Yoder on Peace and War in the Middle Ages

John Howard Yoder’s Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution (Brazos, 2009) is a posthumously published, edited version of the notes Yoder distributed for his course in the subject.

In chapter 8 ‘The Career of the Just War’ and chapter 9 ‘The Peace Dimension of Medieval Moral Concern’, I am startled by his analysis of peace and war in the middle ages – but then, being startled is one of the joys of reading Yoder, and something I should have expected by now. He is always re-reading and reframing things we take for granted.

The early church was pacifist; the Constantinian church compromised this position, but Yoder describes various ways in which violence and war were restrained in the Middle Ages (476-1453), and parts of the church embodied a peace witness. These include:

  • Holy times and places – fighting was forbidden in certain places (cemeteries) and at certain times (Good Friday, after sunset)
  • Penitents – when a person confessed to a major offence, they might commit several months of their life around being a penitent, perhaps going on a pilgrimage as a penitent. A penitent was to be nonviolent and unarmed. ‘In the life of medieval Europe, therefore, people renouncing violence because they were Christian were a visible minority.’ (p.119)
  • Priests admonished princes when they went too far. There was an element of accountability.

Yoder argues that the shifts involved in the Reformation actually increased the church’s support of war:

Protestants have been taught to think of the Reformation of the sixteenth century as undoing the mistakes of the Middle Ages – papacy, sacraments, justification by works, and other things. But on the morality of war, our model for interpreting the Reformation has to be turned around. The Protestant Reformation goes further in the direction of making war acceptable. (115)

  • The Reformation dismantled the confession and penance, both of which restrained bloodshed.
  • The Reformation desacralized the world – everything was equally holy, or equally unholy; there were no holy places or holy times to avoid bloodshed.
  • Instead of the priest admonishing the prince, the chaplain emerges: ‘In the Reformation, the Protestant chaplain increasingly gives a religious mandate to what people do, whether it is celebrating marriages or justifying causes and crusades… The preachers are the people to make the case for the next war.’ (p.119)
  • The Reformation created nationalism as we know it today. Wars in the Middle Ages occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. Both parties ‘were at home in the same world, had the same moral heritage, and used the same yardsticks. They had a sense of being part of a wider civilization… The Reformation broke up the unity of the church and of the empire. It set aside the notion that enemy nations and adversary institutions have a claim on us. The beginning of nationalism in the modern sense – the notion that a nation constitutes a moral unit with no accountability to a wider community or culture – is a product of the Protestant Reformation.’ (p. 120-121)

    The obvious objection is the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Yoder spends a couple of pages dealing with them, but not with the same questions we have in mind, and so his explanation is not satisfactory. He looks at how the Crusades were justified by priests (and the limits – not always followed – which they placed on them) and the sense in which the Crusades were a synthesis of the holy war and the just war. He seems unaware of the damage the existence of the Crusades do to his case for the Middle Ages being a period where the church’s understanding of just war and its practices restrained war.

    However, the value of these chapters is as a corrective to the generalisations we tend to make about period of histories, including the assumption amongst evangelicals that the Reformation was purely and simply a turn for the better. It is also an instructive study of the ways in which, in the midst of a church which is not pacifist, we might hope for restraints on war and violence and practices which promote peace.



    5 thoughts on “Yoder on Peace and War in the Middle Ages

    1. Hey Nathan,

      I always find Yoder fascinating, but I must confess his own reading of church history I find difficult to sustain at points. Several issues with which I struggle are:

      1. We can’t make the generalization that the early church was pacifist. This is too problematic, as has been shown time and again from the primary sources.

      2. To say that the reformation increased the attitude to war is an incredible statement to make, and I don’t know how that could be proved. It is remarkable that Yoder could say such as a an historian. Moreover, I would want to greatly question it.

      3. I don’t know anyone who would say that everything about the Reformation was good.

      4. The Anabaptists of 16th century need to be questioned on their own view of society generally. They weren’t all pacifist (a al Munster). And those who were, tended to be anti-society, they bowed out of contributing to secular society. It isn’t as simple as them saying that the Anabaptists believed in separation of church and state. In this way, I struggle to see how neo-Anabaptist is actually connected to the original Anabaptist movement.

      5. The Anabaptist claim that Christian ethics is to be based on the teaching of Jesus unlike the reformers is problematic. The reformers also sought to do the same. Look at how much they wrote on the sermon on the Mount. The difference is that the reformers wanted a Christian ethic on the entire NT, not just the life of Christ.

      6. The early church developed a strongly hierarchical church with bishops, and archbishops. It was not the free congregational vision of church.

      7. Yoder’s understanding of the change that Contstantine ushered into the church is problematic. It wasn’t that long before the Barbarian invasions in the West dismantled the emperor, and hence the church’s supposed relationship to the state. The emporer was supposed revived again in 800 (Charlemagne). The real changes happened under Hilderbrand in the 11th century (Gregory 7th).

      Finally, what do we with do with Yoder’s own dark side of seducing his female students over a number of years? It’s a difficult question that no-one seems to want to address.

      Just my 5c worth.



    2. Dear Marty,
      1. Yoder makes a strong case for the early church being basically pacifist. I know he has some prominent opponents here. He reads the church’s attitude to soldiers and war right into the middle ages as something like the church’s attitude to divorce today – individual cases tolerated; the practice seen as falling short of the ideal. (Why else do we still not like our priests to shoot people in wars?)
      2. Carrying on in this vein, I think Yoder would argue that the church acted as a restraint on war and violence in the Middle Ages, but the Reformation shifted the nature of the state and church so that the priest/chaplain was now a cheerleader for the prince defending the state’s interests. He also means the Reformation swept away the various ‘works’ based rituals/sacraments which restrained war.
      3. I don’t know any scholars who would, but I know heaps of lay people who do.
      4. That question of the Anabaptist and the state goes beyond the scope of this question; Yoder is only tracing the history of just war theory here. But as you hint, there was diversity amongst the Anabaptists – including the important example of Pilgram Marpeck, employed as a city engineer and seeking the peace of the city. I think Yoder stands very much in continuity with the Anabaptists and is not anti-society – see Body Politics for his insistence that the practices of the church are for the good of the world.
      5. Agreed – the Reformers didn’t ignore the teachings of Jesus, although I suspect they trumped them. But for Anabaptists, the teaching and life of Jesus are the highpoint of the Bible.
      6. I would argue that the strongly hierarchical church represents a falling away from Jesus and the primitive churches. Obviously, others argue that it was either a necessary development or a fortunate evolution. Including many Baptists today, effectively, by endorsing CEO style governance.
      7. Yoder never simplistically blames Constantine as the be-all and end-all. He talks in a couple of places how he uses it as a convenient label and important symbol of a shift in church-state relations that started before Constantine and culminated after. I think most people would agree that we can at least see a significant shift with Constantine’s conversion.

      Yoder’s dark side seems to be one of the things he is best known for – Politics of Jesus, and sexual misconduct. Hauerwas spend several pages on it in his memoir. It was the opening topic at one symposium on Yoder. What are we to do about it? He repented and submitted to a discipline process. Should we place an asterix next to everything he said? Forgive him and not mention it any more? Forgive him and mention it occasionally?

      I don’t actually know. I might write about it to explore the question. I have one close friend who won’t listen to a word Yoder says because of it. I suspect this is not the right response, if we are to truly be a people of forgiveness and grace.

    3. Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for the great discussion on Yoder’s view of peace and war in the middle ages.

      Yoder might be known for two things: the Politics of Jesus and his sexual misconduct.

      On the latter, I do not know the details of the story. I prefer to look for the best in others as persons created in the image or likeness of God.

      After all, we all have a dark side and what makes sexual miscoduct a greater sin than say gossip. One is harmful to marriage and the other harmful to a person’s reputation.

      Yoder confessed his wrong doing and submitted himself to discipline as you mentioned and I think that we need to forgive.

      I do not think that Yoder’s misconduct invalidates what Yoder has written and his writings need to be judged on their merit. I am sorry for your friend’s attitude since there is much worthy of serious consideration in Yoder’s theology.

      It is several years since Yoder passed away. Let us praise God for the inspiring writings of Yoder and for God’s wonderful grace which he bestows on us and which he bestowed on brother Yoder. Its time to forgive and forget. God has cast all our sins into a sea of forgetfulness.

      Thanks for your comments and for the great dialogue you have begun here with Marty.


      John Arthur

    4. For the issue of the emergence of the state and its relationship to the Reformation there has been some good work done on this since Yoder. William Cavanaugh’s book the Myth of Religious Violence has a chapter on this issue.

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