An Examination of the Biblical Theology Behind the First Crusade


This is some research I did on the theological thinking behind the first Crusade. It’s written to submit for a subject I am doing on the Theology of World Religions. I am blogging it as I have had a few people ask for a copy. It’s as deep as I can go in 2400 words. Reality is that whole books have been written on the topic – but hopefully you get something out of reading it. Part of the paper was to frame up why I chose to write on this topic.



It’s a cold blustery UK spring day in early 2006, and I am sitting in a Starbucks Cafe in Cardiff, Wales, within the shadow of the 1000 year old Cardiff Castle, totally immersed in the mystery-detective novel The Da Vinci Code[1]. It’s here, as I read about the red cross badged Knights Templar that my curiosity about the Crusades is conceived:- germinated as I walked within the intimidating walls of a castle that may well have been used by the Knights Templar and was indeed in existence as Pope Urban II issued his impassioned plea for a Crusade to liberate the Holy Land, as he spoke at Clermont. In 2013 whilst undertaking World Religions from a Christian Perspective, I read cover to cover, Islam the Straight Path by John Esposito. Through this book I was captivated by the mindset of Islam as it evangelised the world, often through military conquests[2]. In the book, Esposito made the observation of the contrast between the behaviour of the Muslim and the Christian Armies during the first Crusade. In 1099AD as the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem, they left no Muslim inhabitants alive:- Men, women and children were all killed. Yet when Jerusalem was retaken by Saladin in 1187AD, civilians were spared and churches and shrines were generally left untouched.[3] Esposito goes on to observe:-

The striking differences in military conduct were epitomized by the two dominant figures of the Crusades: Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted. The Chivalrous Saladin was faithful to his word and compassionate toward non combatants. Richard accepted the surrender of Acre and then proceeded to massacre all its inhabitants, including the women and children, despite promises to the contrary[4].

My curiosity around the theological thinking that led to the Crusades had now been born:- simultaneously giving birth to this paper.

The purpose of this paper is well articulated via a quote from Meic Pearse’s book The Gods of War: No one, it might be safely said, now looks on the crusades with anything but revulsion. Whatever could have possessed the perpetrators to see them differently?[5] Were the Crusades an extremity of Paul Knitter’s Replacement Model of World Religions? It’s my objective to examine the theological thinking of the Western church that was behind the first Crusade:- particularly the development of the theological framework over the centuries leading up to the 1095AD call to Crusade. The thesis I will prove: Is that the main theology behind the first crusade had very little to do with New Testament Biblical Theology. I then will look at the implications for the church of the proved thesis.

Overview of the lead up to the first Crusade

Around 320 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine transferred the main capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium – later to become known as Constantinople. During this era, Christianity became the official state religion, birthing Christendom. This began a slide away from true biblical orthodoxy to where Christianity was only indirectly a scriptural faith[6]. Some 350 years later, the largely non Greek speaking regions in the Middle East and North Africa were lost from the Empire by the advancing and growing military might of Islam. This significantly included Jerusalem. After 1071, much of the Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire as it’s now called, was routed out of Asia Minor by the Seljuk Turks.

At the end of the 11th century, Christendom was in some senses encircled by Islam, with Muslim forces ranged against it to the East along Byzantium’s Asian Frontier and to the south in the Iberian Peninsula. But Europe was far from being in a titanic struggle for survival. There is little or no evidence to suggest that either side harboured an innate, empowering religious or racial hatred of the other[7]. In other words the Crusades were not born out of a military threat that Islam posed to Christians across Europe.

In the church world, Pope Urban II was leading the Church having taken over from Pope Gregory. Medieval Popes regarded themselves as the world’s foremost spiritual power and believed they were entitled to exert absolute control over the church of Europe. Thomas Asbridge in The First Crusade observes: When Pope Urban became Pope, the reality of papal authority was but a pale, almost pathetic, reflection of those lofty aspirations. Far from being recognised as the Leader of the Christian faith on earth, the Pope struggled to manage the spiritual affairs of central Italy, let alone all western Christendom[8].

So when a request came from Byzantine to assist in the liberation of the Eastern Church, Urban saw that amongst other things, it served his purpose of establishing his papal authority. So on 27th November 1095, Pope Urban delivered an address to a faithful few hundred people in a field in Clermont, calling for a Crusade to take place. Steven Runciman says it’s no co-incidence that the call for the crusade was issued in France – a region the Pope had long held the desire to strengthen its hold[9]. An observation that backs up the political focus of the call for the Crusade – yet framed up theologically. There is no transcript of what Urban said, but general agreement is that he gave great detail of the attacks the Turks were making on the Christian Byzantine Empire and then offered an immediate remission of sins for any who participated in the expedition. The crowd responded with the chant Dieu li volt! (God wills it!).

Theology of the First Crusade Examined

Does God will it? The theology of a call to war of the Crusade evolved over hundreds of years:- from Jesus saying Blessed are the Peacemakers in Matthew 5:9, to a rallying cry from the leader of the Western Church for Peasants and Knights to go and kill in the name of Christ. Christopher Tyerman in God’s War observes:- The Beatitudes had to be reconciled with human civilisation, specifically the Greco-Roman world, or, to put it more crudely, ways found around the Sermon on the Mount[10].

In 354 AD Athanasius of Alexandrian (20th Bishop of Alexandria), wrote a comment that one is not supposed to kill, but killing the enemy in battle is both lawful and praiseworthy[11]. There is no New Testament scripture to back this theological standpoint on; so where does this theological thinking emanate from? Well…….

Over a period of time, Christian leaders began to endorse what previously they had condemned. For example, Augustine of Hippo,(430AD), the most influential theologian of the period, recognized that Christianity was now a program for running society and so he began formulating a definite theory of warfare and to discuss how in certain circumstances, it might be considered just[12]. This gave birth to the Just War Theory: An idea that you could serve God and be a soldier at the same time. This was birthed out of a changing exegesis where scripture interpretation moved away from the thrust of the Sermon on the Mount to emphasize more the Old Testament political and judicial arrangements[13]. In other words they chose what part of the Bible was going to be their world view.

To illustrate that point perfectly. Emperor Herakleios, in the 620’s is recorded to have encouraged his troops, who were about to face the Persians, with the thought that when God wills it, one man will rout a thousand[14]. So let us sacrifice ourselves to God for the Salvation of our brothers, may we win the crown of Martyrdom so that we may be praised in future and receive our recompense from God[15]

Between the age of St Augustine and the Council of Clermont, Western Christendom gradually became acculturated to the concept of sanctified violence. According to Steven Runicman, this was not a driven program of linear development but rather an incremental, organic process that was marked by sporadic episodes of theological experimentation[16]. Ultimately sanctified violence became institutionalized within church structure with the Knights Templar becoming a familiar and accepted part of Latin Christendom.[17]

In the ninth century, two successive Popes sought to rally military support by promising rather vaguely defined spiritual benefits: – a heavenly reward or eternal life – to those who fought and died in defence of Rome. The idea of saints – Christians who had lived meritorious lives or been martyred and thus in death attained a special place in heaven – deserved reverence[18]. New Testament scripture teaches that eternal life can in no way be earned but is secured through faith in Jesus. Ephesians 2:8-9 states:- For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. Secondly, is it right theology to say that martyrs get a special reward in heaven? The death of Stephen in Acts 7, where Jesus is seen in heaven standing up – whereas in most post ascension instances of Christ – He is seated at the right of God – has been used to possibly indicate that Jesus sees martyrs differently: although this one instance doesn’t substantiate that claim. Certainly there are a number of scriptures that indicate a blessing on a person when they are being persecuted for their faith, Matthew 5:11 for example – Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Revelation 20:4 speaks specifically of those who have been martyred for their testimony – but seems to be in the context of the end time battle and being killed in a crusade may not be a biblical qualifier as dying for their testimony of faith. My conclusion is that the Popes promising special consideration or favour in the afterlife due to warfare martyrdom is a self serving manipulation of New Testament theology.

Under the leadership of Pope Gregory VII (previous pope to Urban II), the doctrine and application of sacred violence underwent a radical transformation. Centuries earlier, patristic theologians had described the internal spiritual battle waged against sin as warfare of Christ. In time, it became popular in learned circles to conceive monks as Soldiers of Christ. Gregory twisted these concepts into meaning real warfare in defence of Rome.[19] This laid a perfect foundation for Urban II to theologically frameup the first Crusade and issue a call to war to a people who had been groomed to think of war as something Christ would sanction. I found it interesting when Tyerman observed that when Christ was being arrested and Peter pulled out his sword in defence of Christ: Jesus told him to return the sword to its place.[20] Church leaders pre the Crusades held this to mean that because Christ didn’t say to get rid of the sword but to return it to its place, He was indicating there will be a time to use the sword in the future in defence of Christ[21]. When assessing a theology of violence, one must look to the way Christ conducted his life. He was called Prince of Peace in Isaiah 9:6, He taught non violence and love for our enemies during his Sermon on the Mount, He faced his accusers non violently, and He died a non violent, yet brutal death. His life inspired the first few centuries of pacifist expansion of the church – which then seemed to begin a transformation toward sacred violence when the church was married to violent Rome. I often wonder what would the church look like today if this marriage had not have taken place. I wonder what history would look like. I would postulate that the Crusades very well may not have happened at all.

Emperor Constantine VII around 950AD told his troops, when facing the Muslim invaders, that they must be avengers and champions, not only of Christians, but of Christ himself, whom they (Muslims) wickedly deny.[22]

Whilst Emperor Constantine VII was being Replacement Model Orientated[23], which I believe can be theologically substantiated through the Great Commission of Matthew 28, not once is violence ever suggested as a justifiable tool either to evangelise or to defend Christianity. I will acknowledge however, that in Revelation the End Times are filled with violent imagery: for example a white horse carrying a man called Faithful and True whose job is to judge and make war.[24] What the church’s role in, in apocalyptic Armageddon is outside of the scope of this paper, suffice to say that the end times violent imagery, whether taken literally, as an allegory or metaphorically could not in accurate exegesis be used to justify the first Crusade.

In 1054, the Council of Narbonne proclaimed that No Christian shall kill another Christian, for whoever kills a Christian undoubtedly sheds the blood of Christ.[25] If the prevailing idea/theology (albeit it wrong theology) around that time was that when a Christian is killed, the blood of Christ is spilled, then when Urban II, told the gathered crowd at Clermont, in great bloody brutal detail, that Christians are being slaughtered by the Turks:- no wonder people responded Dieu li volt, Dieu li volt, Dieu li volt. Catholics believe in Transubstantiation – that the wine in the sacrament changes literally into the Blood of Christ. To skew this entirely catholic theology into a justification for war saying Christian’s blood as they are killed is transubstantiated into Christ’s blood, is totally self serving and way outside the bounds of New Testament Ortho-doxy.[26]

Another theological framework for the Crusades was that Christian Pilgrims were being restricted from visiting Holy Land sites. There was however, no evidence that that was ever the case except for sporadic short periods. Malcolm Billings in the The Crusades, points out

that indeed the first crusades met large number of pilgrims coming the other way as they marched east. The Pope at Clermont, however appealed to the people’s deep reverence for the holy places. The idea that Christians had lost their rightful inheritance, and that they did not have control of these shrines, struck a chord.[27] (p19).

This just shows the level of misinformation that was presented in order to get people emotionally/spiritually involved. I have not been to Israel, but I do have some sense of the motive behind a Holy Land Pilgrimage. I was deeply moved as I stood on the X in the middle of a Dallas road marking the spot where the third and fatal bullet ended the life and Presidency of JFK. I am not an American nor was I alive at the time yet it was a significantly emotional event and one that I am pleased to have experienced. A similar emotion was had when I visited Ground Zero in New York. To stand in places where Christ was born, preached, died – would be very moving. However, unlike the Islamic requirement of The Haj, there is no theological reason to pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to present that as part of the case for the Crusade is unjustified New Testament theology. In fact it could be argued that Jesus, speaking with the Women at the well in John 4, argued against looking for God in a specific locale.

The final theological justification used for the first Crusade that this paper will deal with, is when Pope Urban II, assured his audiences “that the enterprise would be a demonstration of Christian Charity, because the crusaders were going to risk their lives out of love of God and their neighbour.[28] 1 Corinthians 13 defines what love looks like. It says things like, Love is patient, love is kind, love suffers long, thinks no evil, and does not behave rudely. It would be a theological impossibility to try and fit, the murder of men, women and children (Muslim or otherwise), into this biblical definition of Christian love.


I subscribe to the Replacement Model of World Religions but could never justify from a humanity perspective nor from a theological perspective an event like the First Crusade. The growth in skewed theology over a substantial period of time should serve as a warning to church leaders now and in the future. Correct biblical doctrine or ortho-doxy should be the focus of every church leader and the weight of that responsibility should bear heavily on each of our shoulders.


Post Modernism rejects the institutionalised church. Many books have been written about the many failings of the church. The first and then subsequent Crusades were a travesty:- a genocide. As a Pastor and part of the leadership of a Church movement, I struggle to understand how the error of doctrine was allowed to emerge over several hundred years that ultimately became the seedbed of biblical justification for the Crusades. The thesis of this paper set out to argue that the theology used in the lead up to the crusades was not part of correct New Testament theology. As the rallying cry went out from Clermont, drenched in theological jingoist fervour, people responded. But as this paper has discussed, they were responding to erroneous New Testament theology that had developed over many years. What great damage the church can do when it departs from right theology. It’s the year 2013 and my observation is that right theology is undergoing radical change once again. Not that we will Crusade again, but we will change our beliefs about Christ, about God, about World Religions, to accommodate the sensitivities of a Post Modern world and these changes may cost people, not their lives as was the case in the Crusades, but just may cost them their eternal lives.


Asbridge, Thomas. The First Crusade: A New History. London: Simon and Shuster, 2004

Billings, Malcolm. The Crusades. Stroud:Tempus Publishing, 1987

Esposito, John. Islam The Straight Path New York:Oxford University Press, 2011.

Knitter, Paul. Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

Nicolson, Helen. The Knights Templar. London:Constable and Robinson, 2010.

Pease, Meic. The Gods of War. Downers Grove:Intervasity Press, 2007.

Runciman, Steven. The First Crusade. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Smith, Caroline. Chronicles of the Crusades. London:Penguin Books, 2008.

The Holy Bible, New King James. Zondervan Publishing

Tyerman, Christopher. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 2006.

[1] Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. NY: Random House Publishing, 2003.

[2] Esposito, John. Islam The Straight Path New York:Oxford University Press, 2011. (p36-60)

[3] Esposito, J. Islam The Straight Path (p64)

[4] Esposito, J. Islam The Straight Path (p65)

[5] Pease, Meic. The Gods of War. Downers Grove:Intervasity Press, 2007. (p65)

[6] Pease, Meic. The Gods of War. (p29)

[7] Runciman, Steven. The First Crusade. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2004. (p18)

[8] Asbridge, Thomas. The First Crusade: A New History. London: Simon and Shuster, 2004. (p11)

[9] Runciman, Steven. The First Crusade. (p21)

[10] Tyerman, Christopher. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 2006. (p29)

[11] Pease, Meic. The Gods of War. (p154)

[12] Pease, Meic. The Gods of War. (p155)

[13] Pease, Meic. The Gods of War. (p156)

[14] Direct quote from Joshua 23:10

[15] Smith, Caroline. Chronicles of the Crusades. London:Penguin Books, 2008. (p231)

[16] Runciman, Steven. The First Crusade. (p26)

[17] Nicolson, Helen. The Knights Templar. London:Constable and Robinson, 2010. (p5)

[18] Runciman, Steven. The First Crusade. (p26)

[19] Runciman, Steven. The First Crusade. (p27)

[20] Matthew 26:52

[21] Tyerman, Christopher. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. (p37)

[22] Pease, Meic. The Gods of War. (p158)

[23] A reference to one of three Models that Paul Knitter puts as possible frameworks that Christianity can view other World Religions in.

[24] Revelation 19:11

[25] Tyerman, Christopher. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. (p43)

[26] I decided not to deal with the issue of whether Transubstantiation during the sacrament is right theology

[27] Billings, Malcolm. The Crusades. Stroud:Tempus Publishing, 1987 (p19

[28] Billings, Malcolm. The Crusades. Stroud:Tempus Publishing, 1987 (p17)

Categories: Theology, Topics to wrestle with

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10 replies

    What the church’s role IS, in apocalyptic Armageddon is outside of the scope of this paper, suffice to say that the end times violent imagery, whether taken literally, as an allegory or metaphorically could not in accurate exegesis BE used to justify the first Crusade.

  2. Pete,
    I think the church today is a lot like it was in the middle ages; living as under the covenant of the law rather than the covenant of grace. Gal. 3:13 refers to the ‘curse’ of the law. Grace has no curse, only blessing. . Joshua drove all the inhabitants out by force albeit God assisted. He also killed women and children so that they would not live to ‘pollute’ Israel later on. The Crusaders may have sought to emulate Joshua in ignorance of the covenant they were under.
    Tim James

  3. Have just decided to read through this blog over a hot cuppa and one of those tasty morsels baked only as Lynne can…a scone. So far the blog is extremely interesting and am now plodding around the Just War Theory. I would not want to cause confusion through throwing my thoughts in among this mix, but isn’t that Theory still adhered to in some certain churches? Not in straight out blood & guts, but feelings, integrity, dreams & visions?
    Anyway, thank you Peter and I feel you have explained much to me that just bothered me before. Mega blessings!

  4. What part of sell your shirt and buy a sword or Lord, should we strike with our swords? Or do you intend to make my father’s house a den of thieves, don’t you understand, common Crusaders had a mortality rate of 85%, you don’t go to that kinda war for loot.


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