Early Attacks on the Christian Gospel

One of my favorite sources for studies of the history of Christianity is Jarsolav Pelikan’s five-volume set, The Christian Tradition.  Reading through volume 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), I appreciated the section on how the early church apologists answered some critics’ attacks on the person and work of Jesus.  Specifically, the opponents of Christianity attacked the gospel of grace and the resurrection of Christ.  Here are two paragraphs on these two topics.

“Sometimes the pagan attacks struck at the very heart of the Christian gospel.  Despite the ambiguity that seems to be present in the fathers of the second and third centuries on the questions of justification, grace, and forgiveness, they did have to deal with these questions in the attacks of their pagan opponents.  Celsus was the spokesman for much of paganism when he attacked the gospel of forgiveness as cheap grace: ‘Those who summon people to the other mysteries make this preliminary proclamation: ‘Who has pure hands and a wise tongue.’ …But let us hear what folk these Christians call.  ‘Whoever is a sinner,’ they say, ‘whoever is unwise, whoever is a child, and in a word, whoever is a wretch, the kingdom of God will receive him.’  Julian expressed a similar judgment about the promise of forgiveness in baptism.  Such attacks prompted even some fathers whose doctrine of grace was not very profound to see that if ‘you compare the other deities and Christ with respect to the benefits of health [or salvation] given by them,’ it would be recognized that ‘aid is brought by the gods to the good and that the misfortunes of evil men are ignored,’ while, by contrast, ‘Christ gave assistance in equal measure to the good and the evil.’  More perhaps than they themselves could recognize, these spokesmen for Christianity pointed to the distinctive character of the Christian message as a promise of health and rescue based not upon worthiness but upon need; here as elsewhere, the pagan critics of Christianity seem sometimes to have been more profound in their identification of this distinctive character than were the defenders of Christianity.”

“In the same way, the pagan critics acknowledged the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ in a manner that was sometimes more trenchant than the theology of the Christian apologists and that thus called forth a more profound statement of Christian doctrine than would have appeared without the challenge.  It was not only the story of the resurrection of Christ that drew the fire of pagan critics as a fable or the report of a hysterical woman, but the significance attached to the resurrection by Christian theology.  Nowhere is that significance more unequivocally expressed than in the polemic of some Christian theologians against the pagan doctrine of the immortal soul.  ‘The soul is not itself immortal, O Greeks, but mortal.  Yet it is possible for it not to die.’  In these words Tatian voiced the doctrine that life after death was not an accomplishment of man, much less his assured possession, but a gift from God in the resurrection of Christ.  Even when the apocalyptic vision had been eclipsed and the immortality of the soul had become a standard element in Christian teaching, this stress on divine initiative in the achievement of life everlasting continued to act as a check on the more drastic implications of these changes.  In these and other ways the attacks of pagan authors on the Christian message left their mark on the church’s doctrines long after their external challenge had lost its effectiveness” (p. 29-30).

These are some great observations.  In God’s providence, the attacks upon Christianity forced Christians to better formulate their doctrines from Scripture and explain them clearly.  Sometimes the opponents of Christianity actually understood what Christians were teaching, which means that the church was getting the message out.  Also, it means that the church needed to be able to not only stand firmly on the truth, but to defend it as well.  Thankfully there were many good apologists in the early church and their work still benefits us today.  It is good for us to know our Christian past.  This set by Pelikan is a good set to have to help keep us historically minded.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

1 thought on “Early Attacks on the Christian Gospel”

  1. …here as elsewhere, the pagan critics of Christianity seem sometimes to have been more profound in their identification of this distinctive character than were the defenders of Christianity.

    This is why I find ecumenical and interfaith dialogue so very valuable. Precisely by virtue of their outsider perspective, interlocutors from outside one’s own tradition are very frequently able to perceive and articulate things that insiders take for granted or rarely focus on. Interesting to see this dynamic at work almost from the beginning of the church!


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