Category Archives: Church History

The reason for the drinking season

Just a little after 400AD, a group of Irish pirates successfully attacked some British towns, leaving with a group of slaves. Among them was a 16 year old named Patrick. Though the son of a deacon and grandson of a pastor, he was not particularly devout himself. This changed after he was enslaved, and under the Irish whip his faith grew. By his own accounting, young Patrick would say up to 100 prayers a day, and as many again in the night.

After six years of captivity, God answered. In his sleep, a voice came to him and said, “You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.” Shortly afterward, it returned and told him, “Behold, your ship is ready.” Patrick obeyed and fled his master. He traveled through 200 miles of unfamiliar territory with God as his guide, arriving at the same day that the ship he was destined for was setting out. At first, the sailors angrily told him to leave them alone, but after a brief prayer their attitude changed and they welcomed him on board their ship.

During this time, he faced hunger and deprivation, but each time he was delivered semi-miraculously. He was even captured once more, but God assured him the captivity would last for only two months, which is exactly how it played out. After a time, Patrick found his way back to his family. Nice story, huh?

Then God threw him a curve ball. One night, Patrick was given a vision:

I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’

Go back, God commanded him. Return to the barbarians to who would have enslaved you for the rest of your life. Like Jonah, he resisted at first, and so another trial was sent his way to clarify the situation. A scandal erupted around some sin he had confessed to from his teenage years (Patrick is so ashamed, he does not tell us what it was). Being brought low, Patrick gave in, and went to preach the gospel to the pagans of Ireland. It was a task his slavery had made him uniquely suited for. As a slave of the Irish, he had become fluent in the Irish language. As the slave of a druidic high priest, he had also become knowledgeable in the Irish religion. As a slave of Christ, he embodied the spirit of love and forgiveness that is so central to Christianity when he put all that aside and set out to help the Irish.

In the end, St. Patrick was responsible for the eventual conversion of the whole island. In a complete reversal of his childhood, he defended his former slavers against those who would enslave them, going so far as to excommunicate a Welsh chieftain. He was beaten, robbed, and even put into chains, but still he persisted, and today he is a central figure in Irish culture and myth. Even the shamrock owes its status as Ireland’s official symbol to a legend that Patrick used it to illustrate the Trinity.

He died 1,550 years ago today. Like St. Valentine, his holiday still carries on his name, but lacks his spirit. So take a moment to honor St. Patrick. He was a far better man than any of us.

Read his life in his own words.

Saint Augustine of Hippo

Augustine is hugely important to Christian theology. Throughout the Middle Ages, to say you were Augustinian was basically the same as saying that you were orthodox. At the time of the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, and the Catholics all wanted to claim him as their own. This makes studying Augustine very handy. He is early in the church relative to us but late enough that Christians had had time to think through and develop a lot of their basic doctrines, and he is claimed by all major branches of Western Christianity. If the Bible is the gold standard of orthodoxy, Augustine may be something of a silver standard: the ideas he presents may be incorrect, but they are at least not heretical.

Biography

Augustine lived from 354-430AD. He was born less than 50 years after Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious tolerance, ending the extremely vicious persecution that had been prosecuted against Christians before then. (For comparison, if you were born in the 1980s, about the same length of time separates you and the Holocaust). He was born in Africa, in what is now Algeria, back when it was still part of the Roman empire, and was of Berber descent. His mother was a Christian; his father was not (although he converted shortly before his death). The family was middle class, with enough money to give Augustine a good education (he later went on to become a teacher).

This came in very useful when he wrote his Confessions, which are essentially his autobiography, structured as a prayer to God. He starts from the beginning of his time as a baby, before moving on to the famous incident of the pear tree:

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.

Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears. I stole those simply that I might steal, for, having stolen them, I threw them away. My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for, if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it.

The incident is notable to him because he can come up with no justification for the theft. He wasn’t hungry, and he had better pears at home. Apparently, the only reason he stole was to do something wrong. Each of us have also done the same thing (for example, any time you’ve intentionally annoyed somebody simply to get a reaction out of them). He uses this as a starting point to explore both the nature of sin, especially how it usually consists in (poorly) imitating some aspect of God, and his own sinful nature.

Manichaeism

Though he was ostensibly raised as a Christian, it didn’t take, and as a youth he left it for Manichaeism. Manichaeism, then about 150 years old, was one of the more influential of the Gnostic religions that were cropping up at the time. In answer to the problem of evil, it posited a dualistic world, with both a Good God and an Evil God. The Good God was identified with light and the spiritual realm; the physical world was the domain of the Evil God. Humans had a soul made by the Good God, but it was trapped inside the evil body that belonged to the Bad God.

Manichean followers were divided into two groups: the hearers and the elect. The elect had to follow a life of extreme asceticism: they were completely celibate, could eat no meat, or even kill plants for food. They were entirely dependent on the hearers to cook and provide for them. When taking a meal, the elect would ritualistically deny all responsibility for having killed the wheat to make it. This would then allow them to ascend to the spiritual realm upon their death, while the hearer who had made the meal would have to do penance in the form of being reincarnated as a vegetable themselves in their next life.

Pre-Conversion

Augustine’s faith in Manicheanism crumbled when he met a famous Manichean teacher, and found him unable to answer any of his questions. At the same time, he met Ambrose, and found him very impressive. Ambrose was a great speaker, and dazzled Augustine with his interpretation of Scripture, which Augustine had previously found to be of too simple a style. Finally, he learned about St. Anthony, and was ashamed that such an uneducated man could live such a better life than he seemed capable of.

Conversion

Before long, he was intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity, but still unable to give himself over to it.

Wretched youth that I was — supremely wretched even in the very outset of my youth — I had entreated chastity of thee and had prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For I was afraid that you would hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.

I kept saying to myself, “See, let it be done now; let it be done now.” And as I said this I all but came to a firm decision. I all but did it — yet I did not quite. Still I did not fall back to my old condition, but stood aside for a moment and drew breath. And I tried again, and lacked only a very little of reaching the resolve — and then somewhat less, and then all but touched and grasped it. Yet I still did not quite reach or touch or grasp the goal, because I hesitated to die to death and to live to life. And the worse way, to which I was habituated, was stronger in me than the better, which I had not tried.

They are sentiments we can all relate to. Make me righteous, after I’ve had the chance to be wild and enjoy myself. The conflict tears Augustine apart, as part of him desperately wants to make the leap, but the other part just as desperately clings to his old habits and lusts. Many times he comes very close to making the change, but never quite gets there. On his own strength, he is powerless to change.

Like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), Augustine is praying not only that he will change, but that he will want to change. The change in his heart that needs to take place goes down to the very core, covering his actions, his motivations, and even that part of him that attempts to change his motivations.

Finally, in frustration, he throws himself down under a fig tree in his backyard and gives up, submitting himself fully to God’s power.

I flung myself down under a fig tree — how I know not — and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee.

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which — coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon.

I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Closing the book, then, and putting my finger or something else for a mark I began — now with a tranquil countenance — to tell it all to Alypius. And he in turn disclosed to me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him, and he looked on even further than I had read. I had not known what followed. But indeed it was this, “Him that is weak in the faith, receive.” This he applied to himself, and told me so. By these words of warning he was strengthened, and by exercising his good resolution and purpose — all very much in keeping with his character, in which, in these respects, he was always far different from and better than I — he joined me in full commitment without any restless hesitation.

Here we see God performing one of those deniable miracles which He seems so fond of. Nothing in the chain of events is explicitly supernatural, but the string of coincidences is so unlikely that is hard to take any other explanation seriously. The voice Augustine overheard did not boom down from heaven, and may well have been simply a child in a neighboring house, and yet the strange chant was exactly what Augustine needed to hear (Augustine himself seems unclear as to whether the voice had an actual human behind it or not). Augustine then opens his Bible and against all odds lands on a verse that is again exactly what he needs to hear; one followed immediately by another verse that is exactly what his companion needs to hear. It could all be a coincidence, but would a mere string of coincidences really have been able to make such a radical change in both Augustine’s and Alypius’ lives?

Augustine was ordained a priest in 391, and became bishop of Hippo in 395.

Pelagian controversy

Pelagius was a monk from Britain, who became very concerned with society’s moral laxity, and came to blame this in part on the doctrine of the divine grace. The essential core of his doctrine was that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can use our free will to choose to follow God’s commandments. There is no original sin; each person is a new free agent with the same power of choice as Adam. We are fully capable of not sinning our entire lives.

Augustine reacted strongly against this doctrine, which starkly contradicted his own experience. He recalled how even in his youth he would do things simply because they were wrong, and how even when he was intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity, he was unable to let go of his past sinful habits.
Augustine’s response can be boiled down into the following points:

  1. Original Sin: As humanity’s representative, we are involved in some way in Adam’s fall, and consequently we all inherit that guilt from our parents.
  2. This corruption of man’s nature makes us unable to choose God or move towards restoration with him in any meaningful way. Essentially, Adam started in a state of being both able to sin and able not to sin. After the fall, humans become not able not to sin. After our redemption and death, we will finally become not able to sin.
  3. Most importantly, it is only through the grace of God that we can be saved.

Augustine also brings in predestination, and though Pelagius was ultimately condemned by the church, the debate still rages today over the precise interplay between God’s grace and our own free will.

Documents

Preachers and Politicians

  1. Should a pastor simultaneously act as a government official, such as a governor or as an ambassador?
  2. Should a pastor call out a politician by name for his policies?
  3. Should the church be willing to use state force to combat heresies?

Once Christianity became the religion of the empire, it found itself having to grapple with these questions, and struggling to figure out where to draw that blurry line between state and church. As the bishop of a city which often housed the emperor, Ambrose found himself at the center of many of these controversies.

Ambrose (340-397)

Ambrose was born to Christian parents. His father was the Prefect of Gaul, which covered modern-day France, Britain, and Spain. His father died when he was a teenager, and the family moved to Rome, where he was educated to follow in his father’s footsteps. Eventually, he became a governor.

In Milan, where he lived, the Arian bishop had died, and there was a great conflict over his successor between the Catholics and Arians. Fearing a riot, he went to the church where the election was taking place and tried to talk the crowd down. During his speech, somebody yelled out, “Ambrose, bishop!” and soon the entire crowd was chanting it.

Ambrose fled and hid at a friend’s house, and this friend then turned him in. In the space of a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as a bishop.

He threw himself into this role, immediately selling everything he had, giving it to the poor, and adopting an ascetic lifestyle. He threw himself into the study of theology, which he had not had any schooling in previously.

1. Ambassador Ambrose

In 383 General Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops, and then marched on and conquered Gaul, as well as emperor Gratian. He was marching on Italy and the 12-year old emperor Valentinian II when the Eastern emperor Theodosius sent troops to stop him. Ambrose was sent as ambassador to dissuade Maximus from proceeding further. The mission was a success, and resulted in Maximus being recognized as the western emperor.

How did you answer Question 1? If you said “no,” do you still think so? Would it have been better for Ambrose to stay out of political questions and consequently also fail to help the many people who would be killed in the resultant fighting?

2. Massacre at Thessalonica

In 390 in Thessalonica, a governor had arrested a popular athlete for trying to rape a male cupbearer. The people demanded his release, and when the governor refused, they rioted and killed him. The emperor was enraged, and sent out his troops. The people were invited to an exhibition in the Circus, where they were slaughtered. 7,000 people were killed.

He almost immediately thought better of the plan and sent a letter countermanding the order, but by then it was too late.

How did you answer question 2? How should Ambrose, who was the emperor’s pastor, have responded?

The following is a letter he wrote Theodosius after hearing of the incident:

What then was I to do? Must I disclose what I heard? But then I had reason to fear that the same result which I apprehended from your commands would ensue from my own words; that they might become the cause of bloodshed. Was I then to be silent? But this would be the most miserable of all, for my conscience would be bound, my liberty of speech taken away. And what then of the text, if the priest warn not the wicked from his wicked way, the wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but the priest shall be liable to punishment, because he did not warn him?

Is your Majesty ashamed to do that which the Royal Prophet David did, the forefather of Christ according to the flesh? It was told him that a rich man, who had numerous flocks, on the arrival of a guest took a poor man’s lamb and killed it, and recognizing in this act his own condemnation, he said, I have sinned against the Lord. Let not your Majesty then be impatient at being told, as David was by the prophet, Thou art the man. For if you listen thereto obediently and say, I have sinned against the Lord, if you will use those words of the royal Prophet, O come let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker, to you also it shall be said, Because thou repentest, the Lord hath put away thy sin, thou shalt not die.

This I have written, not to confound you, but that these royal examples may induce you to put away this sin from your kingdom; for this you will do by humbling your soul before God. You are a man; temptation has fallen upon you; vanquish it. Sin is not washed away but by tears and penitence. Neither Angel nor Archangel can do it. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say I am with you; even He grants no remission of sin save to the penitent.

In America, a preacher who speaks against a political leader risks losing their church’s tax-exemption. Ambrose could have been exiled or even executed. In the end, the Emperor accepted the humiliation of public penance, and was eventually readmitted to communion.

3. Suppression of the Donatists

Remember the Donatists? They were still a force during the time of Augustine, roughly 100 years after the schism started. You probably answered “no” to question 3. Saint Augustine would have disagreed with you:

Again I ask, if good and holy men never inflict persecution upon any one, but only suffer it, whose words they think that those are in the psalm where we read, “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed?” If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for unrighteousness. Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error.

Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth; but they, returning evil for good, because we take measures for their good, to secure their eternal salvation, endeavor even to strip us of our temporal safety, being so in love with murder, that they commit it on their own persons, when they cannot find victims in any others. For in proportion as the Christian charity of the Church endeavors to deliver them from that destruction, so that none of them should die.

One thing I did not mention previously is that the Donatists themselves had begun to turn violent. Sometimes they would loot and destroy Catholic churches. They also prevented people among their ranks from going over to the Catholic side by using violence. Does this change your view any?

And what are we to say of those who confess to us, as some do every day, that even in the olden days they had long been wishing to be Catholics; but they were living among men among whom those who wished to be Catholics could not be so through the infirmity of fear, seeing that if any one there said a single word in favor of the Catholic Church, he and his house were utterly destroyed at once? Who is mad enough to deny that it was right that assistance should have been given through the imperial decrees, that they might be delivered from so great an evil, whilst those whom they used to fear are compelled in turn to fear, and are either themselves corrected through the same terror, or, at any rate, whilst they pretend to be corrected, they abstain from further persecution of those who really are, to whom they formerly were objects of continual dread?

But if they have chosen to destroy themselves, in order to prevent the deliverance of those who had a right to be delivered, and have sought in this way to alarm the pious hearts of the deliverers, so that in their apprehension that some few abandoned men might perish, they should allow others to lose the opportunity of deliverance from destruction, who were either already unwilling to perish, or might have been saved from it by the employment of compulsion; what is in this case the function of Christian charity, especially when we consider that those who utter threats of their own violent and voluntary deaths are very few in number in comparison with the nations that are to be delivered?

What then is the function of brotherly love? Does it, because it fears the shortlived fires of the furnace for a few, therefore abandon all to the eternal fires of hell? and does it leave so many, who are either already desirous, or hereafter are not strong enough to pass to life eternal, to perish everlastingly, while taking precautions that some few should not perish by their own hand, who are only living to be a hindrance in the way of the salvation of others, whom they will not permit to live in accordance with the doctrines of Christ, in the hopes that some day or other they may teach them too to hasten their death by their own hand, in the manner which now causes them themselves to be a terror to their neighbors, in accordance with the custom inculcated by their devilish tenets? or does it rather save all whom it can, even though those whom it cannot save should perish in their own infatuation? For it ardently desires that all should live, but it more especially labors that not all should die.

Documents

Who do you say that I am?

Suppose you ran into an old friend of yours after you hadn’t seen each other in while. As you’re catching up, he happily mentions that he has entered into a relationship with a new girl. He seems really excited about her, so you ask her name.

“Oh, it’s either Jennifer, or Jessica, or maybe Mindy. Definitely something like that.”

“Well, what’s she look like?”

“Oh, you know, she has brown or maybe blackish blonde hair. I’m almost certain she isn’t bald, at any rate.”

What would you think of this relationship?

This is how a lot of people approach their relationship with God. But a relationship where you show no interest in what the other person is like is not a true relationship at all. Keep this is mind as we study the Arian Controversy, because while it may seem like it turns on obscure points of theology, the issue of who Jesus is and who God is stands at the very heart of Christianity.

The Council of Nicea

Having just finished reuniting the Roman world, Constantine found Christianity itself divided. To resolve the controversy and unify the empire’s new religion, he called for a church council at Nicaea. Roughly 300 bishops attended.

Many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.

To those who attended the council, Constantine manifested great kindness, addressing them with much gentleness, and presenting them with gifts. He ordered numerous couches to be prepared for their accommodation and entertained them all at one banquet. Those who were most worthy he received at his own table, distributing the rest at the others. Observing that some among them had had the right eye torn out, and learning that this mutilation had been undergone for the sake of religion, he placed his lips upon the wounds, believing that he would extract a blessing from the kiss. After the conclusion of the feast, he again presented other gifts to them.

This is known as the first ecumenical council because it pulled in bishops from all of Christendom, including outside the Roman Empire. The council accomplished several things: the construction of the Nicene Creed, settling the method for calculating the date of Easter, and the promulgation of some early canon law, which basically gave rules for how the church should be governed. By far the most important and far-reaching consequence of this was the Nicene Creed.

The Arians submitted a document with their recommended creed, signed by 18 bishops. The backlash against it was strong; bishops actually leapt to their feet and tore the document to pieces. 16 of the signers immediately recanted. The Nicene Creed was adopted instead, and along with it the following condemnation of Arius:

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

A grand total of six bishops opposed the creed. In the end, four of them gave way, with only two bishops and Arius refusing to sign the creed. They were deposed and exiled. (Eusebius of Nicomedia actually signed the creed, but refused to condemn Arius, and so he was exiled as well).

This was not the end of the story

Constantine himself did not stick to the decisions of the council for long, and soon Arian bishops were allowed back in, and even gained the upper hand politically. Over the course of his life, Athanasius was exiled five different times for his dogged defense of Trinitarian Christianity. At some points, it seemed like he alone defended Nicea against the whole world. Yet, in the end, he triumphed, and now the Nicene Creed stands as one of the most basic tests of orthodoxy.

I take some comfort in this. Trinitarianism first passed the truth test of commanding the assent of the first ecumenical church council. After this, its opponents attempted to stamp it out with their superior political power, and yet it survived and thrived, just as basic Christianity had before it. Had the defenders of Nicea retained the political power, we might wonder how much of its survival was due to superior firepower instead of truth. Had they failed to gain acceptance at the council in the first place, we might wonder how the church so badly missed the truth. Happily, it passed both tests.

So what is the Trinity?

It is easier to say what it is not:

With that out the way, the Trinity can be summed up as follows:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Holy Spirit is God
  4. The Father is not the Son
  5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father
  7. There is only one God

You can see the problem there; that last statement seems contradictory. On the other hand, delving into the ultimate nature of reality has landed physics in similar territory.

Not that that helps us understand it any better. As you have just seen, most analogies end up as a heresy instead.

That said, here’s some analogies, courtesy of the great St Augustine

Mind
Mind is composed of memory, understanding, and will. We understand our memory, remember understanding, will to remember, and will to understand, understand our willing, etc. Each of these are in a way distinct from each other, but at the same time they are all the same thing.
Self-love
Just about everybody loves themselves (and usually too much). However, we are in fact allowed to love ourselves, so long as we also love our neighbor similarly. In so loving, We are simultaneously the lover, loved object, and the lover’s love.

Note that these are all still just analogies, and if you take them too far, you will probably again lapse into something that has been condemned as a heresy.

So why should we believe in this Trinity thing at all?

This is one of the few doctrines agreed on by all branches of the church, over a long, stretch of time. Those which deny it quickly lose the rest of their Christianity (see, for example, Unitarians). The messy history of how it came to be accepted also gives reason to trust it. When the church came together to consider it, they nearly unanimously came down on the side of the Trinity. Then, lest we fear that this was due to Constantine’s influence, political power almost immediately turned against it, and so Trinitarianism had to prove itself in the face of political repression, just as Christianity itself had.

Documents

  • Nicene Canons – The document that the Nicene Council ultimately set forth. It is brief, and well worth your time to read, if only to debunk some of the nonsense that has been promulgated about its contents.
  • On the Incarnation – Athanasius’ explanation of the Trinity and Jesus’ incarnation. If you read one book as a result of this class, make it this one.
  • Class Materials – Certainly the least important document in this list, but it does contain my chess-board visualization of the post-Nicene political wrangling, of which I am rather proud.
  • For good measure, the Nicene Creed in all its original glory:

    We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost.

Love not the world

Writing in 197 AD, Tertullian said the following:

We are accused of being useless in the affairs of life. How in all the world can that be the case with people who are living among you, eating the same food, wearing the same attire, having the same habits, under the same necessities of existence? We are not Indian Brahmins or Gymnosophists, who dwell in woods and exile themselves from ordinary human life.

Within 50 years or so, this was no longer true for a significant chunk of the Christian population. The Christian ascetics and later the monastics sought to deny themselves and die to the world by cutting themselves off from it. Today we are going to learn about two of the most famous monastics. St Anthony, who served as the inspiration for millions more to go into the desert seeking God, and Pachomius, who brought the Christian hermits back together into their own form of community.

Anthony the Great, Father of Monasticism (251-356 AD)

Anthony was an Egyptian, born to wealthy, Christian parents. They died when he was around 20. Not long afterward, he was walking along thinking about how the apostles forsook everything and sold all they had to follow Jesus, and he happened to wander into church right as Matt 19:21 was being read: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Anthony took this as a clear message from God to him. He sold off his family’s more than 200 acres and most of their possession, giving it to the townspeople and the poor. He kept just a small amount for himself and his sister.

The next time he walked into church, Matt 6:34 was read: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” Immediately he left and gave his remaining possessions to the needy. He gave his sister over to the care of a proto-convent, and “apprenticed” himself to a local hermit. He then left there and traveled about seeking out other ascetics to learn from, most of whom lived somewhat isolated lives on the outskirts of cities.
Finally, he had a friend seal him in a tomb, where he had his first great confrontation with Satan and his demons:

And when the enemy could not endure it, but was even fearful that in a short time Anthony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. … But the enemy, who hates good, marveling that after the blows he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, ‘Ye see,’ said he, ‘that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us, let us attack him in another fashion.’ But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature.

The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful. But Anthony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, ‘If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord has made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.’ And again with boldness he said, ‘If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.’ So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth at him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.

Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Anthony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, “Where were you? Why didn’t you appear at the beginning to make my pains end?” And a voice came to him, “Anthony, I was here, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you have persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.” Having heard this, Anthony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly.

Anthony set out from there to the desert, one of the first ascetics to do so. Eventually he came to deserted fortress, and shut himself inside with enough food for 6 months. He spent the next twenty years there, and though he had visitors, he did not allow anybody in or ever venture outside. Those who did visit reported that they heard what sounded like mobs inside crying out, “Get away from what is ours! What do you have to do with the desert? You cannot endure our treachery!” When they peeked in and saw nobody there, they realized that it was demons they were hearing.

This, by the way, is a recurring theme with the desert monks. They saw themselves as very directly confronting and being confronted by the demons. Though they did not physically fight them off, this war was very real and very literal for them. One of Anthony’s later speeches to his fellow monks consists largely of practical advice for how to deal with the demons when they troubled them by either appearing in strange shapes or even whispering future events to them.

Finally, so many people had gathered outside the fortress wanting to follow him in asceticism that they tore open the door, and he finally ventured forth. “From then on,” Athanasius tells us, “there were monasteries in the mountains and the desert was made a city by monks, who left their own people and registered themselves for citizenship in the heavens.”

The following is from a speech given by Anthony to his fellow monks:

Nor let us think, as we look at the world, that we have renounced anything of much consequence, for the whole earth is very small compared with all the heaven. Wherefore if it even chanced that we were lords of all the earth and gave it all up, it would be nought worthy of comparison with the kingdom of heaven. For as if a man should despise a copper drachma to gain a hundred drachmas of gold; so if a man were lord of all the earth and were to renounce it, that which he gives up is little, and he receives a hundredfold. But if not even the whole earth is equal in value to the heavens, then he who has given up a few acres leaves as it were nothing; and even if he have given up a house or much gold he ought not to boast nor be low-spirited. Further, we should consider that even if we do not relinquish them for virtue’s sake, still afterwards when we die we shall leave them behind.

Therefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline, and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker, as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good.” But to avoid being heedless, it is good to consider the word of the Apostle, “I die daily.” For if we too live as though dying daily, we shall not sin. And the meaning of that saying is, that as we rise day by day we should think that we shall not abide till evening; and again, when about to lie down to sleep, we should think that we shall not rise up. For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall.

Pachomius (290-347 AD)

“How can a person test his humility when he has no one to whom he can show himself the inferior? How will he give evidence of his compassion, if he has cut himself off from association with other persons? And how will he exercise himself in long-suffering, if no one contradicts his wishes? If the Lord washed the feet of the disciples, whose feet will you wash?” – St Basil (330-379)

“To save souls, you must bring them together.”-Pachomius

Born in Egypt to pagan parents, he was drafted into the army at 20. On the way to the front, he and his fellow soldiers stopped at Thebes, where they were housed in a prison. Local Christians came to visit the inmates and bring them food, which greatly impressed Pachomius. He vowed to investigate Christianity when he got out of the army, which was soon afterward. He became a pupil of the hermit Palamon for seven years, after which he set out on his own to follow the discipline of St. Anthony.

One day, God led him out about 10 miles to a deserted village by the Nile called Tabennesi, and commanded him, “Build a monastery; for many will come to you to become monks with you.” He built a cell there in 320, where his brother joined him as his first follower. Before long the community grew to 100, and by the time of his death it contained 3,000 monks. They shared everything in common, prayed and worked together, and followed the rules Pachomius laid out. These rules regulated the entire day, dictating when they would wake, when they would pray, what work they would do, and even how they would greet visitors to the monastery.

This system became known as “coenobitic monasticism” from the Greek words “koinos bios” (common life). It formed the basis for the rules that would organize all future monasteries, most notably the Benedictine monasteries.

Simeon the Stylite (390 – 459)

Simeon entered a monastery before the age of 16, and subjected himself to ever-increasing bodily austerities, from severe fasting to standing upright as long as he could possibly bear it. Eventually, he confined himself to living on a small platform on the side of a mountain. However, he was so overwhelmed by pilgrims seeking his advice that he finally decided to try escape the world vertically. He set up a platform on top of a 12 foot pillar and lived on it. Followers provided him with taller and taller pillars as time went by, the final one being over 45 feet tall, and there he lived for 37 years until his death. People continued to flock to him, and he preached to them and wrote letters. He converted thousands to Christianity, and inspired imitators all the way through to the 1400s.

Documents

By this sign, Conquer!

Diocletian united and stabilized the Empire, then divided it into 2 pieces with 2 emperors each. Shortly after he and his co-emperor retired in 305, the system broke down. Constantine and Maxentius succeeded their fathers in the West, and Licinius and Maximinus became emperors in the East. Very quickly, they began battling each other for supremacy, mostly with the two in the East fighting each other and the two in the West fighting each other.

The sign in the sky

Eusebius recounts the previous scene as follows, in Life of Constantine:

Accordingly he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to me, when I was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of after-time has established its truth? He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, “By this sign, conquer.” At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.

The battle of the Milvian Bridge

Again, from the Life of Constantine:

So at this time Maxentius, and the soldiers and guards with him, “went down into the depths like stone,” when, in his flight before the divinely-aided forces of Constantine, he essayed to cross the river which lay in his way, over which, making a strong bridge of boats, he had framed an engine of destruction, really against himself, but in the hope of ca-snaring thereby him who was beloved by God. For his God stood by the one to protect him, while the other, godless, proved to be the miserable contriver of these secret devices to his own ruin. So that one might well say, “He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head. ” Thus, in the present instance, under divine direction, the machine erected on the bridge, with the ambuscade concealed therein, giving way unexpectedly before the appointed time, the bridge began to sink, and the boats with the men in them went bodily to the bottom.

The Edict of Milan

Opening text of the Edict of Milan

When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Milan, and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule. And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts, may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence. Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation.

Constantine vs. Licinius

Relationships between the two emperors quickly deteriorated, of course…

Late Thanks

William Bradford also celebrated MovemberThe first Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Harbor nearly 400 years ago, on December 17, 1620. Things started off promisingly. With a little scouting around Plymouth, they found an area with a good harbor, river, and fields already cleared for planting. But it went quickly downhill from there. They arrived in the winter, and were immediately beset by disease and hunger. They began to die. In those first 3 months, 45 of the 102 immigrants died. Inclement weather greatly slowed down construction of their new homes, and most of them were forced to remain on the Mayflower for some time after their arrival.

After four months, half of the Pilgrims had died, and the Mayflower was ready to set sail back to England. Holding firm in their belief that this was their divine mission, not a single Pilgrim returned with it. They joined together, holding all their property and food in common, to be distributed out according to need by their officials. Together, they began to scratch out an existence in the New World.

In March, a Native American named Samoset strode into the Pilgrim camp, welcomed them, and asked for a beer. He explained that the land they were settled on had previously belonged to the Patuxet, but they had all been wiped out by a plague four years earlier, and there was now nobody who would dispute the Pilgrims’ claim of the area. A few days later, he returned to the camp with Squanto, the last surviving Patuxet, who helped teach the Pilgrims how to work the land bequeathed to them by his former tribe.

The first harvest festival occurred that autumn, and although the Pilgrims did not think of it as such, it is now generally regarded as the first Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving that they called by that name came in 1623, when they received news of an incoming ship of new colonists and supplies. It consisted of a church service. There was no feast; in fact there was barely any food to feast on at all. When the new colonists arrived, all they could offer them was some fish and water; they did not even have bread to share.

Without a strong link between effort expended in the fields and food taken home, even these dedicated church-goers had neglected their work, and very little food was grown. The system had limped along like this for two and half years, as the colony continued to face potential starvation. Finally, in the spring of 1623, a parcel of land was distributed to each family. They were allowed to keep whatever they grew on it, with the proviso that they were now solely responsible for feeding themselves. And with that, productivity dramatically improved, and the Pilgrims never again faced severe food shortages. By the 1630’s, feasts began to be associated with the Thanksgiving day church services.

About ten years into the colony’s life, a man named Henry Cobb emigrated from England (perhaps on the second Mayflower) and joined the couple of hundred in Plymouth Colony. He was a devout man, and became a Deacon in a few years. As the colony expanded and developed offshoots, he helped set up the town of Barnstable, where he settled on a plot of 7 acres. Between his two wives, he had 14 children in total.

I mention him because he was an ancestor of mine, and probably the first of them to come to America. It is nice to know that my own blood played a part in the country’s earliest days, and even better to know that he was a man of strong religious conviction. What better time than Thanksgiving to commemorate my own Pilgrim heritage?

I hope your Thanksgiving went well. Whether you knew it or not, you were celebrating great bravery, an enterprising spirit, an uncompromising devotion to God, the superiority of capitalism and private property, and the eating of large quantities of food. I can think of nothing more quintessentially American than that.

Now what?

Our church history class is over, but I’m hoping that won’t be the end for you. Obviously, there is plenty more history that we did not cover, even in the small time periods that we did discuss. If you want to fill those in, the best way is to read. You don’t even need to read a lot; I have committed myself to only 10 pages a night, but over the past 8 years, that has really added up.

If you read only two books as a result of this class, let them be On the Incarnation and Confessions of St. Augustine. I would even encourage you to make a study of them with whatever small group or bible study you’re a part of. If you’ve already read them, skip ahead to the rest of the resources you should check out.

On the Incarnation, by Athansius

Athanasius was the greatest defender of Trinitarian Orthodoxy during the turbulent times after Nicea. On the Incarnation, written before he even turned 30, is a brilliant explanation of the incarnation of Christ. C.S Lewis praised it especially highly:

Athanasius stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.

As you read, you would also do well to listen to relevant episodes from this podcast, as he walks his own class through this book.

On the Incarnation is available in a variety of formats:

The Confessions of St. Augustine

It’s a classic for a reason. Augustine explores human nature and whole range of other topics in this masterpiece, and even comes close to deriving the Big Bang from an analysis of Genesis. If you want to study this with your small groups, contact me and I’ll pass my notes along to you from when I did the same.

Please note that there are many translations, and you would do well to find one in modern English, which will likely mean getting an actual physical book.

More History!

For a good overview of church history, I recommend this book: Church History in Plain Language. It goes all the way up to the present time.

If you’re online, you can do even better. A number of college courses make recordings of their lectures available online for free. The best part about audio resources like this is that you can let them play while you do other things. The following two were particularly helpful in preparing this course:

However, if you really want to know what’s going on, you need to dive into primary sources. I have made sure to include primary sources in every class partly for this reason, and partly to show you that they’re still perfectly approachable. We can learn directly from the greats.

Luckily for us, all of these primary sources are available on the internet. However, they’re almost all from the Roberts-Donaldson translation from the early 1800s, and the language is very King Jamesy. You are better off finding an actual book with a modern translation. I’m sure you can get these from fine publishers such as Zondervan or Baker Books; Lancaster Bible College’s library is also an excellent source, and they will give you a library card for just $1 (please note that they are currently in the process of moving). Even the public Lancaster Library System has a copy of Eusebius’s Church History, but be gentle with it, because the copy is over 100 years old.

If you stick to the online world, you will likely find yourself visiting the Christian Classics Ethereal Library often. Early Christian Writings is also a handy site. If you like your books electronic, Orthodox e-books may interest you.

Test everything. Hold on to the good.I Thessalonians 5:21

See the rest of the Church History posts

The End of the World

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” – Isaiah 40:8

Sack of 410

In the year 410 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alaric, besieged and plundered Rome. This was the first time in 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy, but it was a long time in coming. The empire had long been plagued by German incursions, and in many cases solved the problem by paying other Germans to fight them off. Theodosius signed a treated with the Visigoths which declared them to be subjects of the empire, but autonomous subjects. Alaric later fought alongside Theodosius in the battle that would unite the empire for the last time under one rule. In that battle, Theodosius made sure to order the Visigoth troops to charge before sending in his Roman troops, killing half of them. We can be sure Alaric took that lesson to heart.

He resumed hostilities with Rome not long after the emperor’s death, and laid siege to the city twice, each time leaving when he was bought off. The third time the payoff did not come, and on August 24, 410, slaves opened the gates to the barbarians, who poured in and looted it for three days. The city’s great buildings were ransacked. The mausoleums of past Roman emperors were raided and their ashes were scattered to the wind. The city was devastated, and many Romans were taken captive. Jerome, voicing what many felt, wrote, “My voice sticks in my throat. The City that took the whole world captive is itself taken.”

There was one notable exception to the devastation. Alaric, who considered himself a Christian, left the churches alone, and made sure that his troops did the same.

Sack of 455

In 455, Rome was besieged again, this time by the Vandals. Emperor Maximus fled the city rather than fight them off. The only authority left in the city was Pope Leo. He negotiated with the Vandals, and got them to agree not to destroy the city or murder its inhabitants. The gates were opened for them, and they plundered Rome for the next 14 days. However, they largely kept their word, refraining from violence or burning down buildings.

This was the second time Leo had acted in such a capacity. A few years earlier, Attila the Hun had invaded Italy, and sacking cities and making his way to Rome. Leo was sent with an envoy to negotiate with Attila, and he succeeded in convincing Attila to not only spare the capital, but withdraw from Italy altogether.

Papacy

It is not hard to imagine what this did for the position of the church. Rulers and political leaders had failed at their most basic task of keeping people safe. But where they fled for their own lives, the Pope stayed behind and did the job that they were supposed to do. It is here that the Papacy really starts to become the Papacy as we know it. Staying out of politics and away from temporal power was no longer even a possibility; when it mattered most, the church was the only temporal power left.

City of God

Tens of thousands of refugees fled Rome, and many of them made their way to Hippo, where they were welcomed by St. Augustine. They needed answers for why this great tragedy had befallen the Eternal City, and Augustine provided those in the form of his great work City of God.

The City of Man is bound together by a common love for temporal things, while the City of God is bound together by the love of God. The former exists largely to suppress the crime and some of the more blatant results of sin, but it’s the City of God which we were truly made for. Most importantly, all works of man, and all the civilizations they build will ultimately die; only the City of God is eternal. “The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.”

While Augustine lay on his death bed, the Vandals made their way into Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. He spent his final days in prayer and penitence, reading the penitential psalms and convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Not long after his death, his own city of man did fall. The Vandals burned down Hippo, leaving only Augustine’s cathedral and library intact.

This is a happy ending

This seems like a downer, but looking back I consider it somewhat comforting. The end of the Roman world turned out not to be the end of the world. Western civilization carried on, and even surpassed the rest of the world in spite of all of that. We look around the world today and we see a lot of things going wrong. History reminds us that though things are bad today, things have been bad before. The Church survives.

Class Materials

Love the Lord with all thy mind

The greatest commandment, according to Jesus Christ himself, is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.

Today we are going to learn about those in the early church who dedicated their minds to Christ. We call them apologists, from the Greek word for “speaking in defense.” The apologists first arose out of necessity: Christians were very literally under attack. Somebody needed to explain Christianity to a world that knew nothing about it, and hopefully convince the emperors that it was not a threat. As time went on, the Church faced the additional threat of heresies. Thinkers were needed to combat this bad theology with good theology.

This was very important to the development of the church. After all, if you really want to become an expert in a subject, the best way is to debate over it with somebody who disagrees with you. They will not be shy about pointing out the holes in your understanding, and will force you to delve deeper and refine your ideas.

Thus, it was out of apologetics that theology was born. In the process of defending Christianity, our early thinkers also engaged in the process of figuring out just what Christianity is. It is from them that we gained our understanding of scripture and even the methods we use to interpret it, and it is thanks to their efforts that we can hope to grasp doctrines like the Trinity.

Justin Martyr (100-165)

Justin was the most famous of the early early apologists. He was not born into a Christian family, but rather spent his early years jumping from philosophy to philosophy looking for the Truth.

Dialog with Trypho:

Philosophy is, in fact, the greatest possession, and most honorable before God, to whom it leads us and alone commends us; and these are truly holy men who have bestowed attention on philosophy.
Being at first desirous of personally conversing with one of these men, I surrendered myself to a certain Stoic; and having spent a considerable time with him, when I had not acquired any further knowledge of God (for he did not know himself, and said such instruction was unnecessary), I left him and betook myself to another, who was called a Peripatetic, and as he fancied, shrewd. And this man, after having entertained me for the first few days, requested me to settle the fee, in order that our intercourse might not be unprofitable. Him, too, for this reason I abandoned, believing him to be no philosopher at all. But when my soul was eagerly desirous to hear the peculiar and choice philosophy, I came to a Pythagorean, very celebrated—a man who thought much of his own wisdom. He said, “Are you acquainted with music, astronomy, and geometry?” He dismissed me when I confessed to him my ignorance.

In my helpless condition it occurred to me to have a meeting with the Platonists, for their fame was great. I thereupon spent as much of my time as possible with one who had lately settled in our city,—a sagacious man, holding a high position among the Platonists,—and I progressed, and made the greatest improvements daily. And the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings, so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.

In the next few paragraphs, Justin, who is very deep in Platonism at this point, is walking on the beach alone with his thoughts when he meets an old man. This man explains how the philosophers still cannot tell him the whole truth, and directs him to the Jewish prophets.

But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Savior. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.

Irenaeus (130-202)

Born in a Christian family, he became a priest, and was sent to Rome in 177 with a letter regarding the Montanists. While he was away, a massacre took place in Lyon, and when he returned he succeeded the now-deceased Bishop. Fittingly, he devoted most of his writings to combating heresies, especially the Gnostics.

Against Heresies:

Error is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as to make it appear to the inexperienced more true than the truth itself. One far superior to me has well said, in reference to this point, “A clever imitation in glass casts contempt, on the emerald (which is most highly esteemed by some), unless it come under the eye of one able to test and expose the counterfeit.”

We do not want people snatched away by our fault like sheep by wolves in sheep’s clothing, wolves from whom the Lord warned us to keep away, those who speak like us but think otherwise. Therefore, after reading the commentaries of those who call themselves disciples of Valentinus, and meeting some of them and having fully understood their teaching, I considered it necessary to show you, beloved, their portentous and profound mysteries, which “not all understand” because not all have sufficiently purged their brains. Thus you will know the doctrines and make them manifest to all who are with you and instruct them to avoid the “abyss” of unreason and blasphemy against God.

Origen (184-254)

Born to Christian parents, his father was martyred in 202. Origen wished to follow him, but was prevented from doing so when his mother hid his clothes. The death of his father and subsequent confiscation of their property left his family impoverished, but a wealthy Christian woman took him under her wing and helped finish his education.

He revived the school at Alexandria, which was essentially the first Christian seminary. So he could be completely independent, he sold his library, netting enough for him to live an extremely frugal and ascetic lifestyle on. He devoted himself to the study of scripture, and wrote an absurd amount, including commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible.

On First Principles (De Principiis):

We have found in Proverbs some such instruction for the examination of divine Scripture given by Solomon. He says, “For your part describe them to yourself threefold in admonition and knowledge, that you may answer words of truth to those who question you. ” Therefore, a person ought to describe threefold in his soul the meaning of divine letters, that is, so that the simple may be edified by, so to speak, the body of the Scriptures; for that is what we call the ordinary and narrative meaning. But if any have begun to make some progress and can contemplate something more fully, they should be edified by the soul of Scripture. And those who are perfect are those concerning whom the Apostle says, “Yet among the perfect we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this world or of the rulers of this world, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification.” Such people should be edified by that spiritual Law which has a shadow of the good things to come, edified as by the spirit of Scripture. Thus, just as a human being is said to be made up of body, soul, and spirit, so also is sacred Scripture, which has been granted by God’s gracious dispensation for man’s salvation.

Tertullian (160-225)

Tertullian lived for much of his life as a fairly hedonistic Pagan. He converted at the age of 40 and gave up his former practices. Professionally, he was a lawyer, and his writings, as well as his views toward penance, reflect that. Later on in life, he became a Montanist, though he did not leave the church to do so.

Where other apologists sought to reconcile Greek philosophy and Christianity, Tertullian famously rejected Greek philosophy altogether. The following is perhaps his most famous passage.

Prescription against Heretics:

The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come? Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions–embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer?” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.”

Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our preeminent faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.

Bonus Material

  • Class Materials – As always, the materials used in class are available for download.
  • Apology of Aristedes – Aristedes predates even Justin Martyr. His apology was thought lost until it was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century. It’s fairly short, and worth reading.