(The literary Contest of Christianity in the first three centuries)
Having noticed how the enemies of Zion strove to silence the truth through their slanders and heresies, having exposed these heresies as to their primary principles, let us now, in the second place, have regard to the significance of this vile doing of unbelief for the church and the truth.
If we are to succeed in the attempt to grasp this, significance, we certainly must take our stand on the foundation of the truth and the fact that also this rioting of unbelief was God’s work, that in slandering the gospel and those who identified themselves with it—the followers of Christ—and in framing their false gospels, the enemies of the kingdom of righteousness and truth, functioned as God’s: agents but on this account none the less responsible. Here, too, when it is a question of the sovereign reason of this form of hostility, we must look to God as One who hardeneth whom He will () and “who worketh all things after the counsel of his will” ( ). To express this truth and fact in the language borrowed from the Scriptures, God gave up the heathen to the sin of slandering the truth, through the lusts of their own heart, the pride and willing ignorance of their heart ( ). He raised up the heathen ( ); moved them ( ), through the agency of Satan ( ); and turned their hearts ( ) to oppose the Gospel. It is on this account that the rioting of unbelief, with which we here have to do, had greatest significance. Over it was suspended the sovereign counsel of God; and it came forth out of the store of His providence. He willed this opposition and also worked it. And the reasons are revealed. Let us consider the following.
From the very outset the church apprehended the great facts and truths that form the content of the Christian faith, confessed God as the creator of heaven and earth; the creation of man in the image of God; his fall by his own guilt and the instigation of Satan; the Messiahship of Jesus, His divine Sonship, incarnation, true humanity and essential divinity; His vicarious atonement; His resurrection, exaltation at the right hand of God and second coming; the personality of the Holy Spirit and thus the one true God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Christian church was at no time without this catholic orthodoxy. It possessed these truths from the beginning, not only objectively in the Scriptures but subjectively in its own consciousness and spiritual experience. But its insight into these articles of faith was, at the beginning, vague and defective. The people of God felt the force of these truths in their own hearts, but were at first unable to exhibit them in clear form before the mind. The truth had to be developed and its logical apprehension unfolded. And to this task the church also addressed itself by inward constraint of its faith and love crying for knowledge and the removal of apparent logical difficulties in the revelation of the mysteries of God,. It understood, did the church, that so long ais; God’s people must live by the holy Scriptures, do not see face to face, and know not as they are known, Christ is seen and received and experienced in the Word alone, and that therefore when knowledge is obscure and imperfect, Christ, and in His face the Father, is not being seen as He is, and that, in consequence thereof, the joy of believers is not full. To stimulate this holy urge of the primitive church to increase its knowledge of the truth and to arrive at a clear understanding of God’s gospel, the Lord raised up heretics and turned their hearts to assail the gospel and to oppose to it their subjective and baseless speculations. And the faith of the church bestirred itself as it always does when confronted by unbelief, and the warfare with the lie was on. The church was strange to that kind of tolerance—so prevalent in recent times—that is most intolerant of the truth but can bear, in the name of peace, with most any lie of Satan. It attacked, did the church, the false gods of these heresies; it went to pondering its own great articles of faith with a zeal fully aroused and opposed them, as fortified by the Scriptures, to the vain imaginings of the adversary. In this conflict, of some 680 years duration, it had the victory in Christ. During the progress of this conflict it was steadily led into the truth by Christ’s Spirit and also empowered to exhibit the truth, clearly, logically, and with precision, in its symbols — the great creeds of Christendom. So was unbelief again made to work for good to God’s believing people. So did God again achieve His purpose through the opposition of darkness.
But this conflict was not without its peculiar danger. The church was exposed to the temptation of its sinful flesh to look at the Bible solely as a storehouse of theological weapons and thus to forget that it is also the medium of fellowship between a covenant God and His people. The Roman hierarchy of more recent centuries succumbed to this temptation; and the result was that faith lost its sense of trust in Christ and assumed the character of intellectual assent to the traditions: of men. All contact with the Scriptures was lost.
Let us now have regard to this conflict as such. It is important to consider that it was carried on with 1) the non-Christian gentile world; 2) the non-Christian Jews; 3) the heretics in the Church. As compared with the Christian literature occasioned by the contest with the Jews and with the heretics, the literature produced in the contest with the persecuting heathen was unique in this one respect that it purposed to show that of all religions the religion of Christ alone was of worth and that therefore, instead of being outlawed and its devotees harassed, it assuredly should receive from the Roman rulers the legal right to exist. That this purpose might be achieved, the fathers did two things; they defended with their pen the Christian religion and with it the Christians against the slander and mal-treatment of the heathen; they exposed in their treatises the heathen religion for what it was—an utterly and worthless thing. The literature that resulted from this conflict with the heathen went down in history as bearing the name Apology. Polemic is a better name, as it comes from a word meaning to wage war, both offensive and defensive. The fathers did so. But they did not, certainly, express to the heathen their regrets for the religion of Christ as if it were some improper or injurious thing. In a word, they did not apologize for the Christian religion.
This “Apologetic” literature began to make its appearance circa A.D. 117, thus shortly after the death of the last apostle (circa 100) and grew in volume till the close of the third century, 300 A.D. Most of these works have been lost. The two which we possess in full are those of the martyr Justin (died 166) and of Origin in the first half of the 3rd century, 200-250. Other outstanding writers of this type of Christian literature were Tertullian (died circa 220), Minueius Felix (died 230) and the later Arnobius and Laetantius, all of whoso sphere of labor was North Africa. In some of these works the writers appeal directly to the Roman Caesars or to the governors of the provinces ; in others to the general heathen public.
In their attacks upon the pseudo-religions and the false gods of the. heathen, these fathers did anything but mince words. A few excerpts chosen at random from this literature will bear out this statement and also demonstrate what the fathers’ purpose with these treatises.
In his “A Plea For The Christians”, directed to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Anonius and Lucian Corn- modus, the Athenian Christian Athenagoras sets out in this vein: “In your empire, greatest of sovereigns, different nations have different customs and laws; and no one is hindered by law or fear of punishment from following his ancestral usages, however ridiculous these may be,. . . . The Egyptians reckon among their gods even cats, and crocodiles, and serpents, and dogs. And to all these both you and the laws give permission so to act, deeming on the one hand, that bo believe in no god at all is impious and wicked, and on the other that it is necessary for each man to worship the god he prefers, in order that, through fear of the deity, men may be kept from wrong-doing. But why—why is a mere name, (in this instance the name Jesus Christ) odious to you? Names are not deserving of hatred. It is the unjust act that call for penalty and punishment. And,. accordingly, with admiration of your mildness and gentleness, and your peaceful and benevolent disposition toward every man, individuals live in the possession of equal rights; and the cities, according to their rank, share in equal honor; and the whole empire under your intelligent sway, enjoys profound peace. But for us, who are called Christians you have not in like manner cared; but, although we commit no wrong—nay, as will appear in the sequel of this discourse, are of all men most righteously and piously disposed toward the deity and toward your government—you allow us to be harassed, plundered, and persecuted, the multitude making war upon us for our name alone (the name Christian).
“What are the very forms and appearances of the gods?” asks Minueius Felix, “do they not argue the contemptible and disgraceful character of your gods? Vulcum is a lame god, and crippled; Apolo, smooth faced after so many years; Aesculapius well-beared; Neptune with sea-green eyes; Minerva with eyes bluish grey; Juno with ox eyes; Mercury with winged feet; Pan with hoofed feet; Saturn with feet in fetters; Janus indeed wears two faces, as if he might walk with looks turned back; Diana sometimes is a huntress, with her robe girded up high; and as the Ephesian she has many and fruitful breasts; and when exaggerated as Trivia, she is horrible with three heads and with many hands. What is your Jupiter himself? Now he is represented in a statue as beardless, now he is set up as bearded; and when he is called Hamman he has horns; and when Capitolinus, then he wields his thunderbolts; and when Latiaris, he is sprinkled with gore. . . .” Why should I speak of the detected adultery of Mars and Venus, and of the violence of Jupiter Ganymede,—a deed consecrated, as you say, in heaven? And all these things have been put forward with this view, that a certain authority might be gained for the vices of men. By these fictions, and such as these, and by lies of a more attractive kind, the minds of boys are corrupted; and with the same fables clinging to them, they grow up even to the strength of mature age; and, poor wretches, they grow old in the same beliefs, although the truth is plain if they will only seek after it.”
“Which of the poets,” asks Tertullian, “does not mock your gods? One sets Apollo to keep sheep; another hires out Neptune to build a wall; Pindar declares Aesculapius was deservedly scathed for his avarice in exercising the art of medicine to a bad purpose; while the writers of tragedy and comedy alike, take for their subjects the crimes or the miseries of the deities.”
Titian in his address to the Greeks cautions against being led away by the solemn assemblies of the philosophers “who are no philosophers, who dogmatize one against the other, though each one vents but the crude fancies of the moment. They have moreover many collisions among themselves; each one hates the other; they indulge in conflicting opinions, and their arrogance makes them eager for the highest places.
“The philosophers,” Titian continues, “have invented great and wonderful things. They have uncovered one of their shoulders; they let their hair grow long; they cultivate their beards; their nails are like the claws of wild beasts. O Man (the cynic) competing with the dog. You know not God and so have turned to the imitation of an irrational animal. You cry out in public with the assumption of authority; and if you receive nothing, you indulge in abuse, and philosophy is with you the art of getting money. You receive from your predecessors (Greek philosophers of former days) doctrines which clash with one another, you the in harmonious are fighting against the harmonies (the gospel).”
Also Justin finds the philosophers in conflict among themselves. With Thales the essence of all things is water; with Anaximander, air; with Heraclitus, fire; with Pythagoris, number.
In this vein did the fathers deride, in their discourses to the heathen, the things, the civilization and culture, of Athens and of Rome, of that Greaeo-Roman world in which they lived and labored, confessed and witnessed—confessed the Name, however odius to the heathen. True, they used little diplomacy—did these fathers. In this they were like the prophets of Scripture. But they had courage—the courage of faith. And they were prepared to lose their life in order to gain a crown. It requires little daring to denounce the idols of the world out of earshot of the world. But to shout such words of condemnation in the ears of the world, is a different matter. That is what these fathers did. These discourses were addressed to the heathen—to kings and magistrates in Babylon—and circulated among them.
Perusing the apologetic writings of these fathers, we learn that the heathen raised several objections against the Christians. What was constantly laid at their charge was that they observed a holy rite in which they killed a little child and then ate it; and that thereupon they practiced incest, the dogs overturning the lights so as to get them the shamelessness of darkness for their impious lust. “This,” says Tertullian, “is what is constantly laid at our charge, and yet,” he continues, “you take no pains to elicit the truth of what we have been so long accused. Either bring then the matter to the light of day if you believe it, or give it no credit as having never inquired into it. On the ground of your double dealing, we are entitled to lay it down to you here that there is no reality in the thing which you dare not search out.”
The Christians were accused of sacrilege and treason because they refused to worship the gods of Rome. This was the sum total of their offending. The fathers replied also to this charge. “Punishment,” says Turtullian, “were due to Christians, if it were made plain that those to whom they refused all worship were indeed divine. But you say, they are gods. We protest and appeal from yourselves to your knowledge; let that condemn us, if it can deny that all these gods of yours were but men. Being men, they are able to protect neither empire nor anyone else. This being true, the Christians pay them no divine homage. But they offer prayer for the safety of our princes to the eternal, the true, and the living God.”
They were called to account as harm-doers on the ground of their being useless in the affairs of life. “I will confess,” says Tertullian, “that there are some who in a sense may complain of Christians that they are a sterile race: as, for instance, pimps, and panders, and bath-suppliers; assassins, and poisoners, and sorcerers; soothsayers, too, diviners, and astrologers. But it is a noble fruit of Christians that they have no fruit for such as these.”
The heathen inveighed also against the truths and facts of Christianity. Especially obnoxious to them was the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
The fathers replied by reference to the power of God; and argued its reasonableness from the divine image in man and from the righteousness and goodness of God.
Another argument of paganism against Christianity was its novelty and late appearance. This the fathers justified by the need of the human race to be trained unto Christ. But they also argued that Christianity existed long before Christ, that it went back to the very gates of paradise, that it existed from the eternity in the counsel of God.
The unbelieving Jews, too, had their objections. To their charge that Christianity cuts loose from the religion of the Old Testament, the fathers opposed those portions of the Scriptures which teach the temporality of the Mosaic ceremonies and rites and their true function, which was to foreshadow, the things of Christ’s kingdom, so that when the fullness of time was come all these ceremonies waxed old and vanished.
In reply to the objection that the divinity of Christ is destructive of the oneness of God, they maintained that the Old Testament Scriptures themselves make a distinction in the being of God, such as the book of Exodus, where the angel of the Lord is plainly Jehovah and yet distinct from Him; and the Messianic psalms, which ascribe divine honor to Christ.
Against the charge that the so-called Christ of the Christians was dishonorable and inglorious, so much so that He was crucified, it was replied that there was to be two events of His—one, to quote Justin, “in which He was pierced by you (the Jews); a second, when the Lord, the Father of all, brought Him again from the earth, setting Him at His own right hand, until He makes His enemies His footstool.”
Justin advances as proof of the fallacy of Judaism the fulfillment of the prophecies and the types of Christ. The destruction of Jerusalem, in accordance with the prediction of Christ, plainly bespeaks, according to Justin, its condemnation by God. He finds, too, that all the main features of the gospel history were foretold: The birth of Christ from the virgin; the visit of the magi; the flight into Egypt; the baptism by John and the descent of the Holy Spirit like a dove upon Christ; Christ’s death by the cross; His resurrection, ascension and reign in glory.
In these “apologies” the fathers are also positive. They endeavor to set forth the religion of Christ in its true light. But despite these “Apologies” persecutions continued, so that the only effect this literature had upon the unbelieving, reprobated heathen, is to harden them. But with this witness of the truth in circulation among them, they were without excuse. On the other hand, God’s believing people, so many as had ears to hear, were strengthened by it and brought to a clearer and deeper knowledge of the Gospel of God. For these writings are laden with truth and bespeak deep and ardent love of Christ on the part of their authors. We have still to deal with the literary contest of the fathers with the heretics in the church.