Whoo hoo! Yeah!
This century … will … be … FUN.
You know, I try to write this blog the way I would talk in front of an audience. Outside of church, where I and most others in the church have spoken to 250 to 300 people, the biggest audiences I ever speak to, folks who for some unknown reason come out to hear me on purpose, is 40-50 people.
I do pretty well with them. I can see their faces. I can tell whether they’re really gripped by the subject. If so, I dig in and give them the facts, fast and furious. Everyone’s dazed but happy at the end. If not, we go slow, I throw in a lot of stories, a bit of my own wry humor, which people laugh at about 50% of the time, and I ask the audience questions to keep them focused. We have a good time, and hopefully they learn something, too.
On a blog, I can’t see you. I’ll find this post six months from now and think, “I started a blog with ‘Whoo hoo! Yeah!’?? How goofy is that?”
Does that ever happen to any of you who blog?
Well, today I feel pretty “whoo hoo” about digging into the second century church, so that’s how we’re starting.
We Don’t Speak Great Things, We Live Them
The second century is not about the events. Yes, the Bar-Kochba rebellion is important. Whole books could have and have been written about it. The story of Montanus is really interesting, and so is the doctrine at the root of Montanism. The era of the apologists is important and interesting. Their arguments against the Romans, the emperor, and the gnostic heretics all take surprising turns that we can learn from.
But their lives!
The Christians of the second century got to live a faith that is terrifying to us in North America. We dream of such a faith. We idolize those who have lived such a faith, but few of us really put in the effort that grows such a faith.
It exists in the world today even without a lost ingredient I will talk about throughout this history. U.S. believers who make mission trips to areas where Christians have endured mosquito-infested swamps, then swam across raging rivers pulling a large, plastic-wrapped batch of Bibles into some country where they have forbidden–U.S. believers who make trip to those areas come back profoundly changed. It’s hard to hold onto that change in the worldly, affluent, unbelieving, logical west. We are full, blind, and have all we need. A friend of mine calls the whole USA “Disneyland.”
There was a time when Christians were all like they are in persecuted countries.
Let me say now that we can be that way even in countries where “Christians” are the majority. We’ll talk more about that when we eventually wander into the third century.
Today, I just want to give you an introduction to some of the second century Christians and what they said about the way they live. (Note: in doing so, we are going to include some first century Christians who wrote after the time of the apostles.)
Corinth Repents Because of Paul’s Letter
Who ever lived among you and did not find your faith to be as fruitful of virtue as it was firmly established? Who did not admire your sobriety and the moderation of your godliness in Christ? Who did not proclaim the magnificence of your habitual hospitality? Who did not rejoice over your perfect and well-grounded knowledge? You did everything without partiality, walked in the commandments of God, being obedient to those who led you, and giving all appropriate honor to the elders among you. (1 Clement 1)
This preceded a rebuke that they had fallen into dissension and envy again, putting out a couple of their elders for what Clement (or the church of Rome) felt was no good reason. Nonetheless, this letter gives us a thorough picture of how the Corinthians heeded Paul’s admonishments to them, even if a generation later they found themselves having problems again.
The Godly Lives of Christians
You forbid, yet commit, adulteries; we are born men only for our own wives. You punish crimes when committed; with us, even to think of crimes is to sin. You are afraid of those who are aware of what you do; we are afraid even of our own consciences, without which we cannot exist. Finally, from your numbers the prisons boil over, but there is no Christian there unless he is accused on account of his religion or has deserted it. (M. Felix, The Octavius, c AD 200)
Let me be clear, though, that if we thought wealth was useful for us, we would ask God for it. We are confident that God would answer us in some measure, because he possesses everything. But we would rather despise riches than possess them. What we want is innocence, and what we pray for is patience. We prefer being good to being lavish. (ibid.)
We despise the bent brows of the philosophers, because we know them to be corrupters, adulterers, and tyrants. They have great eloquence, but they’re speaking against vices that they themselves live in. We, on the other hand, who do not carry our wisdom in our clothes, but in our minds, don’t speak great things; we live them. We boast that we have found what they have sought for with the utmost eagerness but have not been able to find. (ibid.)
We who formerly delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone. We who formerly used magical arts dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God. We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with every one in need. We who hated and destroyed one another and would not live with men of a different tribe because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, share the same fire with them.
We pray for our enemies and attempt to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live according to the good precepts of Christ. This is so that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God, the Ruler of all. (Justin, 1 Apology 14, c. AD 155)
We … continually remind each other of these things. The wealthy among us help the needy, and we always keep together. For all things with which we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. … They who are well to do and willing give what each thinks fit, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He helps the orphans, widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in need. [He helps] those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us. In a word [he] takes care of all who are in need. (Justin, ibid. 67)
It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to label us. “See,” they say, “How they love one another!” For themselves are animated by mutual hatred. “How they are ready even to die for one another!” For they themselves will sooner put to death. …
No tragedy causes dissension in our brotherhood … the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you [Romans], create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Tertullian, Apology 39, c AD 210)
Christians … love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life. (Anonymous, Letter to Diognetus 5, c AD 100)
Don’t you see them exposed to wild beasts for the purpose of persuading them to deny the Lord, yet they are not overcome? Don’t you see that the more of them that are punished, the greater the number of the rest becomes? This does not seem to be the work of man. This is the power of God. These are the evidences of his appearance. (ibid. 7)
I’m going to throw in a comment here. We love logic here in the west, and we use it to persuade the lost, including atheists. Somehow, we think that our careful historical arguments about the resurrection or our salvos against evolution are going to convert them. I’m not saying that logic isn’t a useful tool. I know that discussions of the evidence for the resurrection have had powerful effect on many people, but that is because the resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel.
The anonymous author of the Letter to Diognetus said the best evidences for the truth of our faith are the things we do. Jesus concurred, telling us our love for one another will prove we belong to him (Jn. 13:34-35), and our unity will prove he comes from God (Jn. 17:20-23). Having seen holiness, love, and unity in small groups and a large one, I can tell you nothing softens a heart to the Gospel like saints who let the love of God and holiness come out of them together.
Now it is evident that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, crucified, thrown to wild beasts, chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; instead, the more such things happen, the more others—in even larger numbers—become faithful and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus.(Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 110, c. AD 155)
How many of our people have borne that not their right hand only, but their whole body, should be burned—burned up without any cries of pain … Do I compare men with [your Roman heroes]? Boys and young women among us treat with contempt crosses and tortures, wild beasts, and all the bugbears of punishment with the inspired patience of suffering. And do you not perceive, O wretched men, that there is nobody who either is willing without reason to undergo punishment, or is able without God to bear tortures? (M. Felix, The Octavius 37, c. AD 200)
The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying one house, carefully preserves it. She believes these things … and she proclaims them, teaches them, and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I:10:2)
Is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can anyone, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition? (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 28)
There’s a couple things I love about these last two passages …
- I knew the churches of the second century were united. Irenaeus ties their unity to their preservation of apostolic truth. The churches were not inventing or developing doctrine, but they were clinging to the teaching of the apostles … and they were living as described in the sections above.
- Before reading the books and tracts written by Irenaeus and Tertullian, I would have said I knew the Church, singular and capitalized, was united. I said churches because of Tertullian’s quote above and the rest of Prescription Against Heretics. These were churches, individually clinging to the teaching of the apostles and walking together to hold each other accountable, not one worldwide organization that decreed truth to its member churches.
Unity, love, and obedience to our King are the best evidences against unbelief (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:20-23; 1 Thess. 1:3-10). It is no wonder these impoverished, despised, fringe-of-society Christians triumphed over mighty Rome.
A Second Century Timeline
In the next post, we will go back to making a timeline. There are many more second century writers that I could have used to fill out today’s post. I’ll list them in the timeline in the next post, and give you descriptions and links for them. We’ll probably have to take at least two more days, more likely three or four, with the second century Christians. Not only do you need to be introduced to them, but we should talk about the apologists and then about the two major heresies of the second century, gnosticism and Montanism.