, including his On the Crown, On Idolatry, and On the Resurrection of the Flesh, and On the Soul. We will gather together these various references, and try to come to some conclusion on Tertullian's global view concerning the moral liciety of the death penalty justly applied.

Before turning to the texts themselves, we might observe that reliance upon Tertullian as evidence of the early Church witness against capital punishment may be an undue conclusion. Even the tendentious James Megivern, drawing on the work of Bernhard Schöpf,* concedes the following tentative and ambivalent conclusion regarding Tertullian:
[Tertullian's] brief passages are hardly adequate for drawing general conclusions. It is tempting** to read them as indicating total opposition to any kind of killing as such, and much of the later Christian pacifist literature has interpreted them this way. But such a reading may go beyond what is warranted by the texts . . . .
Likewise, E. Christian Bruggers concedes that Tertullian accepts the institution of capital punishment, though he certainly rails against the manner in which it is applied, and he is uncompromising against the Pagan and idolatrous judicial and military institutions which wield that power.***

Mosaic of Tertullian

Let us start with Tertullian's On Idolatry (De Idolatria). In that work, Tertullian has a chapter on military service, and therein he appears to condemn Christian involvement in the military on account of the requirement of an oath to the Emperor, participation in Pagan sacrifices, and on account of the participation in capital punishment:
But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices [immolationum] or capital punishments [capitalium iudiciorum]. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Cæsar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unarmed every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.†
De Idol., XIX.

Now the position taken by Tertullian in this text against any kind of compatibility the Christian calling and a military career seems peremptory and absolute. Contrary to Hyppolitus's Apostolic Traditions, Tertullian's objections appear to be based upon moral grounds, specifically upon Christian revelation. He distinguishes the Old Testament from the New Testament, and insists that Christ has taken away the sword of justice from the Christian, and, at least so long as that sword is in the hands of a pagan Caesar who requires idolatrous oaths and sinful obeisance, he may not take it up again.

This extreme position may be explained by Tertullian's horror with respect to the oath or sacramentum that a soldier had to give Caesar. Such oaths typically invoked the pagan Gods, Jove or Jupiter, or by the genius or divine or guardian spirit of the Emperor, and would be clearly unacceptable to the Christian.†† It may also be explained by the fact that the military was at the front line of enforcing the anti-Christian laws. It would be foolish, then, to accept the military into the sanctuary of the Church as the military sacramentum would conflict with his Christian sacramentum.

Still, one can take the position that Tertullian's argument goes further than this, and that, regardless of the oaths and sacrifices demanded by the existing State, the Christian is prohibited from spilling blood and sitting in judgment. It is not implausible to suggest that Tertullian may be arguing that the Christian may never against hold the sword of justice or the sword of war, but that it will forever be in the hands of others. This would make Tertullian a sort of Quaker or Albigensian avant la lettre. If construed in this manner, Christians would have to forgo any career that uses force, and not only any position in the military, but also that of judge, prosecutor, law officer, and executioner. Indeed, this seems to be Tertullian's very conclusion in Chapter 17 of the same work, where he also teaches that Christians cannot hold public office which requires them to sit "in judgment on any one's life or character," or make judgments that are "about money," and shun any office which requires them to condemn, bind, imprison, or torture anyone.

The extreme position that Tertullian takes on military and judicial service in On Idolatry is somewhat softened in his work De Corona. In his De Corona, he seems to take a disciplinary approach more like St. Hyppolitus in that he allows for soldiers to be baptized as Christians so long as they abstain from killing, but he forbids any Christian from becoming a soldier.
To begin with the real ground of the military crown, I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. What sense is there in discussing the merely accidental, when that on which it rests is to be condemned? Do we believe it lawful for a human oath to be superadded to one divine, for a man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mother, and all nearest kinsfolk, whom even the law has commanded us to honour and love next to God Himself, to whom the gospel, too, holding them only of less account than Christ, has in like manner rendered honour? 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? Shall he, forsooth, either keep watch-service for others more than for Christ, or shall he do it on the Lord's day, when he does not even do it for Christ Himself? And shall he keep guard before the temples which he has renounced? And shall he take a meal where the apostle has forbidden him? And shall he diligently protect by night those whom in the day-time he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear the while with which Christ's side was pierced? Shall he carry a flag, too, hostile to Christ? And shall he ask a watchword from the emperor who has already received one from God? Shall he be disturbed in death by the trumpet of the trumpeter, who expects to be aroused by the angel's trump? And shall the Christian be burned according to camp rule, when he was not permitted to burn incense to an idol, when to him Christ remitted the punishment of fire? Then how many other offences there are involved in the performances of camp offices, which we must hold to involve a transgression of God's law, you may see by a slight survey. The very carrying of the name over from the camp of light to the camp of darkness is a violation of it. Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept. Neither does military service hold out escape from punishment of sins, or exemption from martyrdom. Nowhere does the Christian change his character. There is one gospel, and the same Jesus, who will one day deny every one who denies, and acknowledge every one who acknowledges God,--who will save, too, the life which has been lost for His sake; but, on the other hand, destroy that which for gain has been saved to His dishonour. With Him the faithful citizen is a soldier, just as the faithful soldier is a citizen. A state of faith admits no plea of necessity; they are under no necessity to sin, whose one necessity is, that they do not sin. For if one is pressed to the offering of sacrifice and the sheer denial of Christ by the necessity of torture or of punishment, yet discipline does not connive even at that necessity; because there is a higher necessity to dread denying and to undergo martyrdom, than to escape from suffering, and to render the homage required. In fact, an excuse of this sort overturns the entire essence of our sacrament, removing even the obstacle to voluntary sins; for it will be possible also to maintain that inclination is a necessity, as involving in it, forsooth, a sort of compulsion. I have, in fact, disposed of this very allegation of necessity with reference to the pleas by which crowns connected with official position are vindicated, in support of which it is in common use, since for this very reason offices must be either refused, that we may not fall into acts of sin, or martyrdoms endured that we may get quit of offices. Touching this primary aspect of the question, as to the unlawfulness even of a military life itself, I shall not add more, that the secondary question may be restored to its place. Indeed, if, putting my strength to the question, I banish from us the military life, I should now to no purpose issue a challenge on the matter of the military crown. Suppose, then, that the military service is lawful, as far as the plea for the crown is concerned.
De corona, XI.†††

In the sixteenth chapter of his On the Resurrection of the Flesh (De Resurrectione Carnis), Tertullian, speaking of the Final Judgment, speaks of the cup of everlasting salvation, a cup which those who have abused the flesh will not enjoy. Using the cup of their flesh for evil, they poison their own souls. "I will not take the poisoned one, into which some certain death is injected, but one which has been infected with the breath of a lascivious woman, or of Cybele's priest, or of a gladiator, or of a hangman." Tertullian implies that those who wield the punishment of the sword,"which is drunk with the blood of the brigand's victims," should be banished from heavenly joys. This sort of man, Tertullian states, would be disinvited from our own bed rooms, from our own pillows since he would be plagued by the furies of those souls "disquieting him for lying down with the blade which shed their own blood."‡ How much more ought he be disinvited from heaven?

Tertullian's disdain for the military and judicial offices--those that carried with it the potential of using the power of the sword, either in judgment or in execution--should not, however, be construed as being witness against capital punishment per se. The reason for this is that his statements must be construed within the context of other statements where Tertullian gives unapologetic support for capital punishment as a just penalty.

We may for example turn to Tertullian's On the Soul (De Anima). In Chapter 56 of this work, Tertullian describes the Homeric theory of the soul in Hades, and in so doing, he distinguishes between souls who have suffered unjust violence, and those who have suffered death at the hand of justice:

Hence those souls must be accounted as passing an exile in Hades, which people are apt to regard as carried off by violence, especially by cruel tortures, such as those of the cross, and the axe, and the sword, and the lion; but we do not account those to be violent deaths which justice awards, that avenger of violence.

De anim., 56.‡‡

When all these texts are taken together, Tertullian's harsh words against the Pagan judicial and military institutions and their exercise of capital punishment may be construed to be a condemnation of their Pagan basis and unjust application, and not a condemnation of the exercise of capital punishment if justly applied by non-Pagan institutions. The government and military administrations were simply too tied to the Pagan foundations which required oaths to false goods and undue submission to the will of a Caesar or military commander who required a sort of seal or sacramentum of total obedience. Moreover, the institution of capital punishment was unjustly applied, in particular to Christians who were guilty of no crime. Given a civil government which applied the death penalty unjustly against Christian innocents and in vicious and brutal ways, no wonder Tertullian excoriates the entire package and demands that Christians not participate in this vile mix.

Tertullian's thinking would, for example, apply to a Catholic who wished to volunteer for Hitler's Schutzstaffel (SS), with its neo-Pagan ideology and its participation in rank injustice against innocents who were classified as enemies of the State. What bishop or parish priest would not rail similarly against a Catholic who was contemplating joining such a vile institution?

Tertullian therefore cannot be used to suggest that, in a Christian or at least secular situation where capital punishment is justly applied, such prohibitions against military and judicial service would continue. And in fact, after the persecution against the Church desisted and Constantine lifted the sanctions against the Church, one sees Christians actively participating in both government and the military without any qualms of conscience.
*James J. Megivern, The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 22.
**Tempting? This choice of words is evidence of Megivern's pacifist and anti-death penalty bias inasmuch as one would not be tempted to construe Tertullian's words anyway unless one was result-oriented.
***E. Christian Brugger,
Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition (Notredame University Press, 2003), 77.
†XIX. [1] Possit in isto capitulo etiam de militia definitum uideri, quae inter dignitatem et potestatem est. At nunc de isto quaeritur, an fidelis ad militiam conuerti possit et an militia ad fidem admitti, etiam caligata uel inferior quaeque, cui non sit necessitas immolationum uel capitalium iudiciorum. [2] Non conuenit sacramento diuino et humano, signo Christi et signo diaboli, castris lucis et castris tenebrarum; non potest una anima duobus deberi, deo et Caesari. Et uirgam portauit Moyses, fibulam et Aaron, cingitur loro et Iohannes, agmen agit et Iesus Naue, bellauit et populus, si placet ludere. [3] Quomodo autem bellabit, immo quomodo etiam in pace militabit sine gladio, quem dominus abstulit ? Nam etsi adierant milites ad Iohannem et formam obseruationis acceperant, si etiam centurio crediderat, omnem postea militem dominus in Petro exarmando discinxit. Nullus habitus licitus est apud nos illicito actui adscriptus.
††See The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, Vol. I (s.v. oaths) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 85. When the Emperor became Christian, the form of these oats was changed to "by God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the majesty of the emperor." (citing Vegetius 2.5).
†††11. [1] Etenim, ut ipsam causam coronae militaris aggrediar, puto prius conquirendum an in totum christianis militia conueniat. Quale est alioquin de accidentibus retractare, cum a praecedentibus culpa sit ? Credimusne humanum sacramentum diuino superduci licere, et in alium dominum respondere post Christum, et eierare patrem ac matrem et omnem proximum, quos et lex honorari et post Deum diligi praecepit, quos et euangelium, solum Christum pluris faciens, sic quoque honorauit? [2] Licebit in gladio conuersari, Domino pronuntiante gladio periturum qui gladio fuerit usus ? Et proelio operabitur filius pacis, cui nec litigare conueniet? Et uincula et carcerem et tormenta et supplicia administrabit, nec suarum ultor iniuriarum? [3] Iam et stationes aut aliis magis faciet quam Christo, aut
et dominico die, quando nec Christo ? Et excubabit pro templis quibus renuntiauit? Et cenabit illic, ubi apostolo non placet? Et quos interdiu exorcismis fugauit, noctibus defensabit, incumbens et requiescens super pilum quo perfossum est latus Christi? Vexillum quoque portabit aemulum Christi? Et signum postulabit a principe, qui iam a Deo accepit? Mortuus etiam tuba inquietabitur aeneatoris, qui excitari a tuba angeli expectat? Et cremabitur ex disciplina castrensi christianus, cui cremari
non licuit, cui Christus merita ignis indulsit? [4] Quanta alibi inlicita circumspici possunt castrensium munium, transgressioni interpretanda! Ipsum de castris lucis in castra tenebrarum nomen deferre transgressionis est. Plane, si quos militia praeuentos fides posterior inuenit, alia condicio est, ut illorum quos Iohannes admittebat ad lauacrum, ut centurionum fidelissimorum quem Christus probat et quem Petrus catechizat, dum tamen, suscepta fide atque signata, aut deserendum statim sit, ut a multis actum, aut omnibus modis cauillandum, ne quid aduersus Deum committatur quae nec extra militiam permittuntur, aut nouissime perpetiendum pro Deo, quod aequefides pagana condixit.[5] Nec enim delictorum impunitatem aut martyriorum immunitatem militia promittit. Nusquam christianus aliud est, unum euangelium et idem : Iesus negaturus omnem negatorem et confessurus omnem confessorem, et saluam facturus animam pro nomine eius amissam, perditurus autem
de contrario aduersus nomen eius lucri habitam. Apud hunc tam miles est paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles fidelis. [6] Non admittit status fidei necessitates. Nulla est necessitas delinquendi, quibus una est necessitas non delinquendi. Nam et ad sacrificandum et directo negandum necessitate quis premitur tormentorum
siue poenarum. Tamen nec illi necessitati disciplina coniuet, quia potior est necessitas timendae negationis et obeundi martyrii quam euadendae passionis et implendi officii. [7] Ceterum subuertit totam substantiam sacramenti causatio eiusmodi, ut etiam uoluntariis delictis fibulam laxet. Nam et uoluntaspoterit necessitas contendi, habens scilicet unde cogatur uel ipsa. Haec praestruxerim et ad ceteras officialium coronarum causas, quibus familiarissima est aduocatio necessitatis, cum idcirco aut officia fugienda sunt ne delictis incidamus, aut martyria toleranda sunt ut officia rumpamus. De prima specie quaestionis, etiam militiae ipsius inlicitae, plura non faciam, ut secunda reddatur, ne, si omni ope expulero militiam, frustra iam de corona militari prouocarim. Puta denique licere militiam usque ad causam coronae.
‡Et tamen calicem, non dico venenarium in quem mors aliqua ructuarit, sed frictricis vel archigalli vel gladiatoris aut carnificis spiritu infectum, quaero an minus damnes quam oscula ipsorum. Nostris quoque sordibus nubilum vel non pro animo temperatum elidere solemus quo magis puero irascamur: gladium vero latrociniis ebrium quis non a domo tota, nedum a cubiculo, nedum a capitis sui officio relegabit, praesumens scilicet nihil aliud se quam invidiam animarum somniaturum urguentium et inquietantium sanguinis sui concubinum? [8] At enim et calix bene sibi conscius et de diligentia ministri commendatus de coronis quoque potatoris sui inornabitur aut aspergine florum honorabitur, et gladius bene de bello cruentus et melior homicida laudem suam consecratione pensabit. [9] 'Estne ergo et in vascula et in instrumenta sententiam figere, ut dominorum et auctorum meritis et ipsa communicent?'
‡‡Proinde extorres inferum habebuntur quas ui ereptas arbitrantur, praecipue per atrocitates suppliciorum, crucis dico et securis et gladii et ferae; nec isti porro exitus uiolenti quos iustitia decernit, uiolentiae uindex.


  1. Just a quibble.

    Why always use Hitler as an example? Why don't people ever use Stalin or Mao? Why do not people ask that Christians do not participate in a Marxist government or a Marxist army? How many Christians entered into the Abraham Lincoln brigade of the Reds in the Spanish Civil War?

    If one read Hitler's second book, he spoke directly at the cause of the animosity he bore to the Jews AND the Freemasons. They were internationalists and hence they would be disloyal and treasonous to their body politic.

    If a man commits treason, commits existential treason and betrayal by preaching political correctness, multiculturalism, globalization, and internationalism, diverstiy, is that not treason? And does not the act of Treason command the Death penalty?

    If the Old Testament sanctioned and condoned group punishment, why the angst?

    By the constant quoting and referencing of Hitler, we are skewing reality and directing attention to what the Jews want us to only concentrate on and remember. The point being where is the constant remembrance and concentration and bringing to mind Marxism/Communism/Boslevism/International Socialism and all of its crimes? Marxism being a Jewish ideology. Communism/International Socialism that carries with it an existential genocidal ideology.

    I think we need to drop the Hitler references. If there was no Marxism, there would have been no Hitler. Who was planning what genocide before who? A people who plan to commit genocide should have the crime turned back upon their heads.

  2. The reason, I would suppose, is that Hitler confronted at least nominally a Catholic Christian civil society, something neither Mao nor Stalin confronted (though Stalin did face the opposition of the Russian Orthodox). Westerners are familiar with Hitler's injustice, his neo-Paganism, and so he lends himself, especially in this context, to analogy.
    I assure you, I have no problems dumping on Mao or Marx (or Lenin, or Pol Pot, or Napoleon, or Muhammad, a whole host of other tyrants).
    But you ain't gonna find any sympathy in me for Hitler.