Bahnsen on War

My articles on the biblical view of war and the military, and my subsequent book The Bible & War in America, stimulated much discussion, and for some, considerable soul searching. Many followers of theonomy or Christian Reconstruction understand the position already, but some had never considered biblical Law in regard to these subjects, let alone thought through the modern applications of that Law. We’re about to see that Greg Bahnsen had not considered them either—but when he did, it changed him.

There are various views of war, but there simply has not been too much exegesis on the topic in our circles. A common phenomenon, therefore—and which I think is a result of that relative neglect—has been the acceptance of the status quo standing army, warmongering, interventionist foreign policy, etc., that is common among establishment types and neoconservatives. There has even been expressed an outright “crusade” view of warfare—aggressive foreign policy, conquest—by some in the Reformed world.

Among the few attempts at exegesis, besides mine, stands a great example by Greg Bahnsen, in his three-lecture series on War (available here at Covenant Media Foundation). To see a model of how anyone coming from the perspective of biblical law should understand these issues, let us look at the substance of his second lecture, “The Conducting of Wars.” In doing so we shall see virtually the same position outlined in my book: no standing army, no wars of aggression, non-interventionist foreign policy, and much more.

The Conducting of Wars: Just War Theory and Deuteronomy 20

Dr. Bahnsen begins by noting the deficiency of rational, biblical thought on this issue: “There is far too much emotional rhetoric and knee-jerk responses, too much sloganizing, too little analytical thinking, and above all, too little biblical thinking.” And thus, the biblical view of warfare is a call to repentance for many people. But Bahnsen himself leads the way here, to a degree. He shows how even he had to be corrected and have a teachable spirit on this issue. When he first began to study the biblical view of war, he says,

I had been prejudiced, I guess, by my teachers and whatever other influences were there, that the Bible would say some very vague, general things about war that we would then have to make a tough time applying because of the generality and the sparsity of material. But when you turn to Deuteronomy chapter 20, you see that the Bible has a lot to say (and we could read other chapters as well). The Bible has a lot to say about the conducting of wars. . . . Jehovah wishes for wars to be conducted properly. Jehovah has rules for warfare; because, you see, Jehovah does not give to man the indiscriminate authority or right to engage in violence and take the property and lives of other people.

Thus, as theonomists, we must acknowledge that God is sovereign even in warfare. All civil and earthly authorities will give account to God for how they conduct war. This means that we must take seriously how the Bible places real constraints upon how we conduct warfare: “The biblical ethic is not an ethic of any means to the end as long as the end is a good one. Even the means toward a good end must be good.” A just war, if we can use that phrase, must not only have a just cause, but a just conduct.

Just War

In this regard, Bahnsen steps back to give an overview of the traditional Just War Theory. He gives “six elaborations”:

1. The cause and intention of a war must be just. It must have limited and just objectives. Conquest, for example, is unjust.

2. There must be a legitimate right to intervene with violence, and a declaration by the lawful government of its intent to do so. Bahnsen states,

It’s one thing to say that something is happening in the world that is unjust and calls for rectification and restoration; and it’s another thing to say, “I have the right to be the one who engages in that just cause.” There’s a difference between a cause being just and someone having the right to police the matter.

3. War must be an absolute last resort. All forms of peaceful negotiation need to be attempted first. “Appeal must first be made to right before recourse is made to might.”

4. There must be a probability of winning. A war is not just unless it is entered with the probability of success. Bahnsen reasons,

We don’t like to hear this, but it’s one of the brute facts of life that not all just causes can be successfully prosecuted. And it is unjust to ask for a vain sacrifice of property, money, and lives; it is unjust to ask for the taking away of the freedom and life of an individual when the prospect of success in that venture is not great.

As a side note, this is one of the few areas I might disagree with Bahnsen’s view—at least to the point of qualifying this rule as not absolute. After all, were this principle held inviolable, it would rule out cases such as the famous Battle of Thermopylae and the American Revolution’s call of “Liberty or Death.”

5. The potential cost to be incurred by warfare should not be a greater evil than that which is to be remedied. Bahnsen explains,

Just stop and think about it: there are probably some bad things happening in the world that we might be able very successfully to take care of, but the cost of taking care of them would turn out to be a greater burden, a greater evil to us than the remedy of those evils themselves. That has to be taken into account.

6. Finally, the means of violence employed must be both discriminate and proportional. The means must not be “an all-out war, do whatever you can, to obliterate the enemy. . . . The violence that is employed must be only that which is sufficient to restore the peace that has been destroyed by the aggressor nation.”

Further, this means it should be “a war that carefully distinguishes civilians from combatants.” Collateral damage of innocents, for example through drone strikes, Bahnsen therefore probably would not have sanctioned.

Reformed Doctrine

Bahnsen notes that this theory basically comports with Reformed doctrine. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 23, section 2 states that the civil magistrate, in his job of maintaining justice, may “wage war upon just and necessary occasion.”

But definitions are in order. What would constitute a “just occasion”? Bahnsen argues that the end of maintaining “piety, justice, and peace” means that a just war would be “a defensive war to protect the lives and property of citizens who are under the magistrate’s jurisdiction, or in some cases to protect the civil order itself.”

But in order to authorize these definitions, Bahnsen turns to the only infallible, authoritative guide.

Biblical Law

Beyond generalities, Bahnsen’s main argument in the lecture is that our primary and ultimate instruction comes from the Law of God found in Scripture.

He believes that the basic points of just war theory “can be biblically supported.” But he wants to show us that Scripture goes much further. Here, it’s time to take account. This will separate the men from the boys:

However, before we can go and talk about just warfare, we need to take a few minutes before we look at the Bible, and ask ourselves, “Do we really want the Bible to be our guide in the conducting of wars?”

There are various reasons for this. The first is that some are quick either to criticize or to adopt the Old Testament Canaanite ban:

For those who take an antagonistic position to that will be very quick to tell us that the Bible cannot be our guide, because when we look at the Bible, we see what has come to be called “holy wars” of Jehovah. And do we really wish to say that we are in the same position as Old Testament Israel, that special nation chosen by God to be His redeemed people; that elect, holy nation being sent by God into war? Do we really wish to say that we, perhaps because we’re a “Christian nation,” have the right to go out and destroy communism anywhere on the globe? Do we really want to take that mantle upon ourselves of “holy war”?

Bahnsen refutes this position: there is a “special place for holy war provisions, the crusades of God, in the Bible.”

It is true that God gave positive commands for a particular time and place to impose a special curse of mass capital punishment upon the Canaanite tribes as Israel occupied the land. And I believe that this guidance from God has a unique role in the history of redemption. That is to say, what we read in the Bible about God’s provisions of holy war has a unique place—not a normative, not a common, not an ongoing nor a valid place—in our reasoning about war.

It is necessary, therefore, that “we have to distinguish between the acts of God on the one hand and the Law of God on the other.” Acts can be unique per special revelations from the sovereign God who has the right and authority to proclaim and execute them. The Law, however, is the “standing policy directive for His people.”

Bahnsen wants us to be clear on this: “The Laws of God have a general and abiding warrant or guidance for His people.” The Law is, in fact, “the policy directive for all men and all nations.”

It is our job, therefore, to distinguish between those parts of God’s Law that were given as special directive to Israel in the land of Canaan, and those parts which abide for all nations and times. This is basic theonomic method, and Bahnsen notes that the distinction is very clear in Old Testament Law on the issue of war: “However, in our Scripture reading . . . in the 20th chapter of Deuteronomy, you will notice that there are laws given by God that are specifically distinguished from what we’ve just been talking about [the Canaanite ban]. There are laws given by God which are not for the special occasion of holy war.” The requirements for the offer of “Peace” and the laws for “spoils” are examples of the latter—they are specifically the opposite of the ban. They applied for nations not involved in the special ban upon Canaanites.

Bahnsen then turns to those abiding laws for warfare. First, he notes that Numbers 1:2–3 stipulates that the army should be composed of all males 20 years and older. Bahnsen uses the term “drafted” here. I would not use that term, but he did. However, it is clear from how he continues that he does not envision the type of compulsory “draft” used in American history.

He notes from Deuteronomy 20:4–5 that “even when a draft was used—conscription into military service was used—there were exemptions for the draft.” These exemptions pertained to newly bought property, new vineyards, and newlyweds. Bahnsen comments, “The whole point of war is to preserve homes, and families, and property. Therefore, for the sake of homes, and families, and property, those who have newly done these things do not need to give up their right to enjoy them.”

But the exemptions don’t stop there. They also include “the fainthearted,” for which Bahnsen says, “There is great common sense to this,” and to those called to religious service (Num. 1:48–49).

Bahnsen goes further on this issue, however, for as we shall see below, he believes the Law teaches “selective conscientious objection”—meaning that we should have the right to dissent from any war the nation wages which we consider ungodly. He also believes in a selective militia rather than a standing army.

Further, before the actual conduct of a war, Deuteronomy 20:10–12 states that we must proclaim peace to the enemy first. We must offer articles of peace that could prevent war.

Only after terms of peace are rendered impossible, should war proceed. And yet even then it must be proper. It starts with “siege.” Obviously, we don’t have walled cities today, and siege in that literal sense does not apply. Nevertheless, there is still strong application of the concept. According to Bahnsen, “besiege” means “you don’t attack that city, even after it declines the convenient articles of peace that you’ve offered. Even then, the first step in the war is to besiege the city. You’re to wait them out, starve them off, cut off their supplies—because it would be better to do that than to go in and violently take away human life.”

In the course of such siege/war, or even subsequent war itself, Deuteronomy 20:19–20 demands that you shall not destroy the fruit trees of that land; the non-fruit trees only could be cut down, and only for the war effort. Bahnsen explains: “What this tells us is that total destruction of a culture, and total destruction of its livelihood, is not the godly way to wage war. There are to be no wars of annihilation. . . . War is to be waged against combatants and not against the earth, and thus destructive power must be used discriminately.”

Defensive Wars Only, No Standing Army

Bahnsen further argues that a “just cause” must be “defensive.”

There is in the Bible no warrant for aggressive warfare as a general rule for just any nation. Just stop and think about the significance of that silence. Sometimes we can fallaciously appeal to silence. However, I don’t believe this is fallacious. For you see, no man has the right to take another man’s property, take another man’s freedom, take another man’s life without warrant from God. And therefore the absence of any warrant from God in His Word for aggressive warfare is a deafening silence, morally speaking. No man may take it upon himself to stand in judgment over the life and property of another.

Based on such principles, any lives lost in unjust wars should be considered as “murder.”

If God has not sanctioned the killing of another individual, we know very well that we consider that murder. If God has not, therefore, sanctioned aggressive warfare, those who die in that situation have been murdered.

Further, Deuteronomy 17:16 commands that horses—an “offensive weapon” of the day—were to be limited. Thus follows Bahnsen’s notice of how biblical law prohibits a standing army: “Israel was not to be an aggressive nation after taking the land. And there was to be no standing army in Israel.” This is apparent in other places as well: “Deuteronomy 20:9 indicates that there were no regular officers in Israel. It would appear from more texts than we have time to study tonight that Israel used a militia system that was called upon for special purposes.”

Bahnsen was clear that this is a moral command of God: “Only defensive war . . . from a moral standpoint” Unless God has specially warranted the taking of life and property from others, “then it is immoral.” And this applies to us: “that principle of God’s Law would apply to all nations.”


Bahnsen did allow that there is such a thing as a “preventative war,” but his use of the term is a far cry from that of crusaders and hawks. For Bahnsen, pre-emptive war can only be used strictly in a defensive context requiring clear intent from an aggressing enemy.

“A defensive war, might involve what we today would call preventative warfare. It is sometimes the case that you in defense take the first step to strike against your opponent when you have an indication—a clear indication—of that opponent’s intention to attack you or your country.” Lest this be taken as support for military actions in his own day, Bahnsen would note later in this lecture, “I, for one, am convinced that we have no jurisdiction or right to be waging a war in the Middle East.”

Instead, Bahnsen was noting a controversial caveat to just war theory. Even then, he proceeded with strong caution and acknowledgment of the thin ice: “Now that gets to be very tricky,” and for this reason, discussion of preventative war requires “rules and limitations” that apply “only when there is a clear intention on the part of this nation to war against us. So, in order to save human life we might take the first step and stop that from happening.”

But the more important rule, and one which Bahnsen spends time developing, is the requirement of jurisdiction, and the principle which should rule the day: a non-interventionist foreign policy.

He asks, “What about the issue of intervening in the affairs of another nation for good causes? What about waging crusades for just ends in other nations?” He answers: a just war must involve the right to intervene.

There have been many crusades waged in the history of the western world, and in our own nation, for what are, purportedly, just causes. To make the world safe for democracy we’ve entered into war. We have engaged in war to end all wars. We engage in war to rescue the oppressed. We engage in war to protect the world against nuclear proliferation. And on and on the list could go—all of them good causes to engage in a crusade. But the issue before us tonight now is, “Do we have a right to intervene—to expend money and blood for the sake of that cause?”

Bahnsen gives two analogies. I think they are undeveloped and thus weak, but they have the principle right: jurisdiction is limited.

Do you have the right the right to intervene, for example, to take over the control and discipline of your neighbor’s children, to oversee, for example, in brushing their teeth? No. It would be an infraction of jurisdictional boundaries. (Granted, there are infractions for which intervention would be warranted—abuse, etc. But here it would not be by another family, but by lawful civil authority. This needs to be fleshed out further, but the principle stands.)

Secondly, for example, do we have the right to excommunicate unrepentant sinners of a denomination we are not in? Obviously not. Although the cause is right, there is no jurisdiction.

Thus Bahnsen concludes in the civil realm between nations: “The fact that a cause is just does not mean that just anybody can become the police power in dealing with the injustice that is being rectified.”

The moral issue is going to become one of jurisdiction: the circumscribed area of lawful authority or the State. And I believe the circumscribed area of authority for the state is its own citizens, not the citizens of another land or another nation. . . .

Do nations accrue moral responsibility in the name of justice for what happens in foreign regimes? If so, where does God tell us this? Where does God tell us we have the right to intervene in another nation, even in a just cause? And the answer to that is that deafening silence: He does not.

States and peoples who desire to abuse these moral boundaries are pushing for a messianic state: “The misguided messianic pretentions of states should be avoided. For you see, good intentions, in even a just cause, are not sufficient to make the action of war morally right. . . . We cannot guarantee the freedom of other people. We cannot guarantee their just treatment, and it is not our business to do so” (Prov. 26:17; 11:15; 17:18).

But don’t we as Christians have an obligation to help our neighbors when they’re attacked? Bahnsen rebukes this question as “skewed reasoning, fallacious reasoning.” It reflects an attitude of coercion: “What I choose to do is one thing. But I have no right to choose for another whatever I choose to do.” What does he mean by this in regard to warfare? He says,

I can choose to give up my life, my freedom, my security for good, just causes. But I cannot choose that for you, nor can you choose it for me, nor can the United States choose it for individuals who have not chosen it for themselves. . . .

Politicians who choose intervention by war, let’s remember, are always expending the lives money and freedom of others, and they have no right to do that except where God has authorized. They have no right to take jurisdiction, apply the police, coercive powers of the state except where God authorizes. The state is an agency of coercion, and whenever the state decides to help one person or to help one group, it must coercively take that help from other people.

This includes defense. The same rule that condemns the welfare states also condemns the warfare state. The state has no right to effect the redistribution of wealth, Bahnsen says,

nor does the state have the right to choose my son’s blood for the sake of its political ends, even if it is a just cause. Because the question is whether God has authorized the state—the United States of America—to intervene in the affairs of another nation. Has God made the United States of America the policeman of the world? And so the moral issue is one of jurisdiction.

Bahnsen is very candid in applying this to our own time: “If we look at the factors that enter into a just war, we may be inclined to say that some of the military conflicts, even by our own wonderful nation, the United States of America, have not been just wars.”

Three Applications/Qualifications

Bahnsen provides three elucidations to what he has taught so far. First, the Bible teaches the right of selective conscientious objection. This means that people have “the moral right to refuse to support ungodly war. . . . People have the right to object to warfare when those qualifications are not met.”

But here is a problem: “The Supreme Court has ruled out and prohibited selective conscientious objection.” One cannot object selectively war-by-war in modern America, but must declare themselves a conscientious objector across the board. But this is pacifism “which is not what our confession of faith and not what the Bible teaches at all.” In America, conscientious objection is either all-or-nothing, and this is wrong.

Secondly, Bahnsen wants to distinguish between the moral support we give a political administration and the moral support we give troops who are carrying out those decisions. He explains,

So although I, for one, am convinced that we have no jurisdiction or right to be waging a war in the Middle East, I also am a fervent supporter of those compatriots of mine who are over there fighting the war. For you see it is one thing to say that the highest command is wrong in what it is doing, and another thing not to support those are there doing something in the interest of justice.

This is one of the few areas I don’t think Bahnsen is fully consistent, for I do not think this nuance fully applies his own teachings above concerning a standing army and selective conscientious objection. This moral dilemma is one that arises from the problem of a standing army. Once you enlist, you have signed a contract to fight in whatever wars you are sent into, or else face court-martial. To enlist is to waive what right you have to selective conscientious objection. Thus, you have agreed to fight, potentially, in unjust wars. And thus, do I have a moral right to support that person when the event arises? I would have liked the opportunity to ask Bahnsen this question.

Moreover, this distinction runs one into the potential logical corner of the Nuremburg defense. Even though you implicitly agree to fight in any unjust wars up front, the soldier and the supporters of soldiers who are fighting in an unjust war can simply say, “It’s the administration’s responsibility. I’m just following orders.”

Bahnsen did not unpack this issue this far. But he did return more fully to the logic of freedom and a free militia during the subsequent Q&A. Someone asked him if it would be acceptable for people to go voluntarily to fight in the just causes of other nations, even if it would be wrong for their own nation to intervene on the national level. Bahnsen answered that soldiers can voluntarily join an effort waged in another nation—he just objects to them being coerced to do so. This is the correct answer, and it comports nicely with his position against a standing army and wars of intervention.

Third, Bahnsen argues that biblical realism demands that moral decisions to be made even after a primary decision which is immoral has been made. In other words, just because an immoral decision has been made, we do not cancel all subsequent decisions because of that.

Again, I do not quite follow Bahnsen specifically here, but only in broad general way. Again, I think his analogies are undeveloped, but unlike the ones regarding jurisdiction above, I don’t think these can be improved. He argues that Old Testament Law has preventions for the abuse of polygamy even though the Law condemned polygamy. The same was true of divorce and slavery. These things, Bahnsen argues, indicate that God expects us to do the right thing even after critical mistakes have been made.

In short, if a nation enters an ungodly war, we have to ask, “Now what do we do?”

When a nation enters into a just cause without the right to do so, and therefore is engaging in an unjust war, there still remains the further ethical question of ‘What should we do now’? Now that the troops have been committed? Now that all of this time, and effort, and money has gone into it?

“First of all, sometimes, pulling out of a military conflict at that point in time can create worse conditions to rectify. . . . It’s certainly a theoretical possibility.” This is certainly true, and it provides proper context for the question. This returns us to all the other principles we have discussed—counting the costs of war, etc. Bahnsen is saying that sometimes pulling out immediately, or possibly even at all, can be more costly.

Again, we must acknowledge that, unfortunately, Bahnsen’s 1-hour lecture could not unpack all that his brilliant and incisive mind could have provided on the issue. I wish he would have gone into much more detail in some places.


Bahnsen concludes the evening by reminding us that the cause of war is sin. But whereas many leaders would use this fact as a reason for the need for crusades and aggression, Bahnsen sees it as a reason to uphold non-intervention:

In the end, the answer to the problem of war is never going to be found with more violence. As clever as we get, and as many rules for warfare that we look at, in the end there’s going to have to be a whole other approach to putting an end to war in this world, and I’ll give you a little hint: I believe that the answer to that is going to be to send missionaries and not bombs.

Indeed, there is something way more powerful that interventionism. We have weapons way more powerful than bombs. This is not to a call to pacifism, by any means, but to priorities.

In the end, Bahnsen turned to scripture for the laws of military and warfare. He found very specific Laws from God. These laws calls us to war only in just causes, for defensive wars only, with voluntary militias, only after every possible avenue of peace is exhausted, only in measured responses, only when feasible physically and financially, and only where we have legitimate jurisdiction to do so. These laws, according to Bahnsen, forbid standing armies, wars of aggression, and interventionism. Bahnsen’s non-interventionist principle would have us as a nation, most of the time, minding our own business, pursuing peace, and sending missionaries instead of soldiers.

Consider partnering with us