Foundations: No.66 Spring 2014

War and New Testament Ethics

This article aims to open discussion of difficult ethical issues to do with war, particularly torture. It does so by considering the “Two Kingdoms” approach to Christian ethics, from the Reformation (when the magistrate had the obligation to uphold the true religion only), to today, when there is pluralism and widespread advocacy of toleration. The place of war in the Old Testament and the New – the Holy Wars of the OT, and the comparatively few and indirect references to war in the New Testament – is contrasted. The prominence of virtues (or graces) of the Spirit in the NT is noted. Finally the question of torture in the context of the “war on terror” (the views of Grudem and Mohler) is discussed.


This article discusses how Scripture is to be interpreted in respect of war, and especially aspects of warfare that although they are not new, have come to prominence in our current situation, particularly torture and the various terms, perhaps in some cases euphemistic terms, that are used for it. This takes in not only direct references to war, but also attempts a biblical understanding of the Christian and society and the state. So I shall offer as a framework for interpretation a variant of the Reformers’ doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. And then, secondly, I will look at how the Apostolic writings view moral reasoning and some peculiarities of our present political situation. It is not my intention, nor is it my brief, to offer a set of first-order rules to guide conduct under the matters to be discussed, but rather to look at the methods and approaches that Christians who take the authority of the Bible seriously ought to adopt.

The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the New Testament

In the Gospels Christ contrasts his kingdom with other kingdoms – kingdoms of this world. So he says to Pilate:

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews… You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:36f.).

Paul also refers to fighting when he says:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have the divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor 10:4).[1] 

The explicit language regarding fighting in the New Testament has to do with fighting the good fight of faith.

There are many other such references which refer to the “otherness” of Christ’s kingship and his kingdom, and of course a whole series of Parables of the Kingdom, referring to its hiddenness, and also to its growth and its extensiveness.

Alongside data of this kingdom, Christ and the Apostles acknowledge that we live in and participate in earthly, state institutions, and have obligations to honour those who administer them. Christ refers to rendering to God and to Caesar (Mark 12:7), and he gives advice to soldiers who, it appears, came for baptism (Luke 3:14) And Paul and Peter write at length:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:1-4)

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor (1 Pet 2:13-25).

It is very obvious that such an outlook will present the church and individual believers with a whole range of areas of life in which tensions can arise, including what we might call the “military”.

The Two Cities

These two lines of data have led some, such as Augustine, to refer to the believers’ occupancy of two cities, the city of this world and the City of God, the heavenly city. This is not to be taken as endorsing or advocating a policy of physical segregation, of apartheid, but as asserting that there are two “organisations” animated by different and incompatible outlooks, the “two loves”, in which the Christians overlap, intermingle and co-operate with the inhabitants of the city of this world. The states and nations of the world provide the arena where this intermingling takes place. So Augustine says, “Thus the things necessary for this mortal life are used by both kinds of men and families alike, but each has its own peculiar and widely different aim in using them.” The heavenly city “makes no scruple to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are administered; and thus, as this life is common to both cities, so there is harmony between them in regard to what belongs to it”. This commonality, as Augustine calls it, is real, but also limited in scope. Christians may respect the various practices of the society they live in “so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced”.[2]  So there is a noticeable element in common in the running of these two cities, and well as a fundamental difference in their ends and what motivates them.

The Two Kingdoms and the Reformation

But perhaps more in keeping with the conceptuality of Scripture, the Reformers, Luther and Calvin, formulated the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Calvin discusses the Two Kingdoms (or governments) in two places in the Institutes.

The first of these places has to do with the Roman Church’s commanding of matters which are not required by Scripture, as here in Institutes III.19, dealing with Christian liberty:

[I]n man government is two-fold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained in piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are both to perform. To these two forms are commonly given the not inappropriate names of spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, intimating that the former species has reference to the life of the soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely, honourably, and modestly. The former has its seat within the soul, the latter only regulates the external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom.[3] 

This is Calvin’s version of the Reformation doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which has to do with the binding and freedom of the conscience. It is an essential aspect of his critique of Rome, dealt with at length in IV.10 and (more importantly for us here) of what is to be the Christian’s attitude to the state, (also dealt with in IV.20, though strangely, with little or no explicit reference to the Two Kingdoms).

Here he upholds an important principle concerning the Reformation view of ecclesiastical laws, namely that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and so he distinguishes the commands of the Word of God, by which our consciences are to be bound, from merely human laws, from which we are (with a qualification shortly to be discussed) free.

The second sections are to be found in IV.10 3-6. These contain a verbatim repetition of material of the passages from Book III just referred to. But they go beyond his treatment of Christian liberty from human interpositions in the Church, for they have to do with the relations between the church and the civil government, the magistrate not only as “God’s servant to you for good” (Rom 14) in respect of life and limb but as having a duty to uphold the true (that is, the Reformed) religion, though the church for her part is not to be governed in her ministry and worship by the magistrate. (See also IV.11 where Calvin maintains the important principle that the church does not fall under the jurisdiction of the civil government.)

Calvin distinguishes between the operation of conscience internally, and outwardly:

By attending to this distinction, [that is, of two kingdoms] we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the Gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are bound before God, as if they were exempted from all carnal service, because in regard to the Spirit they are free… The question, as I have said, though not very obscure, or perplexing in itself, occasions difficulty to many, because they do not distinguish with sufficient accuracy between what is called the external forum, and the forum of conscience. What increases the difficulty is that Paul commands us to obey the magistrate, “not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake” (Rom 13: 1, 5). Whence it follows that civil laws also bind the conscience.[4] 

So in what sense do civil laws bind the conscience? Not in the sense that the laws of the spiritual kingdom, the gospel, do, but in the sense that they are to be “internalised” as expressions of obedience to God:

Hence a law is said to bind the conscience because it simply binds the individual, without looking at men, or taking any account of them. For example, God not only commands us to keep our mind chaste and pure from all lust but prohibits all external lasciviousness or obscenity of language. My conscience is subjected to the observance of this law, though there were not another man in the world, and he who violates it sins not only by setting a bad example to his brethren but stands convicted in his conscience before God.[5]  

This is because the magistrate is the “minister of God”, at one remove from God himself. God does not command me to keep to the speed limits, but the state sees fit to enact certain laws about speeding. In France these laws may be different. I am bound to keep these laws, whatever exactly they are, even at 2.00am when there may be no one else about. In this the conscience behaves differently from the case of behaviour called for in the case of weaker brethren. If there are no such brethren, or if we are not in the presence of them, or in a position where our behaviour will affect them adversely, then I am free to do or not to do the indifferent action; my conscience is free.

The Two Kingdoms doctrine is even more prominent in Martin Luther. Luther’s views undergo some development, or at least change, during and after the Peasants’ Revolt in 1524-28. The following extracts are taken from his tract on secular authority (1523):

We must divide all the children of Adam into two classes; the first belong to the kingdom of God, the second to the kingdom of the world. Those belonging to the kingdom of God are all true believers in Christ and are subject to Christ. For Christ is the King and Lord in the kingdom of God, as the second Psalm and all the Scriptures say. [Ps 2:6] For this reason He came into the world, that he might begin God’s kingdom and establish it in the world. Therefore he says before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world, but whoever is of the truth hears My voice” [John 18.36 f.]; and continually in the gospel He refers to the kingdom of God and says, “Amend your ways, the kingdom of God is at hand” [Matt 3:2]. Likewise, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” [Matt 6:33]. He also calls the Gospel, a Gospel of the kingdom, for the reason that it teaches, governs, and contains God’s Kingdom.[6] 

Note that Luther does not in these extracts refer directly to the church.

In distinguishing two kingdoms, the Reformers are not making a political case for full separation. They maintain their position in full awareness of the fact that to their left were those who sought to establish pure Christian enclaves. They make the distinction and attempt to operate by it, when also holding that the state, the Christian magistrate, has a duty to uphold the true religion as “the minister of good”. This is one big difference between their view of society and that in which many Christians live today – modern liberal democracies where the government (even where the Head of State is also head of the church) regards itself as the guardian of the public square in which there is freedom of religious expression. We shall take up this difference between ourselves and the views of the magisterial Reformers a little later.

The Two Kingdoms and waging of war

How does the Two Kingdoms doctrine relate to the issue of warfare? Both Luther and Calvin are anxious to stress a positive relation to the state, no doubt partly to distinguish loyal Lutherans and conscientious Calvinists from the subversive violence associated with the Anabaptists. So Luther. He deals with the conditions under which war can be waged, and then says:

In this matter [that is, the waging of war] subjects are duty bound to follow and risk life and property for the cause. For in such a case one must risk his property and himself for the sake of the other. And in such a war it is a Christian act and an act of love confidently to kill, rob and pillage the enemy, and to do everything that can injure him until one has conquered him according to the methods of war. Only one must beware of sin, not violate wives and virgins, and when victory comes, offer mercy and peace to those who surrender and humble themselves.[7] 

Subjects have no obligation to wage a war for their prince when he is in the wrong. But suppose it is not clear: “As long as they cannot know nor find out by any possible means, they may obey without peril to their souls.”[8]  So war is to be waged loyally and with gusto so long as the king is in the right but with such restraints and qualifications as are inculcated by the tradition of the “Just War” doctrine first enunciated by Augustine.

In Calvin’s case,

But if it is objected, that in the New Testament there is no passage or example teaching that war is lawful for Christians, I answer, first, that the reason for carrying on war, which anciently existed, still exists in the present day, and that, on the other hand there is no ground for debarring magistrates from the defence of those under them; and secondly, that in the apostolic writings we are not to look for a distinct exposition of those matters… their object being not to form a civil polity, but to establish the spiritual kingdom of Christ; lastly, that, there also it is indicated, in passing, that our Saviour by his advent, made no change in this respect. For… when soldiers asked counsel as to the way of salvation, they would have been told to cast away their arms, and to withdraw altogether from military service...[9] 

Their doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is surely, in outline, a New Testament outlook, though no doubt capable of being stated in different ways, and having different strengths. Secondly, it is clear that the Reformers thought about the issues of war and peace, obedience and disobedience, the morality of waging war, and what kind of a war is legitimate and what not, within the framework of the Two Kingdoms.

So there is much in these extracts, written five centuries ago, which has a familiar, contemporary ring to it. We see that the Two Kingdoms, while distinct, are not disconnected. Even in a view of the church and state different from that of the Reformers, in which magistrates were thought as having the duty to support true religion, thinking of our duties and responsibilities, including those we have to the state, the Two Kingdoms doctrine may provide the Christian citizen in a modern liberal democracy with space to think about the limits of compliance and obedience. But it should also apply to Christians and churches in totalitarian polities which do not have as much space. They may have less personal liberty than we have, or they may only have it by paying an immediate price for themselves and to their families. Nevertheless they have dual responsibilities. For if Scripture teaches that there are two kingdoms, then the questions as to where their separate jurisdictions apply, where their boundaries are to be drawn, inevitably arise.

The Two Kingdoms and the Lordship of Christ

What about the cosmic Lordship of Christ? The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in no way diminishes that. But as regards themes that are currently claimed to be a consequence of affirming that Lordship, such as the redeeming of society, the stewardship of the environment, particular social and political programmes as being implied in our loyalty to the cosmic Lordship of Christ, that is another thing entirely. This is the sort of appreciation of society canvassed by the neo-Calvinistic followers of the legacy of Abraham Kuyper and those influenced to some degree by him. More recently, N T Wright writes of the redeeming of creation, and of the scope of Christian discipleship, “the work of the Lord”, embracing, for example, support for the policy of renouncing Third World debt, “the number one moral issue of our day”.[10]  It is one thing to express the view that poverty should be relieved and Christians joining with like-minded others to relieve it; it is another thing to say that the renunciation of Third World debt is the means to that end, that it is the will of the cosmic Christ, and therefore a Christian duty.

Bear in mind that the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms does not mean that obedience to the magistrate is the limit of the individual Christian’s activity in the kingdom of this world. The Christian in that kingdom may enjoy its privileges, as Paul did on a notable occasion. That kingdom is also an arena in which the common grace (as we now call it) of God is at work. There the Spirit’s non-regenerating gifts are showered on men and women who may be outside the kingdom of God, but who nevertheless have gifts to produce beautiful and useful things, and whose learning is beneficial to all.

Differences between our situation and that of the Reformers

I have argued that, on biblical grounds, we ought to adopt the Two Kingdoms outlook of the Reformers, and ultimately, of course, that of the NT. But it goes without saying that our political and social situation is very different from that of the time of the Reformers. As we have noted, modern liberal democracies are characterised by the espousal of pluralism, with certain areas (such as the expression of extreme political views, of racism, and those engaged in planning and perpetrating acts of terrorism) off limits. And in the theory of liberal democracy (and, you may think, still to a remarkable degree in practice) the state is regarded as – and regards itself as – a neutral gate-keeper, though in the UK there is a built-in tendency towards a liberal progressivism through the agency of the state and the media.

We stress the differences between now and the time when the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms was first articulated; that is one horizon to have in mind. There are other differences: One is that there is nowadays a good deal of personal freedom, discretion and opportunity through various agencies for people to make up their own minds as to what they do with their lives and with leisure time. All obvious enough. Closer to our theme of ethics and the military is the fact that, at present, modern armies are volunteer, professional bodies. Whoever is a soldier, sailor or airman is one because he has chosen that career. This presents a different moral framework from when there is conscription, or when armies were “raised” by combining together local militias which were summoned together by the local landowner from among his labourers and others.

Finally with the rise of modern terrorism the question of when and whether a particular state is at war has become blurred. Is “the war against terror” like the war against Hitler’s Germany? For example, the sending of drones, in furtherance of the “war against terror”, into territories of a nation with which the sender is at peace, may result in deaths of non-terrorist, citizens of this friendly country. Is this an act of war, or not? Clearly not, in that one country has not broken off relations with another, and declared war. But nevertheless a state’s efforts to protect its citizens against the outrages of the terrorist go beyond routine policing.

So, in such a situation (no doubt more detail could given), how should Christians reason about war? What message should go out from the pulpit and the press, and what advice should the church offer to young people seriously considering enlisting in the military?

New and Old Testament data about military service and war

Whatever their similarities, and what they have in common, the two Testaments are very different in the way in which divine guidance with respect to the conduct of the people of God in the waging of war is regulated. In the pre-Mosaic phase Abraham, for example, appears free to form alliances on the basis of personal advantage. The Mosaic phase of the Old Testament is characterised by the giving to the nation of Israel of a series of direct commands and prohibitions, many of them of a particular and discrete character.

So if we restrict Old and New Testament attitudes to a comparison between Old Testament Israel on the one hand, and the Christian in the newly-established churches of the New Testament, what do we find? We find, as I shall argue, that the shape of Christian morality is rather different from that of the Old Testament Israel.

Parts of Deuteronomy 7 read as follows:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them… But the Lord your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven. No one shall be able to stand against you until you have destroyed them (Deut 7:1-2, 23-24).

Such wars are “Holy Wars”. Victory is not construed in terms of weakening the enemy until they sue for peace, taking prisoners and treating them in accordance with the terms of an equivalent of the Geneva Convention, but of utterly vanquishing them, obliterating them, with the Lord co-operating and aiding the battles in a very visible way. The enemy is identified by the Lord as certain named tribes or peoples, and (it is implied) that these are under divine judgment, they are idolatrous, and “in the way” of the fulfilment of the Lord’s covenant promise respecting the land. Israel is a theocracy, and there is a fusion of the law and morality for the people of God. This is the royal law for them, and so it is morally immaculate, and is to be carried out without question. There is no room for asking (as we may nowadays ask): This may be the law, but are the principles that it exemplifies and upholds morally good?

There is no blueprint here for Christians to engage in or to support such warfare, or similar ways of extermination, were this to be the character of the warfare waged by their own state today. Sometimes one finds Christian thinkers cherry-picking from the Mosaic legislation in an effort to make it apply directly to us – so the practice of the Jubilee, the fact that men and women are never imprisoned as a form of punishment, and so on, are highlighted. Forgetful of special pleading, the citing of such data is meant to be evidence that all the word of God contains material that is meant to guide us today in similar ways. Currently one of the most diligent cherry-pickers is Christopher J H Wright, but it is interesting to note that in a book of over 500 pages, Old Testament Ethics For the People of God[11]  devoted to such fashionable themes as ecology and the earth (over 40 pages) and economics and the poor (just under 40 pages), the topic of warfare (which cannot be said to be a vanishingly-small OT topic) is given a mere two pages.

I concur with Wright in doubting that anything written in the verses quoted above from Deuteronomy 7 (or similar passages) is to be considered a cherry ripe for picking. Why not? Because our situation is very different from that of the Old Testament. To begin with, we find that the theme of war is scarcely ever mentioned, and (I think) never mentioned in those sections of the NT expounding the ethical norms of the people of God. This in itself may seem to be rather surprising and perplexing.

While believers are urged to pray for those in authority, and for those who are in need, and to give honour to the king, neither Jesus himself, nor Paul, nor any other New Testament writer offers guidance to pray for this or that military campaign of the Emperors, or for “our troops in Germania”, any more than Paul suggests as a topic for prayer the petition that there might soon be peace between the Roman Empire and her current enemies. Paul tells the churches that they are to pray for the Emperor so that they (that is, in the first instance, Paul and his correspondents, representative of the wider church)may live quietly and peaceably, in godliness and honesty (thus the better contributing to the building of that kingdom that is to be without end). They pray for the needy but the reason for their neediness is passed over.

We struggle to find material from which to reason about the morality of war: Jesus’ attitude to the soldiers, perhaps. Paul’s use of his authority as a Roman citizen, or the presence of Christians in Caesar’s household, seem at best to provide us with hints. There is also a lack of explicit teaching in favour of pacifism.[12]  On one occasion there was the provision of an armed escort for Paul, which he was no doubt relieved to have, though the text does not tell us as much. Then there is the conversion of a Roman prison officer and his family, with no hint that he should not remain in his job, and perhaps included in this is Paul’s general advice to Christians to live as they are called (1 Cor 7:20-24). For it would seem that if everyone is to remain in the same calling in which he was (effectually) called by grace, unless an opportunity to change one’s situation presents itself, then presumably this also applies to serving Roman soldiers who are converted.

The poverty of the material gives us reason to adopt a policy of “live and let live” among Christians and churches, it seems to me. And this may be thought of as providential, given the varieties of circumstance in which the New Testament international church of Christ may find itself. Across the world and down the centuries there have been very different ways in which the injunctions of the NT are taken to apply to one thing and another. So why insist that one application of the allusions of the New Testament to military service is the correct one and so, by implication, the Christian norm? How could this be done?

So we must never forget that the New Testament church is an international jurisdiction, by comparison with the Old Testament theocracy. What this means is that if Christ and the apostles permit military service this may mean that, sooner or later, Christian will be fighting Christian. Given the extent to which the New Testament privileges loyalty to the people of God over loyalty to kin and country, this means that a Christian soldier may be called upon to do things which are against his or her highest and deepest instincts. And it also has implications for prayer in a time of war. Such petitions may include that Christian soldiers of the enemy and their families will enjoy the protection and deliverance of Almighty God, if such a thing is in these instances in accordance with his will.

So that is the first thing: the inexplicitness of commands about military service and the waging of war in the New Testament.

Reasoning about morality according to the New Testament

The second thing is how we are to reason about war, according to the New Testament, if there are no explicit commands about it? To try to answer that question we must first reflect on the form in which Christian morality is presented.

The second table of the Decalogue is in the background and foreground of New Testament teaching about what Christians are to do and to shun, and so shape the character of their lives. The idea that the law is no longer to be a moral guide, a point often insisted on by those dismissed as “antinomian” (rather unjustly it seems to me) is clearly mistaken. The relevance of the moral law is a view endorsed by Christ and spelled out by the apostles. So, for example, in one of the most extended discussions of the nature of sanctification in the New Testament, Romans 12 and 13, the command to love one’s neighbour (12:9), not to remain indebted (13:7), the laws forbidding adultery, stealing and covetousness are summed up, as Christ himself taught, as particular instances of “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (13:8-10). There is more to the New Testament pattern of holiness than this, but there is not less.

Yet as if to underline the difference in the situation of the New Testament church as over against the church in the Mosaic era, the New Testament has a variety of different ways of expressing the values of the Decalogue, and of inculcating its moral standards. Indeed the way in which Paul writes of the application of the Decalogue suggests that it consists, or starts, not with obedience to commands but with the formation of dispositions of character. This outlook is strengthened by what Paul has to say about walking in the Spirit (Gal 5:16) and the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22), and Peter about the formation of virtue, and other qualities (2 Pet 1:5-7). These expressions strongly imply that Christian moral character is formed from the inside out, by means of the renewal of the mind; morality is considered not as a code of separate acts of obedience which then develop in the agent the corresponding habits of mind, but as an inner renewal which brings about the practice of the appropriate actions in a properly motivated manner.

So as regards the morality of military matters, there is an absence of sets of definite commands covering that area of life, and indeed of most other matters. Where is the wisdom in all this? I suggested earlier that the diverse circumstances in which churches in the international church of Jesus Christ may find themselves, and the spirit of mature adulthood which is to characterise life in these churches, encourages diversity of expression, and about them, a spirit of live and let live. This is supported by the non-legalistic and non-moralistic approach to conduct which has to do more with the bearing of the fruit of the Spirit.

A case study: torture

To try to make our approach toward war and military service more focused I shall consider the hard case of the moral justification of torture. One needs to bear in mind the general context of the discussion of torture that follows: We shall be discussing the balancing of principle with expedience. We need to remember that there is a difference between doing evil that good may come as a proactive policy, and as a policy that is reactive to a situation not of the agent’s making. Scripture condemns those who proactively have the intention “Let us do evil that good may come” (Rom 3:8), as well as those whose ethics is solely a matter of the computation of the consequences. There may also be a difference in our behaviour when it concerns ourselves only, and when we have a prior responsibility for others (for members of our families or for those who are weak). There is the question of urgency – when we know that the time bomb is ticking. Finally there is the question of the “slippery slope”.[13] 

First we shall consider the views of certain ethicists, beginning with examples from contemporary evangelicalism (Wayne Grudem in his Politics According to the Bible[14]  and Albert Mohler in a blog-essay) and then more widely.

The section of Grudem’s book where he discusses torture is concerned with “ticking time-bomb” situations, that is, with emergencies of an impending bomb blast or similar. Someone is captured who knows, or is believed to know, the location of the bomb. The question is, should he be tortured to secure the information of the bomb’s whereabouts?

Grudem frames his discussion in terms an action’s inherent evil or otherwise. He illustrates this by listing actions which in his view have this character and which therefore should not be countenanced under any circumstances, including the ticking time-bomb situation. Such actions are:

  1. To commit actions that are in themselves always immoral, such as raping a prisoner;
  2. To deny medical treatment;
  3. To carry out sadistic humiliation of prisoners;
  4. To attempt to force a prisoner to violate the religious convictions that he has that pose no threat to the United States or its defense;
  5. To carry out any actions that would “shock the conscience” of a US court, such as doing anything that would cause lasting physical damage to the prisoner.[15] 

The common thread to these actions is that they bring about or allow lasting physical damage to the sufferer. Grudem notes that real pain can be inflicted without causing lasting physical damage, and offers examples. Something similar is true in the case of the “truth serum” injection (sodium pentathol). What about waterboarding? As Grudem describes it this “involves holding a prisoner down so that his head is lower that the rest of his body while he faces up. Then a cloth is put over his nose and mouth, and water is poured over the cloth, giving the prisoner the sensation of drowning”. Grudem claims that this procedure is not inherently morally wrong when used within appropriate guidelines, for it causes no permanent physical damage. He goes on to claim that these interrogation techniques “worked remarkably well”.[16] Not to have used them [against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks] would have been morally wrong, because it would have meant having the ability to stop the murder of thousands and thousands of people and not doing it. What could be a greater moral wrong for any government than this?” So the criteria for the use of torture are that it is not excluded by the five actions listed above, that it does no lasting physical damage to those on the receiving end of it, and there is a great saving of life in using it.[17] 

One might quibble at some of this, for example that prisoners should never be denied medical treatment. But Grudem goes on to say that there are more effective ways of getting information from prisoners than by, for example, leaving their teeth to ache for a while. I suppose that this is his way of saying that the prisoner has a right to medical treatment, even though he may well have reasons for not using the language of rights. Nonetheless Grudem’s position shows signs of not being thought through, as when on the one hand he cites certain supposedly exceptionless moral positions, but adds that the items are on the list because “None of these actions (viz. those on the list) serve any valid purpose in obtaining the needed information when it could be more readily obtained by inflicting bodily pain (within the moral limits described below) in a way that does no long-term damage”.[18]  But perhaps he means that these are all exceptionless moral principles which are also, as a matter of fact, inefficient means of wresting information from prisoners about the whereabouts of some ticking time-bomb.

So Grudem’s position involves the observance of a series of moral absolutes – exceptionless moral principles or rules – where those rules allow the torturing of others when such torturing leaves behind no visible physical effects or disabilities. He is thinking not principally of the leaving of scars and the like, but the infliction of permanent disabilities.

Some comments on this: First, Grudem’s positive assessment of the morality of means of torture appears to depend on it not leaving any physical trace in the victim. Indeed, he seems exclusively to consider physical effects. But what about psychological effects, and what about such effects upon not only the tortured but the torturers? One might wonder about this in calculating its morality, wonder about the morality of running an army that will seek, in the tumult of war, to weaken and wound the enemy and even take their lives in the furtherance of the aims of war. But we might wonder even more at an army who will train some of its soldiers in the slow and intentional infliction of frightening pain on the enemy, to wrest information from them. What psychological scars will using this procedure as a routine leave on them, as well as on their victims? Wayne Grudem does not have a place for calculating such effects. In a similar way he does not make any estimate of the tendency of practising such torturing to blunt the resistance of the torturers to employing some of those practices which he regards as unacceptable as a matter of principle.

Albert Mohler has expressed a more structured and nuanced view in his blog-article “Torture and the War on Terror: We Must Not Add Dirty Rules to Dirty Hands”.[19]  He is commenting on a widely-discussed article by Charles Krauthammer, “The Truth About Torture”, published in the December 5, 2005 issue of The Weekly Standard.[20]  Krauthammer recognises the “monstrous evil” of torture and its corrupting influence on the torturers. Krauthammer argues nevertheless that there has to be a rule permitting torture under carefully laid down circumstances. The to-be-tortured are gangsters who have forfeited all their rights. (This is a “war on terror” but apparently not one under the protection of the Geneva Convention.) So torture is permissible for the attempt to retrieve vital information in ticking bomb situations.

Mohler objects to the use of “hypothetical scenarios” to justify such acts:“I would argue that we cannot condone torture by codifying a list of exceptional situations in which techniques of torture might be legitimately used. At the same time, I would also argue that we cannot deny that there could exist circumstances in which such uses of torture might be made necessary.” So, in other words, rules should not be formulated to deal with hypothetical circumstances, but real life might push us into sanctioning torture. “The key point is this – at all times and in all cases the use of torture is understood to be morally suspect in the extreme, and generally unjustified.” There is conflict in a situation in which sin cannot be avoided: the death of bystanders, or the torture of the perpetrators of evil or their accomplices. Laws governing behaviour may well be broken in, as we say, “exceptional circumstances”. Mohler suggests that this procedure is followed:

First, the use of torture should be prohibited as a matter of state policy – period. No set of qualifications and exceptions can do anything but diminish the moral credibility of this policy. At the same time, rare exceptions under extreme circumstances can be considered by legitimate state agents, knowing that a full accounting of these decisions must be made to the public, through appropriate means and mechanisms.

Second, a thorough and legitimate review must be conducted subsequent to the use of any such techniques, with the agents who authorised or conducted such use of torture fully accountable, even to the point of maximum legal prosecution if their use of extreme coercion is found to have been unjustified (not simply because the interrogation did not produce the desired information, but because the grounds of justification were invalid).

The trouble with this rule-less approach is that it can lead from bad to worse without the restraint afforded by the existence of rules. As for the restraint imposed by the policy of review, what is that worth if the supposed excessive torture has been successful in providing the information necessary to disarm the ticking time-bomb? Whether or not this is a morally persuasive policy, despite what Mohler says he is proposing the state permission of torture, with the proviso that the results must be open to public scrutiny.

A position very similar to Mohler’s, though with different emphases, is that taken by David Fisher.[21]  Like Mohler, he is against legalising torture. Decisions in the exceptional, ticking time-bomb emergency must be the responsibility of political leaders, but he thinks that this is better than legalising torture.

Fisher emphasises the morally corrosive consequences of training people to be effective torturers:

Torture adversely affects the character of those involved in the process; both the torturers and the tortured. We are, therefore, rightly concerned over the sort of people that the public officials, whom we appoint to conduct special interrogations on our behalf, may become through their practice of torture. Virtues are crucial to our moral lives. We want our public servants to be men and women of virtue. Yet we need our special interrogators to be – professionally – men or women of vice. If they are to excel in their profession, they will need to learn to become in the exercise of their official duties, at best, indifferent to the pain of those whom they are interrogating and, at worst, adept in the vice of cruelty.[22] 

Here, whether intentionally or not, there is an explicit link to virtue, a great New Testament concept.


I have attempted to argue that in important respects New Testament ethics for Christians are different from Old Testament ethics for Israelites. Its governing question is not “What commands or rules should we obey or follow?” but “What sort of people ought we to be?” The centre of gravity of New Testament ethics lies in virtue, gift, grace, just as regeneration issues in a new “man”, a new person, a new nature. The ethics are from the inside out. I also suggest that such an ethic is congruent with the internationalising of the people of God in the New Testament era. Congregations of Christians may well find themselves in a wide variety of circumstances which call for different applications or emphases of the virtues of the Spirit. Christians in a time of just war may be called to act differently from when their country is engaged in what is widely regarded as an unjust war, or during a time of peace. In a similar way a Christian congregation which is socially deprived and low in attainment may need to have certain emphases made in the formation of their Christian graces. Another, which is affluent and not socially deprived, may need other emphases. Or, to bring this conclusion nearer to what we have just been discussing, congregations in garrison towns may be under different pressures from run-of-the-mill “civilian” local churches. Finally, recognising the legitimacy of such differences among churches is one way in which Christian liberty and diversity may legitimately be expressed.