Ten Reasons to Read About Church History

10 Reasons to Read About Church History

Funnily enough, I think Church History is really important. In this blog that I wrote for IVP Books UK, which I reproduce below, I spell out ten reasons why Christians should engage with the history of our faith.

Whether Church History is what gets you out of bed in the morning, or you’ve always thought it was just dusty old books and grumpy old men, there’s much we can learn from the long history of the Christian faith.

Whilst not always pretty, as history exposes sin and human weakness, the fact of the matter is that we trust and hope in a historical faith. We can study Church History because there is a history of the Church. Yet we live in a time where, particularly in an evangelical context, we are perhaps more ignorant of Church History than at any other point since the Reformation. To our detriment, we simply engage too little with the history of the Church.

Here are ten reasons why it’s worth studying.

1)    Church History is surprisingly accessible, full of men and women like you and me.

Many fear approaching Church History because it feels like the record of an alien time, and of ancient people. Yet the story of the Church is the story of God’s people, men and women like us from throughout history. Christ came to offer salvation to all of humanity, and history reveals that billions, from all faiths, backgrounds and nations, have taken up that call. As we explore Church History, we find people just like us. We find the downtrodden and oppressed, the rulers and the powerful, and everyone in between! Human nature doesn’t change. All have sinned, and fallen short of God’s standard. But all who accept Christ’s offer of salvation are redeemed. The historic Church is made up of brothers and sisters from across the globe. This is our family history!

2)    God promised to keep His Church, and history shows that He is faithful.

Though the Church is made up of men and women, it is kept by the sovereign God of history. Christianity is a historical faith, and our Scriptures are historical texts. In the New Testament, God promises to keep His Church. He promises that the Church will endure, until Christ returns.

As we explore Church History, we see not only that this promise was kept, but just how wonderfully God kept it. In times of trial, error and loss, God has been faithful to His people. When we look at the long story of the Church, we see that glorious truth again and again.

3)   Church History displays God’s sovereignty over all of creation past and present.

God’s sovereignty is total. Scripture tells us this and history, again, shows this to be wonderfully true. What a blessing to know a God who keeps His people, and who holds all of creation in His hands! When we dig into the history of the Church, we see again and again how God worked to raise up men and women for the moments required. We see a history not of heroes, but of weak and feeble people being used by a powerful and mighty God. Church History is incredible because it allows us, time and again, to see the evidence of God at work.

4)    Church History encouragess us to give God glory for what He has done.

As we unpack Church History, we are struck time and again by God’s incredible power, grace and faithfulness. Humanity is never the hero of the story of the Christian faith and history confirms that. It is God alone who time and time again pours out His blessings on His Church, and it is right that we glorify Him for this. In Revelation 7, John is shown a vision of the throneroom of God. Around the throne he sees a host of angels, and they cry out (vs12):

Praise and glory,

and wisdom and thanks and honour

and power and strength

be to our God for ever and ever.

Amen!

These angels are praising the glorious God of all the nations, of all history and of all creation. When we turn our eyes to Church History, we are shown a glimpse of God’s glory in His wonderful dealings with His people. Our response ought to mirror the angels of Revelation 7 – praise and glory to this wonderful God!

5)    Church History, like Scripture, encourages us to look, and learn from those who have gone before us.

In 2 Timothy 3:14 Paul urges Timothy to continue in what he has learnt because he knows those from whom he learned it. He is encouraged to look back to the model of his mother, grandmother and Paul himself. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul urges the Corinthian church to imitate him, just as he imitates Christ. A pattern emerges in Scripture of learning from those who have gone before us, of looking to wiser older brothers and sisters as models for living a life worthy of our calling.

Exploring Church History allows us to learn from those who have gone before us. A hero of mine is Eric Liddell, the 1924 Paris Olympic gold medallist. Though he was not perfect, through reading biographies of this athlete, I have been encouraged to (amongst other things) prioritise my daily time in God’s Word, and use my gifts for His Glory and not my own. Throughout Church History God has raised up men and women who model godly characteristics to us. These saints are not perfect, but there is so much we can learn from diving into their stories.

Lessons from Church History

6)    Church History challenges our Chronological Snobbery.

C S Lewis famously coined the term ‘chronological snobbery’ – and what he described is rampant today. We think that simply because we come after those before us, we are superior. We are better developed, better equipped, better understanding. It’s foolish to think we have all the answers simply by virtue of living when we do, but it’s an easy mindset to adopt.With our modern ministries, global parachurch organisations and slick social media, it’s all too easy to think we’ve got the Christian life sorted. We can happily think we’ve got all the answers.

A look back through Church History encourages us to consider these things afresh. We see issues and challenges that we too face, and often we can learn how to respond to them. We see faithful Christians living in this fallen, hostile world, and there is much to learn. Many wise Christians have gone before us, it would be an error to ignore them.

7)    Church History helps us to learn from our mistakes.

Though there is much wisdom to gleam from our long Christian history, undeniably, the Church has been involved in great sin throughout the years. Every church is made up of sinful men and women, and this sin can so often multiply. The horrors of the crusades or the persecution of minorities in communities across the Christian world, are just some of the many obvious transgressions. Though at times the Church was a great force for good with regards to the despicable practice of slavery, at times it supported and endorsed this endeavour. More locally, stories of abuse of power and manipulation can rock church families for decades.

A better understanding of Church History, the good and the bad, will equip us to resist repeating the errors of our forebears.

8)    Church History reminds us that the Great Commission was for all of God’s people.

In The Story of The Church (4th ed.), Harman and Renwick write (xiii) “The history of the church is simply an account of its success and failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded’ (Matt. 28:19–20).” This was a commission for all Christ’s Church. It was a command to go out with the Gospel to all the world.

This Great Commission was as true for the first hearers as it was for the earliest Christian communities, the faithful churches of the Middle Ages, and the revivalist preachers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And it is true for us. This great missional activity of the Church ties all believers together, throughout history, and so as we go out into our own contexts we can take courage, and learn, from those who have done just the same long before us. Church History encourages us in this task, challenges us to avoid error and sin that would hinder us, and helps us look back to the God who is truly in control.

9)    Church History is diverse – so explore!

From biographies of Christian athletes like Eric Liddell, to stories of faithful congregations resisting the errors of Medieval Rome, to the first generation of the post-Apostolic Church; there is so much to explore, so many lives to unpack, so many challenges to heed. Great sermons have been written, theological stands have been made.

 There is so much to Church History, that whatever your background or interest, there is something for you. My encouragement is to explore, and then to dig into areas or periods that truly grip you. God teaches us through His Word, and Church History helps us to see these truths applied across the life of those who make up God’s Church.

10) Church History is fascinating.

From radical communities in the Roman Empire, to humble preachers in the courts of kings and emperors, Church History is diverse, surprising, and fascinating. Humanity is often best (and worst) seen in the context of church, and two thousand years of Church History mean that there are countless lives and events to explore. The story of the Church is a fascinating one, and one that is worth unpacking, exploring, and diving headfirst into!

There is so much to explore in the long history of the Christian Church. This post is an encouragement to spend time exploring it for yourself. When we engage with Church History, we are struck by one of the famous truths expounded by John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Soli Deo Gloria. As we look back at the long history of the Church, there is one simple conclusion: to God alone be the glory.

If you want to explore Church History, I thoroughly recommend The Story of the Church as a great introductory book on the subject. You can find my review of this book here. It’s available from IVP UK here.

Tertullian: a Church Father with a Confused Legacy.

TWR360 | Blog

Much mystery surrounds the life of this prolific writer. Born in the mid second century (c.155AD), Tertullian lived for most of his life in Carthage in North Africa. A bright and articulate man, he wrote dozens of works during his lifetime, of which a great number have survived. Though his teaching was broad and articulate, his hard line and rigorist tendencies have led to an awkward position in the history of Christian thought.

Life

Though the circumstances of his birth and childhood are largely unknown, Jerome claims that Tertullian was the son of a centurion based in North Africa (Jerome, De Viris Illustribus 53), and this was likely a non-Christian household. Certainly he was well educated during his youth, indicating that perhaps his parents had means enough to provide a quality schooling. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.2.4) described Tertullian as “well versed in the laws of the Romans,” and his own writings betray an educated man practiced in rhetoric and oratory.

Tertullian’s own writings provide further glimpses into his life. He notes in the opening of his tract On Repentance (1.1) that he was once “blind, without the Lord’s light,” suggesting a pagan past and adding weight to the argument that he was born to pagan parents. Tertullian also alludes to his conversion, with a short section in his Apology (50.1) hinting that he came to faith as an adult.

Regardless of the exact circumstances of his conversion, it is clear that Tertullian wholly embraced his new faith, recognising it for the truth that it is. Though Jerome labels him a presbyter (De Vir. Ill. 53.1), he doesn’t seem to have entered an office of the church, yet openly identifies as one of the laity who often preached on Sundays, suggesting that he was a lay elder within his local church leadership (See Exhortation to Chastity 7.3, On Monogamy 12.3, On the Soul 9.4). His new faith prompted him to put his extensive education to good use, and he began to write. Thirty-one of his works have survived to us, though he likely wrote a great many more.

Works

Though a sizeable number of his works have survived to reach us, even Jerome, writing in the late fourth century, mentions that works of Tertullian had already been lost (De Vir. Ill. 53.5). Tertullian made comment about a vast array of matters, from monogamy, fasting, marriage and empty spiritualism to the soul, baptism, prayer and resurrection. His works were clearly extensive! He also bears the notable title of being the first (surviving) church father to write in Latin rather than Greek.

He is perhaps most famous though for two parts of his literary career. His many writings against the heretical followers of Marcion, Valentinus and others showed his desire to contend for a true and Biblical Christian faith. It was in one of these polemical texts, Ad. Praxeam (Against Praxeas) that Tertullian coined the word ‘trinitas‘, the first writer to use this word to describe the Biblical truth of who God is – one God, three persons. Trinity.

His most famous work though defended his faith not against heretical insiders, but against powerful outsiders. Tertullian’s Apology, a fifty chapter masterpiece, is a defence of the Christian faith, addressed to those ruling over the Empire. An early and excellent example of the apologetic genre, Tertullian’s Apology confronts the main accusations levied against this young faith, and contends that Christians are in fact the best of citizens, serving the greatest of Gods. Accused of sedition, sectarianism, cannibalism and much more, Tertullian argues that Christians are in fact gracious, loving and obedient. They pray for their rulers and fellow man, and serve rightly in society, defying only what is unholy and unjust.

Legacy

Tertullian has occupied an interesting position in Christian history. Despite his orthodox teaching and Biblical faithfulness, his at times harsh writing tone and the hard line he takes on controversial issues means that he’s sat uncomfortably in the narrative of church history. There are two points to make here.

Though he writes against a wide variety of heretical views, Tertullian has often been considered to have shifted from orthodoxy to Montanism. The so called New Prophecy of Montanus was a spiritualist heresy that appeared in the late second century and demanded a rigorous, almost ascetic approach to the Christian life. Though many consider Tertullian to have shifted into this sect, I believe a close reading of his writings suggests a less clear conclusion on the matter. Though Tertullian was a rigorist in his approach to the life of the Christian, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I believe we ought to take the line of Christine Trevett, who took a more nuanced position that Tertullian was “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). His inclination might be towards the practices of this movement, yet his theological disposition remained resolutely Pauline.

The second point to note is that his teaching is largely protestant in disposition. Some have labelled him as ‘the first protestant’ – and he certainly fits awkwardly within a Catholic teaching of early Christian history.

Conclusion

Though much of the man remains a mystery, his writings offer a window into who and what he was. No doubt a stern and even harsh teacher, Tertullian maintained the authority of Scripture, the value of the local church, and the supremacy of Christ alone throughout his life and writings. He holds an uncomfortable position in Christian history, and he is by no means perfect in every word he writes. Yet he is a valuable author for several key theological developments, as well as an articulate and consistent defence of the true faith. He was an interesting man who perhaps ought to be read more widely and whose works remain of significant value.

Church in Lockdown: Weary and Burdened? A 4th Century Prayer for Refreshment.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus spoke these words of comfort to a weary, struggling people in great need of a Saviour. He was a Saviour who promised rest, satisfaction and comfort to a world that desperately needed true fulfilment. He promised those who trusted in Him an eternal rest; a room prepared in His Father’s house.

As lockdown drags on, however it looks in our own contexts, church life can become a burden. The longer the church cannot function normally, the longer we are kept apart from corporate worship in the local church, the wearier we can become. It can be easy to feel the burden of a local church on pause, yet we have a Christ who offers comfort to His weary, struggling people.

We were created for relationships, with God and with one another. Scripture calls the church a body, a family, a unit. Lockdown is jarring and uncomfortable because the church can’t function properly; we can’t be together when we can’t meet together. And it is still going on. Even if a few of us can meet together on a Sunday, or throughout the week, for many of us, our churches won’t be back to normal for quite some time, possibly not even until a vaccine is found.

But like all things in this life, this lockdown will be temporary. Our great hope is in a Saviour who has promised an end to our weary struggle. That end will come. Relief will come when the local church can meet together again, and lasting delight will come when Christ gathers His true church to Himself at last.

But our Saviour does not abandon us to our locked-down lives in the meantime. Scripture urges us to bring our concerns to God in prayer, the Spirit convicts our hearts and works within us. So let us pray with confidence even as we long for normality. Below is an ancient prayer of Augustine, a prayer for refreshment for weary, locked-down souls. The end of lockdown may not be within our sight, but it is within the Lord’s, and even the freedom to gather together again is nothing compared to our ultimate end.

O Lord our God, under the shadow of Your wings let us hope. You will support us, both when little, and even to grey hairs. When our strength is of You, it is strength; but, when our own, it is feebleness. We return unto You, O Lord, that from their weariness our souls may rise towards You, leaning on the things which You have created, and passing on to Yourself, who has wonderfully made them; for with You alone is refreshment and true strength. 

Amen.

Attr. to: Augustine of Hippo

Let us commit our weary hearts to the Lord, now and everyday, for with Christ alone is refreshment and true strength.

A (brief)Who’s Who in the Early Church.

Mostly last year, as I was getting this blog started, I profiled several key figures in the development of the Early Church. I hope to do more of these, as it is always helpful to look at some examples of faithful believers who have gone before us. Below are the links to these blogs, do go and check out one or two of these Early Christian characters.

Cyprian of Carthage: Transformed by the Gospel

Irenaeus of Lyons: Firm against Heresy

Ignatius: Focused on Unity

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Clement of Alexandria: Evangelist and Intellectual

Justin: Philosopher and Martyr

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

A recent more detailed series on Clement of Alexandria’s life and work is available here:

Clement of Alexandria: The Intentional Christian Life

Clement of Alexandria: The Growth of the Christian

The Exhortation of Clement of Alexandria: An Appeal to Reasoned Faith

#100Days: light at the end of the tunnel?

This week the UK marked 100 days of lockdown. Restrictions are being eased across the country, schools are partially open, shops and cafes are beginning to unlock, and it seems like things will ease significantly from this weekend. And yet we also marked this week the news that Leicester is facing the first ‘Local Lockdown’ after a recent spike in cases. The end is most definitely not in sight for them, and other towns and cities may soon follow suit.

Lockdown has been characterised by the single question: when will it end? We’ve gone through day after day, week after week, always asking, ‘are we nearly there yet?’ We’ve ticked each day off with a ‘one day closer to freedom!’ We’ve celebrated each new easing of restrictions as another glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.

But when lockdown is over, what next? For some, there’s the grief of those who won’t emerge from lockdown with them. For others, there’s the pain of continuing to battle the virus and its aftereffects. For still others, the fear of infection lingers, normality won’t be back overnight.

Whatever our situation, surely we’re relieved. Lockdown is nearly over, we’ll be back to normal soon!

Back to WorshipNormal

Our country is longing to get back to normal, and it’s a longing we all share. We want to see friends and family again. My first niece was born on the eve of lockdown, and I can’t wait to hold her again. Parents, grandparents, and wider families all over the country can’t wait to be reunited.

Businesses are eager to get going again. There’s so much to do, and with so much time and money lost companies are raring to go, desperate to keep afloat in a time when the economy is in freefall.

A lot of those I follow on twitter or online have been excited about the reopening of places of worship. Christians, Muslims, Jews and many others are hopeful of being able to gather in corporate worship again soon. I can’t wait to be back in church, although it might take a little while yet.

But Churches, mosques and synagogues aren’t the only places of worship to reopen in our country. We’re all desperate for lockdown to end because we’re all longing for normal to resume. Whatever our normal is, our hearts are set on it. We long to be with family, to get back to the day job, to take that holiday or just to hit the shops! Our hearts are set on this lockdown ending, and our normal resuming. Our hearts are set on the things we love. We’re seemingly hard-wired to long for, adore, and worship these things.

In the ancient world, the world in which Jesus Christ lived, died and rose, and the world of the first Christians who followed him, worship was hard-wired in the minds of men and women. The Roman Empire has been described as ‘a world full of gods’. There were gods of money, sex, beauty, war, peace…the list was practically endless! Worship was everywhere. Temples on every street corner, rituals in every home and at every event. Worship flourished because the ancients made gods of the things they worshipped. A goddess of beauty because man idolises the appearance, a god of wealth because such riches were a societal goal.

Our own world has such gods too. Lockdown has confronted these gods, because so often it has been harder to worship them. Financial stability has been shaken, families have been divided, retail therapy on hold. None of these are inherently bad things, but as our nation rushes to get back to normality, when our lives are lived for these things, our nation is rushing back to worship.

The New NormalWorship

A month or so into lockdown, the historian Tom Holland wrote a damning article in the Telegraph (3rd May 2020). He wasn’t criticising the government, or the NHS (though he did point out that the NHS has become a real focus of our worship in recent times). He criticised, instead, the church.

Lockdown, argued Holland, was a great opportunity for the church. But instead, too many clergy were beginning to sound “like middle-managers,” simply repeating back government advice. Holland concluded:

Parroting the slogans of the Department of Health and Social Care may conceivably help save lives – but it seems unlikely to win many souls. If ever there were a time for the churches to wrestle with the questions that so tormented Job [suffering, health, hope], a time of global pandemic would surely seem to be it. If they are not to seem merely eccentric branch offices of the welfare state, they need to recapture their confidence, and take a risk: the risk of seeming odd.   

Tom Holland, Telegraph, 3rd May 2020

Holland was making a helpful point. This pandemic was an opportunity for the church to sound odd, to speak an alien message, to offer something different. So many churches did answer that call. So many pastors and ministers and church members shared the Gospel and the hope that they have in bold and wonderful ways. God has used His people even in this pandemic. But as lockdown eases, and our country begins to worship out in the open again, we must meet our friends and neighbours with our odd message.

Our world worships, it always has and it always will. As lockdown eases, it’s clear to see that the objects of our worship are gaining our affection once again. Normality is coming back, and our normality is a sinful one. A life of misdirected worship, living in and for created things, not for our Creator.

But the church isn’t made up of middle managers and office lackeys. We’re made up of people with a wonderful hope, a wonderful message. So as lockdown eases, and our nation worships again, let’s offer them a new object of worship. Let’s offer them a true object of worship. Let’s hold out the word of life, and offer a message of hope that kept us through the darkness of lockdown, and will keep us through the disappointment of finding out that ‘back to normal’ isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.

In the Good News of who Jesus is, Christians can offer a suffering world a true and certain light at the end of the tunnel. So as lockdown eases, be bold and take the risk of seeming odd, and share the God who is truly worth worshipping.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12

What have we got in Common? Hope?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Twitter is particularly good at distilling contemporary issues into a long stream of polarising and pointed (and often very emotional) soundbites. Scrolling down our feeds is, at the moment, a particularly negative past time. Whilst social media can show us at our best, it also shows us at our worst. And so in the midst of a global pandemic, as tensions about race and privilege erupt across the globe, and as one popular author is violently berated across the web for her views on biological sex, it’s easy to feel hopeless.

Our nation is divided, our world is a mess. It can feel like we’re a world at loggerheads. It’s hopeless. What have we got in common any more?

Well for some people, the answer is hope.

Nearly 1900 years ago, in the 140s AD, the writer Ignatius spoke of “the common hope” of all Christians (To the Ephesians 21). In 197 AD the apologist Tertullian mirrored this cry (Apology, 39). “We [Christians] are a body knit together as such by a common religious belief, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.”

The first Christians lived in a divided world, where society was split into rich and poor, slave and free, Roman and foreigners. It was a messy world where selfish pleasure and power were pursued above noble ideas of the greater good or the care of the needy. And it was a world where Christians were derided, attacked, scorned and even killed for their beliefs. In a hopeless situation, in a divided world, how could they speak of common hope? What could this common hope possibly be?

This hope was, and is, Jesus. The Early Church clung to this hope, the common hope of all Christians, because they saw that they needed it. In a broken world, where division and suffering was rife, they recognised that their lives were hopeless. Far from escaping such issues, they realised that they themselves were a part of the problem! The Bible calls this sin. That all have sinned, and fall short of the standards of goodness that we so desire in our noblest moments. That we all live selfishly, full of anger, tribalism, malice and vanity. Perhaps we’re reminded of our own times.

But the first Christians could hope in Jesus Christ for a better future. Because “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Christ came to Earth to bring us to God. He was the Son of God, and he died that we might live.

John summarised this hope in a single verse.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

The common hope of these earliest Christians was not that the trouble of this world would pass them by, but that they knew, with certainty and a deep, deep joy, that they were heading for a wonderful eternity. Their sins had been dealt with, they future was no longer a hopelessness but instead a glorious hope. No longer death but life. No longer their own weak efforts, but Christ.

Our own world is painfully divided, and I have no answers to the enormous problems that we face. Few, if any, do. But I know I have a hope that will carry me through these crises. I know I have a hope that will carry me through every up and down, great or small. It is a hope shared by billions throughout history, from Ignatius, to Tertullian, to Martin Luther King Jr., to me and countless others across the globe today. I have a hope named Jesus, and he will never disappoint me.

In a world where hope seems lost, why not explore the hope that Christians share? Look for Hope is a great place to start doing just that, a website full of articles and content pointing to the hope Christians hold in the midst of the very real and present struggles we all face.

The Exhortation of Clement of Alexandria: An Appeal to Reasoned Faith

I have so far profiled Clement here, and his major trilogy here. But in this third post on Clement of Alexandria, I would like to focus in on the first of those three major works. The Protrepticus.

This first work, split into twelve books, makes the case for the Christian faith. More specifically, Clement addresses a pagan audience, and presents them with Christ, the Divine Logos, the only true Saviour of humanity. The twelve books are divided into two groups of six. Books 1-6 form the argumentatio, where Clement considers the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. The likes of Zeus and Bacchus are exposed as daemonic falsehoods. Lies and demons used by the Evil One to corrupt humanity, and lead them to an immoral end.

In a stark contrast to the first half of the work, Clement turns to present the Christian Gospel in books 7-12, his refutatio. Refuting the claims of the pagan gods, Clement shows how Hebrew and Christian Scripture, and even the writings of the pagan world, point to one true God ruling over all. Clement then shows his readers Christ. The Divine Word made man. The coming, immortal Saviour of humanity.

The work sets the truth, hope and life of Christ against the immorality, falsehood and death of the pagan gods. As his appeal builds in the tenth book, Clement makes the comparison clear.

“It is the Lord of whom you are ashamed. He promises freedom, but you run away into slavery! He bestows salvation, but you sink down into death. He offers eternal life, but you await His punishment; you prefer the fire, which the Lord has prepared for the Devil and his messengers!”

Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus, 10.

Christ offers freedom, salvation and life. Yet mankind so willingly embraces slavery, death and punishment. Clement’s appeal is salvific: repent and be saved! Turn from the lies of the world, embrace Christ alone! It is a wonderful cry, and a brilliant argument. Truth against lies, life against death, hope against despair.

A Reasoned Faith

In the Protrepticus, Clement confronts the unbeliever with this reasoned faith. As he presents his pagan readership with the Divine Logos of Christ, Clement seeks (1.2) to “let truth… point to salvation.” As the scholar David Rankin puts it (2005, 6) “[the Protrepticus] is purposed for exhorting conversion to the faith and directed towards pagans.” Clement is wanting to show his readers the truth of Christ, exposing the falsehoods of their own beliefs, and urging them to thus embrace a reasoned faith.

Faith in Christ is not the blind belief of the pagans. It is not the irrational faith of those who believe in the gods of Greece or Rome (gods Clement quite clearly believes – Book 3 – are dead!) No, faith in Christ, says Clement, is reasoned. It is dependant on truth, it is predicated on Christ’s work of salvation.

Challenging Culture with a Better Story

But Clement doesn’t just present his truth of Christ in a vacuum. He clearly holds is up to and against the gods of the ancient world. Clement opens his work with the music and myths of famous pagan minstrels. Amphion, Arion and Eunomus open the first book, before Clement brings on Orpheus, the most famous ancient Greek musician. All these men sing songs in praise of the gods of the ancient world, says Clement, but what does their music amount to?

“By their chants and enchantments they have held captive in the lowest slavery that truly noble freedom which belongs to those who are citizens under heaven…”

Protrepticus, 1.

These musicians are part of a culture, a religious infrastructure, that enslaves humanity! Their very songs are part of the lies that doom Clement’s pagan readers. But, says Clement, there is more. He continues:

“… But far different is my minstrel, for He has come to bring to a speedy end the bitter slavery of the daemons that lord it over us!”

Protrepticus, 1.

Clement’s minstrel is Christ. And the song He sings, the message He brings, is so much sweeter to hear. It is a message of hope, one of real life. Clement goes on throughout his work to engage with this song of the pagans. He uses the poetry, drama, philosophy and history of the Greeks and Romans to show his readers their gods. He uses their own words to expose the lies they believe. And then he points them to Christ. He tells them the story of their broken worldview, and then he gives them the better story of Christ.

It’s a wonderful rhetorical structure. Clement weaves in literature from across the ancient world to tell these two stories, and at the end of it, the only rational response is faith in Christ. The pagan gods are pathetic before the wonderful might of Christ. Clement’s greater Minstrel is the true God. Clement challenges the culture of the ancient world, he engages with it, and he leads his readers to look to Christ.

Offering Hope

Because as Clement works through his exposé of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, he highlights the sinfulness of his readers. Taken in by lies, they embrace the moral depravity and licentiousness of these daemonic gods. And their end is destruction.

But Clement brings Christ onstage to offer hope to a fallen and broken humanity. Christ has come to enact salvation for a lost humanity. Even the vilest offender is not too far gone. And so Clement closes his work with a simple appeal.

“But with you still rests the final act, namely this, to choose which is the more profitable, judgement or grace.”

Protrepticus, 12.

The stories have been told. Reasoned and rational faith is the answer. So it is time to decide, a final question to a world that believes in dead gods, judgement or grace?

Clement of Alexandria: The Growth of the Christian

My first post on Clement can be found here. My more recent post, detailing his life in a little more depth, is available here.

I finished the last post by mentioning Clement’s surviving trilogy. Three works that point the reader towards the intellectual, or perhaps more aptly, intentional, Christian life. I do not believe Clement advocates for an academic or intellectual elitism. Rather, through the Protrepticus, Paedagogus and Stromateis, Clement urges his readers to work through, grapple with, and understand their faith. It is not a call to a faith of the academy, but a deeper and richer faith in Christ.

As Clement writes in the opening chapter of the Paedagogus:

“The Instructor being practical, not theoretical, His aim is thus to improve the soul, not to teach, and to train it up to a virtuous, not to an intellectual life. “

Paedagogus, 1.1.

Understanding leads to wisdom, which leads to virtue. This is Clement’s view, and informs the structure and urging of his teaching.

Clement is therefore at times quite critical of those who treat their faith too simply, as through this trilogy he argues for an informed and considered faith. If the believer was not engaged on a deeper level with working through their salvation, to Clement they were cheapening their faith. Thus he presents his trilogy. His Exhortation to faith (the Protrepticus), his Instructor (Paedagogus) and his Miscellanies (Stromateis – literally a ‘patchwork’ of wisdom teaching).

The Structure of the Trilogy

I will focus more on the protreptic text of Clement’s Exhortation in the next post, a document that urges a pagan readership to reject their false religion in favour of the Divine Word, Jesus Christ. Only Christ can save, only He is the true divine. He is the basis for real, living faith. And it is a belief in Him that Clement urges for anyone who shall be saved.

The Paedagogus and Stromateis follow this exhortatory work. These two texts charge the Christian reader with the behaviour and thinking of the Christian life. They are didactic texts. They construct a theoretical framework around which Christians are to structure their life, to further their understanding of Christ and their relationship with him.

In his Stromateis (1.1.11), Clement labels the truth of the Christian life “a deathless element of knowledge.” This is what his writings urge his readers to embrace. A knowledge of the truth that leads to a deathless existence: that leads to eternal life.

The structure of the trilogy is therefore simple. The Protrepticus urges true faith, the Paedagogus contemplates the enactment of a considered and maturing faith, before the Stromateis develops this intellectually informed belief.

The Reason for the Trilogy

Clement is consistent in his message: we must seek to grow as Christians. He urges a living and active faith, seeking to know and love Jesus more. A short passage from the Stromateis gives a good indication of what Clement is seeking to achieve.

“Now the Lord is figuratively described as the vine, from which, with pains and the art of husbandry, according to the word, the fruit is to be gathered. We must lop, dig, bind, and perform the other operations. The pruning-knife, I should think, and the pick-axe, and the other agricultural implements, are necessary for the culture of the vine, so that it may produce eatable fruit.

So also here, I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault.”

Stromateis, 1.9.

Referencing the language of Jesus in John 15, Clement likens his argument to Christ’s. As we live out our lives as branches of the True Vine, God prunes and works on us, helping us grow into those who bear fruit. Clement is adamant that God uses our learning, our interests and expertise, to show us more of Himself. Clement believes that as we invest in our faith, by engaging with Scripture, by meditating on God’s word and speaking with Him in prayer, we grow. The Christian life is not inactive, it is a life of growth, and Clement urges the believer not to stagnate. Grow, says Clement, not so that you may know more, but that you may know God more.

This is Clement’s heart. That the believer may not cheapen his faith. That by growing in Christ he would embrace ever closer his Saviour. Clement isn’t teaching a faith that is earned through works and intellect, but one that is strengthened as we surrender more to Christ and His ways. Rejoicing in and relying upon His word, and delighting in following and serving Him.

In light of this blog post, I’d thoroughly recommend David Mathias’ book: Habits of Grace. I’m currently reading it, and it’s a helpful book for thinking through disciplines of the Christian life that can encourage us to rejoice all the more in our Saviour, and get to know Him better!

Clement of Alexandria: The intentional Christian Life

Clement is one of my favourite Early Church Fathers, and though I have offered a short profile of him before (which you can find here) – I am going to present a slightly more detailed walk through of his life and work over the following few posts.

Little is known of Clement’s early life. Born in 160 AD to pagan parents, in either Athens of Alexandria itself (Epiphanius in Panarion 32.6.1 reports that some say he was born in Athens, whilst others maintain Alexandria), he was clearly well educated as a young man. His extant writings betray a deep knowledge of both pagan, Hebrew and Christian texts, alluding to a diverse and comprehensive education.

His adult career was largely spent in Alexandria. Having rejected paganism as a young man, Clement began to travel widely. He arrived in North Africa in the late second century, seeking further education, and sat under the teachings of Pantaenus in Alexandria, a man Clement affectionately labelled his “Sicilian bee.” Pantaenus, a Christian teacher, was incredibly influential in Clement’s life, and it was under his teaching that Clement accepted the Good News of the Gospel and gave his life to Christ. Clement was a faithful disciple of Pantaenus and likely succeeded him as head of the catechetical school in Alexandria (at least according to Eusebius!) This led Clement to remain in the city for a number of years, and it was from Alexandria that he wrote and taught extensively.

The scholar Eric Osborn (2005, 1) described Clement as “a traveller, always moving on,” both intellectually and physically. This is clearly seen in his both intellectual and spiritual rejection of the pagan ways of his parents and his acceptance of Christ. But this intellectual development is matched by a geographical progression that saw Clement flee Alexandria in response to persecution at the start of the third century, first to Antioch and finally seemingly to Jerusalem.

Clement was a well respected figure in antiquity. Eusebius described him as “a good and proved man… practised in Scriptures” whilst both Cyril and Jerome labelled him an “expert” in Greek history, and a connoisseur of pagan literature. He was clearly a learned teacher, and treated as such. His depth of insight and knowledge shines through in his writings. Of his extant works, On Baptism and Who is the Rich Man who Can be Saved? are fragmentary (though well worth a read). His three longest surviving works, however, form a trilogy. The Protrepticus, Paedagogus and Stromateis, littered with hundreds of references to pagan, Hebrew and Christian texts, present an argument for the embrace of an intellectual and reasoned faith. It is this trilogy that I shall explore in my next post on Clement.

These three works, lengthy treatises on the Christian faith, are those for which Clement is best remembered. He was a teacher and biblical exegete, a polymath and an apologist. All of these shine through in his surviving writings, and this trilogy demonstrates Clement’s great passion, that the Christian life is lived out in an informed and engaged way. Clement was concerned that those who did not grow in their faith were cheating themselves, and his works emphasise the need to engage with Scripture and wrestle with the things of God. The Christian faith is rational and rich, it ought to be treated as such.

In 202, Clement fled persecution that was flaring up in Alexandria. A reference in a letter of Alexander of Jerusalem in 211, commending Clement to the church in Antioch, is the last contemporary reference we find to Clement. He likely died in c.215, either in Antioch or Jerusalem.

“If a man chooses to remain in his pleasures, sinning time after time, and values earthly luxury above eternal life, and turns away from the Saviour when He offers forgiveness… his soul will perish… But he who looks for salvation and earnestly desires it and asks for it with steadfast persistence shall receive the true purification and the unchanging life from God the Father who is in Heaven, to whom through His Son Jesus Christ, the lord of living and dead, and through the Holy Spirit be glory, honour, might, and eternal majesty both now and for all generations and ages to come. Amen”

Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man who Can be Saved?

Tertullian: On Abortion

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Certainly a contentious issue in the political and moral theatres of the modern day, abortion is by no means a new issue.

Tertullian, one of the most well known and prolific of the Early Church writers, had much to say in his many treatises on the Christian faith. Perhaps most well known for his Apology – a fifty chapter defence of the faith addressed to the Emperor himself – Tertullian wrote at length on other issues. His extant corpus includes thirty-one works, with more lost writings known to us. He wrote on a range of issues impacting Christians in the ancient world, from remarriage to persecution and heretical movements. Though he did not write a specific work (that remains for us to read) on abortion, he makes several clear references to the practice. His treatment of the subject is particularly interesting because of his own personal development.

As Tertullian lived and wrote, there is a clear shift in his writings from what we might term an orthodox, Pauline position, to a more ‘Montanist’ perspective. Montanism was a heresy that developed in the second century. What exactly it looked like remains up for debate, but, known as the ‘New Prophesy’ it was famed for its ascetic approach to the Christian life. Whilst Tertullian’s embrace of this heresy is a contentious issue, there is nonetheless a clear progression in his own outlook. The scholar Geoffrey Dunn spoke of “Tertullian’s increasingly Montanist perspective” (2004, 6). My personal view (and one that I would happily discuss) is that Tertullian is, as Christine Trevett has argued “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). By this Trevett means, and I would argue, Tertullian’s rigourist tendencies encouraged him towards the more ascetic, rigorous position of the Montanists.

This background is important. Tertullian’s thinking, whether he moved from a Pauline position to a Montanist one, or whether he simply entrenched further into his own extreme, rigourist tendencies, certainly developed. His stance on the remarriage of widows for example, became increasingly more forceful as his writings progressed. But on abortion? Tertullian maintained a consistent tone and approach. His most famous quote on the topic, from his famous Apology, dates to c.197 AD – early in his career. Other comments, from his treatise On the Soul, date to around 210 AD. Though his thinking on many issues developed from normative to what some may term ‘extreme’, on this (in modern times at least) contentious issue, Tertullian maintained a consistent line. His teaching was in line with a Pauline (and Biblical) outlook, and remained so.

With this background established, let’s briefly look at his words on the subject.

The Apology

Perhaps the most quoted reference to an early, post-Apostolic Christian view on abortion comes from Tertullian’s Apology.

…we are not permitted, since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy the foetus in the womb… It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth.”

Tertullian, Apology 9.8

Tertullian is clear here: life is sacred, and the human babe, born or unborn, has as much a right to life as any man or woman. To kill even the foetus in the womb is murder. Tertullian writes these words in the context of defending the Christian faith against allegations of wrongdoing, moral depravity, and coercive evil. Early accusers against the new faith labelled Christians paedophiles, murderers and even cannibals. Tertullian refutes these claims strongly. They are slander, aimed at tarnishing the Church and making them out as worse even than common criminals. So Tertullian is clear on where the Christian stands. And in regards to murder? From the unborn babe to the aged adult, murder is always prohibited – “once and for all.”

On The Soul

Tertullian has a great deal more to say on this issue. He labels the instruments used to perform such procedures as…

“embruosphaktes [meaning] ‘the slayer of the infant,’ which of course was alive… the doctors all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived…”

Tertullian, On The Soul 25

To His Wife and On Modesty

“Burdens must be sought by us for ourselves which are avoided even by the majority of the Gentiles, who are compelled by laws, who are decimated by abortions; burdens which, finally, are to us most of all unsuitable, as being perilous to faith!”

Tertullian, To His Wife 5

This passing reference to abortion comes in the context of an exhortation to avoid unsuitable practices as a believer. Certain actions, says Tertullian, we must have no part of. His use of abortion as an example illustrates a clear opinion that such a practice is wrong. Likewise, in dealing with the subject of adultery in On Modesty, Tertullian urges his readers to “witness the midwives… how many adulterous conceptions are slaughtered.” In a similar manner, abortion is given a passing and clearly negative reference.

The value of the foetus: The Apology

Tertullian is so wholly negative on this issue because, as mentioned in the earlier quote from his Apology, he considers abortion to be the murder of a human life. This fundamental value of human life is seen in his Apology, continuing from where we left off above…

“To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth.” That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.”

Tertullian, Apology 9.9.

To Tertullian, the foetus in the womb is a human life, and you cannot take a human life. Murder is despicable, and it applies within and without the womb.

Summary

Tertullian is clear and consistent on his messaging around this issue. Abortion, for Tertullian, was the detestable act of taking a human life. The foetus was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) – just as much as he was, or the reader to whom he wrote.

Despite his personal development on other issues, Tertullian never wavered in his opinion on this matter. Abortion was wrong, and ought to be opposed by Christian and non-Christian alike. This is not a modern opinion held by certain groups of evangelical Christians. Nor is the argument for the inherent worth of human life in the womb a modern reinterpretation of Scripture. Tertullian is an example of a Christian believer simply reading and applying the fundemental worth of human life to this issue of abortion.