Doctrinal Hair-Splitting and the Early Church (Young)

Product DetailsI’ve mentioned this helpful patristics resource here before: From Nicaea to Chalcedon by Frances Young. It’s a great study on some of the church fathers and their teaching (e.g. Athanasius, Basil, Cyril, and so forth). One early church leader Young discusses is Gregory Nazianzen, who is called “Gregory the Theologian.”  Gregory was a defender of the bibilical doctrine of the Trinity, but he also was concerned with positive affirmations of the Christian way of life.  Here’s a paragraph from the introduction to Gregory.

“A study of the doctrinal controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries may leave one with a sense of frustration.  Were the debates really significant?  Were the contenders not hair-splitting in a matter that is beyond human knowledge?  Standing back from the debates, we may be tempted to wonder how so much passion could have been expended on relatively technical issues.  It is when we sense the religious significance of the issues that we begin to appreciate why emotions were roused.”

“Athanasius, as we have seen, was driven by the urgency of his sense of salvation in Christ: Arian simplification just could not contain the depths of that reality.  Gregory was likewise driven by the pressures of his religious consciousness.  For him, the cold technicality of logical argumentation detracted from his sense of the mystery in the divine.  The Arians, he felt, were too rational by half.  An adequate theology had to do justice to his experience of awe and mystery in the universe, in ascetic contemplation, in the liturgy and in scripture.  Gregory knew that human beings can know nothing of God, except what God has chosen to reveal in limited human terms.  So he is often hesitant and plainly aware of the complexity of the problems he is discussing.  He exhorts his congregations to cling to the essentials, and particularly the sure foundation of the cross of Christ.”

Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, p. 163.

Shane Lems

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Abortion, Murder, and the Early Church

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      In the ancient Roman Empire human life was generally not highly valued.  Some Greco-Roman religions involved child sacrifice, shedding of blood, and other inhumane acts.  Roman citizens typically didn’t speak out against the brutal killing methods displayed in the arenas – in fact, people flocked to see humans mercilessly slay each other or be torn apart and eaten by ferocious animals.  Some people even practiced different forms of abortion; for example “exposing” was aborting an infant by letting him die in some “off-the-beaten path” place.

Tertullian (d. 22o AD) discussed this inhumanity as he defended the Christian faith in his treatise called Apology.  One thing he mentioned was the fact that there were rumors of Christians acting inhumanely (i.e. killing and eating children).   If this was true, he argued, why does the Roman Empire punish Christians for doing things that are acceptable in broader society?  However, it was not true, and Tertullian noted that it was terribly unjust, unfair, and even contrary to Roman law to punish Christians with no concrete evidence of these rumored crimes.

The truth, Tertullian said, is that Christians value human life far more than others in society.   All murder is forbidden in the Christian religion:

“In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance.  To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.  That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed” (ch. IX).

Later, Tertullian explained how Christians love one another, their neighbors, and even their enemies.  (And as we saw a few days ago, Christians even pray for and honor Caesar.)  The rumors are false, he said; Christians are good for society in that they value human life far more than others around them.  Rather than do harm, Christians do good.  Therefore, Tertullian asserted, the Roman Empire should neither punish Christians or outlaw Christianity.

Tertullian, Apology, found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3.

rev shane lems
hammond, WI
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)

O The Sweet Exchange!

Here are some great words from a late second century AD Christian tract/treatise called the Epistle to Diognetus (10:2-5).

“Oh the surpassing kindness and love of God! He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. …In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone?  O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!”


The above quote is found in The Apostolic Fathers 3rd edition; ed. and trans. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 711.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Go Back and Be Like the Early Church?

  These are great words from a commentary-like book Eugene Peterson wrote on Ephesians, Practice Resurrection.

“In Thessalonica, some members of the church were so sure that the Lord was returning any day that they quit working.  They sat around speculating what kind of cloud would provide the chariot for Jesus’ arrival and letting their less spiritual brothers and sisters provide them with meals.  The Corinthians were a fractious crew, arguing and squabbling over various items of behavior having to do with diet and sex and worship.  The Christians in Colossae were muddled in their esoteric thinking about Christ and needed straightening out.  The Galatian Christians were regressing into some tired old legalisms and needed a thorough shaking up.  The Romans, a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, were having a hard time finding a common base in Christ.  Philemon, one of the leaders in the Colossian church, had a runaway slave returned to him and required some firm counsel from Paul in how to treat him.  Timothy and Titus were responsible for leading less than ideal churches and needed Paul’s specific instruction and encouragement.”

“Sometimes we hear our friends talk in moony, romantic terms of the early church.  ‘We need to get back to being just like the early church.’  Heaven help us.  These churches were a mess, and Paul wrote his letters to them to try to clean up the mess.”

Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection (p. 16).

rev shane lems

Creation and Cosmology in the Early Church

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      The early church fathers and apologists spent much time debating and debunking the prevalent pagan cosmologies of their day.  Most of the cosmologies back then essentially denied that God made the world out of nothing.  Of course, this debate is still going on; modern Christian theologians and philosophers are still pointing out the weaknesses and inconsistencies in creation accounts that deny Scripture’s explanation of ex nihilo.

In the early 4th century in Gaul a Christian teacher and rhetorician named Lactantius (who taught Constantine’s son Crispus) was engaged in polemics against pagan philosophies and cosmologies.  Among other things, Lactantius wrote “The Divine Institutes,” and “On the Workmanship of God.”  In these treatises and books Lactantius often pointed out the absurdity of Greco-Roman creation theories and stories.  Here’s Lactantius refuting one view that reminds me of today’s “Big Bang” theory:

“They who do not admit that the world was made by divine providence, either say that it is composed of first principles coming together at random, or that it suddenly came into existence by nature, but hold, as Stranton does, that nature has in itself the power of production and of diminution, but that it has neither sensibility nor figure, so that we may understand that all things were produced spontaneously, without any artificer or author.  But this happens to those who are ignorant of the truth, that they devise anything, rather than perceive that which the nature of the subject requires.”

“…But Nature, which they suppose to be, as it were, the mother of all things, if it has not a mind, will effect nothing, will contrive nothing; for where there is no reflection there is neither motion nor efficacy.”

What should we believe about creation? Lactantius said this:

“[We must] perceive with the mind that there is but one Supreme God, whose power and providence made the world from the beginning, and afterwards continues to govern it.

To be sure, things were different back then; there isn’t a specific 1:1 comparison to those debates and the ones happening today.  But generally speaking, Christians in the early church defended a biblical view of creation against pagan views – and this is something Christians are still doing and need to keep doing today.  Even though people suppress the truth and hate it, our goal should be to stand on biblical, creational truth with our forefathers.

The above quotes are found in Lactantius’ essay “On the Anger of God,” found in volume 7 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

shane lems

Cyprian’s Christian Precepts

Volume 5 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers contains the works of [Thascius/Caecilius] Cyprian (3rd century AD).  These are a joy and pleasure to read.  In fact, if you’ve wanted to do some reading in the patristics, I’d recommend getting this volume (decently priced on Amazon) and slowly working through Cyprian’s epistles and treatises.   Or, if this is too much (c. 300 large pages of small font!), start with The Apostolic Fathers edited by Michael Holmes (which I’ve mentioned here before).

Back to Cyprian.  One great treatise of his is treatise XII (p. 507ff).  This is sort of like an early systematic theology complete with written out “proof texts” (Side Note: proof texting in a decent, catechetical way; this shows proof-texting isn’t a modern thing to be chucked at the onslaught of postmodernity.  It is not as if systematic presentations of the faith and catechisms/confessions are simply a product of the modern rationalistic mind!).  Here are a few that I appreciate – though I’m not writing out all the verses that follow each statement. 

“We must boast in nothing, since nothing is our own.”

“We must trust in God only, and in Him we must glory.”

“What we suffer in this world is of less account than is the reward which is promised.”

“It is impossible to attain to the Father but by Christ.”

“No one should be made sad by death, since in living is labor and peril, in dying peace and the certainty of resurrection.”

“Hope is of future things, and therefore that faith concerning those things which are promised ought to be patient.”

“The kingdom of God is not in the wisdom of the world, nor in eloquence, but in the faith of the cross and in virtue of conversation (i.e. Christian conduct).”

“The secrets of God cannot be seen through, and therefore…our faith ought to be simple.”

Though some of the statements in this lengthy treatise I might quibble with, it is an edifying and educational treatise worth reading.   Reading church history/historical theology is very much worth the effort!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Those Stupid Christians

 On the stone wall of a room for guards near the Circus Maximus in 1st century Rome, archaeologists found a sort of graffiti that mocked Christians.  Here’s how Everett Ferguson describes it.

“The figure of a man with the head of an ass is shown hanging on a cross.  Nearby another man raises his hand in a gesture of adoration, and the inscription reads, ‘Alexamenos worships his god.’  Jews had been charged with worshiping an ass; this calumny was here transferred to Jesus.  As repulsive as the picture is to Christians now, it conveys strongly how contemptible the idea of a crucified Lord was to pagan thinking” (Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd edition, p. 596).

This takes our thoughts in a variety of directions.  In light of all the preposterous Greek myths, why was the cross so ludicrous to this tagger? How does this ridicule help inform the “persecution” texts of the NT epistles?  Why don’t as many people make fun of the cross today –  because we’ve domesticated it so badly, because we’ve privatized our faith, or because no one really cares? 

shane lems

sunnyside wa