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  • Augustine on War and Military Service by Phillip Wynn
  • John Rist
Augustine on War and Military Service. By Phillip Wynn. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2013. Pp. x, 363. $49.00 paperback. ISBN 978-1-4514-6473-3.)

This book’s title fails to indicate its full range, since Phillip Wynn has written an account of Christian attitudes to service of the state, and especially to military service, from the earliest Christian days down to St. Augustine, also adding some indication of how something more like a modern just-war theory came later to be attributed to Augustine himself. He distinguishes between the views of Christian rigorists, who objected to all state service, and accommodationists, who even before [End Page 603] Constantine were willing to undertake both civil and military service, despite the warnings of such as Tertullian and Origen against Christians polluting themselves by the shedding of blood. In general, he makes a good case about just war—there is certainly no Augustinian “theory”—but he is inclined to overreach himself: a generously unambiguous distinction between Augustine’s implicit and localized attitude, and the explicit and more generalized theories of later theologians and canonists, would have helped out. But Wynn is certainly right not only to point out that in late Latin the word militia applies to both civil and military service but also that the moral distinction between civil and military service might be less marked than is immediately apparent, since execution and torture were part of the civil code of justice as administered in Augustine’s time by public officials, including bishops.

Wynn’s strength lies in his placing Augustine within his historical and pastoral context, which reveals his concerns as very different from those of medieval just-war theorists. He hates war, as Wynn emphasizes, but finds it sometimes necessary; although virtually all wars will to a degree, in our fallen world, be unjust, some are less unjust than others. But perhaps Augustine’s chief problem, not least in the Contra Faustum, lies in explaining, especially to the Manichaeans, that the God-promoted, if genocidal, wars of Moses, Joshua, and other Old Testament worthies, are indeed just—which means, as Wynn sees, that only wars promoted by God or by those in tune with God’s wishes can be recognized as such. (The problem, of course, became perennial, and continuing Christian inability to solve it was one of the reasons in the eighteenth century for rejecting the Christian God as immoral).

A final point—at times indicated by Wynn—reveals Augustine’s attitude both to warfare and to the frequent executions that, as noted above, formed a regular part of civilian life: the soldier (and the executioner) are just obeying orders, as they should, and—despite Augustine’s view of executioners as the scum of the earth—he thought that such obedience was the only way to preserve the good order of society in the darkness of social life. For officers and senior civilians, of course, things are very different: they will indeed be held accountable by God, even for doing things qua officials that will cause them deep regret.

There might appear to be exceptions to this attitude toward obedience. In On Free Choice Augustine argues that unjust laws should not be obeyed, but in the light of the Christian tradition going back to St. Paul that rulers are maintained and tolerated by God and thus should be obeyed, that text should probably only be read as insisting that laws restricting the Christian religion are unjust and should not be obeyed: a limitation that has also enjoyed an unfortunate afterlife. [End Page 604]

John Rist
Cambridge, UK


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