Tertullian: a Church Father with a Confused Legacy.

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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.

Book Review: The Great Awakening (Joseph Tracy)

Just a short review today, but one that comes with an encouragement to pick up a classic from recent church history. (Recent for an ancient historian that is!) This is, once again, an adaptation of the review I gave for Free Church Books.

Banner of Truth have produced a beautiful new hardcover edition of Joseph Tracy’s classic work: The Great Awakening.

This reprinting is beautifully done, and it offers the reader a great edition of the first history of the 18th century revivals of New England. Tracy was the first historian of these events, and as his work walks the reader through this great spiritual awakening, the transformative nature of our wonderful God is evident. Tracy explores revival on both sides of the Atlantic, but his focus is on America and New England in particular. The story of these revivals is the story of thousands of conversions, as God moved powerfully through these young American communities.

Controvery and error is not neglected, and the work is wonderfully structured to highlight the error of sinful man, and the wonder of a saving God. Whilst this work may not be easy or quick reading (being, as it was, first penned in 1841), Tracy’s volume stands as testament to the work of God in the lives of countless believers some three hundred years ago.

I would heartily recommend Banner of Truth’s edition as a great way of exploring a period of church history that is so often acknowledged, but little understood. These revivals were a period of great spiritual awakening, and are a wonderful testament to our God as the Lord of History. The book focuses on the work of many great preachers, but through it all it is clear that souls are saved not by their words, but by their powerful, gracious God.

You can pick up a copy from Banner of Truth here.

A response to the Francis Chan soundbite: The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church

You may have seen a video of the Christian author and preacher, Francis Chan, doing the rounds in recent days. In it, Francis makes the claim that for the first fifteen hundred years of Church History, people literally believed that the body and blood of Christ were being partaken during the Lord’s Supper. I include the video below in case you’ve missed it.

I’d like to briefly say that this post is not a dig against Francis by any means. I appreciate his books and teaching, and would thoroughly recommend books such as Crazy Love as a great read for young and mature Christians alike. This post is aimed at challenging something I believe to be factually wrong.

This claim, aligning Christian belief for the first 1500 years of Church History with elements of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, is in fact incorrect. Whilst Francis has much to say that is helpful, this particular claim is wrong.

Below are extracts from key early church thinkers and writings, that refute Francis’ claims. But behind such claims is, I believe, a bigger problem with the current engagement of evangelical Christians with Early Church history. And so at the end of this post is a short addendum and a link to some earlier posts. Evangelical Christians, such as Francis and myself, all too often lump the Early Church in with the Catholic Church, or assume that after the Apostolic era ended, the Catholic Church simply appeared. We’re often too easily afraid of the difference between catholic and Catholic.

But first, a short reponse to Francis Chan, from the mouths of members of the Early Church themselves.

Early Church understandings of The Bread and The Wine.

Athenagoras (c.133 – 190) says to eat the flesh of man is an abomination:

But if it be unlawful even to speak of this, and if for men to partake of the flesh of men is a thing most hateful and abominable, and more detestable than any other unlawful and unnatural food or act; and if what is against nature can never pass into nourishment for the limbs and parts requiring it, and what does not pass into nourishment can never become united with that which it is not adapted to nourish,–then can the bodies of men never combine with bodies like themselves, to which this nourishment would be against nature, even though it were to pass many times through their stomach, owing to some most bitter mischance”

Athenagoras, On the Resurrection of the Dead, 8

Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 211) says Christ called the wine, wine:

In what manner do you think the Lord drank when He became man for our sakes? As shamelessly as we? Was it not with decorum and propriety? Was it not deliberately? For rest assured, He Himself also partook of wine; for He, too, was man. And He blessed the wine, saying, ‘Take, drink: this is my blood’–the blood of the vine. He figuratively calls the Word ‘shed for many, for the remission of sins’–the holy stream of gladness. And that he who drinks ought to observe moderation, He clearly showed by what He taught at feasts. For He did not teach affected by wine. And that it was wine which was the thing blessed, He showed again, when He said to His disciples, ‘I will not drink of the fruit of this vine, till I drink it with you in the kingdom of my Father.’

Clement of Alexander, Paedagogus, 2.2

Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) spoke of the bread and wine being shared out as bread and wine:

There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, 65.

In the Didache (written c.96), the bread and wine are pictures of unity, and there to stir us to give thanks:

First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.. And concerning the broken bread: We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through.

Didache, 9.

Tertullian (c.155 – 220) reminds us that Christ told us the bread was a representation:

the bread by which he represents his own proper body…

Tertullian, Against Marcion, 1.14

Finally, Origen (c.184 – 253), in his commentary On Matthew, says that bread is bread, and has no higher substance. But that the Lord’s Supper ought to point us to something greater, to the True Living Bread, to the one we are remembering. Christ.

… it is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolical body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, and true meat of which he that eateth shall assuredly live for ever, no worthless person being able to eat it; for if it were possible for one who continues worthless to eat of Him who became flesh, who was the Word and the living bread, it would not have been written, that ‘every one who eats of this bread shall live for ever.’

Origen, On Matthew, 11.14

Origen points us away from the physical bread and wine, and takes us to the true satisfaction found in Christ. The Early Church clearly taught that the Lord’s Supper was an opportunity to meet as a church family and remember what it was the Lord has done for us. It clearly taught that we meet to give thanks to our God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not eat of Him, nor would they suggest such a thing, but wonderfully, through His death and resurrection, we are now in Him.

Francis Chan has been right on many things, but on this he is wrong. The Early Church drew on truth they gained from Scripture, that the Lord had instituted this meal so that His church would gather and remember what He did for them. I have included the words of Early Church writers here to counter the claims made in the above video, but to see real and lasting truth, simply turn to the Gospel accounts of that Upper Room, and Paul’s thoughts upon what happened there, to read the divinely inspired words of Scripture on this matter. Transubstantiation is not a biblical teaching, and neither is it backed up by the history of the Early Church.

Addendum: why we need to study Church History well.

Francis Chan’s comments show the need to approach Christian history with discernment. He makes two claims in his video that would be refuted by almost every single academic, whether Christian or not. As seen above, the claim that the church believed the bread and wine became the literal body and blood for the first 1500 years is clearly incorrect, but secondly, Francis claimed that for the first 1000 years there was but one church.

This is simply not the case. As I show in my blog on Catholicism, the Catholic Church came to the fore in the sixth century. And both before and after this, Christendom was divided geographically, or by leadership or cannon. Groups such as the Gnostics, Donatists and Arians claimed to be the true church, in the first three centuries of Church History alone!

There has only ever been one true church, God’s elect and redeemed church. But that’s never been shown in one strain, denomination, or label. However hard we might try. Sinful people simply make it too hard to achieve such global unity.

We need a better understanding of Church History, and the Early Church in particular. Find out more below.

Why do we need to bother with the Early Church? Find out here.

What about Catholicism? Check this post out.

Was there one church only? See this post for examples of the heresy and schisms that plagued even the earliest years of Christian history.

The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.

John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.

These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.

John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?

Local Assurance

In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.

“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”

Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.

Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.

The True Emperor

The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.

With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.

John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.

As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11.

God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.

What About Us?

We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.

We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.

Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?

They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.

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.

Ignatius: Focussed on Unity

Ignatius was headed for his death.

And that is one of the first things we know for sure about him.

He’s another one of the Early Church figures about whom it is almost impossible to piece a biography together. Born in the early first century (c.AD 35) Ignatius rose to the position of bishop in Antioch, a church leader in one of the important Early Church centres.

His death came about in AD 107, as he was taken to Rome and executed for the charge of atheism. One of the most common charges levied against early Christians, atheism – denying the Roman gods – could be punishable by death, and for Ignatius, it was.

Traditionally Ignatius is seen as one of the disciples of the Apostle John, whether or not this was the case, it seems that he likely succeeded Evodius as the second or third bishop of Antioch. In this role, he spoke and wrote extensively against heretical divisions, sending letters to churches throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Quite why Ignatius was taken to Rome for his execution is unknown, when persecution arose Christians were normally punished locally by the imperial provincial authority. Despite this peculiar circumstance, we know he endured a long journey to Rome, where he then met his death. On his way to the imperial capital he wrote many of his extant letters and it is these that provide most of his legacy. Letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia and other cities throughout the empire have survived. His letters often dwell on the themes of unity, submission to church leaders and fellowship through the Lord’s Supper.

Ignatius sought to encourage a unity built around a mutual encouragement and growth in the Gospel. He spoke against those who would seek to divide the church through falsehoods and lies, and encouraged a united submission to the undershepherds Christ had raised up. His letters betray his primary concern as he went to his death in Rome: the faithfulness and unity of the Church. His letters urge his readers to “follow the lead of the bishops” to “take heed to often come together to give thanks to God” and to “revere the deacons” among many other commands. Ignatius has a picture of a global Church gathered in local churches; under the authority of local church leadership, serving and growing in the glorious Gospel of Christ.

Eventually he went to his death, and as with so many of the other Early Church martyrs, his focus in death as in life is a challenge to us all.

Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment … come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”

Ignatius of Antioch

In death as in life, Ignatius looked towards and rejoiced in Christ. In his ministry he encouraged his flock to do the same, and in his own life he sought nothing more than to attain to Him.

His life reflects the words of Paul to the Philippians, written during Ignatius’ own lifetime.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Philippians 1:21.

Paul, and a little later Ignatius, saw life as being rightly lived when it was lived for Christ. And death? With death comes the great reward for the Christian is to be united with Christ for all eternity. Ignatius reflected this Pauline ambition, to live in such a way that Christ was glorified, and to die with the wonderful and certain hope that today he would be with Him in paradise.

Was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the biggest confusions surrounding Early Church history is the term ‘catholic.’ Little ‘c’? Big ‘C’?

It was only a few months ago that I realised: I’d never stopped and thought about the point in time when ‘the Church’ became ‘the Catholic Church’.

Of course, the Catholic Church itself claims its ordination of papal authority in Christ’s designation of Peter as “the rock on which I build my church” (Matt 16:18). This blog doesn’t want to engage with the ideas of Catholic theology predicated on this verse – if that’s a question for you may I recommend one of the blogs below:

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/where-did-the-pope-come-from


https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-dont-protestants-have-a-pope/

Rather, this blog is asking: was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the Pope’s titles is the Bishop of Rome. He is seen in Catholic belief as the one man with supreme authority over the Earthly Church. Such authority, however, only arose in the fifth century. Up until then, the Bishop of Rome was merely another high ranking Church official writing and speaking into Church debates of the day. Other notable episcopal sees included Antioch and Alexandria, indeed, the Coptic Church places its papal authority in the Alexandrian see in a manner not dissimilar from those of the Roman Catholic tradition. (See my recent blog on Clement for an example of how Alexandria was a major centre of Christian teaching and learning.)

For the first few centuries of its existence then, the Church was not Catholic. But it was catholic. Or at least, it strove to be. Groups of Christ followers meeting together as small parts of the universal body of Christ here on earth. It’s why we still use ‘catholic’ in our creeds today and why we can partner with Christians all over the world in prayer and mission.

Often we approach the Early Church with the fear that we are really studying the Catholic Church, and the possibility of learning in a conservative evangelical context is simply impossible. We musn’t let the terminology of ‘catholic’ put us off for the wrong reasons. Many of the so-called Church Fathers ( such as Justin or Polycarp), who are claimed as Catholic saints and teachers, were writing simple Gospel truth for their peers.

Whilst many later teachings of the Catholic Church are hinged on an interaction with and interpretation of the writings of these Early Church Fathers, the reality is there was no Catholic Church when they were writing. Rome was not the authoritorial centre of the Christian world. In AD 312 the Emperor Constantine legalised the Christian faith, but even after this it took over a century for Rome to come to the fore. We must not fear these formative years of the Church. Because there is so much we can learn from godly men and women who lived out their faith under the Roman Empire. Nor must we surrender the writers and writings of this period because of the terminology with which we discuss them in the twenty-first century.

The word ‘bishop’ is another that can confuse us. But this again is a simple matter of language and terminology. The word comes from the Greek, ἐπίσκοπος; which literally means overseer or supervisor. We find that 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. The bishops we see in this early period of church history are not 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, had significant power or authority, but more often than not they were humble figures leading small Christian communities.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the church at Smyrna in the early second century, in it he wrapped up the ideas of bishops, ‘catholic’-ness and the church in one another.

“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.

Whilst he uses the language of bishops and catholic churches, he is mirroring the picture of Biblical church order. 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.

This is the terminology we use to discuss the Early Church.

So we shouldn’t be scared of the Early Church. We should recognise their sinfulness and their error. But there is also a lot we can learn from reflecting on the Early Church as they sought to live for the Gospel in the Roman world.

Find out more on why we should bother with the Early Church.

The Birth of Apologetics

Christian Apologetics are big business. Books, conferences, televised debates: speakers and evangelists can live their whole lives devoted to a career of apologetics in defence of the Christian faith.

But when did all that start? It wasn’t in the twentieth century with the careers of C S Lewis or John Lennox. Nor did it come from the great revival preachers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Apologetics was born in the Early Church. The genre of Apologetic writing, literal defences of the faith, was born in the second century as the fledgling Christian faith stood up to the might of the Roman world. Because the Church was facing a hostile world where the powers of Rome; political, religious and social, all hated what these new Christians stood for. Justin Martyr, introduced in my last blog (see it here), wrote one of the first Apologies. His work is addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, “on behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them.”

Justin was addressing the Emperor because this abuse was found throughout the nations, and the faith needed to be defended, because the accusations that these Christians faced were simply unfounded.

Tertullian wrote his famous Apology about fifty years after Justin. It too, was addressed to political rulers, to “The Rulers of the Roman Empire,” and it was a work that sought to force these rulers to “openly inquire into and sift before the world the real truth in regard to the charges made against the Christians”

Both these works, some of the earliest examples of apologetics to survive to us address the culture of the day and provide a defence of the faith in light of the challenge of the zeitgeist of the day.

The amazing thing about these apologies is that they were written with two real goals in mind. To defend the faith against the attacks of the day, and to defend the faith with the truths of the Gospel. Tertullian’s Apology includes a brilliant explanation of the Gospel. He grounds it in the history of the empire, freely admitting Christ lived recently “no further back indeed than the reign of Tiberius,” before turning to discuss Christ’s divinity.

He appeared among us, whose coming to renovate and illuminate man’s nature was pre-announced by God— I mean Christ, that Son of God. And so the supreme Head and Master of this grace and discipline, the Enlightener and Trainer of the human race, God’s own Son, was announced among us, born…

Tertullian, Apology, 21.

Tertullian addresses the accusations of the Roman government of the day by pointing it back to the Jesus these Christians believed in. By showing His divinity, lordship and salvation work on the cross, Tertullian answers the accusations of these enemies of the Gospel, by pointing them to the Gospel.

These days, rightly, apologetics often manifests itself in answering questions about science, ethics and historical authenticity. But a brief glance back to the writings of the Early Church reminds us that at the heart of good apologetics lies a radical call to faith in Christ, and an emphasis on the Gospel that drives all the defences we make.

Justin: Philosopher and Martyr.

If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.

Justin lived and died in the second century, and was a hugely influential figure in the history of the church in Rome, just a generation or two after the teachings and imprisonment of Paul in the city.

Manuscripts that either describe Justin or record his writings, always give him the epithets ‘martyr’ or ‘philosopher’. This sums up what the man is best known for; as leader of a ‘school-church’ in Rome he was a philosopher, theologian and thinker, but in his death under the emperor Marcus Aurelius, we see the martyr.

Justin was born in AD 100, to a pagan family in the city of Flavia Neapolis. He was well educated, but describes in his own writings how he found the philosophies of the world to be hollow, unsatisfying, and inconclusive.

He tells readers in his Dialogue that he tried first the Stoic school of philosophy, then the Peripatetic, the Pythagorean and finally the Platonic. Having settled on Platonic thought, he waited for the revelation of God that was sure to come.

I supposed that I had become wise…I expected soon to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.

Having chased down all these philosophers, Justin settled on the one that made the most sense, gave him the best answers. And he waited for this school of thought to make everything add up.

Whilst he waited, Justin came upon an old man, possibly a Christian from ancient Syria, who began to talk to him about God. Quite literally, this man shared the Gospel with Justin. He soon saw that the only philosophy or school of thought that contained any truth was the truth that pointed to Christ. Justin tells us that as he looked at the prophets and preachers of the Christian faith, he saw real life in their words.

A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.

After travelling around telling people about this truth he had learnt, he came to Rome, where he settled in the city, and begun to teach Christian doctrine. He continued a life of academic debate, philosophical conversations and scholarly discussion. It was this that got him killed. Having engaged in a dispute with the cynic philosopher Crescens, his opponent denounced him to the authorities and Justin, alongside six companions, faced the Roman courts. The Urban Prefect, a high ranking Roman official in the city, heard the case, and sentenced them to death.

It was in this trial, facing death, that Justin gave the answer quoted at the top of this post. As Justin faced his accusers and the charges were read out, he replied “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.”

Justin knew the truth that Paul teached in Philippians 1.

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better indeed.

Philippians 1:21, 23b.

Life was good, academic debate and philosophical musings were all well and good, but far better is to be with Christ. There is nothing that can be done to a Christian, good or bad, that can separate the Christian from the love of God, and from our promised eternity with Him.

Justin was beheaded in the 160s and although the exact date is unknown, what is sure is that his confidence was in Christ, his heart and mind won to the Gospel, and his life and death a testament to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Justin Martyr has a lot to teach us. A man who sacrificed his life for the Gospel. A man who gave up his background, his worldview, his sinful identity to assume the identity of Christ. And someone who shared that with those he met. Justin presents us with a challenge, a life of sharing the Gospel, whether that is in academic debate or the chat in the pub, or the work break catch up. The Gospel is convincing, the Gospel is true, and the Gospel is there to be shared by the Christian. Even to the end.

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

The agora of Smyrna, where the charge against Polycarp was read out.

My pastor recently opened his sermon with the story of Polycarp, the second century Bishop of Smyrna. It’s a story I’ve come across many times in my studies, and used in research papers on anything from Early Christian community organisation to evangelism in pagan urban environments. But I’ve never focussed in on the story itself, and it’s a gripping tale of a man standing fast for Christ in the face of persecution. A version of the story is preserved in the eponymous text, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. So this blog is going to be a bit different, focussing in on the story of Polycarp, who he was and what happened to him.

The  Martyrdom of Polycarp was written around 160 AD and provides our earliest account of a Christian martyr outside the New Testament. The text tells the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom: his arrest, trial and death, from the point of view of an eye witness. This witness tells us that he is writing his work so that we might see how Polycarp lived out the Gospel in his death.

So what happened?

Polycarp, an old man well into his 80s, was a key church leader in the Roman city of Smyrna. Though almost none of his teaching survives directly to us, the one letter we have, a missive to the church at Philippi, shows a pastoral man, humble and direct. He was a respected leader, both in his own time, and also in the centuries to come.

Born in AD 69, he was killed in 156.

Polycarp had heard the news that the Roman authorities were coming for him. But he did not run, seeing it better that he submit to the authorities God had placed over him. When friends urged him to flee, he calmly replied “The will of God be done” and waited for the inevitable.

Whilst he was resting in the country house of a good friend a short way out of the city, the soldiers arrived. Having tortured two slave boys for the location of the aged bishop, the soldiers rode out to the house and confronted Polycarp.

His response amazed them. He willingly submitted to them, but in a remarkable show of grace and humility, Polycarp fed and watered his captors, asking that he be given a few hours to pray alone before they took him away. The soldiers relented, giving him his time alone, and we are told that his humble kindness so amazed them that some began “to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”

Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?

Polycarp.

After he had prayed, the soldiers led him into the city and took him before the Roman proconsul. Here Polycarp was defiant. The proconsul, a senior Roman figure and the imperial authority in the region, demanded that Polycarp recant his faith. He demanded that Polycarp “swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists.” He pressed him, offering him his freedom and indeed, his life, if only he would recant his faith.

Polycarp could not. He looked at his captors and he declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

In this act of defiant faithfulness, Polycarp signed his own death warrant. The proconsul continued to press him. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records the trial suffered by the old man. After being pressed hard, the old saint would not relent, and eventually, the proconsul sentenced him to death. The charge that was read to the people? “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”

Polycarp was taken to a pyre, put against a stake, and burned to death. The  Martyrdom of Polycarp describes how he prays as the flames surround him, and it says the smell was not like burning flesh but the beautiful aroma of a loaf baking. Polycarp was ready to go to His Lord and be forever with Him.

The death of Polycarp was religious persecution. State persecution. The charge was Christian faith, denial of the Roman gods and the divinity of the emperor. The story of Polycarp is a picture of humility, grace and faithfulness. At the end of it all, Polycarp considered his God worth everything he had. Even his very life.