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?

Book Review: Biblical Theology According to the Apostles (IVP, 2020)

The fifty second volume in the New Studies on Biblical Theology series, edited by Don Carson, addresses the topic of the Apostles engaging in Biblical Theology, specifically in the utilisation and exposition of Summaries of Israel’s Story (hereafter SIS). Biblical Theology according to the Apostles: How the earliest Christians told the story of Israel is a fantastic book, and this reviewer would thoroughly commend it to the reader.

Working with a simple and regimented criteria of what defines the SIS (7 “[an attempt] to show the historical progression of Israel’s story”) with which the authors are concerned, this volume explores seven SIS found in the New Testament. Their goal is not to engage with every aspect of the apostles’ Biblical theology, but instead to consider these clearly defined SIS, and through the application of a practical and simple methodology the authors successfully approach this task.

Methodology

The authors (Chris Bruno, Jared Compton and Kevin McFadden) set out a simply methodology by which they will approach each SIS. Starting first with the context of the story, they move to consider the content, before finally discussing the contribution that each story makes. Such an approach provides a simple structure by which each chapter operates, and allows the authors to offer a concise picture of each SIS. It is with this threefold approach that the SIS found in Matthew, Luke/Acts, Galatians, Romans and Hebrews are considered.

In, for example, the SIS found in Matthew’s Gospel, the approach allows the authors to build around the conclusion that (28-29) “Matthew’s genealogy is a story of unexpected salvation to preserve the line of promise and keep God’s covenant commitments… the goal of Matthew’s genealogy is to summarise the history of Israel with a particular emphasis on the coming of the Messiah, in spite of obstacles to the contrary.” In the SIS of Luke/Acts, the authors illustrate how (80) “the SIS in Acts instruct us about the story’s climax in the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus.”

This simple and coherent methodology allows each SIS to be analysed and discussed in an engaging manner, confronting controversies whilst helpfully tackling the word of God.

Textual Engagement

And it is the approach to God’s word that particularly struck me. As the authors consider the seven SIS found in the New Testament (conceding that this is not an exhaustive study) their primary concern was to look to and faithfully work through Scripture. Each study makes therefore a brilliant contribution to the examination of these SIS in the New Testament.

The authors flesh out in their conclusion how each of the seven SIS discussed in this book reveal different aspects of the Apostle’s Biblical theology (184-185). This, in turn, exposes the richness of the parallels between the Old and New Testaments. As each SIS is examined in this book, the incredible depths of Scripture are probed, and God’s word gives up some wonderful truths.

There is a real variety to these SIS. Their structure and content vary wildly, from the genealogy of Matthew to the focus on Abraham in Galatians. But regardless of their differences, each of these SIS expose the God behind Scripture. It is this faithful God, and His merciful gift of His own Son, that so clearly shines through in this book.

Summary

Having explored the biblical theology of the Apostles through the lens of these Summaries of Israel’s Story, the authors draw their thoughts together in a conclusion that in itself is worth the price of the book! They offer helpful thoughts and measured discussion on many of their wider arguments, helpfully applying their study to our own Christian lives. Through this examination of the SIS, the authors illustrate the immense benefit of a worked biblical theology:

“We submit, then, that in our own biblical theology we should read the story both backwards and forwards. The OT witness to Christ is seen more clearly through the lense of the NT and thus we should use the end of the story to enlighten the beginning. On the other hand, we should also read the story forwards. We should expect the OT, as the very Word of God, to bear prophetic witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (187)

The conclusion pulls together a brilliant book with valuable lessons for both our reading of the New Testament, and our attempts to develop our own Biblical theology. Perhaps most helpfully of all, the authors end with a clear indication of what they have been trying to say all along. The Apostles present Christ as the climax of these SIS. Because it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on which all of history rests, and to which all helpful theology will point us.

“The SIS in the NT ought to reorient our priorities when reading the OT and retelling this story. These summaries instruct us about the climax of the story with Christ, the continuation of the story in the church and the conclusion of the story in the new creation.” (200)

Christ is the beautiful climax of the story of both Israel and Creation. The Church is living proof of that, and we can look with confidence to the conclusion of this story when Christ returns. This is a wonderfully helpful book, and a fascinating study in the Biblical theology of the first Christians. But more than that, it is an edifying read that will help equip us to handle our Bibles better.

https://ivpbooks.com/biblical-theology-according-to-the-apostles

IVP kindly supplied me with a prepublication copy of this book, and I hope this has not coloured my review in any way. I think it is a genuinely helpful book, and would gladly recommend it!

Tertullian: On Abortion

TWR360 | Blog

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.

Who led the first Christians?

The language used to describe the Early Church can often be the biggest barrier to engaging helpfully with it.

Regardless of your theological persuasion, and your own thoughts on the polity (and autonomy) of the local church, the world of the Early Church can seem alien. Who led these first christian communities?

The answer to this is simple, bishops. The name comes from the Greek, ἐπίσκοπος, and literally means overseer or supervisor. Indeed, Paul uses the word many times, notably in his description of the overseers Timothy ought to select to help lead the church in 1 Timothy 3:2.

“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…”

1 Timothy 3:2

The bishops we see in this early period of church history are not then the lofty ceremonial positions we have today in many denominations. They were pastors, elders and church leaders. Some, such as those of Rome or Alexandria, began to develop significant power or authority, but more often than not they were humble figures leading small Christian communities. 

Many examples of these early Christian leaders are available for us to study. One of them, bishop Ignatius of Antioch, wrote a letter to the church at Smyrna in the early second century. In it he wrapped up the idea of the bishop in the local and universal church.

“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8.

Ignatius uses the language of bishops and catholic churches, and he is mirrors the Biblical picture of church order. This is not an affirmation of the Catholic tradition. Nor is it an affirmation of a Protestant structure of church polity (or any other denominational setup). It is a simple explanation of the status of each and every local church community. An overseer (or overseers), leading a body of believers, under the authority of Christ, as a local part of the wider Church of Christ. A beautiful picture of the church as ordained by Scripture. A simple picture of how these Early Churches were led. By faithful men, set apart for ministry, under the law and rule of God.

For more on Ignatius himself: have a read here.

Why Bother with the Early Church?

The Early Church Blog

Ephesus – the site of an early christian community.

It’s a very good point that on first glance, the church of 2019 couldn’t be further removed from the church of 119 or 219 AD. These days evangelical churches can be thousands strong. Churches are found in many towns and cities in a countries all over the world. Parachurch movements can have hundreds of thousands of members, and in countries like the US, Christian groups can have huge political influence.

So why bother looking back to the small and frightened church of the first few centuries? Why bother looking at a tiny (less than 50 000 believers in 100 AD), illegal (until the fourth century) and historically alien church? We can be so tempted to think the church of history this long ago can have nothing to show us, being in a foreign time and a foreign world. Below are just…

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Book Reviews: Coronavirus Reads. (Piper, Lennox and Healthy Faith.)

In an effort to respond helpfully and ‘Christianly’ to this global crisis, several leading Christian thinkers and publishers have released new books aimed at helping Christians and non-Christians find Gospel hope at the heart of this pandemic. Below I review two short books, written by John Piper and John Lennox respectively, that both offer very different approaches to this issue. I also include a suggestion for a third book that could help us through this time.

John Piper: Christ and Coronavirus

Coronavirus and Christ by John Piper

Piper has written a short book to help Christians respond to this global pandemic. Christ and Coronavirus is a really helpful read as we think about our own hearts in this strange and often difficult time. Split into two short sections, Piper first considers God’s sovereignty before offering six reflections as to what God might be doing through this crisis.

Part One addresses God’s sovereignty. Piper wants to stress that we trust in a God who reigns over the coronavirus. He is the rock on whom we can stand firm. And so Part One takes on a theological tone. But Piper is careful to make this a section that can be directly applied to our lives, not some academic, abstract theological idea. He gives a great analogy of technology versus taste (26-27). If we were to take a jar of honey, technology could tell us the composition, the chemical makeup – but only taste could tell us of its sweetness. The same is true of theology, we must taste the truth of Scripture as we explore God’s sovereignty to see the sweetness of this truth.

So in a few short chapters heavily dependent on Scriptural truth, Piper does exactly that. I found this a helpful read, and was encouraged that God is sovereign over all of this. At times some of what Piper wrote was hard to read, but through challenging truths such as (45) – “if we try to rescue God from his sovereignty over suffering, we sacrifice his sovereignty to turn all things for good”, Piper offers a great picture of God’s sovereignty over a fragile and broken world.

Part Two offers six answers to the question: what is God doing through the coronavirus? Again, this was a section full of helpful thoughts, although some of what Piper said jarred with me. I was left with much to mull over and reflect on, but in that came some really important truths. The wonderful if hard reality that (64) Christians will experience corruption now, but we are free from the condemnation that follows. The tough challenge of the “gift of desperation” (83): stop relying on yourselves, and trust in God alone.

This is a short book, and will certainly be a controversial read, but Piper offers some helpful thoughts to challenge us to respond to this crisis. Is our understanding of the truth of God’s sovereignty deep and rich enough that we can see the beauty of it even through this crisis? This book might be a helpful prompt to consider that.

John Lennox: Where is God in a Coronavirus World?

John Lennox: Why did God make a world with coronavirus? - The ...

If you’re in the mood for something a bit different, then perhaps you might consider John Lennox’s offering. This is another excellent book to help us respond to this crisis, and whereas Piper responds in a theological work, Lennox offers a more apologetic book. Where is God in a Coronavirus World? is thoughtfully geared towards the current crisis, and offers a wonderful presentation of the Gospel amidst the confusion of coronavirus.

What I found most helpful about this short, accessible book, was its clear presentation of the hope that Christians have. Lennox shows that not only can Christians respond to this crisis helpfully and ‘Christianly’, but actually that the answers Christians have to offer are full of a hope that is so much more sure and certain than anything the world has to offer.

Chapter 6 offers some practical advice on how we might respond to this crisis with some great, future-focussed, Heaven-looking tips, so this is a brilliant read for Christians as well as non-Christians. But I think this would be a great short book to send or give to a non-Christian friend, neighbour or family member. It helpfully spells out the sure and certain hope Christians can find in a world of uncertainty, and does so in a gentle and simple manner.

Kristi Mair and Luke Cawley: Healthy Faith

Whilst I won’t offer a review of this upcoming book, I would love to commend it to you.

Kristi and Luke have assembled 20 chapters and a whole load of extra material: appendices, prayers and other helpful sections, to help the British church think through and respond to the Coronavirus crisis. This book stands out for me because not only is it wholly written as new material speaking into this pandemic, but because Luke and Kristi have made a real effort to equip their readers with practical and Gospel-centred advice.

Primarily aimed at a Christian audience, this book includes chapters from the likes of Dan Strange, Krish Kandiah, Tom Wright, Andy Kind, Ed Shaw and many more. It’s a really helpful briefing as we think about responding to this crisis. With chapters discussing parenting, singleness, work, redundancy, humour and mental health, it’s a really helpful book for thinking through how we can respond to this crisis biblically across all areas of our lives.

I was thrilled to contribute a chapter to this book on the realities of working (and of losing work) through this crisis, and it is my hope that this book will be a real blessing. Publication is Monday, but you can preorder through the IVP website below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the above books, and would heartily recommend all three if you’re looking to think through this crisis from a Gospel standpoint.

Healthy Faith: Preorder

Healthy Faith: Contents and Contributors

Clement of Rome and the early claim for the Authority of Rome

The question as to the authority of Rome in the history of Christianity has long been a divisive one. Whilst those in the Catholic tradition will claim an authority stretching back to the Apostle Peter, the reality of the pre-eminence of the Roman Church is to be found in the emergence of Roman authority in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The famous and divisive scholar Walter Bauer theorised that the theological tradition that he believed later became orthodox Christianity could find its roots in Rome itself. Bauer suggests that the writings attributed to Clement of Rome support this idea: that Rome held the authority within the orthodox tradition from the late first century.

Whilst I have mentioned elsewhere that the big picture of Roman authority cannot be traced back beyond the fifth and sixth centuries, here I would like to briefly address the question of using Clement in support of an argument of early Roman primacy. I believe it is a suggestion that falls down quickly in face of the evidence, and indeed, exposes the truth of where Christians can look to authority.

1 Clement: Roman authority over Corinth?

The first extant epistle attributed to Clement of Rome dates from approximately 96 AD. 1 Clement is addressed to the Church in Corinth – and sent, in the hands of the messengers Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Vito and Fortunatus, from the gathered Church in Rome.

Clement has written to the Corinthians because of a dispute that has arisen among them. The church in Corinth had ejected its elders, and installed new leadership, despite the faithful and wise service of their former presbyters. This has led to a bitter division in the church, and 1 Clement is written to encourage a Gospel unity predicated on their shared salvation in Christ.

It is worth noting that the assumption that the leader of the church in Rome commanded authority over the Corinthian church because of this letter is questioned by the first line. The letter is addressed, as mentioned above, not by Clement himself, but from “the [colony] of the church of God at Rome”. It is a letter from one local church, one family of believers, to another.

More so than this: there is a continual and clear tone throughout the letter. There are not stark commands to submission, or indications of pulling rank or setting the standard. Instead there are gentle, and indeed hard, admonitions to love one another in the truth. As I discuss below, this is a letter not grounded in the authority of Rome, but in the authority of Scripture.

Indeed, the letter continues in a shared tone of submission not to one another, but to God Himself. The encouragement is clear (9) – “Let us bow then, to that sovereign and glorious will. Let us entreat His mercy and goodness, casting ourselves upon His compassion.” The letter urges the Corinthian church to join with their Roman brothers and sisters in submitting to their Heavenly Father, and ultimately to throw off the quarrels and rivalry that have arisen. There is a clear humility with which this letter is written, and the idea of exaltation above the flock is clearly refuted (16): “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock.”

This letter is written in a gracious style; hard and clear yes, but not overbearing or authoritative in and of itself. It is a collegiate missive, from one church to another. It is a partnership across the Empire – “dear friends” are repeatedly addressed, and the language of “we”/”us” is used as Clement encourages his brothers and sisters to strive as one. This is no vertical papal directive to a wandering church, it is a horizontal, loving correction from one church to another.

A Few Recent Scholarly Comments

In his introduction to his 1987 Penguin translation of 1 Clement, Andrew Louth writes (20) “Although Clement does not write like a Pope exercising his extraordinary jurisdiction, maybe a step had already been taken in that direction.” This seems to me, misguided. To suggest that the evidence points away from a papal authority, then question whether, regardless, such authority exists, seems erroneous. And more recent scholars would agree.

In their excellent rebuttal of the Bauer thesis, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Michael Kruger and Andreas Köstenberger address the importance of Rome in the early years. “When one compares the tone of 1 Clement to that of other letters from the same time period, it is evident that the letter did not aim to impose a theological position onto the Corinthian church but to persuade the Christians there to accept it.” (43-44). They note that there is no authoritative tone, no imposition of Roman will. Louth, in his 1987 introduction, overlooks this point.

The letter came from Rome, but this does not mean it automatically carries with it a Roman authority. To read fifth/sixth century authority back into the first century is to commit the very crimes Bauer accuses those who argue for a consistent orthodox position throughout the Early Church period of embracing. 1 Clement simply does not add to the argument of an early Roman authority.

Clement’s true source of authority: Scripture

Instead 1 Clement clearly shows the reader, both ancient and modern, where the authority for their letter resides. It is found in Scripture.

Continually, Scripture is used to illustrate the points made. Scripture is used to reveal sin, to call the Corinthian Church to repentance, to offer a reminder of the truth of the resurrection, and much more. The divinely inspired pages of Scripture offer the basis of authority in this letter.

(28) “Since there is nothing He does not see and hear, let us approach Him with awe… so that we may find shelter in His mercy… As it says in the Psalms…” Time and again this letter appeals to God, and His word, not to human authority.

Because this authority is total. The above quote goes on to cite Psalm 139.

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

It is God’s authority that is total and complete, no Bishop or Pope or Church has authority over God’s people, and there was no sense of papal authority in 1 Clement. Instead, this letter appeals to The Authority, to God Himself. To the God that is sovereign over all, sees all, knows and keeps all. A God worth submitting to. A God worth knowing.