EARLY CHURCH FATHERS: EXCERPTS FROM CHRISTIAN WRITINGS, 100-200 A.D.
I chose these excerpts from the earliest “Church Fathers” mainly to show the quality of their lives and faith, and how they explained their faith to outsiders. These translations were mainly done around 1890, so the English is a bit dated. I retained the explanatory notes in these translations, added a few more, and updated the wording in a few spots. The underlining is mine. Links to on-line full versions are given at the end of this document. The writings discussed here are:
FIRST EPISTLE OF CLEMENT TO THE CORINTHIANS [ 95 A.D.]
THE EPISTLE OF IGNATIUS TO POLYCARP [ ~107 A. D.]
THE APOLOGY OF ARISTIDES [ ~ 125 A.D.]
THE EPISTLE OF MATHETES TO DIOGNETUS [likely between 130 and 200 A.D]
THE FIRST APOLOGY OF JUSTIN [~ 155 A.D.]
IRENAEUS [ wrote Against Heresies about 180 A.D.]
THE OCTAVIUS OF MINUCIUS FELIX [~200 A.D.]
These writers make references to the natural world in various contexts: Clement points to the harmony and peace of the universe as an example that the Corinthians should follow; Aristides came to faith in a Prime Mover by considering the orderly arrangement of the sun and moon; “Mathetes” exalts the Creator who directs the courses of the sun, moon and stars; Justin notes that Christians offer thanks “for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons”; Minucius Felix speaks of enjoying the color and scent of flowers.
FIRST EPISTLE OF CLEMENT TO THE CORINTHIANS [ c. 96 A.D.]
Note: Clement was a bishop of the church in Rome. He hears that some people in the church at Corinth have slandered and dismissed some elders (“presbyters”) there. These elders had been doing their duties well, and had been duly appointed by earlier elders who had been appointed by the apostle Paul. So (after starting out by praising the Corinthians) Clement makes some arguments against what they had done. Note overall Pauline tone of this letter, and the reference to Paul’s letter to them (i.e. I Corinthians).
CHAP. I.–THE SALUTATION. PRAISE OF THE CORINTHIANS BEFORE THE BREAKING FORTH OF SCHISM AMONG THEM.
THE Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, to them that are called and sanctified by the will of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, from Almighty God through Jesus Christ, be multiplied.
Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves [Note: this probably refers to some persecutions recently suffered by the church at Rome], we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us; and especially to that shameful and detestable rebellion [against your leaders], utterly abhorrent to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-confident persons have kindled to such a pitch of frenzy, that your venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be universally loved, has suffered grievous injury. For who ever dwelt even for a short time among you, and did not find your faith to be as fruitful of virtue as it was firmly established? Who did not admire the sobriety and moderation of your godliness in Christ? Who did not proclaim the magnificence of your habitual hospitality? And who did not rejoice over your perfect and well-grounded knowledge? For you did all things without respect of persons, and walked in the commandments of God, being obedient to those who had the rule over you, and giving all fitting honor to the presbyters among you.
CHAP. XIX.–IMITATING EARLIER EXAMPLES OF RIGHTEOUS MEN, LET US SEEK AFTER PEACE.
Thus the humility and godly submission of so great and illustrious men have rendered not only us, but also all the generations before us, better; even as many as have received His oracles in fear and truth. Wherefore, having so many great and glorious examples set before us, let us turn again to the practice of that peace which from the beginning was the mark set before us; and let us look steadfastly to the Father and Creator of the universe, and cleave to His mighty and surpassingly great gifts and benefactions, of peace. Let us contemplate Him with our understanding, and look with the eyes of our soul to His long-suffering will. Let us reflect how free from wrath He is towards all His creation.
CHAP. XX.–THE PEACE AND HARMONY OF THE UNIVERSE.
The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him, in no wise hindering each other. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command, within their prescribed limits, and without any deviation. The fruitful earth,according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and beast and all the livingbeings upon it, never hesitating, nor changing any of the ordinances which He has fixed. The unsearchable places of abysses, and the indescribable arrangements of the lower world, are restrained by the same laws. The vast unmeasurable sea, gathered together by His working into various basins, never passes beyond the bounds placed around it, but does as He has commanded. For He said, “Thus far shalt thou come, and thy waves shall be broken within thee.” The ocean, impassible to man, and the worlds beyond it, are regulated by the same enactments of the Lord. The seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, peacefully give place to one another. The winds in their several quarters fulfill, at the proper time, their service without hindrance. The ever-flowing fountains, formed both for enjoyment and health, furnish without fail their breasts for the life of men. The very smallest of living beings meet together in peace and concord. All these the great Creator and Lord of all has appointed to exist in peace and harmony; while He does good to all, but most abundantly to us who have fled for refuge to His compassions through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory and majesty for ever and ever. Amen
CHAP. XXXII.–WE ARE JUSTIFIED NOT BY OUR OWN WORKS, BUT BY FAITH.
… All these [Old Testament patriarchs], therefore, were highly honored, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
CHAP. XXXIII.–BUT LET US NOT GIVE UP THE PRACTICE OF GOOD WORKS AND LOVE. GOD HIMSELF IS AN EXAMPLE TO US OF GOOD WORKS.
What shall we do, then, brethren? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work. For the Creator and Lord of all Himself rejoices in His works. For by His infinitely great power He established the heavens, and by His incomprehensible wisdom He adorned them. He also divided the earth from the water which surrounds it, and fixed it upon the immoveable foundation of His own will. The animals also which are upon it He commanded by His own word into existence… Above all, with His holy and undefiled hands He formed man, the most excellent [of His creatures], and truly great through the understanding given him–the express likeness of His own image. … We see, then, how all righteous men have been adorned with good works, and how the Lord Himself, adorning Himself with His works, rejoiced. Having therefore such an example, let us without delay agree with His will, and let us work the work of righteousness with our whole strength.
CHAP. XLVII.–YOUR RECENT DISCORD IS MORE DISGRACEFUL THAN THE EARLIER FACTIONALISM THAT PAUL WROTE TO YOU ABOUT [IN THE NEW TESTAMENT BOOK “I CORINTHIANS”]
Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, andCephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you. But that inclination for oneabove another entailed less guilt upon you, inasmuch as your partialities were then shown towards apostles, already of high reputation, and towards a man whom they had approved. But now reflect who those are that have perverted you, and lessened the renown of your far-famed brotherly love. It is disgraceful, beloved, yea, highly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian profession, that such a thing should be heard of as that the most steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in rebellion against its presbyters. And this rumor has reached not only us, but those also who are unconnected with us; sothat, through your folly, the name of the Lord is blasphemed, while danger is also brought upon yourselves.
CHAP. XLIX.–THE PRAISE OF LOVE [Note similarity to I Cor 13.]
Let him who has love in Christ keep the commandments of Christ. Who can describe the [blessed] bond of the love of God? What man is able to tell the excellence of its beauty, as it ought to be told? The height to which loveexalts is unspeakable. Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love bears all things, is long suffering in all things. There is nothing coarse, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no rebellions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. In love has the Lord taken us to Himself. On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.
CHAP. LV.–EXAMPLES OF SUCH LOVE….We know many among ourselves who have voluntarily gone to prison, in order that they might ransom others. Many, too, have surrendered themselves to slavery, that with the price which they received for themselves, they might provide food for others….
As an aside: Some scholars today like to ruffle feathers by referring to non-canonical gnostic writings like the Gospel of Thomans and saying, “This shows that there were many Christianities back then…” , and implying that the orthodox faith has no special claim on authenticity. However, Clement’s reference here helps establish the authenticity of I Corinthians, written by Paul about 57 A.D. I Cor 15:1-8 contains a creedal statement of the atoning death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Christ. Paul was converted around 35 A.D. and visited the apostles in Jerusalem within three years, so he received this creed within 10 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus, orthodox Christianity is the original, authentic version. The gnostic gospels came many decades later.
THE EPISTLE OF IGNATIUS TO POLYCARP [ ~107 A. D.]
Note: Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, in what is now Syria. He was arrested and transported to Rome for execution [110 A.D.]. En route, he wrote several letters to churches, including those at Ephesus, Rome, Magnesia, and Philadelphia. He stressed holy living, and obedience to church leaders. Also, that he was going willingly to his death for the sake of Christ. To the Romans he famously wrote, “I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” That’s hard-core… The excerpt below is from a letter to his colleague Polycarp, who was bishop of Smyrna, in present-day Turkey. Both Ignatius and Polycarp had been taught by the Apostle John in person.
CHAP. II. – – HANDLE DIFFICULT PEOPLE WITH TACT; PRAY
If you love the good disciples, no praise is due to you on that account; but rather seek by meekness to tame the more troublesome believers. Every kind of wound is not healed with the same type of remedy. [Like a skillful doctor] mitigate violent attacks [of disease] by gentle applications. Be in all things “wise as a serpent, and harmless always as a dove.” For this purpose you are composed of both soul and body, are both fleshly and spiritual, that you may correct those [evils] that present themselves visibly before you; and as respects those that are not seen, may pray that these should be revealed to you, so that you may be lacking in nothing, but may abound in every gift. The times call upon you to pray. For as the wind aids the pilot of a ship, and as harbors are advantageous for safety to a storm-tossed vessel, so is also prayer to you, in order that you may attain to God. Be sober as an athlete of God, whose will is immortality and eternal life; of which you are also persuaded. In all things may my soul be for yours, and my bonds also, which you have loved.
CHAP. III.—ANALOGY OF ATHLETE; BE ZEALOUS AND WISE.
Let not those who seem worthy of credit, but teach strange doctrines, fill you with apprehension. Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten. It is the part of a noble athlete to be bruised, and yet to prevail. And especially, we ought to bear all things for the sake of God, that He also may bear with us. Be ever becoming morezealous than what you are. Weigh carefully the times. Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and not subject to suffering, yet who became subject to physical sensation on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.
THE APOLOGY OF ARISTIDES [ ~ 125 A.D.]
Aristides was a philosopher in Athens who became a Christian. He wrote and presented this “Apology” (i.e. “Defense”) to the Emperor Hadrian when Hadrian visited Athens. In this work, Aristides reviews the teachings of pagan philosophers and exposes their nonsense and immorality. He then describes the Christian teachings and way of life.
I. ARISTIDES’ CONVERSION
I, O King, in the providence of God, came into the world; and when I had considered the heaven and the earth, the sun and the moon and the rest, I marveled at their orderly arrangement. .. And when I saw that the universe and all that is therein is moved by necessity, I perceived that the mover and controller is God.
II. ORIGIN OF CHRISTIANITY
The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time ago was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it.
This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven. Thereupon these twelve disciples went forth throughout the known parts of the world, and kept showing his greatness with all modesty and uprightness. And hence also those of the present day who believe that preaching are called Christians.
XV. CHRISTIAN WAY OF LIFE. THEY ARE HONEST AND THANKFUL, THEY HELP ONE ANOTHER, ARE NOT DISMAYED BY DEATH
But the Christians, O King, while they went about and made search, have found the truth; and as we learned from their writings, they have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations. For they know and trust in God, the Creator of heaven and of earth, in whom and from whom are all things, to whom there is no other god as companion, from whom they received commandments which they engraved upon their minds and observe in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. Wherefore they do not commit adultery nor fornication, nor bear false witness, nor embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. They honour father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly. They do not worship idols (made) in the image of man; and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others; and of the food which is consecrated to idols they do not eat, for they are pure. And their oppressors they appease (lit: comfort) and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies; and their women, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest; and their men keep themselves from every unlawful union and from all uncleanness, in the hope of a reward to come in the other world.
Further, if one or other of them have slaves or children, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction. They do not worship strange gods, and they go their way in all modesty and cheerfulness. Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their attention; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a true brother; for they do not call them brothers after the flesh, but brothers after the spirit and in God. And when a poor Christian dies, the others according to their ability gives takes note and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their members is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his needs, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy something to eat.
They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins. And further if they see that any one of them dies in his ungodliness or in his sins, for him they grieve bitterly, and sorrow as for one who goes to meet his doom.
XVI. CHRISTIANS LIVE IN THE TRUTH
Such, O King, is the commandment of the law of the Christians, and such is their manner of life. As men who know God, they ask from Him petitions which are fitting for Him to grant and for them to receive. And thus they employ their whole lifetime. And since they know the loving-kindnesses of God toward them, behold! for their sake the glorious things which are in the world flow forth to view. And truly, they are those who found the truth when they went about and made search for it; and from what we considered, we learned that they alone come near to a knowledge of the truth. And they do not tell everyone about the kind deeds they do, but are careful that no one should notice them; and they conceal their giving just as he who finds a treasure and conceals it. And they strive to be righteous as those who expect to behold their Messiah, and to receive from Him with great glory the promises made concerning them.
And as for their words and their precepts, O King, and their glorying in their worship, and the hope of earning according to the work of each one of them their reward which they look for in another world,—-you may learn about these from their writings. It is enough for us to have shortly informed your Majesty concerning the conduct and the truth of the Christians. For great indeed, and wonderful is their doctrine to him who will search into it and reflect upon it. And truly, this is a new people, and there is something divine in the midst of them.
THE EPISTLE OF MATHETES TO DIOGNETUS
This is a letter (another “apology”) explaining and justifying Christianity to a pagan named Diognetus, who may have been a tutor of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. We know nothing about the author, not even his actual name (“Mathetes” means “disciple” in Greek; the translator chose to put that in the title). The date of writing is likely between 130 and 200 A.D. Chapters 11-12 may be later additions by a different author. This letter is my personal favorite of all these early church writings – – the author has such a high view of God’s goodness.
CHAPTER V — THE CHRISTIANS LIVE AS CITIZENS OF HEAVEN. PARADOX OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They 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 dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour 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; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
CHAPTER VII — THE MANIFESTATION OF CHRIST. GOD SEEKS TO PERSUADE, NOT COMPEL US.
For, as I said, this was no mere earthly invention which was delivered to them, nor is it a mere human system of opinion, which they judge it right to preserve so carefully, nor has a dispensation of mere human mysteries been committed to them, but truly God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, [Him who is] the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts.
He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things–by whom He made the heavens–by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds–whose ordinances all the stars faithfully observe–from whom the sun has received the measure of his daily course to be observed–whom the moon obeys, being commanded to shine in the night, and whom the stars also obey, following the moon in her course; by whom all things have been arranged, and placed within their proper limits, and to whom all are subject–the heavens and the things that are therein, the earth and the things that are therein, the sea and the things that are therein–fire, air, and the abyss–the things which are in the heights, the things which are in the depths, and the things which lie between. This [messenger] He sent to them.
Was it then, as one might conceive, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but under the influence of mercy and meekness. As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him.
As God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Saviour He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. As calling us He sent Him, not as vengefully pursuing us; as loving us He sent Him, not as judging us.
For He will yet send Him to judge us, and who shall endure His appearing? … Do you not see them [Christian martyrs] exposed to wild beasts, that they may be persuaded to deny the Lord, and yet not overcome? Do you not see that the more of them are punished, the greater becomes the number of the rest? This does not seem to be the work of man: this is the power of God; these are the evidences of His manifestation.
CHAPTER IX — AFTER THE WICKEDNESS OF SIN BECAME CLEAR, THE SON WAS SENT AS A GRACIOUS RANSOM
As long then as the former time [before Jesus] endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, become available to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able.
But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal.
For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!
Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food.
CHAPTER X – JOY OF KNOWING GOD, AND IMITATING HIS KINDNESS. HOPE OF HEAVEN.
If you also desire [to possess] this faith, you likewise shall receive first of all the knowledge of the Father. For God has loved mankind, on whose account He made the world, to whom He rendered subject all the things that are in it, to whom He gave reason and understanding, to whom alone He imparted the privilege of looking upwards to Himself, whom He formed after His own image, to whom He sent His only-begotten Son, to whom He has promised a kingdom in heaven, and will give it to those who have loved Him.
And when you have attained this knowledge, with what joy do you think you will be filled? Or, how will you love Him who has first so loved you? And if you love Him, you will be an imitator of His kindness. And do not wonder that a man may become an imitator of God. He can, if he is willing. For it is not by ruling over his neighbours, or by seeking to hold the supremacy over those that are weaker, or by being rich, and showing violence towards those that are inferior, that happiness is found; nor can any one by these things become an imitator of God. But these things do not at all constitute His majesty. On the contrary he who takes upon himself the burden of his neighbour; he who, in whatsoever respect he may be superior, is ready to benefit another who is deficient; he who, whatsoever things he has received from God, by distributing these to the needy, becomes a god to those who receive [his benefits]: he is an imitator of God.
Then you shall see, while still on earth, that God in the heavens rules over [the universe]; then you shall begin to speak the mysteries of God; then shall you both love and admire those that suffer punishment because they will not deny God; then shall you condemn the deceit and error of the world when you shall know what it is to live truly in heaven, when you shall despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when you shall fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it. Then shall you admire those [martyrs] who for righteousness’ sake endure the fire that is but for a moment, and shall count them happy when you shall know [the nature of] that fire.
THE FIRST APOLOGY OF JUSTIN [~ 155 A.D.]
Note: This is an “Apology” (“Defense”) of the Christian faith presented to the emperor Antoninus Pius by Justin Martyr, a philosopher who converted to Christianity. Instead of renouncing philosophy, he retained his philosopher’s robes, and proclaimed Christianity to be the true philosophy. Justin, like most of the early prominent churchmen, was martyred. The first two chapters excerpted here correct some mistaken pagan ideas about Christian beliefs, and the last three chapters describe their worship service.
That weekly service included readings from the writings of the apostles, exhortation to follow their good examples, and communion (Eucharist). If someone could not be present at the meeting, a deacon would go bring to them a serving of the communion elements, partly out of obedience to the Lord’s command to “Do this in remembrance of me” but also because the consecrated bread and wine were seen to be nourishment to the soul. (Perhaps Reformed Protestants are missing something here with their infrequent communion celebrations?). A final element in the weekly service was for the wealthy to contribute funds that the leader would distribute to the poorer members. Thus, while to become a Christian involved the likelihood of a shortened life due to martyrdom, it also brought a financial “safety net” which was otherwise lacking in that era.
CHAP. XI.—THE KINGDOM CHRISTIANS LOOK FOR IS NOT A HUMAN ONE, SO THEY DO NOT FEAR DEATH
And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom; whereas we speak of that which is with God, as appears also from the confession of their faith made by those who are charged with being Christians, though they know that death is the punishment awarded to him who so confesses. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.
CHAP. XIIL.—CHRISTIANS ARE NOT “ATHEISTS” BECAUSE THEY DO NOT OFFER SACRIFICES TO THE PAGAN “GODS”; RATHER, THEY SERVE THE TRUE GOD RATIONALLY.
What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things with which we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honor that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by prayers and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, andfor the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present beforeHim petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him. Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea, in the times of Tiberius Caesar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove. For they proclaim our madness to consist in this, that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein, to which, as we make it plain to you, we pray you to give heed.
CHAP. LXV.—EUCHARIST CELEBRATION FOLLOWING A BAPTISM.
But we, after we have thus baptized him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to Greek “genoito” [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
CHAP. LXVI.–OF THE EUCHARIST.
And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been baptized with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone.
CHAP. LXVII.–WEEKLY WORSHIP OF THE CHRISTIANS.
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who aids the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
Pliny, Letters 10.96-97 to the Emperor Trajan
The following snippet is not from a Christian writer, but seems worth including for its early description of the worship services. Pliny the Younger was governer of the province of Pontus/Bithynia 111-113 A.D. He persecuted Christians, apparently viewing them as a possible political threat. He wrote a letter to the Emperor for advice on this matter, and in this letter describes what he has found out about the practices of the Christians in his district. He portrays a weekly meeting involving worship, agreement to righteous living, and the communion meal.
…they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food…
IRENAEUS – wrote Against Heresies about 180 A.D.
Irenaeus was from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), but later became bishop of Lyons (today’s France). He was a hearer of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of John the Evangelist. Irenaeus was “Mr. Orthodox,” digging at length into the various strains of Gnosticism that were threatening the church, and exposing their errors. The Gnostics claimed to possess a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, that emphasized inward knowledge (“gnosis”) as the means for salvation from the material world which had been created by some being lower than God. Gnostics looked down on the body, which led some of them to rigorous asceticism, and others to practice immorality. Paul dealt with an early form of this teaching in Col.1-2.
Against all this, Irenaeus noted that the mainstream “catholic” (NOT Roman Catholic at this point) church drew its beliefs firmly from Jesus’ apostles via their writings and via established churches like those in Asia Minor and Rome whose leaders had been appointed and taught by leaders who had been appointed and taught by the apostles (apostolic succession).
Irenaeus emphasized the unity and goodness of God, as opposed to the Gnostics’ distinction between the utterly transcendent “High God” and the inferior “Demiurge” who created the world. The true “gnosis” is knowledge of Christ, which redeems rather than escapes from bodily existence. Also, God is working out a redemptive plan in history, which includes humans maturing by having to make moral decisions in an imperfect world.
There are lots of goodies in Irenaeus’ voluminous writings, including comments on how Christians in his day still saw healing miracles, and spoke in tongues and prophesied (e.g. Against Heresies II.31.2, III.32.4, V.6.1). But it would make this document quite long if I tried to do justice to Irenaeus with excerpts. You can check him out on-line.
THE OCTAVIUS OF MINUCIUS FELIX [~200 A.D.]
Minucius Felix was probably an attorney in Rome, and wrote this fictional work around 200 A.D. It is in the form of a good-natured debate between a Christian and a pagan, comparing the Christian faith and practice vs. pagan polytheism. “Octavius” acts as a referee. The pagan speaker articulates an eerily modern atheistic/materialistic/relativistic viewpoint, where everything grinds along according to natural laws with no divine intervention, all beliefs are uncertain and “all things are rather probable than true.” Some passages of the Christian speaker are cited below:
[Christians have power over pagan demons]
A great many, even some of your own people, know all those things that the demons themselves confess concerning themselves, as often as they are driven by us from bodies by the torments of our words and by the fires of our prayers. … when abjured by the only and true God, unwillingly the wretched beings shudder in their bodies, and either at once leap forth, or vanish by degrees, as the faith of the sufferer assists or the grace of the healer inspires. Thus they fly from Christians when near at hand…
[Compares Christian vs. pagan morality]
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 even afraid even of our own conscience alone, without which we cannot exist: finally, from your numbers the prison boils over; but there is no Christian there in jail, unless he is accused on account of his religion, or a deserter.
[The fact that most Christians are poor is a virtue and a freedom, not a disgrace]
But that many of us are called poor, this is not our disgrace, but our glory; for as our mind is relaxed by luxury, so it is strengthened by frugality. And yet who can be poor if he does not want, if he does not crave for the possessions of others, if he is rich towards God? He rather is poor, who, although he has much, desires more. Yet I will speak according as I feel. No one can be so poor as he is born. Birds live without any patrimony, and day by day the cattle are fed; and yet these creatures are born for us-all of which things, if we do not lust after, we possess.
Therefore, as he who treads a road is the happier the lighter he walks, so happier is he in this journey of life who lifts himself along in poverty, and does not breathe heavily under the burden of riches. And yet even if we thought wealth useful to us, we should ask it of God. Assuredly He might be able to indulge us in some measure, whose is the whole; but we would rather despise riches than strive after them: we desire rather innocency, we rather entreat for patience, we prefer being good to being luxurious; and that we feel and suffer the human mischiefs of the body is not punishment- it is warfare.
[Adversity or crisis shows what we are made of]
For fortitude is strengthened by infirmities, and calamity is very often the discipline of virtue; in addition, strength both of mind and of body grows sluggish without the exercise of labor. Therefore all your mighty men [i.e. Greek, Roman heroes] whom you announce as an example have flourished illustriously by their afflictions. And thus God is neither unable to aid us, nor does He despise us, since He is both the ruler of all men and the lover of His own people. But in adversity He looks into and searches out each one; He weighs the disposition of every individual in dangers, even to death at last; He investigates the will of man, certain that to Him nothing can perish. Therefore, as gold is tested by the fires, so are we declared by critical moments.
[By their courage and endurance in martyrdom, Christians triumph over their executioners]
How beautiful is the spectacle to God when a Christian does battle with pain; when he is drawn up against threats, and punishments, and tortures; when, mocking the noise of death, he treads under foot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his liberty against kings and princes, and yields to God alone, whose he is; when, triumphant and victorious, he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced sentence against him! For he has conquered who has obtained that for which he contends. What soldier would not provoke peril with greater boldness under the eyes of his general? For no one receives a reward before his trial, and yet the general does not give what he has not: he cannot preserve life, but he can make the warfare glorious. But God’s soldier is neither forsaken in suffering, nor is brought to an end by death.
[ Christians enjoy the color and scent of flowers, but do not use them to crown their heads or the head of a corpse. Their hope of resurrection gives them peace at funerals; Contrasts Christian wisdom versus Greek philosophers.]
But who is he who doubts of our indulging ourselves in spring flowers, when we gather both the rose of spring and the lily, and whatever else is of agreeable color and odor among the flowers? For these we both use scattered loose and free, and we twine our necks with them in garlands. Pardon us, forsooth, that we do not crown our heads; we are accustomed to receive the scent of a sweet flower in our nostrils, not to inhale it with the back of our head or with our hair. Nor do we crown the dead.
We adorn our funerals with the same tranquility with which we live; and we do not bind to us a withering garland, but we wear one living with eternal flowers from God, since we, being both moderate and secure in the liberality of our God, are animated to the hope of future happiness by the confidence of His present majesty. Thus we both rise again in blessedness, and are already living in contemplation of the future.
Then let Socrates the Athenian buffoon see to it, confessing that he knew nothing, although boastful in the testimony of a most deceitful demon; let Arcesilaus also, and Carneades, and Pyrrho, and all the multitude of the Academic philosophers, deliberate; let Simonides also for ever put off the decision of his opinion. We despise the bent brows of the philosophers, whom we know to be corrupters, and adulterers, and tyrants, and ever eloquent against their own vices. We who bear wisdom not in our dress, but in our mind, we do not speak great things, but we live them; we boast that we have attained what they have sought for with the utmost eagerness, and have not been able to find… Why should we grudge if the truth of divinity has ripened in the age of our time?
Full text of all early church writers can be found on several web sites, including:
GOOD FOR ON-LINE READING: http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html
BETTER FOR COPYING: http://www.jesus.org.uk/vault/library/fathers.shtml
Has useful commentary, multiple versions: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/index.html
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Various posts, dealing mainly with science/faith issues, are listed on the right hand side of the main window. There are longer essays or letters (e.g. STAN 3) that are accessed by clicking the tabs at the top of the page. Skim the README page to get an overview of what is in these letters.