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

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

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

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

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

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

Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus, 10.

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

A Reasoned Faith

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

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

Challenging Culture with a Better Story

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

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

Protrepticus, 1.

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

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

Protrepticus, 1.

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

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

Offering Hope

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

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

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

Protrepticus, 12.

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

Book Review: Story Bearer, by Phil Knox (IVP, 2020)

“The truth is that if you are a Christian, Jesus has changed your life. You have a story and it is meaningful, important, interesting and significant. It has the power to change somebody else’s life.” (52)

Story Bearer | Free Delivery @ Eden.co.uk

Story Bearer is a book on evangelism. It’s a little different to a lot of reads on the subject. And it’s brilliant.

Phil Knox’s book has a clear message: that everyone has a story, and when we are remade in Christ (3) “our story becomes intertwined with God’s story.” This idea of storytelling is accessible, enjoyable and universal. Everyone loves a good story, and as Christians, our very lives are part of the greatest story ever told.

This book is incredibly readable. As Phil walks through his case for each believer taking up the name of Story Bearer, he tells his own story, offers brilliant illustrations and narratives, and presents a helpful and open honesty. Story Bearer is neither difficult to read, nor is it a heavy, theological tome. The call of the book is simple: now we are part of God’s incredible story, we cannot keep that to ourselves. But Phil makes this call in a challenging and insightful way. Practical advice and exercises frame the book. From short challenges: (6) do we spend good time with non-Christian friends? To detailed frameworks: (46-47) how do I learn and tell my personal story, (106-108) how can I memorise useful verses of Scripture?

The book is simply laid out. After introducing the theme, Phil tells four stories. God’s story, your story, your friend’s story and the story of culture. ‘God’s story’ is a brilliant and instantly accessible Bible overview. His narrative of Bible history is faithful and clear, broken up by stories and illustrations that open up what can be at times a complex story. All four of Phil’s stories help us think about how we can reach our unbelieving friends and family for Christ, but the story of culture is also worth a particular mention. The vast majority of those who read this book will know their story has been shaped by the digital revolution of the last few decades. Phil walks through some key ideas around this narrative, questioning how we can weave both the individualism and relational accessibility of modern day technology and social media together. The Christian, says Phil, has a wonderful answer.

“We can celebrate and communicate the fact that, although there are 7.7 billion people on the earth today, you are unique, fearfully and wonderfully made. But we do not get to define ourselves… To a world searching for an identity, we can share the great news that you can find out who you really are and become who you were created to be by knowing the author of your story.” (100)

The story of our culture is that we can choose our own course, setting our highlights up on social media, hiding the bad times, and defining our own selves. But the wonderful story that the Christian can tell, is that we were made for so much more.

Story Bearer finishes as all four stories are pulled together. Concepts such as friendship and prayer are celebrated for their centrality to personal evangelism. Chapter 11 – dedicated to friendship – is a helpful, narrative driven guide to living the Christian life alongside believers. Phil’s section in Chapter 12 on prayer is a great reminder that in evangelism we are privileged to play a part, but we do not bring about new life ourselves. God lets us play a role, but He doesn’t need us to bring about conversion. With reference to 1 Corinthians 3:6*, Phil urges us to depend on God in our evangelism. (119) “If we think it is all about us, we will not pray in the same way for our friends.”

This book offers the reader a challenging and applicable presentation of personal evangelism. Every single person on this planet has a story. Share yours, listen to others, and point towards God’s. Whilst some might be concerned that this idea of storytelling is light on clear Gospel truth: Phil has a really helpful way of grounding his thoughts in God’s Word on every page. This book is a refreshing reminder that our faith is real and living, not merely an academic pursuit, with the fundamentals of the Gospel at the heart of every believer’s story.

To wrap things up: give this a read if you’re sold on evangelism, and the idea of stories. And give it a read if you’re sceptical about this narrative approach, because I think Story Bearer offers refreshing and direct challenge to our lives of personal evangelism. It’s a clear picture, one we can all buy into. It’s a book that cuts to what it is to be human. To be relational, communal, to be part of a bigger story.

*”I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” 1 Cor 3:6

Continuing and Creating: Church Community in Covid-19

In the second century, the atheist writer Celsus launched a vicious attack on the fledgling Christian church.

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Cartoon credit: davewalker.com

In his work, the True Account, Celsus penned accusation after accusation against the family of God. His writings are now all but lost to us, but much of what he wrote is preserved in the response provided by the third century Christian apologist, Origen. Origen wrote his Contra Celsum in response to the accusations of Celsus, and he quotes the attacks he responds to at length. In this strange time of self-isolation and public lockdown, it is the first accusation that has stood out to me, and perhaps ought to challenge us as we consider how best we ‘do church’ in lockdown.

“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.

Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.1.

Celsus’ Accusation

So how does Celsus open his great attack on the Christians? What is his first blow as he seeks to dismantle and discredit this new religion? He attacks their gatherings. He tackles their community. In the ancient world, community was a big deal. There were formal guilds and societies one could join: funerary societies, guilds of tradesmen and professions. Often membership of guilds or societies formed an integral part of an individual’s identity. These guilds and associations could care for you in sickness and poverty, pay for your funeral and even care for your children. Many of them had religious aspects, patron gods or goddesses and the like.

But there was one type of association at which every civilised member of Roman society turned their noses up. Secret Associations, where the activities of the group were shrouded in mystery, and membership was tightly limited to the intimately initiated, were a disgrace to civilised society. Such groups had links with the hedonistic gods and practices of the barbarians. These groups, sometimes labelled Mystery Cults, were famed to worship their divine during midnight orgies, to practise human sacrifice, or even cannibalism. Such groups at their best were smutty and secretive, at their worst were criminal and repulsive.

This is the accusation of Celsus, that the Christians willingly enter into such dark and hedonistic associations. He even goes on to label them “love-feasts”. The Christian gatherings, says Celsus, are mysterious, cultic, secret gatherings where the initiates practice ungodly and unwholesome activities.

He makes his accusation to discredit the new faith. And he does so because it is precisely that. It is new, different, and potentially dangerous to the Roman way of life. Origen rebuffs Celsus’ accusation, demonstrating what Christian communities are really like. Celsus has got this one wrong, because although Christians do create set apart communities, it is only so that they can gather to worship their God without confusion or fear of theological pollution. Origen writes (Contra Celsum 1.1) “it is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of the truth.” The Christian, says Origen, formed associations in order to celebrate and hold out the truth, not to hide away and practise evil.

Origen is defending the gathered church. As we meet as the family of God, in the Local Church, we meet to share in His word, to celebrate the family He has made us, and to worship Him. There is nothing dark or secretive about it. The ancient world struggled to understand what Christians were doing because they were creating associations similar to ones they knew and understood, but separate in that they were set apart for the ‘new’ Christian God. The Roman world struggled with the Christian Association, because they were doing something new: worshipping the one true God, in a community that spanned class, gender and ethnicity without discrimination.

Secret Associations and ‘Covid Communities

Our modern world largely understands what a church building is. They understand it to be where Christians gather to read the bible, pray and sing. Our culture understands that our faith is part of our identity, even if they don’t realise that our position before God is fundamentally our whole identity.

But as our world faces a global health crisis, much of what our cultures understand is on pause. Much of what is normal is locked up, isolated and on hold. And that includes our church buildings and meetings. So many churches, rightly, have utilised the technology available at our fingertips, and have gone temporarily online. Church services are broadcast live on Youtube or Facebook, small groups become Skype or Zoom meetings. As churches turned on their tech last Sunday morning for the first of these such services, one well known Christian commentator labelled it one of the most bizarre Sundays in Church History. And it probably was.

As we adjust to the new – temporary – normal of church life, we are faced with a challenge. A difficult one, but also a wonderful opportunity. How do we foster, encourage and develop community within this difficult time? All whilst enabling the outsider to witness the church truly meeting together, and the Gospel really being proclaimed.

The danger of this online church existence is that we become like the Secret Associations Celsus accused the Early Church of being. We hide away from the public gaze, meeting in secret from the comfort of our own home, mysterious ‘church’ meetings held only for the ‘initiated’.

So how do we avoid the trap of a secret church? How do we avoid the pitfalls of mysterious online meetings and closed off community?

The Challenge of Community: Hope & Relationships

We must make our online church a place where any thirsty sinner can come and find true, living water.

These strange times gives us then this unique challenge: how do we do community well? It’s easy for the committed (and especially the technologically literate) members of each church to tune in to every service, log on to each small group conference call, and message on every Whatsapp group. But what of the elderly, the technologically illiterate, or fringe members of our churches? What of individuals who have recently joined our churches, who are just beginning the process of getting stuck in but don’t know many of us well yet? If we close in as a tight-knit group, we will quickly lose those individuals who don’t quite know if they belong yet, and certainly those who don’t know how to go about belonging to a church that has suddenly moved online.* It is important that we both develop and deepen relationships, encouraging one another to cling to the Lord in strange times, but also welcoming new brothers and sisters, all the while holding out the word of truth.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the church in this time is this withdrawal from the world. Is our own church in danger of disappearing off the radars of our unbelieving friends, family and colleagues? We cannot any longer physically invite those we know to services and events, but that does not mean we ought to become the secret and mysterious ‘online church’, open only to the believer. We must be creative in inviting people to tune into our services, we ought to consider how seeker courses can be held over video conferencing platforms, and we must remember that the New Testament calls us to an every member ministry.

Our pastors and elders will be tired, busy and overstretched. On them falls the heavy burden of pastoring the church through a difficult season, all the while innovating how ‘church’ is even done. Whilst our leaders can and ought to lead and encourage evangelism, the burden to do so does not simply fall on them alone. As members and believers we must consider how we can step up and bring hope into our own relationships. The church may have gone online, but the Gospel need of the world is just as (if not more!) apparent. Only Christ can offer true hope in the midst of a crisis such as this. Only the Gospel can shine a light into the darkness of a closed off world. But we must not think that the closing of church buildings should signal the halting of our evangelism. Nor should it signal a lack of welcome to the unbeliever.

We must carefully consider if this season is transforming our church into a secret and closed off society. It is a mighty challenge in a difficult time, but we must heed the words of Scripture:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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 28:19-20

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4:2

Christ’s great commission is not on hold because of a global pandemic. As Scripture reminds us elsewhere, nothing will hinder the Lord in building His church. So we must listen to the words of Paul to Timothy. We must challenge unbelievers with the Word. Not because of any legalistic duty, but out of love. With the world in a dark place of fear and trembling, let us be beacons of hope. Holding forth the truth of the light of the world, the hope for all nations. The truth that God so loved His world, that He sent His one and only Son to take the penalty for our sin. The truth that whosoever believes in His Son, shall not perish but have eternal life.

Origen knew that Christians gathered so often and so uniquely because this was the truth they were sharing, celebrating, and holding out. In these dark days, let us not forget that we hold out the same truth to a frightened and confused world.

*Questions that need to be tackled here include (but are not limited to), how do we love well those who have applied for but not yet joined the membership of our churches? Or how about the new face at church, who has moved far from home to settle elsewhere and is only just getting started? Most churches will have individuals that fall into one of these two groups, and perhaps others, and it’s worth taking the time to consider those to whom we need to give special thought.

Book Review: Evangelism as Exiles by Elliot Clark

Image result for evangelism as exiles

Recently loaned this book by a friend, I decided I would share some thought’s on Elliot Clark’s excellent short book here.

Clark offers a valuable challenge to our evangelism in this book: questioning the place of the fear of God in our evangelism, contextualising our conversations, and framing the discussion within a helpful exposition of 1 Peter. As a British reader, the US context in which Elliot wrote was at times confusing but by no means to the detriment of the book as a whole.

Premise

Clark identifies helpfully the place of Christianity in our postmodern, Western societies. Christianity is no longer the cultural norm in our communities, and so “we must learn and apply the proper dispositions of a church on mission, living as strangers in our own land” (22). We are strangers in our own towns, cities, and nations. We are on mission in our everyday. We are exiles from our true, eternal home. We are foreigners in a strange land.

But we are here for a reason. We are here holding out the words of truth, the only means of salvation. But when we recognise our position as exiles and strangers in our own lands, we must learn how to live as such. And this is the premise upon which Clark challenges his readers: we must learn how to live and love faithfully as we seek to engage in evangelism as exiles.

Challenge

Clark’s book helpfully challenges the preconceptions we have around evangelism. His book opens with the reminder that evangelism is not simply the Christian we see on the TV Channel, or onstage at the big event, but the life and activity of every believer. But as Christians, as evangelists, we operate in a strange land. We are exiles in our evangelism. This frames our efforts, our glory and hope is not in this world, but in the world to come. We see this, in 1 Peter, through the truth of the Gospel. “Peter wanted his readers to understand that God glorified his Son in order to give us, his children, hope for our own exile” (30). Such hope, says Clark, gives us joy in our suffering, a point well made with reference to his own stories on mission in the Middle East.

This challenge allows Clark to get to what, for me, was really the issue at the heart of the book. A challenge to the place of fear in our evangelism. As we live as exiles in a strange land, who do we fear as we consider reaching those we know and love, and those we don’t know, with the Good News of Jesus? “Fear is closely related to shame and it is still a real factor in our evangelism” (50). Is our fear driven by shame in our faith, or is our fear rightly directed at God? “The solution we find in 1 Peter is to fight fear with fear – to grow in our fear of God and our fear for (not of) our fellow man” (50). Clark’s point here challenged me and my all so often fearful evangelism. The challenge is not to reject fear, but to redirect fear. We know the fear of the Lord is a good and right thing. Prov 9:10: it is the beginning of wisdom. Time and again in the Psalms we see fear of God eclipsing fear of man. To fear rightly is to live with confidence. But more than this, as Clark so winsomely states: this fear must drive us to a fear for our fellow man. We must not have a fear of them, but as we rightly direct our fear towards the Lord, we must fear for their own standing before the Lord and Judge of all things.

And this is Clark’s conclusion: “this is why the Gospel must be proclaimed, because all will give an account to [the] One who is ready to judge the living and the dead ([1 Peter] 4:5-6)” (58). Our fear of God, a right fear, must stir up a fear for man. A fear that those we know and love who do not know Christ, who will have no defence on that final day. But the Gospel – the Good News – is that the Judge Himself sends His Son to provide that defence for mankind. At the Cross, guilty sinners are washed clean. We ought not to allow a fear of man to thwart our evangelism, rather, our fear for man ought to stir us towards evangelism.

There are further challenges I could pick up on, and Clark writes astutely on the roles of prayer and hospitality in our evangelism. Do we bring our efforts to God, do we commit our actions to Him? Do we open up our homes, and our lives, to those we do not know, or to those we would rather not mix with?

Empathy

Clark understands that evangelism is hard. But this shouldn’t stop us from engaging with those we meet. Indeed, Clark urges his readers to consider evangelism as so much more than the mention or namedrop of Christ or the Church. How guilty I am of that in my own evangelistic efforts! Clark confronts this attitude head on (96): “We must consider why we’re only willing to speak the gospel when we perceive openness on the part of another. We must ponder whether we even have a category for proclaiming a message that people oppose, one that’s innately offensive. Or do we tiptoe through polite spiritual conversations and timidly share our opinions, then call it evangelism?” We cannot count our evangelism as a simple mention of our faith, we must confront people with the wonderfully offensive message of the Gospel.

But Clark does not challenge us, in this or in other ways, without a gentle sense of brotherly empathy. Having experienced the mission field first hand, he knows the reality of standing out for the Gospel. “When we are visibly other… the pain of ridicule and social exclusion can be sharp” (121). To be Christian is to be other. To speak the Gospel is to reveal that otherness. And that can be so costly. All the way through Evangelism as Exiles, Clark uses stories of his own time on mission to illustrate his points, and the cost of discipleship is so clear to see in his stories of brothers and sisters living for Christ in the Middle East. We are exiles, we are other. But we must keep on in sharing the Good News that has made us strangers in this land, because we are citizens of the Next.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in our Own Land

Summary

Evangelism as Exiles is a helpful read, and one that confronted laziness, shortsightedness, and sin in my own understandings of personal evangelism. Clark’s helpful exposition of 1 Peter is clear and valuable teaching, and an encouragement to see points so clearly rooted in God’s word. This book presented me with both clear challenges and encouragements. I would heartily recommend it to those asking questions around evangelism, witness, and our status in this world. As we speak the glorious Good News of Jesus Christ, we are exiles, strangers in a foreign land. This book encourages us to live out our lives, for God’s glory, as we await our true home. I was reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:5): “Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

We live now as exiles, but we are purposed by God, equipped by the Spirit, and guaranteed to one day come to our eternal home.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.