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Home >Theology of Peace and War > Wesleyan Quadrilateral > Reason: Theological Perspective > Just War

Just War

In the 4th and 5th centuries under the influence of Bishop Ambrose and Augustine of Hippo the Christian Church began to develop what became known as the just war tradition. The intent was to identify circumstances when war would be permissible and to specify acceptable behavior in the conduct of war. In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas developed these ideas further.

Today just war theory is the major approach of the Roman Catholic Church and is a strong factor for many Protestant denominations. Among them, however, there is no universal agreement on application or even on terminology for defining a just war.

Just War Criteria
The Just War Tradition and Christian Discipleship
Contemporary Application


Just War Criteria

Excerpt from In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace by the United Methodist Council of Bishops (1986), pp. 33-34.

The principal criteria of the just-war tradition evolved over many centuries....A distinction was made between the principles concerning the just resort to war(jus ad bellum) and those concerning just conduct in war (jus in bello).

The five most common jus ad bellum principles are:

  1. Just cause. A decision for war must vindicate justice itself in response to some serious evil, such as an aggressive attack.
  2. Just intent. The ends sought in a decision for war must include the restoration of peace with justice and must not seek self-aggrandizement or the total devastation of another nation.
  3. Last resort. This tradition shares with pacifism a moral presumption against going to war -- but is prepared to make exceptions. Every possibility of peaceful settlement of a conflict must be tried before war is begun.
  4. Legitimate authority. A decision for war may be made and declared only by properly constituted governmental authority.
  5. Reasonable hope of success. A decision for war must be based on a prudent expectation that the ends sought can be achieved. It is hardly an act of justice to plunge one's people into suffering and sacrifice of a suicidal conflict. The two main jus in bello principles are:
  6. Discrimination. Justice in the actual conduct of war requires respect for the rights of enemy peoples, especially for the immunity of noncombatants from direct attack. Such respect also rules out atrocities, reprisals, looting, and wanton violence.
  7. Proportionality. The amount of damage inflicted must be strictly proportionate to the ends sought. Small-scale injuries should not be avenged by massive suffering, death, and devastation. The war's harm must not exceed the war's good. (Proportionality is also a criterion to be applied to jus ad bellum -- the decision whether to resort to war in the first place.)

These just-war principles remain morally stringent in our time.

The Just War Tradition and Christian Discipleship
by Daniel M. Bell, Jr.
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary

Setting forth the criteria of the Just War Tradition (JWT) can be relatively simple and straightforward, as evidenced by the abundance of treatments, secular and religious, that purport to present the tradition in the space of a few hundred words.... There are, however, several difficulties with simplistic presentations of the criteria. First, in spite of the fact that the tradition is frequently presented as a "theory," there is no set, agreed upon, universally recognized "theory" of just war.

Read more....

Contemporary Application of Just War Theory

Insights on just war theory come from the way it is applied in concrete situations. Here we review its application regarding nuclear weapons and recent wars.

Nuclear Weapons
Gulf War
U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan
Iraq War
Preemptive War

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