Learning About God From God: Athenagoras

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      Athenagoras (d. c. 200 AD?) was an able Christian apologist in the early church.  Before he became a Christian, he was a Greek philosopher.  After he became a Christian, he used his gifts to defend the Christian faith against the opposition of the Roman government that was hostile to Christians.  One of Athenagoras’ writings that survived is called “A Plea for the Christians,” which was written to Roman rulers and philosophers.  The entire work is certainly worth reading; below is one part that stood out to me.

“Since, therefore, the unity of the Deity is confessed by almost all (even non-Christian Greek philosophers of the past), even against their will, when they come to treat of the first principles of the universe, and we in our turn likewise assert that He who arranged this universe is God – why is it that they can say and write with impunity (exemption from punishment) what they please concerning the Deity, but that against us a law lies in force, though we are able to demonstrate what we apprehend and justly believe, namely, that there is one God, with proofs and reason accordant with truth?”

“For poets and philosophers, as to other subjects so also to this, have applied themselves in the way of conjecture (speculation), moved, by reason of their affinity with the afflatus (impulse) from God, each one by his own soul, to try whether he could find out and apprehend the truth; but they have not been found competent to fully apprehend it, because they thought fit to learn, not from God concerning God, but each one from himself; hence they came to their own conclusion respecting God, and matter, and forms, and the world.”

“But we have for witnesses of the things we apprehend and believe, prophets, men who have pronounced concerning God and the things of God, guided by the Spirit of God.  And you too will admit, excelling all others as you do in intelligence and in piety towards the true God, that it would be irrational for us to cease to believe in the Spirit from God, who moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments, and to give heed [instead] to mere human opinions.”

Athenagoras is saying that not only was it unfair that Christians are punished for their beliefs about God while philosophers are not, it is also true that philosophers did not learn about God from God, so they are wrong in their beliefs.  Christians, however, learn about the true God from his prophets, whom the Spirit used to speak God’s truth.  To put it simply, Christians learn about God from God – that is not irrational nor should it be the reason for punishment and persecution!

The entire work can be found in volume 2 of The Ante Nicene Fathers – page 129ff.

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Cyprian’s Compendium of Religion

S-ANF-Set Among his many epistles and treatises, Cyprian (d. 258 AD) wrote a series of precepts or doctrinal points on various aspects of the Christian faith.  They are one sentence summaries of some basic biblical truths along with proof texts for each truth.  In one of these “books,” Cyprian gives a succinct “summary of heavenly precepts” so one of his students, Quirinus, would have a “wholesome and large compendium for nourishing” his memory.  Here is a sample of some of these precepts, along with several of Cyprian’s proof texts (I’ve kept the original numbering).

3) That charity and brotherly love must be religiously and steadfastly practiced (Mal. 2:10, John 14:27, Matt. 5:9, 1 Cor. 3:1-3, etc.)

4) That we boast in nothing, since nothing is our own (John 3:27, 1 Cor. 4:7, 1 Sam. 2:3, 4, etc.).

5) That humility and quietness are to be maintained in all things (Is. 66:1-2, Matt. 5:5, Luke 4:48, etc).

10) That we must trust in God only, and in Him we must glory (Jer. 9:23-24, Ps. 56:11, Ps. 118:6, etc.).

14) That we must never murmur, but bless God concerning all things that happen (Job 2:9-10, 1:8, Ps 34.1, etc.).

19) That we are not to obey our own will, but the will of God (John 6:38, Matt. 26:39, Matt 6:10, etc.)

24) That it is impossible to attain to the Father but by His Son Jesus Christ (John 14:6, John 10:9).

54) That no one is without filth and without sin (Job 14:4-5, Ps. 51:5, 1 John 1:8).

117) That there is a strong conflict to be waged against the devil, and that therefore we ought to stand bravely, that we may be able to conquer (Eph. 6:12-17).

120) That we are to be urgent in prayers (Col. 4:2).

There are, as you can see, quite a few more that I didn’t list (for a total of 120).  This is a fascinating treatise by Cyprian, since it shows that Christians from early on summarized the main truths of the faith, gave Scripture references (proof-texts are not a product of the Enlightenment or modernity!), and shared or published these documents for teaching purposes (in the above writing, Cyprian was instructing one of his catechumens).  It’s important to know that the Reformers weren’t at all the first ones to write doctrinal summaries of the faith and creeds/confessions to teach God’s people the main truths of the Christian religion.

The above “precepts” of Cyprian (along with others) are found in volume 5 of Ante Nicene Fathers, p. 528-557.

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The Fathers, Medieval Doctors, and the Reformers: Continuity in Scripture and Theology

 I appreciate how Richard Muller shows that the Reformers’ view of Scripture had its roots in the theology of the church fathers and medieval doctors.  We have a wrong view of the Reformation if we fail to understand that the Reformers stood on the shoulders of those who came before them in the church.  (Notice especially the first and last paragraphs of this extended quote – and watch for the sentence with “naked text” in it.)

“Just as the medieval view of text, canon, and exegesis is the proper background against which the Reformation and the subsequent development of Protestant approaches to Scripture must be understood, so also is the medieval doctrine of Scripture the necessary background to an understanding of the development of an orthodox Protestant doctrine of Scripture.”

“With striking uniformity the medieval doctors declare the authority of Scripture as the divinely given source of all doctrines of the faith.  They deal, for the most part, quite carefully and precisely with the concept of inspiration, recognizing the need to balance the divine and the human authorship of the text and, with surprising frequency, noting the relationship between the diversity of genre and literary style within the canon and the form taken by the doctrine of inspiration” (p. 37).

Later, Muller notes the following:

“The early Reformation view of Scripture, for all that it arose in the midst of conflict with the churchly tradition of the later Middle ages, stands in strong continuity with the issues raised in the theological debates of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  The late medieval debate over tradition and the late medieval and Renaissance approach to the literal sense of the text of Scripture in its original languages had together raised questions over the relationship between Scripture and churchly theology, between the individual exegete and the text, and between the exegete and established doctrine that looked directly toward the issues and problems addressed by the early Reformers.”

“It is, thus, entirely anachronistic to view the ‘sola scriptura’ of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.  It is equally anachronistic to assume that Scripture functioned for the Reformers like a set of numbered facts or propositions suitable for use as ready-made solutions to any and all questions capable of arising in the course of human history.  Both the language of ‘sola scriptura’ and the actual use of the text by the Reformers can be explained only in terms of the questions of authority and interpretation posed by the developments of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  Even so, close study of the actual exegetical results of the Reformers manifests strong interpretive and doctrinal continuities with the exegetical results of the fathers and the medieval doctors” (p. 64-5).

Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2.

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Prayer: Not As The Hypocrites…

I’ve been enjoying Christopher Hall’s study of the early church’s worship.  Though I don’t agree with every point, and though I think sometimes Hall’s comments seem to get in the way of his explanations, this book is an insightful glimpse into the early Christian church and her worship of the triune God.  Here’s one section worth noting.

“The church fathers took Jesus’ instructions to retire to one’s room to pray alone very seriously (Mt 6:5-15).  They seem reluctant to have individuals pray publicly, at least in terms of public, spontaneous prayer, because of the danger of using prayer as a method of self-promotion.  The fathers viewed with wariness exaggerated posturing, speaking loudly in prayer as though we needed to catch God’s notice, and any attempt to draw attention to oneself rather than God in prayer.”

“Tertullian, I think with a hint of humor, advises us to use a ‘subdued’ voice in prayer, rather than a loud one.  ‘For, if we are to be heard for our noise, what large windpipes we would need!  But God is the hearer – not of the voice – but of the heart.’  ‘It is characteristic of the shameless man to be noisy with his cries’ (Cyprian).

[Cyprian:] “‘He does not need to be clamorously reminded, for he sees peoples’ thoughts…Hannah prayed to God, not with clamorous petition, but silently and modestly – within the very recesses of her heart.  She spoke with hidden prayer, but with open faith.  She spoke with her heart, not her voice.’”

“We don’t need to shout to wake a sleepy deity.  God is always listening and watching.  To be truthful, it is we who possess the hardened eardrums and have blinders on our eyes.  ‘Be constant in both prayer and reading,’ Cyprian exhorts, ‘First, speak with God; then let God speak with you.  Let him instruct you in his teachings, let him direct you.’”

“The fathers wisely understood that God is the audience of our prayers, not our family, the members of our small group, the larger congregation or TV spectators.  This is not to say that the fathers forbade public prayer – Tertullian acknowledges that Paul and Silas sang in prison, with wonderful results (Acts 16:25-34).  It is to say that the fathers understood that pride often undetectably infects even the most holy actions.  Human beings adore center stage and the spotlight.  We can deceive ourselves too easily, imagining that we are talking to God when we are only talking to ourselves, sometimes about ourselves” (p. 87-8).

Christopher A. Hall, Worshiping with The Church Fathers (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

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The Faith of Our Fathers

In the first of his five-volume series on the history and doctrinal developments of the Christian church, Jaroslav Pelikan evaluates, explains, and summarizes the Christian beliefs of the catholic (universal) church from 100-600 AD.  Since many people today are writing – and duped by – historical revisions of the early church and its beliefs, it is good for us to find accurate and reliable books and studies on ancient church history.  Though not perfect in every way, Pelikan’s series is both reliable and accurate.

The following quote from volume one is a quote that shows Pelikan’s level-headed approach to studying the beliefs of the early church fathers.  Anyone who has read various writings, tracts, and treatises of teachers like Cyril, Cyprian, and Augustine (etc.) knows that it can be difficult to get a detailed and orderly snapshot of early Christian theology.  Pelikan’s notes here are helpful in this area.

“Against various heresies and schisms, the orthodox and catholic church defined as apostolic doctrine that which it believed, taught, and confessed.  This doctrine, so it was presumed, had been believed and taught by the church before heresy demanded that it be confessed.  Yet the task of reconstructing it from the existing documents is a complex one.  A large part of the Christian literature which has been preserved was preoccupied either with the defense of Christianity against the cultured among its despisers or with polemics against heresy.”

“Hence the interpretation of what was Christian doctrine during the second and third centuries is likely to concentrate on these same issues, at the expense of other doctrinal themes in the belief and the piety of the church.  The methodological problems in the attempt to uncover those themes in the documents are formidable, but the documents themselves make the attempt both necessary and justifiable.”

“To cite one of the most explicit instances from the second century, Athenagoras opened his apologetic for the resurrection with a distinction between a ‘plea for the truth,’ addressed to skeptics and doubters, and an ‘exposition of the truth,’ addressed to those who were prepared to accept the truth; he noted that the exposition was more valuable and important, but that pagan hostility to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead made it necessary for him to give precedence to the plea over the exposition.  Athenagoras’s distinction justifies the effort to supply as much as possible of the missing ‘exposition’ in defense of which the ‘plea’ was made” (p. 121).

Though the discussion is detailed, Pelikan made a great point here.  Much of the early Christian literature was more of a defense of the Chrsitian faith and not a point by point exposition of it.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t find the exposition in the defense.  Though it is sometimes difficult to find the “exposition” woven in the “defense,” it is certainly right and proper for us to do so.  There is such a thing as historical Christian orthodoxy that our forefathers believed, taught, confessed, and defended!

Again, the quote was taken from Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 121.

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Didymus the Blind (d. 398 AD)

 Among the great church fathers stands Didymus, who was born in Alexandria around 313 AD.  When he was just four years old he lost his sight.  Although his eyes didn’t work, his mind sure did: he taught himself to read by way of feeling carved letters.  He also had a photographic memory and was brilliant in all areas of education, from music to poetry to arithmetic to rhetoric.  Theologically, Didymus was of Nicene orthodoxy and probably associated with Athanasius.  He wrote many biblical commentaries, tracts, treatises, and letters and even in his own day he was viewed as a great Christian leader and teacher.  Some of his works include On the Trinity, On the Holy Spirit, and Against the Manichees.

One patristic scholar says that as far as teaching goes, Didymus was in the “mimetic” tradition: the teacher would live like the student should live.  But he was also in the “scholastic” tradition, which means learning, reasoning, and thinking about the truths of Christianity.

Here’s how Frances Young summarizes Didymus the Blind.

“Didymus was a scholar and a teacher; but for all his academic attainments, he was essentially a pious monk and a conservative churchman.  His scholarship was entirely devoted to the elucidation of scripture and the doctrines of the Church.  In these areas of specialty, he displayed little originality, though he undoubtedly contributed to the consolidation of the orthodox position.  His main source-book, his real inspiration, was the Bible, and in the long-term, it was as an exegete that he had some abiding influence.”

Didymus is one of the many gifted teachers in the history of Christianity – one for whom we can be thankful.  I agree with St. Jerome, who called him Didymus the Seeing rather than Didymus the Blind. 

The above information and quote can be found in Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, pages 91-101.

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Bishop Methodius (d. 312)

In my year-long trek through the Ante Nicene Fathers I have found some great treatises, homilies, and other writings.  One father that I recently finished reading is Methodius, bishop of Olympus and Patara and then Tyre until he was martyred in 312.  Though he learned much from Origen, Methodius was largely critical of him, as is evident in at least two of his extant treatises, On the Resurrection and On Things Created.  Here are a few excerpts from his Oration Concerning Simeon and Anna, found in vol. 6 of the ANF.

“…the aged Simeon [in Luke 2], putting off the weakness of the flesh, and putting on the strength of hope, in the face of the law hastened to receive the Minister of the law, the Teacher with authority, the God of Abraham, the Protector of Isaac, the Holy One of Israel, the Instructor of Moses….  Him who, in the midst of poverty was rich; Him who in infancy was before the ages; Him  who in comprehension was incomprehensible; Him who, though in littleness, yet surpassed all magnitude.”

Later, Methodius continues meditating on Simeon holding the child Jesus.

“With longing I expect Thee who, with Thy word, embraces all things.  I wait for Thee, the Lord of life and death.  For Thee I look, the Giver of the law, and the Successor of the law.  I hunger for Thee, who quickenest the dead; I thirst for Thee, who refreshest the weary; I desire Thee, the Creator and Redeemer of the world.  Thou art our God, and Thee we adore; Thou art our holy temple, and in Thee we pray; Thou art our Lawgiver, and Thee we obey.  Thou art God of all things the First.  Before Thee was no other god begotten of God the Father; neither after Thee shall there be any other son consubstantial and of one glory with the Father.  And to know Thee is perfect righteousness, and to know Thy power is the root of immortality. …For Thine is the glory, and the power, and the greatness, and the majesty, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for ever Amen.”

I’m always edified when these fathers exalt the majesty of Jesus like this.  It is evident that many of these early church leaders prized Christ above all things. 

shane lems