Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts, 1200-1740

Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts, 1200-1740

by James Turner Johnson


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The fundamental aims of this book are two: to explore the interaction between religion and secular society in the formation as well as the dissolution of just war doctrine; and to investigate just war doctrine as an ideological pattern of thought, expressive of a greater ideology.

The author reconstructs the development of classic just war doctrine, showing it to be a product of secular and religious forces. From it he traces the growth of the doctrines of holy war and of modern just war. He demonstrates that the blending of two distinct traditions in the late Middle Ages has its counterpart in the century following the Reformation. The secularized just war doctrine exemplified in the writings of Grotius, Locke, and Vattel are related to the problems of war in our time.

Originally published in 1975.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691617930
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1533
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.30(d)

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Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War

Religious and Secular Concepts, 1200-1740

By James Turner Johnson


Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07209-8


War for Church and for Prince in Late Medieval Just War Theory

Among those who have written on just war doctrine from the standpoint of theological ethics during the past twenty years a consensus exists as to what that doctrine, in its classic form, provides. There is first a jus ad helium, composed of the requirements that a just war be one fought on proper authority, for a just cause, and with a right intent, with the further requisite that the end of such war always be peace. Second in order, though not in importance, comes the jus in bello, which is alternately described as providing for noncombatant immunity and weapons restrictions, or as exhausting itself in the principles of proportionality (of use of force) and discrimination (in choice of those against whom force is used). To conceive the classic doctrine in this way is essentially correct, but it is incorrect to find the doctrine in this highly complete and sophisticated form in the writings of such seminal figures in the history of just war thought as Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. Nor is it correct to claim for the classic doctrine a parentage wholly Christian, if by "Christian" is meant "biblical," "theological," or "canonical." What recent writers rightly identify as just war doctrine in its fullest form was the result of forces from outside as well as within the walls of the medieval church; classic just war doctrine was a product of secular and religious forces together, and in this fact lay its function and its strength: its relevance for both personal and political morality during the age in which it reached full expression.

The two mistakes made by recent commentators (to regard the just war doctrine of the high Middle Ages and earlier as having the unity and sophistication of the classic doctrine they define, and to regard this classic doctrine as being uniquely the product of Christian thought) have their antecedents in the writings of earlier students of the just war. One of these, the French commentator Alfred Vanderpol, deserves a close look because of the degree of influence that his writings have had.

In one of his two major treatments of Catholic doctrine on war, La Doctrine scholastique du droit de guerre, Vanderpol summarizes as follows the history of this doctrine prior to the modern period:

... [T]here was professed in the Catholic Church, up until the seventeenth century, a doctrine of war of which St. Augustine had posed the principles, of which St. Thomas had given the formulas, and which can be summarized as follows:

The prince (or the people) that declares war acts as a magistrate under the jurisdiction of which a foreign nation falls, ratione delicti, by reason of a very grave fault, a crime which it has committed and for which it has not wished to make reparation. As the depository of authority to punish a guilty subject, he pronounces the sentence and acts to execute it in virtue of the right of punishment that he holds from God: "Minister enim Dei est, vindex in iram ei qui malum agit." ["He is the minister of God to execute his vengeance against him who does evil."] This passage makes clear two elements that Vanderpol thinks essential to the presence of a just war: an actual fault on one side, coupled with a pure act of vindicative justice in God's stead on the other. It is further Vanderpol's position that just war doctrine, as professed in the Catholic Church, is essentially all of one piece throughout the Middle Ages, until it begins to deteriorate in the early modern period, when part of the very core of the church's doctrine is excised by theorists outside the church who are not concerned with preserving continuity of doctrine.

Vanderpol's interpretation must be taken with utmost seriousness, because his is almost the only detailed study of scholastic just war doctrine available. But close attention should be paid to what he does not say as well as to what he says, for the limits of his reach have made for a narrow, if orthodox, content in what he has grasped. In the passage cited, as well as throughout his book, he is concerned only with Catholic doctrine; more specifically, he focuses principally upon the scholastic theologians, involving earlier Christian thinkers only because they provide the raw materials that the scholastics refine, and prolonging his investigation into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries only because the theorists he treats there (Victoria and Suarez chief among them) were themselves engaged in trying to recast scholastic modes of thought for their own time. By limiting himself so narrowly to scholastic war doctrine Vanderpol completely misses the impact of the other medieval streams of tradition that ultimately join with that of the church to produce just war doctrine in its most classic and complete form. Likewise the narrowness of his scope has made it necessary for him to speak as if there were but one just war doctrine in the period he treats, when in fact there were three positions, all related, that went by the name "just war doctrine": the modern doctrine, which began to be formulated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and which developed into secular international law; the post-Reformation holy war doctrine, in which the term "just war" is applied to what Roland Bainton and others have described under the term "crusade"; and the parent of them both, medieval just war doctrine, itself the product of two distinct traditions on war that can broadly be labeled as "churchly" and "secular." Far from being all of a piece, medieval just war doctrine was gradually constituted over several centuries out of elements of great diversity; moreover, this doctrine itself, on the surface so complete, contained the seeds of the bifurcation that was to take place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

At the center of both the constitution and the dissolution of classic just war doctrine lies the concept that Vanderpol named as fundamental to the idea of just war: that there must be a fault on one side and, on the other, an act of vindicative justice undertaken by prince or people acting as "minister of God." This concept has a twentieth-century parallel in the idea that war should not be fought unless it is in defense of one's own national rights or those of another nation threatened by the unjust aggression of a predatory power. It is possibly not entirely by accident that Vanderpol, a Frenchman, published his interpretation of medieval just war doctrine in 1919, when French feeling still ran high against Germany for having begun the war only recently and at great cost concluded. The idea that fault should be followed by vindicative justice was certainly characteristic of French opinion at the close of World War I. Likewise, there is no doubt that this was one of the central characteristics of the just war doctrine of the medieval church. But was it the central concept in the definition of that doctrine? The evidence suggests not. Rather, another idea must be placed alongside this one for a true appreciation of what constituted the specifically Christian medieval war doctrine. This second concept is that justice, being informed by charity, expresses itself through mercy and not only through vindication. The just war doctrine of the medieval church not only declared that princes and people may take up the cause of justice as ministers of God; it also set certain limits on what they might do in that capacity.

Three points should be kept in mind about this second characteristic of the churchly just war doctrine in the Middle Ages. First, it provided an internal constraint within the doctrine itself on the theme of vindicative justice. Left to itself this latter idea could easily become a basis for a kind of obligatory war: wherever there is fault, the godly prince should go to war to avenge it. This is precisely what happened in the birth of holy war doctrine in the aftermath of the Reformation. There the themes of fault and vindicative justice were magnified, as the next chapter shows, by being made, respectively, into offense against God and defense of true religion. In the most radical holy war proponents, the theme of limitation was almost completely lost. On the other hand, in conscious reaction against holy war tendencies, the modern just war doctrine, which began to develop in the sixteenth century, played down the themes of fault and vindicative justice and stressed the limits of what can be done in a just cause. Because of these opposing tendencies the bifurcation of classic just war doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can be conceived as the pulling apart of two characteristics — vindication and mercy — that had existed together in medieval just war doctrine.

Without the characteristic of restraint in the church's war doctrine there would have been no room for the development of a jus in bello. Zeal for vindication of harm done implies strict prosecution of the war effort and does not appear to leave room for truces, humane treatment of prisoners of war, and general respect for the rights and persons of noncombatants. It is in fact the case, as I show below, that the churchly just war doctrine as it began to take definite shape in the thirteenth century had only a rudimentary and truncated jus in bello. Nevertheless, the germ was there, and it requires us to recognize that this doctrine was concerned with limiting the ravages of war as well as with compelling godly folk into battle against wrongdoers.

Third, and related to the second point, the theme of restraint in the churchly doctrine provides the vehicle by which secular medieval just war doctrine is amalgamated with churchly to produce, by the end of the Middle Ages, a just war doctrine in what we today would identify as classic form: a complete and sophisticated doctrine including both jus ad bellum and jus in bello, as described above. This is not to say there has been no further development since the classic doctrine took shape but rather that before the end of the Middle Ages there was no unified and complete doctrine dealing with both the resort to war and the waging of war. The jus in bello especially was to see further change in the direction of fullness and explicitness; by the sixteenth century it comprised only a fairly inclusive list of noncombatants and certain other limits on what could be done even to the combatants against whom one was fighting. The three main requirements in the jus ad bellum of the classic doctrine come straight from Augustine via Thomas Aquinas and the code of canon law; the two parts of the jus in bello, conversely, come mainly from the residue of the chivalric code and developing European custom on the fighting of wars expressed in a growing body of "common law" or jus gentium. (I set aside "common law" to avoid confusion with the English common law tradition; the medieval jus gentium is not related to the English common law, but in both the way they came into being — out of common custom — and in their functioning the two traditions are similar.)

One of the chief aims of this present chapter is to investigate this amalgamation of churchly and secular war doctrines into one. Were the former conceived as having only to do with the vindication of fault, it might still be possible to show that the churchly and secular traditions did come together, but it would be impossible to understand much of how or why the amalgamation took place. The limitation of cruelty against enemies, which is characteristic of Christian thought on war as far back as Augustine, provides, in the late Middle Ages, the opening into which the two secular traditions on jus in bello fed, thereby expanding and making more explicit the church's doctrine, with the result that by the end of the Middle Ages there is a single, unified just war doctrine.

In this chapter three separate but related investigations are conducted. There is first the matter of how the church's own particular just war doctrine came into being in the high Middle Ages, what it provided, and what diversity characterized the interpretation of its provisions. Second, the same questions must be asked regarding the development of secular just war doctrine. And third, the points of contact between the churchly and secular doctrines must be explored to explain why and how the doctrines came together. There is finally a fourth question, to which all three of these investigations help to contribute the answer: why did classic just war doctrine come to pieces shortly after it reached full expression, and why did the split, when it occurred, come on grounds of religion (or particularist ideology) versus the natural (or a generalist ideology)?


Christian just war doctrine goes back at least to Augustine; since Augustine takes pains to base his own position in evidence drawn from the Bible, it can be argued that there is a just war doctrine in the Bible. But it is not until recently that the attempt has been made to base a full-blown doctrine on his writings. For the theorists of the early modern period it was not the teaching of the Bishop of Hippo that was most important, but rather the just war doctrine as they inherited it, in its classic form, shaped over all the intervening centuries since Augustine's time, but particularly given form by canonists and theologians in the immediately preceding three hundred years. Though no one in that period used the term, it is meaningful to think of a "benchmark" in just war doctrine placed to mark the thirteenth century, when serious attention began to be given to the problem of consolidating and clarifying the church's position on war. Composing this benchmark are two documents, the Corpus Juris Canonici or code of canon law, which included the Decretals of Gratian and further compilations of law done under Pope Gregory IX; and the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Of these it is undoubtedly Thomas' Summa that has best stood the test of time, for he is still cited as a source for twentieth-century just war doctrine. But in the immediate medieval context it is Gratian's Decretals that stand out; here Augustine's teaching is repeated in capsule form — even Aquinas may have drawn his understanding of Augustine's teaching from Gratian. Here also is the first successful attempt at a consolidated canon law. Both the theological and the legal streams of thought on justice in war in the late Middle Ages seem ultimately to flow from Gratian.

The Corpus Juris Canonici and the Summa Theologica together form a benchmark in the church's war doctrine because of their position in regard both to what had gone before and to what was to come. These documents drew (as best as possible) into coherence the fragments of war doctrine taught in the name of the church during the disorder of the previous centuries, all the way back to Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century. From these documents flow two intermingled but fundamentally distinct streams of thought that shape just war doctrine during the rest of the Middle Ages: scholastic theology and canon law. This latter stream, indeed, is also intermingled with that of secular law, an increasingly important factor in the late fourteenth century and throughout the fifteenth century. But for now our concern must be focused on the development of the church's doctrine only. Even among Protestant theorists in the immediate post-Reformation era, such as those treated in the next two chapters, this doctrine, the common possession of Christendom for centuries, provided the basis of thought about justice in war — though the diversity and ambiguity of the doctrine meant that they would almost of necessity develop it in many different directions. Medieval thinking, moreover, conditioned both the English Protestants who formulated a theory of holy war and the Spanish Catholics who initiated the move to modern international law. It is the development of just war doctrine by medieval canonists and theologians, then, that must be investigated at this point.


Excerpted from Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War by James Turner Johnson. Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • CHAPTER I. War for Church and for Prince in Late Medieval Just War Theory, pg. 26
  • CHAPTER II. From Just War to Holy War Rationale in English Thought, pg. 81
  • CHAPTER III. The Beginnings of a Secular Just War Doctrine, pg. 150
  • CHAPTER IV. Secularized Just War Doctrine: Grotius, Locke, and Vattel, pg. 208
  • EPILOGUE. Ideological and Non-ideological Restraints on War, pg. 259
  • INDEX, pg. 287

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