Book Review


[1] In this book, Gary M. Simpson, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, offers a thorough and instructive introduction to a vital aspect of our public life together as Christians. War, Peace, and God presents a timely reminder that the just-war tradition handed down to us by our forefathers bears striking dissimilarities to the arguments and justifications currently advanced in the modern political arena. Every variety of public media proliferates rationales for going to war (or not) and the methods by which war may (or may not) be waged. When sound bites and polemics rule the airwaves, thoughtful articulations of the manner in which war may be determined as just or unjust are few and far between.

[2] Simpson’s presentation serves as an excellent resource to anyone desirous of investigating the development and content of traditional just-war theory. The book addresses matters one might expect from a college level course on just war and could certainly be used in that context. Each chapter ends with a series of questions tailored to aid in group discussion or individual reflection. Simpson’s historical analysis provides careful distinctions and thoughtful presentations from which university students, church leaders and laymen alike would benefit. Three sections, each with multiple chapters, comprise the argument of the book. The first section provides the reader with the basic framework, rationale, and perspective for examining just-war thinking. The second traces the historical development, examining several key figures who greatly impacted the ways in which war has both been judged and also justified. The challenging and provocative third section consists of Simpson’s exhortations toward a non-pacifist and yet proactive peace-making strategy, outlining his constructive project.
[3] While written for the Lutheran Voices series, Simpson’s work engages not only his own tradition, but encourages further ecumenical dialogues already underway between Lutherans and Catholics. More than that, it guides the reader through the less navigated waters that just war tradition will have to chart – humanitarian responsibility on behalf of the oppressed within nations, terrorism, war waged by groups other than nation-state entities, and the citizenry’s obligation in nations where the just-war tradition is properly or improperly invoked.
[4] The book begins with an apologetic for the importance of just-war tradition. Simpson anticipates and responds to questions about why Lutherans care so deeply about this topic. The case is made that Lutherans not only should care about this important issue, but that it has been a part of their heritage from the very beginnings of Lutheranism. The resources drawn upon in this argument are both historical and theological. The reader is carried back into the world of the Protestant Reformation and its genesis as the case is made for Lutheran engagement in just-war dialogue. Simpson, drawing from the Ninety-five Theses, the Diet of Worms and the Augsburg Confession, rejects interpretations that suggest Luther was a pacifist while keeping open possibilities of dialogue between Lutherans and Christians with pacifist sympathies. Simpson oversteps slightly in his assertion that the reason the Diet of Augsburg does not say more about just war is that “everyone at the time understood what just war was” (23). Still, the reader gains an immediate appreciation for the importance of this topic to the great reformer, since, as Simpson points out, war and peace are treated by Luther himself alongside such important themes as justification, law and gospel, and church and state.
[5] Ten criteria are laid out by which a war may be judged as to its justifiability. These standards are necessary both in assessing a war prior to its initiation and during its implementation. Importantly, Simpson distinguishes between just-war theory and just-war tradition in this discussion. His intention is that the criteria not be viewed as a checklist but as indicators – descriptive rather than prescriptive – for determining when war is being waged in a just manner. Each of the criteria is expounded such that a general presumption against war results. The criteria are clear and realistic about the complexities and ambiguities that arise in the arena of war, and Simpson is not overly optimistic that unanimity may be reached in assessing when even this short criteria list has been met. Due to such ambiguities in both description and implementation, Simpson prefers the nomenclature of tradition to that of theory, in order to emphasize that the justification of war is not an exact science. Standing between the polar alternatives of war-realism and strict pacifism, just-war tradition requires judicious attention to the delineated criteria in order to avoid misappropriation by those who seek to promote either unjust wars or an absolute pacifism.
[6] Simpson dedicates the middle section of the book to examining the historical development of the just war tradition. He first considers the contributions of the most influential figures in just-war thinking prior to the Reformation (Cicero, Ambrose, Augustine and Thomas) before a second chapter that considers significant modifications made by Luther, Vitoria, and Grotius. The criteria laid out in the first section of the book are drawn out of the historical figures’ writings he surveys. Simpson often quotes these figures [translations are always given in English], and while most of these citations’ sources appear in the endnotes, a future edition would benefit if notations were included for all quotes. Also, the ambitious inclusion of so many iconic individuals from such various times and places necessitates that their treatment by the author be limited to their respective contributions to the just-war criteria laid out in the first section of the book. Each criterion is attributed to its prominent proponent while each individual’s deficiencies with regard to the just-war tradition are not overlooked. Augustine and Thomas receive not only credit for the greatest contributions to advances in just-war tradition, but also responsibility for much of the wrong thinking that led to holy war/crusade justification. Similarly, Luther’s significant contributions were not immune to misappropriation, even by himself. Here, Simpson argues Luther’s advocacy of various forms of persecution in order to rid Germany of Jews to have been a terrible divergence from his earlier and more reliable statements on just-war. Simpson identifies and praises Vitoria’s critiques of the new world colonization and Grotius’ extraction of just-war from its biblical and theological foundations in order to place it on footings of natural law. In closing this section, acknowledgement is made of the debt owed by the just-war tradition to the Red Cross, United Nations, and the Geneva conventions. 
[7] From the first section that lays the groundwork for just-war thinking and from the second that traces its historical development, Simpson draws features for his final constructive chapters in which he considers recent developments in Catholic and Lutheran thinking on his topic. Here, for the first time, Simpson develops the positive “thou shalt” implications from the negative, prohibitive “thou shalt not” types of statements typically associated with just-war theory. Simpson draws inspiration from the “Just Peacemaking” movement that has grown into the organization known as Peace Action and is articulated in Glen Stassen’s Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War (Cleveland, Pilgrim: 1998). Simpson advocates the embrace of the just-war tradition’s strong presumption against war, but also seeks a further “pacific-turn” that he observes in various peace movements. From the Catholic denunciations of the Cold War, to its later publications The Challenge of Peace and The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, Simpson hopes that Lutherans will accept instruction on what is means to promote just peacemaking at the grass roots level of the local congregations. Indeed, rich soil for such thinking exists in Luther’s own works. As shown previously however, Luther is not entirely consistent on these matters and does not himself provide the best model for just peacemaking initiatives. One reason Simpson indicates Luther may not have been univocal on this matter was the lack of democratic forms of government at the time, and the contemporary assumption that legitimate authority was given from above by God rather than from below by the populace. In any event, Simpson closes this chapter with his strongest statements in favor of pacifism. He locates the just-war tradition adherents as one community under the larger umbrella of just-peacemaking, calling for every Lutheran church to join the pacifist “every church a peace church” movement.
[8] In the book’s final chapter Simpson addresses the four toughest questions or challenges just-peacemaking confronts: the responsibility to intervene for the protection of innocents, responding to terrorism, engaging super-powers (including the U.S.), and convincing others to participate in repentance. Combining such expansive topics is perhaps unfortunate in that each challenge truly merits its own separate chapter. Each of these concerns receives a response from the just-peacemaking perspective limited by the space and material that is able to be addressed, both in terms of the objections anticipated and Simpson’s offered solutions. Addressing each of the four challenges, Simpson does provide compelling reasons why those interested in just-war tradition re-envision themselves as but one aspect of the just-peacemaking movement. Even so, he concedes what others in the movement might not: “[War] is not the only effective response, though it might be depending on the circumstances” (96).
[9] Among the great merits of the book are its uncommon breadth, depth, and concision in articulating the development of just-war traditions’ many criteria. These standards by which war must be evaluated create a general presumption against war and serve as inhibitors or deterrents to engaging in war. Simpson’s book offers an introduction to these complex issues at a time when recent history has seen the proliferation of unjust wars. There is a clear mandate put forward that serves as not a prohibition, but as an inhibition to waging war. At the same time, Simpson provides a corresponding and insightful discussion that promotes and could even instigate war in a manner that is faithful to the just-war tradition he lays out. This smacks of double talk to those pacifists who accept just-war discussions only when they speak against wars. However, Simpson makes clear that the just-war tradition, while severely limiting those instances in which war may be justified, simultaneously presents rare occurrences where not going to war is unjustifiable – whether for reasons of self-defense or an ethical obligation, such as to end an otherwise unstoppable genocide. In this excellent resource, one finds the framework, history, and contemporary issues facing just war discussions. Simpson presents not an absolute rejection of war, but rather criteria that one might expect will lead to a rejection of war as a justifiable option in nearly every scenario. He does not seek to justify war, far from it, but rather seeks to describe the situation in which humanitarian intervention may be allowed onto the table of possibilities. This consideration of the rich just war tradition articulates the resources needed to avoid the pitfalls and over-simplifications pervasive in our all too often myopic contemporary culture.
© January 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 1