Tertullian: a Church Father with a Confused Legacy.

TWR360 | Blog

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

Life

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

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

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

Works

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

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

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

Legacy

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Irenaeus of Lyons: Firm against Heresy.

Image result for irenaeus of lyons

Irenaeus was a second century Bishop and theologian. Born c.125, Irenaeus heard the teaching of Polycarp (more on him can be found here), who in turn had heard the Apostle John teaching the Gospel. Irenaeus was converted as a young man, and after taking this defining and challenging decision to follow Christ in a hostile ancient world, Irenaeus ended up in Lyons.

The then bishop of the city, the local church leader Pothinus, sent the young Christian to Rome, where Irenaeus was on mission for the cause of the Gospel. During this time away from Lyons, a fierce persecution broke out, and Pothinus was among the many Christians in and around the city to be put to death.

The Lyons that Irenaeus returned to was a different town to the one he had left only a few years before. But shortly after his return in c.180, Irenaeus was made Bishop of the small surviving church there, and it is in this role he would remain till his death in c.202 AD.

Irenaeus is remembered as a teacher, writer and theologian, whose most famous work was his Refutation Of Heresies.

Irenaeus’ Refutation primarily challenged the heresy of Gnosticism.

The gnostics arose during the first century, and operated on the fringes of Christian and Jewish groups. They taught transcendence and enlightenment, not sin and salvation. The gnostic considered the way to salvation being a personal understanding of the supreme divine, a mysterious force that they taught superseded the Christian God. Christ, sin and repentance were all concepts discarded by the gnostic, instead their writings deal with spiritual forces, transcendence and wisdom. Such wisdom made them an elite sect, only the enlightened could access their spirituality, and understand the role their gods and powers played in the world

Clearly, these gnostics had moved far away from the Gospel, and rightly, Irenaeus challenged them on this.

Irenaeus rightly taught the wonderful Gospel message, that God so loved the world He had made, He sent His one and only Son to pay the penalty that fallen, sinful men and women deserved, so that we could know Him, and life afresh. And Irenaeus taught that this was a message for everyone. That it did not matter how clever or elite or rich you were. All you had to do was come to Christ in repentance. He refuted the elitist, transcendent claims of the gnostics, instead offering a Gospel that clung to Scripture, and rested wholly on who Christ is and what He had done.

Three Things Irenaeus Taught

In response to the Gnostics, Irenaeus wrote his Refutation. I just want to pull out three things he taught within it, very briefly.

Irenaeus emphasised the importance of the Local Church. He was perhaps the first writer to speak of the catholic church – the universal church to which all Christians are members. But Irenaeus recognised that the true importance for the Christian was the Local Church. Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Lyons and Rome were all local congregations. Part of this wider body of the bride of Christ, but in themselves manifestations of that body in their local communities. He recognised this universal true church of believers, but saw that this wider church was seen in the local church. He wasn’t speaking of a Catholic Church, subservient to one particular figurehead, but instead a catholic church, Local Churches united in the Gospel the world over.

And this universality extended to the second point I want to draw out, Irenaeus urged his readers to recognise that the Gospel was for everyone. It was not the property of the intellectual or social elite, nor of the slaves and paupers. It was for everyone. Irenaeus contrasted the Gospel to Judaism. The latter preserved the purity of a single nation, but the former? Well “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28.) The Gospel is an appeal for all and to all. Jesus commanded His discples, go and make disciples of all nations! (Matthew 18:19) Go out with the Gospel said Irenaeus, and preach without reservation to all you meet.

Off the back of that: my final point. Irenaeus taught that the Gospel offer was a challenge. Christianity claimed the truth for all nations. But it claimed the truth. Not a truth, the Truth. Jesus said quite plainly. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6.) Irenaeus rallied against gnostics who taught that personal enlightenment could bring about divine peace and understanding. This simply isn’t the Gospel message.

Irenaeus reminded his readers that the Local Church held out a Gospel for all men, but not everyone would accept it. It necessitated a choice. An acceptance or rejection of the truth of Christ. A choice that each and every individual had to make, and still does today.

The Tragedy of False Teaching

The Early Church faced a lot of challenges in its formative years. One of the greatest problems came from within the Church itself: heresy. Some of my next few posts will look at a few of the common heresies the Early Church had to contend with. As they fought against the oppressive and liberal Roman world, the creation of heretical and schismatic movements within the Church itself meant that brothers and sisters in the Early Church had to fight for the Gospel both within and without.

Gnostics, Donatists, Arians and many more rose up, and they all taught lies and deception, deceiving people from salvation to damnation. These heresies sprung from and depended on false teaching. Peter spoke of the terrible effect that false teaching could have.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

2 Peter 2:1-3 (NIV).

This and other clear teachings on the danger of false teachers in the New Testament illustrate the damaging power such people have. Their false teachings are destructive. Their words deny the Lord they claim to profess, and the “many” who follow them will bring the way of truth into disrepute. The Bible is clear on the end of these teachers. Peter tells us they will be destroyed, he goes on to say their reward will be “[to] be paid back with harm for the harm they have done” (2:13).

The true tragedy of these teachers is their followers. The “many” that Peter tells us will follow such teachers ought to break our hearts. Many led astray from the path of life to that of death. Many seduced by evil, away from what is good. Many who appeared saved now lost. As we look at the schism and sinfulness of the Early Church we must not be anaesthetised to the human reality of what we see. Many men and women doomed to an eternity apart from God because of the actions and teachings of false teachers. That is not to say they are not at fault for their sinful hearts, by no means, Peter reminds us here that there is great sin in denying the truth. But wrapped in this sin of false teaching is great tragedy: men and women bent on destruction operating within the church only a few decades after the life and ministry of Jesus Himself.

We shouldn’t let the historical distance between us and the Early Church steel us against the sadness of men and women destined for destruction. Recognising the tragedy of the schisms and heresies of the Early Church ought to prompt us to more readily engage those around us who we know are far from the truth of God with His Gospel. 

Recently a friend of mine became very seriously ill. In his illness he feared that, perhaps, his time on Earth was up. Thinking he had but days left (I am glad to say that he has since recovered considerably), he decided to write letters to some of his close non-Christian friends. I read one of these letters, addressed to a great university friend of his, and it was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to hear so candidly the words of a friend who expected such a letter to be read when he was gone, but it was even more distressing to see the emotion behind his plea with his non-christian friend to explore the Gospel. My friend had a great concern for those who were lost, and this challenged me. Even if it were my darkest hour, am I concerned for the lost as I should be?

Does my heart break or am I cruelly indifferent?

I know I struggle to be truly heartbroken for lost souls. It is something I must repent of, something I need to be challenged on. And I suspect this is the case for many of us. Are we truly grieved by the thought of those we know and love quite literally hell-bent on their own eternal destruction?

The great preacher Charles Spurgeon summed up the tragedy of a lost soul.

Lost! Lost! Lost! Better a whole world on fire than a soul lost! Better every star quenched and the skies a wreck than a single soul to be lost!

Charles Spurgeon.

What a tragedy that the outcome of false teaching in any age is lost souls. May we be challenged by that painful reality, and moved to embrace both solid Bible-based teaching and heartfelt evangelism all the more as we think of the challenge of the schisms and sinfulness of the Early Church.

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Though known for his Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras is one of the least well known Ante-Nicene apologists.


Athenagoras was born in c.133 AD. Known as Athenagoras of Athens, his birthplace may well not have been in the city, but he certainly lived and flourished there. Like other Early Church figures such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras came from an educated background. Coming from Athens, with its rich history in philosophy and education, he’d had plenty of opportunity to engage with the Stoics, Platonists and every other school of thought on offer.

So much like Justin, Athenagoras looked into them all, and as a young man he converted to Christianity. He styles himself an “Athenian, Philosopher and a Christian” in his Plea, and this sense is certainly carried through his writings.

Though he was believed to be a prolific and well known writer, with a long list of works likely circulating round the Western Mediterranean, only a few have survived antiquity. He is known as an apologist, and his career fell shortly after the first generation of Christian apologists. He was also a scholar. His treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead is notable for being the first complete exposition of this doctrine in Christian literature. But his most famous work was his apologetic Plea for the Christians. This work was written as an ‘embassy’ on behalf of the Christians, made by a philosopher to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Lucius, his son and co-ruler. The speaker presents his case in the philosophical style, addressing the emperors eloquently and logically. The work claims the treatment of the Christians to be unjust, and by a careful setting out of the beliefs and doctrines to which these Christ-followers ascribe, he presents his case.

The work is rich in ancient literature, quoting pagan poets and philosophers as well as Christian texts and Scripture. The work states three common accusations the Christians face: atheism, cannabalism and incest. It then answers each charge, pointing to the God they believe in in answer to this opposition. Athenagoras’ Plea answers the charges by pointing to the truths that drive the Christian faith. Amongst other things, he elaborates on monotheism, on the Gospel and on love as a key motivation for the Christian believer.

His Plea also provides a wonderful quote on the character of the Early Christians he is defending and it makes for wonderful reading.

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds they exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, 11.

Athenagoras is describing the church. In this mix of people, there are some unskilled, some uneducated and some old women, cast offs from society. But, he says, though they may not possess the education or the eloquence to defend the doctrines of the faith rhetorically, they live out the Gospel in their deeds. By sharing their God in the way they act, they are persuading their neighbours, friends and family of the truth. It is a wonderful snapshot of Early Church life, and a wonderful side note to the main thrust of his work: on the value each member of God’s family had. Some of the church, says Athenagoras, were not valuable to the world, and may not have been all too clever with words or rich with possessions. But they had incredible value in living Christ centered lives, loving others and living out the Gospel day in day out. The Church had educated figures such as Athenagoras, who could (and did!) write long defences of the faith. But Athenagoras reminds both his critics then and his readers now that living out a life faithful to the Gospel offers genuine witness to the transformative power of the cross.

The Gospel was good news for everyone in Roman society. And every member of the local church had the wonderful responsibility of sharing that Gospel in their words and deeds. And they didn’t need the philosophical education of the Athenian elite to do it.

Athenagoras died in around 190 AD. His exact date of death is unknown, as are the circumstances in which he died. But what is known is that he was a brilliant and in many ways respected scholar. He engaged with emperors, governors, philosophers and peasants, and he saw the hope of every man as lying in the acceptance of the Gospel of Christ.

Describing God

Hear, O man. The appearance of God is ineffable and indescribable, and cannot be seen by eyes of flesh. For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivalled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable. For if I say He is Light, I name but His own work; if I call Him Word, I name but His sovereignty; if I call Him Mind, I speak but of His wisdom; if I say He is Spirit, I speak of His breath; if I call Him Wisdom, I speak of His offspring; if I call Him Strength, I speak of His sway; if I call Him Power, I am mentioning His activity; if Providence, I but mention His goodness; if I call Him Kingdom, I but mention His glory; if I call Him Lord, I mention His being judge; if I call Him Judge, I speak of Him as being just; if I call Him Father, I speak of all things as being from Him; if I call Him Fire, I but mention His anger. You will say, then, to me, Is God angry? Yes; He is angry with those who act wickedly, but He is good, and kind, and merciful, to those who love and fear Him; for He is a chastener of the godly, and father of the righteous; but he is a judge and punisher of the impious.

Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycus, 1.3.

I love this description of God. Written in the second century, it comes from Theophilus’ Ad Autolycus, an apologetic document defending the Christian faith to a pagan friend. It’s beautifully written, and Theophilus pens it in response to the mocking scoffer who cries: “If you see God then, explain his appearance to me!”

And Theophilus does. And he does so in a brilliant way.

I don’t want to say too much about this description, read it again, it’s a beautiful piece of writing and I think it really speaks for itself. But I do want to say two things about how it is that Theophilus answers his friend.

He does so by pointing him to the God we meet in Scripture.

The was Theophilus describes God here is beautiful, and it is done so it leans on Scripture. To pick but a few of Theophilus’ lines.

In speaking of God’s unfathomable greatness he evokes the praise of Psalm 145:3. In describing His glory as Light and Word he reflects the Gospel account of John 1:1-4. As a God who judges justly, and who is angry with the wicked: Psalm 7:11. As the Father of the righteous? 1 John 2:1.

The way Theophilus describes God is by speaking of the God of Scripture, and this is exactly how we ought to speak to those who come against us and the God in whom we believe. God doesn’t want us to defend Him. When the disciples saw the Samaritans opposing Christ, they turned to Jesus and asked:

“Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

But Jesus turned and rebuked them.

Luke 9:54-55.

God doesn’t call us to defend Him. That’s not to say we shouldn’t respond to accusations against Him, to abuse or slander. But we respond by representing Him. That is what we are called to do.

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5:20.

The Gospel calls us to represent God, and to do that by appealing on God’s behalf: be reconciled to God. Our instruction is to respond to opposition by sharing the Gospel in love with those around us. And this is because of our second point, the second way Theophilus shares about God here.

Theophilus shows the beauty and awesome wonder of God by dwelling on His Character.

Theophilus’ description of God makes us stop and go “Wow.”

He uses Biblical language to paint a picture of who God is. But he doesn’t try to sell him, or add to him, or dress him up with anything else. Theophilus lets God’s awesome character speak for Himself. Our God is beautifully attractive. We don’t need to add to Him and His Gospel with human ‘goodies’ or incentives. What can we add to a God who is this amazing?

Theophilus’ description of God silences his opponent because the awesome wonder of God is dazzling. But it’s not a perfect description. The greatest picture of God is found in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Christians, keep your eyes on Him. Unbeliever? Explore who He is in the pages of the Gospels.

This is a beautiful description of God. But to explore the greatest picture of who God is, turn to Matthew chapter one and just start reading.

Unchanging God: changing us.

In his 4th century homily on Hebrews, John Chrysostom had this to say of Hebrews 13:8.

“In these words, ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever:’ yesterday means all the time that is past: today, the present: forever, the endless which is to come. That is to say: You have heard of a High Priest, but not a High Priest who fails. He is always the same.”

John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 13:8-9.

John captures the writers’ meaning in these words: our Lord, Jesus Christ, is unchanging now and for all time. He is constant. He is good, loving, sovereign and faithful. Always. He is always the same.

John recognised this in the fourth century, a time of growth and excitement among the Early Church. The Emperor Constantine had legalised the faith, and his endorsement of Christianity was leading many to convert to belief in Christ. On the flip side, heresies like the Arians of North Africa were spreading fast, and posed huge challenges to the faithful Church.

This was a time of great change, but John recognised that the one thing that didn’t change was his God. The Bible is clear that our God does not change, indeed, in the book of Malachi, God Himself tells his people that He is as He is.

“For I, the Lord, do not change.”

Malachi 3:6

Our God does not change, this is a clear Scriptural truth, and one recognised by the teachers and preachers of the Early Church. But what does that mean for us? A good friend of mine challenged me on this the other day. She and a friend have been reading None Like Him by Jen Wilkins (thoroughly recommend), and Jen challenges her readers by asking why it is we are so willing to ascribe this unchangingness to people. “Oh he’ll never change, it’s just how he is.” “I’d love her to come to faith, but she’ll never change her ways.” Sound familiar?

I’m certainly guilty of thinking like that. But the Bible doesn’t tell us that. In fact, it tells us the complete opposite. The Bible tells us that we can change, and it calls us to do so.

Jesus’ mission was to call people to repentance.

The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:15

Whilst Peter’s sermon at Pentecost leads him to exhort his onlookers:

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”

Acts 3:19

Scripture calls for repentance, the Christian life is quite literally about changing your ways. Our God may be unchanging, but in His merciful grace, we are not.

Clement of Alexandria, the second century author (find out more about him here), wrote his Exhortation to the Greeks in the 190s AD to beg the pagan Greeks of the Roman Empire to accept salvation. In true pastor/preacher style, Clement admits he’s gone on a while (12 books in fact!) as he closes the work.

“I have run on too long… as is natural when one is inviting men to the greatest of good things – salvation.”

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation, 12.

The message of the Gospel is an exhortation to salvation. It is a call to change. To repent. To quite literally turn from the sinful life to a life lived for God’s glory. It’s a call for change before an unchanging God.

So when we think of change, there are three things to remember. One amazing truth, and two wonderful challenges.

  1. God is wonderfully unchanging. That means He is always who He says He is. He is a loving father, a Holy God, and a wonderful saviour. For more on who God is and what he is like, check out this blog by The Gospel Coalition.
  2. If God is unchanging but we are not: don’t label anyone as unredeemable. The Gospel is so powerful that as the old hymn goes, “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” God’s Gospel is powerful to change hearts and minds, pray big prayers for our unbelieving friends and family, and thank God for the wonderful change He has worked and is working in your own heart.
  3. If people are changeable: don’t lie to yourself about sin. This is a hard truth, but the phrase “oh, it’s just how I am” or “It’s just a character flaw, I’ll never change” is a fundamental untruth. Only God never changes. We must face up to sin, and fight it. Confident that in God’s goodness we will defeat it, and if not in this life, then there is a promise of a perfect sinless life to come. This same truth applies for people we know as well. We cannot accuse someone of always being this or that, but we can challenge them on unrepentant sin, because in God’s goodness repentance can happen, and grace is on offer for the sinner who comes anew to the foot of the cross.

God is wonderfully unchanging. Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. People change. People can come to the Gospel. Pray for that change. Pray for that Gospel change.

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.

The First Atheists

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens that day was typical in the Roman Empire of the time. As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the statues, veneration and worship of countless gods and goddesses. The ancient world was certainly “very religious”.

The scholar Keith Hopkins chose to title his book on the religion of the ancient world “A World Full of Gods.” This is no exaggeration. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in a small shrine in every Roman home. Even the Emperor was the object of divine worship, imperial cults were found across the empire venerating Emperors past and present.

This is the world in which Paul found himself walking as he journeyed through ancient Athens, and it is the world that the Early Church continued to operate in for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the early 300s that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the legal faith of the Empire, and even then it took hundreds of years for the stronger pagan cults to disappear.

So what does this make the Early Church? In a world busy with gods and divines of every kind, the Early Church was radically countercultural. Accepting only one, true God. Rejecting all others.

Early Christians were Atheists.

Didn’t see that one coming? Odd though it may sound to us, the charge of atheism was a popular one levied against the Early Church. Why so? Because when Paul promised to make known to the people of Athens their unknown god, he wasn’t asking them to make space for another deity in their pantheon. He was arguing for the existence of a God who utterly disproved and removed any claim of divinity that every other being had. Christianity was radical because it was monotheistic.

The third century Christian thinker, Tertullian, had this to say in response to unbelievers challenging the atheism of the Church.

“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.

The Early Church were atheists because their worship was directed not at traditional gods, but at the God of the Bible.

The Early Church rejected the sin, error and misdirected worship of these pagan religions because they knew there was only one God worthy of worship.

Our own world is full of gods. In the same way the pagan Romans worshipped a god of every occasion, our own culture is obsessed with money, fame, sex and popularity. Our culture is obsessed with self-promotion in these areas. Our culture is obsessed with worshipping things that make us feel good.

The Early Church faced a backlash for denying worship directed at the wrong things. When we aim our worship at God alone, we are denying people and things the praise they think they deserve. But Scripture is clear on what worship is, and who deserves it.

“You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you”

Deuteronomy 6:13-14 (NIV).

Only God deserves our worship. False gods don’t. Celebrities don’t. The gods of the people around us may have changed from those surrounding the Early Church, but the truth of Scripture hasn’t. Because of who He is and what He has done, our God deserves our worship, undividedly so. In the first few centuries the Church looked ridiculous denying the might of Rome for the praise of their God, but they knew what we do too, that only He is truly worthy of worship. These early atheists were not ignorant of the one God that truly deserves their respect, honour and worship.

Taking the First Steps

The remains of ancient Philippi

Huge amounts of writing survives from the Early Church. A lot of it is unhelpful, some of it downright false. But some of it displays a Gospel-centered church keeping on at the mission of the New Testament: to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in God’s name and teaching them in the truths of the Gospel.

But how was the church to do this as it took its first steps without the Apostles at the helm? By the end of the first century the disciples of Jesus were dead or dying and the church faced the question: how do we keep on, how do we take our first steps by ourselves?

Well the wonderful truth is that they weren’t by themselves. And the historical record shows that their faithful God kept them faithful to the Gospel.

Not Alone

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

John 14:15-17

Thought the first generation of human leadership had passed away, the Early Church could take confidence in knowing they were not alone. Unlike any other religion, cult or sect in the Roman world, the church had something so much more. In the verses from John’s Gospel above, Jesus promises that those who trust in him will receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will live inside the believer, transforming them from the inside, helping and equipping them to live for Christ in a hostile world.

Their human leadership was dead, but their God was far from it. Their God was as with them as he had ever been. The Spirit is promised to every believer, then and now, and not only is he with us, but as Jesus reminds us above, he advocates for us.

The Spirit advocates for the believer, he fights the case of the believer, he intercedes for us. When we pray, it is through the Spirit, our advocate, that we can be confident that God hears and receives our prayers.

The Early Church knew this. So they were not alone. As they took their first steps in the hostile and powerful pagan world, their God was with them and their God was for them.

Faithful Steps

So what happened? The great disappointment in studying the first few centuries of the church is that so much of it is lost. We know so little about so many faithful brothers and sisters who held out the word of life in a hostile Roman world. But the wonderful encouragement of studying Early Church history, is that from what survives to us, we can see the Gospel going out and going on.

As the church continued and as history moved further away from the ministry of Jesus and the lives of the Apostles, the church continued in the Gospel.

The quote below is from the first letter by a man named Clement of Rome, to the church in Corinth. Written around 96 AD and imaginatively known as  ‘1 Clement’ today, this letter is one of the first examples of post-canonical Christian writing. And in it? The Gospel is spoken.

“And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning.”

Clement of Rome, First Clement, 32:4.

The great rediscovery of the sixteenth century reformation was that we are justified by faith alone. Works cannot help us. Religious devotion and holy deeds have no saving power. But here is that truth, clear as day, in the writings of this Early Church leader.

Or how about this, an extract from the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesian church, written in the first decades of the second century.

Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, 5.

Here is Ignatius, reminding his readers that the Gospel they believe in is one of grace. Glorious grace. They have no merit before God themselves, it is only through the saving work of Christ on the cross that the Christian can have the hope of Heaven. And this is something that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and famous for his well-recorded martyrdom, writes in a letter to the church at Philippi.

…knowing that ‘you are saved by grace, not because of works’ (Eph. 2:5,9,9), namely, by the will of God through Jesus Christ”

Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 1:3 (c.140 AD)

This is the church taking its first steps. With the end of the Apostolic Era comes the need to move forward after the deaths of this first generation of Christian leaders. And how is it the church does this? By looking back. By looking to the cross. By clinging to the truth of the Gospel, in the knowledge that God is with them, and in the Spirit he works for them. The Early Church were God’s representatives here on earth, and their first steps were taken by clinging on to, and teaching, the Gospel they were saved by.