Just War

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Never promulgated as formal church teaching, the "Just War Tradition" developed in early medieval thought as a substitute for the rejection of warfare by the dominant teaching of the pre-Constantinian church.

There is no official statement of the just war criteria, but the growth of the tradition has come to include most of the following (a) The jus ad bellum or "the right to fight," which includes the existence of legitimate authority, a just cause, and a right "intention" (both objective and subjective). (b) Following due form and process, including recourse to war as a last resort; maintaining respect for international law, customs, and treaties; the presence of probability of victory, and maintaining proportionality of the values at stake. (c) The jus in bello or "fighting rightly," i.e., that the conduct of war he indispensable, proportional, discriminating and controllable; that it respect the immunity of the noncombatant and respect the humanity of the adversary.

Recognizing that war is a material evil, needing moral justification, the just war tradition states that by meeting such specifiable criteria war may he, exceptionally, justified. The tradition evolved gradually through the centuries after the age of Constantine (d. 337), was never given prominence, but was supported by a consensus of official theologians. The "magisterial" Protestant Reformation wrote the tradition into its creeds (the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530, article XVI; the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 [Latin 1571], article 37; the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of 1647, article 23) as a response to the challenge of the Anabaptists, thereby decreasing the doctrine's capacity to be a means of restraint. Roman Catholic moralists sought to use it to critique 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese colonial wars, and jurists (e.g. Hugo Grotius, 1583-1645) transposed it into the language of international law, but political "realism" largely left it behind in the age of national sovereignty and "total" war.

In modern times the resources of the just war tradition have begun to be drawn upon in criticisms of nuclear war as disregarding the criteria of discrimination and noncombatant immunity. They were implicitly operating in the phenomenon of selective conscientious objection which for the first time became important during the United States' war in Vietnam 1965-75.

Just war tradition has in common with Christian pacifism its rejection of the cynical or "realistic" notion that there can be no moral restraint in the realm of war, and the rejection of the "crusading" notion that war may be a holy cause. Most real and likely wars since the age of Grotius, if honestly measured by the just war criteria, would stand condemned. "Just War" thinkers and pacifists may make common cause in their rejection of modern militarism.

The pacifist critique of just war tradition (a) doubts that churches and governments intend or are able seriously to apply the just war restraints in real political or strategic decisions, either on the level of states' making costly decisions against their selfish interest, or on the level of citizens' refusal to support the illegitimate actions of their rulers and (b) finds in the teachings or example of Jesus no warrant for war, even for just causes, even in the hands of legitimate authority. Another kind of pacifist critique further (c) finds the just war tradition unrealistic in its estimating too optimistically the cost/ benefit consequences of the spiral of violence and estimating too pessimistically the potential of nonviolent means. (d) The appearance of logical clarity and rigor is deceptive; each of the criteria is debatable and culturally conditioned. "Legitimate authority," for example, may stretch all the way from monarchical conservatism to revolution.

Some suggest that strategy thinking about nonviolent direct action, which without taking life may be said to "coerce" or to "manipulate" an adversary for good social ends, might also be fruitfully illuminated by using criteria of authority, cause, means, last resort, etc., in a way analogous to those of the just war tradition (sociopolitical activism; peace).


Childress, James. Moral Responsibility in Conflicts. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Johnson, James Turner. Can Modern War be Just? New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1984.

Johnson, James Turner. "Historical Tradition and Moral Judgment: the Case of Just War Tradition." Journal of Religion 64 (1984): 299-317.

Johnson, James Turner. Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War. Princeton U. Press, 1975.

Johnson, James Turner. Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War. Princeton U. Press, 1981.

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Yoder, John H. When War is Unjust. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.

Yoder, John H. Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution. Elkhart: Goshen Biblical Seminary, 1983: 55-112, 455-86.

Additional Information

Anglican 39 Articles (Anglican, 1571)

Augsburg Confession (Lutheran, 1530)

Westminster Confession (Reformed, 1648)

Author(s) John Howard Yoder
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Yoder, John Howard. "Just War." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Jul 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Just_War&oldid=92193.

APA style

Yoder, John Howard. (1989). Just War. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 July 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Just_War&oldid=92193.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 470-471. All rights reserved.

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