The European War in the Light of God's Word (Part I)

by August Pieper
translated by Caleb Bassett

The years 1914-1918 were a time of great turmoil for all the nations of the world. The circumstances in our land during World War I would make today’s national turmoil look minute. Secular powers were slaughtering each other as a result of a dizzying chain reaction that had precipitated the war in Europe and eventually the entire world. Everyone, it seemed, was doing a bit of soul-searching, especially Christians. There is a striking parallel between the early years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century. At both times it was thought that the glorious human civilization and culture could prevent warfare on a grand scale. Our generation was shocked to see terrorism poison the world, and the Americans of almost a hundred years ago were appalled at the outbreak of armed conflict in Europe.

The parallels between the ages continue. During World War I the secular would found it easy to accuse Christianity and religion as a failure. If everyone in Europe were so Christian, why is there war? In the same way today, religion is questioned as an unenlightened, useless phenomenon. The Christian faith is often considered to be too zealous and thereby part of the problem of international religious conflict.

August Pieper no doubt recognized the potential for doubt and worry at a time of war, and his essay as follows addresses many of the concerns on the minds of Lutherans at his time. His words published in October of 1914 ring true even today. This illustrates a few things. First, it shows us that throughout the ages sin will cause devastating problems in our lives. Second, our problems are not unlike the problems Christians faced in the past. And finally, although there were tremendous problems in the past, the True Knowledge of Christ has prevailed, and will prevail even today. We need only to trust in God and rely on him.

Before we begin with the essay, a few notes about the translation. The translation below is the first half of the 18 page original from Theologische Quartalschrift (Vol. 11, Iss. 4). In the interest of space, the work will be published in two parts, with the second portion appearing in the spring issue of Studium. The translation below would be better described as a meager attempt to communicate in the English tongue the German text of an author who at times defies translation. While it is not a work “rewritten,” it is nevertheless a careful effort to reflect the meaning and concepts communicated by the German language while at the same time taking liberties for the sake of readability in the English language. It is by no means a literal translation, since such a work would many times hinder understanding.

May the grace of God offer comfort to his elect at times of war.


  1. Has Christianity Failed?
  2. Is War Ever Justified?
  3. Who Will Triumph?

At the beginning of the month of August this year the long feared war between the major powers of Europe and several small states suddenly broke out. For years the storm threatened on the horizon, but everyone considered its outbreak nearly impossible. The thought appeared too horrible and incongruous with the modern state of culture. Everyone was clearly aware that such a war would mean fifty to a hundred years of physical, economical and cultural paralysis for each participating power; and for the vanquished side it would mean complete ruin, yes perhaps even political annihilation. Royal and civil regulations, millions of human lives, the condition of the homeland of countless families, all property and possessions of nations, as well as the advances of an almost two thousand year old civilization and intellectual culture hang in the balance. Which power could dare to unchain the fury of war at a time of such danger for itself and at such costs for the civilized world, especially when all the powers are armed to the teeth and stand ready to attack in the first moment of real danger? We all know how it happened: The prince’s murder in Sarajevo, the Austrian ultimatum, the Serbian refusal, the Austrian punitive expedition to Belgrade. Russia arose, then Austria-Germany, then France, then Belgium and England, and finally heathen Japan. On the one side, the war originated from hate and envy; and on the other, from fear. Each government believed it could scare the others away by keeping their hand on the hilt. But as usual, this method was in vain. The swords flew out of their sheaths, and the war was on.

The war has now raged for ten weeks. The struggle storms on two great lines of battle east and west of Germany. There is unprecedented bitterness from the Austrian-German side, who are contending for their existence against the overpowering coalition of Russia—France—England—Belgium. Although the German-Austrian armies have been for the most part victorious and Belgium has been crushed, the crisis is not yet over. Nobody knows how long it may continue. No pen can describe the nameless misery which the war has brought up to now, and will bring to the quarreling peoples. Almost the entire world, especially we in America, feels the surging of its waves in the stagnation of trade and industry. The entire world is displaced, laments, cries, is angry at or grumbles about those whom they consider responsible for the outbreak of the war. Whoever still believes in a living god—Christians, Jews, even Turks and unbelievers—sigh and pray, mostly for the victory of their nation or for the victory of the nation moving on their behalf. And we Christians pray for the victory of what’s right. Above all however, we pray that God have mercy on the miserable, that he bring an end to the hatred and bloodshed, and that he grant peace to Christianity when his purposes have been accomplished.

We Christians here in this land have our thoughts about the war and our wishes concerning its outcome. I wonder if we Germans, Britons, Poles, Slovakians, Russians, Norwegians and Lithuanians in the Lutheran church of this land all think, speak and pray with one mind and spirit. Of all natural things, nothing is more difficult to overcome than the love for one’s own flesh and blood. Blood is thicker than water. Therefore, during such crises the opinions, wishes and prayers among various nationalities of Christians contradict each another. Everyone swears that his people are just and the enemy is unjust. Everyone prays for his nation’s victory. And the world taunts, “What will your God do in this dilemma?” From this self-contradictory situation the world takes new cause to toss out all religion. And this hyper-nationalism puts at risk the peace in our church of our land, which is a melting-pot of peoples. But with Christians it should be possible that matters of the nation be put so far behind the matters of Christianity that the unity of spirit among us not be disturbed. And that is possible when we all steep our thoughts and wishes in God’s Word and let them be determined by the Scriptures.

First, something in defense against the World.

Has Christianity Failed?

The world blasphemes: These are Christian people who are at war. Orthodox, Roman, and Protestant people are slaughtering each other on opposite sides. Christianity—which wants to be the religion of peace, love, humility, and self-denial—didn’t have the power to develop enough love, let alone enough sense of righteousness among themselves to peacefully work out the unresolved differences between them. At the moment in which the prosperity of the Christian world hung in the balance, Christianity denied its strength and handed the world over to barbarity, mass-murder and destruction. In the hour of need, Christianity has failed miserably and thereby condemned itself.

We answer: Only he who does not know Christianity can speak with such misunderstanding. He who wishes to measure the gospel by the common outward successes in the world must cancel the entire gospel. It was present in the Old Testament and didn’t captivate the heathen world, rather it remained confined essentially to little Israel. The New Testament gospel went out to the Gentiles, but up until today, in two millennia, it has only made barely a third of the world’s people into its outward followers. Yes, the gospel has never converted the nations as a whole. Our own land is as full of the Word as any other; but even here it has left two-thirds of the population unconverted. It is an audacious synecdoche when one speaks of “Christian peoples.” In the actual sense, there has never been a Christian nation, nor will there ever be. Even in the so-called Christian nations the majority has been constantly unchristian. The spread of the gospel is a secret of the inscrutable majesty of God, just as the gospel itself is a mystery through and through. God gives his Word where and when he desires. He also causes it to be fruitful and successful among those who hear it where and when he pleases. The gospel is the power of God for salvation and sanctification. It does not work by mechanical power. It is not an electric battery filled with a certain quantity of energy. Nor does it run as if it had been fed with electric current of certain strength. It does not universally and infallibly carry out a specific quantity of electrical effect as soon as you complete the circuit. The gospel is about an effect from person to person.

The power at work in the gospel is not something that God created, emitted, and detached from his person; nor is it a pure technical power which moves forward in and of itself. Instead it is and remains God’s direct personal work. It is therefore not subject to any mechanically effective natural law, since God’s person is not subject to any law. Instead, he is absolutely free and Lord of every law. He gives his gospel when and where he wants, and he works through it where and how he wants. Indeed it is true that God’s Word by itself is always powerful for the salvation and sanctification of the sinner; a fire, and a hammer which crushes stones (Jeremiah 23:29); living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12); and a rain that does not fall on the land without effect (Isaiah 55:10). But it is also just as true that God works in and through his Word where and when it pleases him. He who does not confess this does not understand the gospel and Christianity.

On the other hand, the people upon whom the gospel works are not dead machines, assembled correctly, perfect in every detail, well-oiled, which stand there and set themselves into motion as soon as the required amount of power is turned on. That which the intuitu fidei[^intuit] people stress so strongly but employ incorrectly is true: That a person, even a sinner, is a free personality with formal freedom of the will. God created man in this way. Through sin we have now in fact become powerless to use this freedom of the will in taking up the gospel. Instead we are able only to reject the gospel more strongly and more resolutely, or to be pleased with the gospel only in an outward fashion. And God does not use external power to force anyone to faith, renewal, and sanctification. Those who do not want it, he lets be. He who is evil, let him always be. And whoever is impure, let him always be (Revelation 22:11).

Thus it happens that Christ’s flock on earth has always been the little flock, and so it will remain. It is the world’s fault that they cannot welcome the spirit of truth, confession, love, peace, and chastity. It is the world’s fault that we preach the crucified Christ as an offense to the Jews and as foolishness to the Gentiles. The world is too righteous, too wise, too agreeable, and too cultivated to accept the Gospel. The world believes so firmly in human virtue and men’s worth, in human knowledge and ability, and in the nobility of the human heart. And the Lord says, “I praise you, Father and Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden this from the wise and learned, and revealed it to children” (cf. Matthew 11:25). “I have come to call sinners to repentance, and not the righteous” (cf. Luke 5:32) “He who does not deny everything he has cannot be my disciple” (cf. Luke 14:33) “It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (cf. Matthew 19:24). Or consider what the Lord once called out to the people of Israel, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone the ones sent to you! How often have I desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings, and you did not want it” (cf. Matthew 23:37). And that is valid for the modern world today, especially for the so-called “cultured nations.” They have the war, not because the gospel hasn’t displayed its power on them, but rather because they have rejected it and its divine power so that they can live the pure, human culture, that is the cult of natural things, with all the sin, ungodliness, and corruption it involves.

The Christianity, the gospel of God, has not failed. Rather, if a Christianity has failed here, then it is the personal Christianity of those who are to blame for the war. Our personal Christianity overflows in us poor sinners through the gospel that never fails of spiritual power. Nevertheless, our personal Christianity, our faith and our fragile strength fail often.

Every time we Christians sin, then our Christianity fails, especially when we fall into grave sins. When the disciples quarreled among themselves who should be the greatest, when Paul and Barnabas were at odds, when Peter denied his Lord, when Moses and Aaron began to doubt, and when David fell into adultery and murder and into trust in his own military might, God’s Word didn’t fail with them, instead their personal Christianity failed. And if we want to be exact, then it was not their Christianity that failed, but rather they themselves, their person, their free will. They failed because of the power of the sinful flesh living in them. Through the gospel God gives enough spiritual power and strength to the powerless. It was not necessary that David and Peter fall, but rather they fell because they did not keep watch, they nourished the sin in their heart, and smothered Christianity in themselves for a moment. Therefore the ones who conjured up and released the war were Christians, thus it is their Christianity that has failed. They themselves have failed because they denied their Christianity.

And now it is not even the people as national masses who wage war, but rather it is the intellectual leaders, authors, poets, historians, and journalists who fill the folk with grand plans and endeavors of war. It is the jingoes and hyper-patriots who derange the minds of the peoples with delusions of national grandeur. They incite the peoples against one another with phrases like, “La grande nation,” “Brittannia rules the waves,” “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” Pan-Slavism,1 Pan-Germanism,2 and whatever else the various other vanities are called. And truly, those phrases and ideas are no more Christian than when the Jews say, “We have Abraham as our father.” And as soon the political organization of a nation filled with jingoism is guided and led by one whose foreign policy is dictated by desire for greatness, lust after dominance, and the like, the nations will be entangled in conflict and war. As usual, the first ranks of those responsible for the war are the nations’ intellectual and political powers, the diplomats. Very seldom do the masses rush to war. For they know that they are putting their own lives on the line.3 But who would say that personal Christianity somehow plays an impacting role among current politicians?

Is War Ever Justified?

If something failed here, then it wasn’t Christianity, but rather the much-celebrated modern culture which was considered a bulwark against a war among civilized nations. But even that cannot be said about all belligerents. One can condemn the culture of those who started the war, but the peoples upon whom the war has been imposed lose because they wage a war of self-defense, not the demand of culture. Even Christian morals do not forbid a war of defense. The same morals apply between nations just as between individuals. There are not two kinds of ethics. It is a fanatic and perverse error of some sects when they deny the right of forceful self- defense against a murderer. They falsely base their claim on God’s Word, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person” (cf. Matthew 5:39). Of course, this word and the command to love our neighbors endure in all instances. But there is another command, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man” (cf. Genesis 9:6). Anyone who sees a murderer draw a murder weapon over the head of a guiltless child should hinder the murder if he can, even if it costs the murderer his life. The murderer has not first forfeited his life through the completed murder, but rather through the murder he has already begun. And in this situation, every bystander is appointed policeman and protector for the child under attack, and is given power over the life of the attacking murderer. The bystander is here the murderer’s and the child’s ruling authority, equipped with the sword to punish the evildoer and to praise the pious. Thus it is the same when one is himself threatened by the murderer. In this instance, one is appointed by God as his own policeman and authority. He is allowed, and indeed should defend against the murderer, even with the sword or revolver if necessary. That we should not thereby progress to killing without the absolute highest need goes without saying. But when one cannot do otherwise; if one must do it in order to save his own life or the life of another, then one can do it with righteous fury over the disgraceful action of the murderer and at the same time pray a pious Lord’s Prayer that is heard favorably by God. Here the command to love our neighbors is not broken, it is kept. The one who does this has freed humanity from an object of wrath, and has pronounced a death sentence for God.

The right of the state is based upon this principle. The authorities are nothing other than the voice of society which consists of individuals who organize for the purpose of outward order. Some of our elders derive the individual’s right for self-defense from the authorities who confer it to them in case of need. That is not necessary. It is much more natural the other way around. The police-power as such belongs to each human, and the state or the authorities have no power that does not come originally from each individual member of the society; just as there is no church power which didn’t originally belong to each Christian. The state, as the church, gets its power first from its individual members. But the manner of practice and management in society is at once different than with individuals. Where a group is present and functioning, individuals may not practice their right for the sake of order and equal rights unless they have the proper vocal support of others. But where a group, and respectively the state, is not present, and if the situation demands action of law enforcement, then nothing hinders me from asserting my basic right with my own hand. Every Christian a priest, every citizen a policeman. Indeed, Luther derives both spiritual and worldly power from the office of parenthood.4 That is also correct when one does not thereby disown the individual priest- and police-power.

Just as the organized citizenry has the right to prevent and punish murder and all crimes among them, so also it has the right to repel all outside enemies, as well as the right to self-defense, which belongs to it as a unified, organized mass, and is based on the same rules that apply to every individual. A nation has the right to protect itself against every other nation, and a state against every other state, unless the individual state is united with other such states and has thereby handed over the practice of police power to the larger nation that they have become. But in an emergency no one could deny the state of Bavaria its right to protect itself if it were suddenly attacked by the Saxons, although both states belong to the German Empire. In short, citizens and nations protecting themselves against other citizens and nations can do so in no other way than with sword, cannon, and bombs. Thus, in God’s name, let no one kill and damage without real need. The guilt of bloodshed does not fall upon the defender, rather upon the attacker. To deny the right of emergency self-defense is to make impossible all godly order, all peaceful coexistence of people and nations, even the existence of the church and her influence5 on earth. It would also hand the earth over to murderers and criminals. The nations in this war who were unjustly assaulted and attacked wage a righteous and pious war. They may call to God for help and victory, and can be certain that he will favorably hear them. Yes, whether they pray or not, God is with them because he is on the side of justice and against what is unjust. He would be morally on their side even if they were a nation of heathens and mockers. God will demand justice from the nation that assaulted and attacked another, even if it were a nation of pure saints, unless it had a special commission from God to show for its campaigns as Israel once had. Only in this sense can one justify the text of the German Kaiser’s favorite song, “Dutch Prayer of Thanks,” as it is on the lips of the deploying German warrior: “We go forth praying to God the Righteous One, etc.”6

Who Will Triumph?

Of course, the victory does not always come visibly to the just, and defeat does not always come to the unjust. That is proven well enough by the history of warfare and our daily experience. We need only to point to Napoleon’s early course of victory. God often gives victory to the unjust and causes good to be served by evil. That is consistent with the contrary. He who recognizes only righteousness and grace as the ordering principle in God’s governance of the world fails to consider that the hidden God is all around us. He does things as he wishes; and nobody may repel his hand, nor say to him, “What are you doing!?” How completely incomprehensible are his judgments, and how impenetrable his ways! Also here it is worthwhile to recognize that God’s ways with individuals and entire nations do not agree with our reason. Nor do they agree with the righteousness and grace that has been revealed to us. This is exactly what the scriptures mean when they speak of a hidden God and his mysterious judgments and ways. Despite all revelation, nobody has recognized God’s disposition or his final reason. “Now I know in part” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12), in part. Therefore, we cannot conclude with infallible certainty who will be victorious in this war by comparing the justice of one side over and against the other. And on the contrary we cannot conclude from the victory of one party that they are a just cause. In due time God will make clear which side is just.

Continue to Part II

  1. Pan-Slavism is the idea or advocacy of a political union of all the Slavic peoples. 

  2. Pan-Germanism is the idea or advocacy of a union of all the German peoples in a single political organization or state. 

  3. Lit.: They are bringing their own hides to the market. 

  4. German: Elternamt. An English translation of this word is not able to represent its rich meaning. The German uses the word Amt (which is also used to describe the ministry) in conjunction with “parents” to signify the great importance of Christian parenthood. 

  5. German: Ausbau. The word has a dictionary definition of “extension of cultivation.” 

  6. Wir treten zum Beten vor Gott den Gerechten, etc. 

A German Lutheran grapples with the outbreak of World War I.

 Aug 4, 2006