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What is the proper attitude of the Christian with respect to the wars of the world, to war as such; may the Christian ever actively participate in war; may he ever refuse to serve in war when his country calls him?

On these questions we wrote a few articles in our Standard Bearer about four years ago.

The practical interest and significance of them appears much more real today, now another war broke out in Europe, and we do not know as yet how the conflagration may spread.

And now we learn from The Calvin Forum that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches adopted a resolution in the form of a “Testimony” to the churches and to Christians in general, and which is presumably an answer to the above questions concerning the proper Christian attitude toward war. And the entire “Testimony” is published in the October number of the above named paper.

The editor, Dr. C. Bouma, informs us that he is the original author of the resolution or “Testimony”; that it was adopted by a synodical committee consisting of the members of the Calvin Seminary Faculty; and that it was, finally, unanimously adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches.

Dr. Bouma invites “comment and criticism.” He states that “the pages of The Calvin Forum will be open to anyone who has a contribution to make to the discussion of this subject, whether he agrees or disagrees with the testimony.”

This rather surprised us in view of the fact that the “Testimony” was officially adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches, and bears the official stamp of an ecclesiastical declaration. True, it is merely a “Testimony to the Churches.” But this does not alter the fact that the document is a synodical declaration and that in it we find certain views on war and related subjects, and certain interpretations of Scripture and of the Confessions; and these have now officially been adopted and stamped as the views of the Churches. And that is the reason why the invitation of the editor of The Calvin Forum to “comment and criticism” surprised us somewhat. Are, anno 1939, the official declarations of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches not only open to criticism but deliberately subjected to it? Anno 1924 this was different.

But, of course, to The Standard Bearer this is of no concern anyway. It is in a position to offer its comment and criticism, even on an official declaration of the Christian Reformed Synod, with or without an invitation. And it prefers to do this in its own columns. However, although naturally we write in the interests of our own readers primarily, we gladly offer our comments to the magazine that asked for them.

The “Testimony” begins by motivating its own appearance. It was occasioned by the fact that there is today, “especially in our own country a widespread pacifistic and also militaristic propaganda”; and also by the phenomenon that “many of our church members are honestly perplexed as to their duty in the matter of participating in future wars.”

It continues by describing and criticizing both “militarism” and “pacifism” in the light of Scripture (particularly Romans 13) and the Confession (Article 36 of the Confessio Belgica), which part is concluded by a summary briefly stating the teaching of Scripture and of the Confession on the subjects of civil government, war, and the Christian’s duty in respect to these.

And it concludes by attempting an answer to the question whether or not obedience to the government in the matter of war is unconditional; and, if not, on what condition the Christian may refuse the government’s summons to arms.

Now, without implying that The Standard Bearer agrees with all the other conclusions of Synod, it is especially to this last part that it has serious objections. This, let me add, is really the main part of the “Testimony.” For, no doubt, its chief purpose was not so much to instruct the people on such subjects as “the authority of the magistrates” and “our duty to obey,” but rather to enlighten their Christian conscience with regard to their calling to participate in war. And it is exactly on this main issue that, according to my conviction, the Synod has utterly failed.

It offered no real solution of the question: how can the Christian determine whether or not he may participate in a given war on the summons of his government.

And, what is worse, it led the members of the Christian Reformed Churches on the wrong track, the track of subjectivism, individualism, revolution.

I will, of course, motivate these statements.

In the next to the last paragraph the Synod repudiated the claims of the “conscientious objector” as follows:

“Not only must the Church reject the claim of the pacifistic conscientious objector, but there is also another kind of conscientious objector whose claims cannot stand the test of Scripture and the Creed. There are those who would refuse to take part in any war when, and as long as, they are not persuaded of the justness of the given war. With the frequent complexity of the causes of modern wars and the difficulty of the average citizen to be adequately informed on this complexity of causes at the time the war breaks out, it is clear that this may be the predicament in which many a Christian will find himself. But in such a situation he is not justified in refusing to perform military service. He who would maintain this position overlooks the fact that in such a situation the prior duty of each citizen to obey the government must have the right of way. This type of conscientious objector does not face the moral alternative: to fight or to do nothing; but: to fight or to disobey his government. His uncertainty as to the justice of the given war can be no justifiable ground for refusing obedience to his government.”

This is all very good, as far as it goes with respect to the practical outcome or conclusion of this mode of reasoning: this particular type of conscientious objector stands condemned. On the matter of this conclusion itself The Standard Bearer has no axe to grind with the editor of The Calvin Forum, the Calvin Seminary Faculty, and the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches. But we do not agree with the premises upon which this conclusion is based and with the principle involved in the mode of reasoning by which the conclusion is reached. And this also implies, of course, that we consider the mode of reasoning fallacious and that the conclusion does not follow with logical necessity from the premises.

What is really the deepest principle of this, and of any “conscientious objector” to participation in a given war? It is this: every citizen is individually responsible for any act he performs in obedience to the authority of the government, though that authority be exercised strictly in its own proper domain (such as a declaration of war); hence, before he obeys he is under obligation to determine whether a given act of the government is morally justified or not; and upon the result of this individual determination it must depend whether any citizen is duty bound to obey the government or to refuse obedience.

The Calvin Forum, the Calvin Seminary Faculty and the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches have adopted this principle.

In the paragraph from the “Testimony” quoted above, this particular “conscientious objector” is not condemned because of this erroneous principle, nor, in fact on the basis of any fundamental principle at all, but merely because he would refuse to fight on the ground of uncertainty.

And as we shall show presently, the same “Testimony” adopts the principle of the “conscientious objector” positively in the next paragraph (quoted below).

The whole question of a Christian’s calling to obey the government in participating in a given war is left to the individual conscience of every citizen (individualism, subjectivism, Nominalism, Pelagianism), and is made a purely relative matter (certainty or uncertainty).

This principle is fundamentally wrong. Certainly, no man with a Reformed ‘conception of government can adopt it.

And seeing that from fallacious premises no sound conclusions can logically follow, there must be something wrong with the mode of reasoning that upon such premises reaches the conclusion that the uncertain type of “conscientious objector” stands condemned.

And there is something wrong. Let me cast the synodical mode of reasoning in the form of a syllogism:

I. Every citizen individually is morally responsible before God for his participation in a given war in obedience to the summons of his government.

II. A certain citizen is uncertain whether a certain war is just or unjust.

III. This certain citizen must fight.

It is clear that this conclusion does not follow. The logical conclusion is: This certain citizen must wait!

The Synod declared “that in such a situation the prior duty of each citizen to obey the government must have the right of way.”

But to what is our duty to obey the government in case of war prior? To our own individual moral responsibility before God? This appears to be the implied answer Synod had in mind. But this is impossible. There cannot be and there is no duty prior to my personal responsibility and moral duty before God. In fact, when it is a question of personal, moral accountability one cannot speak of priority and posteriority. But let us not overlook the fact that the “conscientious objector” proceeds from the principle that he is individually, morally responsible for any participation in a given war, and that, therefore, the question whether in respect to a summons to war it is his duty to obey the government, depends on the other question whether the given war is just or unjust. On this basis, which the Synod adopted also, our duty to the government in case of war is not prior but posterior to our moral judgment of that given war. In other words, on that basis the citizen that is uncertain as to the justness of a given war would answer the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches as follows: “You do not put the matter correctly. The question is not one of the priority of my duty to obey the government, but rather: whether in the given case of the given war it is my duty before God to obey the government. And of this I must be certain before I will fight.”

Now, if you adopt the principle from which the “conscientious objector” proceeds, you will have to grant that in this last stand he is right. In any moral question it is certainly wrong to reason thus: I am not certain whether it is right; therefore, I will do it. If war is a matter of individual responsibility I must be certain of the justness of a given war before I fight. He that doubts if he eats is damned because he does not eat out of faith. Much more so if one fights if he doubts. In the next paragraph the Synod declared: “War is killing people and for anyone to engage in such killing of fellowmen when he is convinced in his heart that the cause for which he is fighting is an unjust one, this procedure cannot be justified before the tribunal of God and His Word.” But if this be true, if “war be killing people” (and I add: innocent people as far as the war is concerned, whether they fight on the just or the unjust side of the war, and whether they be soldiers or civilians), and if every individual citizen is personally responsible for this killing of people, then I can apply this same statement of Synod to the citizen that is uncertain as to the justness of the war, and rewrite it as follows: “War is killing people, and for anyone to engage in such killing of fellowmen as long as he is uncertain whether the cause for which he is fighting is a just one, this procedure cannot be justified before the tribunal of God and His Word.” I cannot kill people unless I am certain that it is the will of God. And if I am individually responsible for my killing people in war, I must be certain that the war is just; and on that basis no appeal to the authority of and my duty to the government can take the place of that individual certainty.

But now let me demonstrate that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches not only failed to condemn the principle of the conscientious objector but also actually adopted it. We quote from the “Testimony”:

“The only conscientious objector to military service whose claim the Church cannot repudiate is he who, recognizing his duty to obey his government and to defend his country in response to its call to arms, has intelligent and adequate grounds to be convinced that the given war to which he is summoned is an unjust war. When he is absolutely certain in the light of the principles of the Word of God that his country is fighting for a wrong cause, he cannot morally justify his participation in the given war. War is killing people and for anyone to engage in such killing of fellowmen when he is convinced in his heart that the cause for which he is fighting is an unjust one, this procedure cannot be justified before the tribunal of God and His Word. The only course open to such a person is to resort to passive resistance and to refuse to bear arms in that given war.”

All this is based upon identically the same principle as the one that motivated the other type of “conscientious objector.” Both judge of the justness of the given war. Both act upon this individual judgment, not from the principle of obedience to the government. Both say to the government: I will obey only if I can see that your cause is not unjust, or at least if I cannot see that it is unjust. Both implicitly deny that the government only has the authority and power to wield the sword. And both proceed from the supposition that the individual citizen is responsible for the way the government wields the sword. The only difference is that the one is uncertain, and, therefore, according to the Synod, he must fight; the other is certain, and, therefore, he must not fight!

It is the principle of individualism, subjectivism, revolution, which the Synod has adopted.

The Synod speaks of “intelligent and adequate grounds to be convinced that the given war to which he is summoned is an unjust war.” Intelligent and adequate, we ask, according to what standard? The principles of the Word of God, the Synod would say. Yes, but these principles must be applied to a given war! Who, then, is to be the judge to determine whether these grounds are “intelligent and adequate”? Certainly not the Church, for she is not the final judge in the matter. Who then? The government? To be sure, if the “Testimony” of the Christian Reformed Churches is also intended as a basis upon which the government must act and excuse certain “conscientious objectors,” it is she that must judge of these grounds and determine whether they are “intelligent and adequate.” But this is out of the question, for the government declared the given war, and if she would decide that the grounds of these “conscientious objectors” were intelligent and adequate to convince anyone that the war is unjust, she would have to retract its war-declaration. Besides, if the government should decide that the grounds were not intelligent and adequate, such a decision would not change the mind of the conscientious objector himself. He would still be certain that the given war is unjust. In the last analysis, therefore, it must be the “conscientious objector” himself that determines the intelligence and adequacy of his own grounds for considering the given war unjust.

This leaves it to the decision of the individual citizen whether or not in its own proper domain the magistrate shall wield the sword.

On this basis it will be quite impossible for the government to wage war. For, many will be the conscientious objectors that have intelligent and adequate reasons in the light of Scripture to refuse to participate in a given war. Some, indeed, have intelligent and adequate objections against any war, and they also appeal to Scripture for their stand. If you grant the right of citizens to determine whether a given war is just, why deny them the right to take the stand that all war is sinful and that, therefore, no Christian can participate in any war? Others, perhaps, will consider a war of self-defense the sole war that is justifiable. Still others may take the stand that it is our solemn duty to fight on the side of democracy and against totalitarianism and communism. Besides, what is really a just war? How often is justice wholly with the one side of conflicting nations and injustice with the other? And suppose that one reaches the certain conclusion that there is, at least, also unjustness on the side of his government, must he obey the summons to fight? It is evident that if we adopt the advice the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches offered its members, the government will be completely handicapped and powerless to wage war.

And, therefore, my conclusion is that the “Testimony” does not offer a solution of the problem concerning the Christian’s participation in war, and that the Christian Reformed Synod gave the members of their churches some bad advice.

On the basis of the Word of God and our Reformed Confession there is only one position possible with regard to the Christian’s calling when the government summons him to military service.

As long as the government wields the sword, given her by God, within her own domain, i.e. the civil state, whether within its own borders and with respect to its own citizens or over against other governments and states, she alone has authority and the citizens must obey unconditionally; however, as soon as the civil government would attempt to exercise her authority in the domain of the Church, and would turn her God-given sword against Christ and His cause, she would move in a sphere in which she has no authority, is no longer government but mere man, and the principle would have to be applied, that we must obey God rather than men.

This implies that the individual Christian is not morally responsible for the justness or unjustness of the war that is declared by the government, nor is he responsible for any act which he performs in strict obedience to the government as such when he is called to the colors and summoned to military service.

The hangman is not responsible when, in obedience to the proper magistrates he executes the sentence upon the man that is legally condemned to death. The sentence may be a mistake, or it may be grossly unjust; the executioner may be absolutely convinced in his own mind that the condemned man is innocent; but he does not act or refuse to act on the ground of his own individual conviction, but merely in obedience to the proper and responsible authorities.

And the same relation holds when the citizen is called to arms.

God will have every soul in subjection unto the powers that be. We may not resist. The magistrates bear the sword in the name of God. That sword symbolizes the authority to punish evildoers within her own borders, but it certainly also implies the power to declare and to wage war. And to no other that sword is ever given. The government only has the right to determine whether it shall be war or peace. And she only is responsible for the way in which she makes use of that God-given authority. The individual citizens cannot possibly be responsible or co-responsible with the government for her handling of the sword. And, therefore, the duty of the citizen is to obey for conscience’ sake. One may have his doubts as to the justness of a given war; one may be convinced that a given war is unjust on the part of the government that summons him; one may, to be sure, even lodge his protest with the grounds upon which he considers the war unjust with his government; but obey he must, as long as it concerns the authority of the Magistrates exercised in the domain of the civil state or commonwealth.

If, however, the same government to which we are in subjection as long as she uses her sword power in her own domain, should attempt to wield that sword in a sphere outside of the civil commonwealth, a domain over which she was never set in authority by God, we must refuse to acknowledge that authority.

In such cases it is not the question whether we shall be obedient to the government or to God, but whether we shall obey God or man!

Thus the apostles answer the council when the latter forbid them to preach in the name of Jesus. To preach the gospel belongs to the Christ-given calling and authority of the Church. The authority of the government does not extend into this domain. Hence, when the Jewish council usurped this power over against the apostles, the latter through Peter reminded them that they transgressed the boundaries of their authority by saying, that they must obey God rather than men.

We do not deny that the Church as well as the individual Christian have a moral calling with regard to any war.

But we do deny that the individual soldier is responsible for the justness of a given war.

And we insist that the Christian citizen must always obey the summons of his government to arms.