On Atheism: Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria

As I briefly discussed in a much earlier blog post, the first Christians were considered atheists. Christianity was radical in the ancient world because it made a claim to the sole Lordship of Christ. The gods and goddesses of the Roman world were falsehoods and deceptions, God alone was the Lord of all creation. In a polytheistic society such as ancient Rome, such claims opened you up to the charge of radical atheism.

Charged with Atheism

The teaching of the Early Church, centred around the one God, sovereign over all creation, was contradictory to everything the ancients believed. The first Christians believed and taught that there was one God supreme in authority, sovereignty, and judgement. And for this they were labelled atheists.

The third century Christian writer Origen records how one anti-Christian thinker of the second century, Celsus, was shocked (Contra Celsum 1.5.1) that “the Christians do not consider those to be gods that are made with hands, on the ground that it is not in conformity with reason to suppose that images, fashioned by the most worthless and depraved of workmen, and in many instances also provided by wicked men, can be regarded as gods!” Behind Celsus’ words lies a charge of atheism, a common one levelled at the first Christian communities. In a similar manner, the early second century martyr, Polycarp, was accused outright of the charge. Standing before the Roman court, Polycarp was asked to recant (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9) “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists!” Atheism was one of the most common accusations made against the first Christians. So how did the Early Church reply? Origen offers a written response in his work Contra Celsum – literally Against Celsus – but in the decades before Origen turned to rebutting Celsus’ accusations, two influential Christian thinkers tackled this charge head on.

Tertullian of Carthage

“You say we are atheists, and will not offer sacrifices for the emperors. Well, we do not offer sacrifice for others, for the same reason that we do not for ourselves — namely, that your gods are not at all the objects of our worship.”

Tertullian, Apology, 10.

Tertullian squares up to the charge of atheism by confirming what those who oppose the Christians claim. These Christ-followers are indeed atheistic about the gods of the ancient world, inasmuch as they simply do not believe them to be true divines. There is but one God, so yes, the Christians are simply disbelieving about the false ‘gods’ of the ancient world.

Tertullian makes a mockery of the gods in this short quote. Christians do not worship the gods for the same reason they don’t worship their very selves! They simply are not worth it. God alone is the object of Christian worship, because He alone is the sovereign creator God.

Clement of Alexandria

He, then, who is persuaded that God is omnipotent, and has learned the divine mysteries from His only-begotten Son, how can he be an atheist? For he is an atheist who thinks that God does not exist. And he is superstitious who dreads the demons; who deifies all things, both wood and stone; and reduces to bondage spirit, and man who possesses the life of reason.

Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 7.1.

Clement responds in a slightly different way, instead turning the charge back upon his pagan opponents. Whereas Tertullian essentially admitted that Christians were atheists – in the sense that they did not believe in these false gods – Clement accuses the pagans of true atheism. How can Christians be called atheist, when they trust in the true God? The truth is in fact the very opposite. Clement confronts his accusers: “he is an atheist who thinks that God does not exist.” Instead of trusting in the true God, these pagans hope in mere superstitions, forsaking reason to hope in falsehoods.

It is the pagan believer who is atheistic about the truth of the one God who could save them. They have lost their minds if they think deifying wood and stone will help them! Clement confronts the charge of atheism head on, and turns it back on his accusers.

Two tactics: one Hope

Both Tertullian and Clement present examples of Christian arguments against this early charge of atheism. Though they take slightly different approaches, the truth behind their tactics remains the same. The world hopes in false gods and superstitions, the Christians trust in God alone. The one true God, worthy of divine worship and sovereign over all creation. Up against this true God, the ‘gods’ of the pagans are nothing more than mere superstitions.

Christians were regularly labelled as ‘atheists’ in those early years. But in these responses from Tertullian and Clement we find a way to counter such a charge. Our own world can accuse us of believing in fairytales and foolishness, but as these men asked some 1800 years ago, is the hope of the world in anything secure? Do our unbelieving friends and family trust in anything more than superstitions and falsehoods? Our God is still the one true Lord of all creation. We are right to worship Him, and we must not stop pointing others to the truth that He alone is worthy of our worship.

Language Games. Looking different: sounding the same?

The Early Church was doing something radical in the ancient world. Men and women, slave and free, different ethnicities all gathered together celebrating one God, one Spirit, one faith.

Image result for early church ephesus
Ephesus, the site of one of the earliest Christian communities.

Such radical behaviour naturally attracted criticism. The atheist Celsus, a 2nd century opponent of the faith, was particularly aggressive in his criticism of the new faith. One of his major criticisms was that the meetings and rituals of these Christ followers worryingly resembled the ‘secret associations’ of cults and dark religious groups.

The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws. And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the love-feasts of the Christians.

Origen, Against Celsus, 1.1

What was Celsus saying here? Origen (who wrote Against Celsus in response to the atheist) tells us that Celsus was trying to discredit the faith. He does this by suggesting that Christians were merely adherents to these illegal, secretive associations that carried out such debauched practices as ‘love-feasts’. Celsus makes the meetings and meals of the Christians into a dangerous series of illicit meetings…

Why did such an accusation carry weight? Because the ancient world was full of associations, guilds and societies.

Associations, Guilds and Societies

The ancient world was full of social gatherings. Guilds and associations, called collegia in Latin and thiasoi in Greek, abounded. Everyone was a member. Blacksmiths were members of blacksmiths guilds, laywers members of legal guilds. The rich were members of dinner party societies, the poor members of clubs and guilds designed to share simple meals and offer emergency provisions. These guilds were divided among social class and career. These guilds supported their members, organised social events, and even provided funds and materials for the funerals of members.

Guilds and societies were a big and common part of Roman life. These secret associations Celsus mentions were illegal perversions of these guilds. They secretly worshipped one god above all others, members were devoted to their cause, and their actions were often criticised as being illegal or repulsive.

Though all these guilds, secret or ordinary, had defined members lists, it was only these secret ones that would shun all others. Gods and goddesses were so often tied to a particular guild. Patron deities were especially revered. But no self-respecting association would disregard all other gods purely because they happened to prefer one. And no regular association would allow slaves and peasants to mix with officials and elites.

Language Games

The Early Church did both those things. They taught their members that there was only one God, and they accepted into their midst anyone, regardless of their social standing, if they professed faith in this one God.

And so it was easy for opponents of the faith to label them secret, perverted groups.

So the Church had to find a way to explain to the world what it was they were about. Christians began to use words like collegium, or thiasos, to describe how they were meeting together. We even find Early Christian churches described as philosophical schools of learning. The Church had to play language games to interact with the world around them.

The best known label for these Early Christian groups was ekklesia – the term from which we get our English word: church. In the ancient world an ekklesia was a gathering, an assembly, a meeting. The Early Church began to use words like this to make what it was doing accessible to outsiders. Because that is perhaps the biggest difference between the church and these other groups: anyone could join, everyone could be welcomed in. A profession of faith in Christ is all that was required, and anyone who met the living God could do that.

Our Church

The Early Church faced the challenge of describing what it was they were doing to a world who had never come across them before. In our own world, the terminology: church, has an established and largely understood meaning.** But we must guard against our churches resembling collegia. We must guard against a lack of welcome, a lack of engagement. The Gospel is exclusive, there is a clear in and out. But the church had the job of presenting the Gospel invitation to the world. We can’t do that if our closed up membership is looking inwards, refusing to engage with the world around them. We can do that, when, radically, believers of all ages, stages and backgrounds, gather around the Gospel in love for God’s creation.

Our mission as church is to go out. A clear and defined membership of believers, inviting everyone we meet and engage with to join God’s great salvation plan.

That invitation is just as alien to our modern world as it was to the Roman world of the Early Church. We don’t face the barrier of setting up a whole new way of ‘doing life’, but we do face a similar challenge. Christ still calls us to reject all other gods, to meet with and encourage one another, and to go out on mission to a lost world that will never understand what we are doing until we introduce them to Jesus.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20

Jesus’s Great Commission is to go. It is to take the Gospel to all nations, leading repentant sinners to a saving faith in Christ. Our Lord commands us to engage with the world around us. Not to dilute the Gospel message or to conform to the ways of the world, but to go, and to take that wonderful Gospel message out to the communities and people who work and live around us.

Because the Early Church was different. And so are we today. We’re different because we aren’t living for ourselves. I’m not in church because it’s powerful or wealthy. I’m there because I’ve been saved by Christ at the Cross, and I want to join my family in praising Him, encouraging one another in the truth, and obeying His command to gather together. Church will always look weird to a world rejecting God. But if we aren’t reaching those outside Church with the Gospel, they’ll never quite understand why that is.

*Membership in the Early Church is an interesting topic: often it seems that those born into Church families were included as members. The Biblical picture is to love and raise children in the faith, but they must still stand on their own two feet. They must decide for themselves whether they will trust and obey Jesus before they can be members of the Church.

**Sometimes that meaning is negative in our world, this places even more of an emphasis on going out with the Gospel message to lost sinners in need of grace! We aren’t going out to advertise ourselves, but to tell the wonderful redeeming truth of an all loving God.

Outcasts. The social stigma facing Early Christians.

To become a Christian is a huge decision. It’s life changing. It’s transformative. It’s hopeful.

And in the Roman world, it was a really, really hard thing to do.

When the Christian accepted Christ, he was rejecting the other gods of the Roman world. He wasn’t just adding in another god to a crowded pantheon, he was rejecting the rest in favour of this one true God. This was because the radical call to Christian belief was completely at odds with the whole Roman understanding of their world. There was a real stigma attached to accepting Christ, because it involved rejecting the gods of Rome.

The scholar Larry Hurtado lays this out clearly in his 2016 book on the Early Church.

“Practically everyone was presumed to honour the gods, and your own gods were supplied as part of your birthright.”

Hurtado, Destroyer of Gods, 2016, 78.

To become a Christian, to accept only one true God, is to turn your back on your whole prior understanding of yourself. Such a statement rings true today, but the stigma attached to this choice in Roman times was wide reaching. Religious belief defined every civic event, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief determined every legal and social process, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief shaped how the family interacted. The household gods (known in Latin as the lares), intimately personal to every household, were now in stark opposition to the new faith of the convert. And so the family religion, the makeup of how the very family unit defined itself? The Christian rejected that.

The Christian went from socially ‘in’ to a societal outcast overnight. The stigma around these believers was so real and so painful because their belief was so offensive to the Roman worldview. How dare these Jesus-followers reject the gods of their fathers? How dare they claim that their God is the only way?

They did it because of the wonderful answer Jesus made to that very question.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6.

The Jesus these early Christians followed was the only true God, and trusting in Him was the only way that any man or woman throughout the Empire could be right with this God.
The same is true today. The Christian life is hard, trusting in Christ requires the believer to turn his or her back on the world. It can make us societal outcasts. It can make our families, friends, even our spouses reject us and deride us. But at the end of the day it is wonderfully worth it because it is the only way we can be right with God. Jesus Christ is the only truth we can be sure of in a world of fake news and post-truth. Jesus Christ is a God who is wonderfully unchanging. And though following Him can be as hard in the twenty first century as it was in the first, it is just as worth it.