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Early Defenders of the Faith

   From its beginning the Christian faith has been in conflict with the world, facing the hostility of rival religions, philosophies, and political powers. The “city of God” (as Augustine calls it) has always been at war with the “earthly city,” and that conflict, in the view of Augustine, is the dominant fact of world history. It is a struggle for the hearts of men, and it still goes on wherever Christians are found.

   In the first three centuries the church encountered four chief antagonists: Judaism, philosophy, paganism, and the Roman state.

   Judaism.  The earliest extended account of a controversy between Christian and Jew is the Dialogue with Trypho, written by Justin Martyr not far from the year 150. Trypho was an educated Jew, perhaps identical with a Rabbi Tarphon, who is mentioned in the Jewish Mishna. Justin went about, wearing the philosopher’s cloak to mark him as a teacher, and talked of Christ as he had opportunity. He was walking one day in Ephesus when he was hailed by Trypho, who asked what was the nature of the philosophy he professed. In reply Justin gave an account of his early studies with Stoic, Pythagorean, and Platonist philosophers. Then he met an old man who was able to go beyond Plato, telling him of ancient prophets to whom God had revealed things hidden from philosophers, especially the future coming of his Son, the Christ. Justin was converted and resolved to devote his life to teaching others.

   Trypho laughed when he heard the story, saying that Justin would have done better to stay with the teaching of Plato, unless he was willing fully to accept the Law and the prophets, along with observance of circumcision, the Sabbath, and the other ordinances.

   Justin replied by quoting Isaiah on the calling of the Gentiles, and Jeremiah on the two covenants. Christianity, he declared, is the new covenant foretold by the prophet. It replaced the old, and it is now being preached to every people. So the discussion went on, with constant appeals to the Old Testament, which was recognized by both as a final authority. Particular emphasis is laid on the divinity of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection, and the conversion of the Gentiles. Micah had spoken of the last days, when Jehovah should be exalted, and the nations should say: “Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us of his ways and we will walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:1-7; cf. Dialogue 109). Through Micah God had made a similar prophecy. “From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles, and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering” (Malachi 1:10-12; cf. Dialogue 117).

   There is no indication that Trypho was converted. But to those Jews who were converted and to the many devout Gentiles who knew the prophets these arguments carried weight. To them a lofty spiritual religion was presented, offering a pure and inspiring way of life, and its divine origin was guaranteed by the fact that it came as the fulfillment of prophecies made hundreds of years before.

   Philosophy.  I have spoken of philosophy as the second antagonist which the Christians had to face. Whenever philosophers reject what seems to be the “foolishness” of God’s message, the Christian must gird himself for the struggle. But there were some philosophers, like Justin, whose search for the truth was a good preparation for hearing and receiving the gospel.

   From the beginning Christianity had been proclaimed as the fulfillment of the purpose which God had set forth in the Old Testament. The law had served as a tutor to bring men to Christ; and, when the “fulness of time” came, God “sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law” (Galatians 3:24; 4:4-5). But if God had a purpose for the Jews under the law, it was equally clear that he had a purpose also for the Gentiles and that the time for their call was ripe. Even among them God did not leave himself without witness. Justin told the Greeks that Christ, the Word, was the light that has always given light to every man who seeks the truth, such as Socrates and other philosophers (Apology 1, 46; 2, 13). Clement of Alexandria was another teacher who speaks of philosophy as the tutor which God gave the Greeks:

For God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as the Old and New Testaments, and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a “schoolmaster” to bring the Hellenic mind to Christ, as the Law was for the Hebrews. Philosophy, therefore was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfect in Christ. (2. 305)

   Certainly there was no system of Greek philosophy to which Christians could give full approval. Many philosophers were very self-assured, such as the Pythagoreans, for whom the ipse dixit of their master was the answer to every objection. Epicureans and Stoics were very dogmatic, especially in the early history of their schools. But the hard dogmatism of the schools had been much softened by the time of Christ. A widespread skepticism had come to prevail. There was a general tolerance of all views. There were eclectics who tried to find whatever seemed good in every school, but confessed that there was no sure answer to the most important questions. There seemed little hope, after the prolonged controversies, of finding the answers by further reasoning. As Simmias declares in Plato’s Phaedo (85D) regarding life after death one should persevere until he is worn out by studying and, if finding the truth is impossible, accept whatever human doctrine seems best, as a raft on which to sail, unless he can find a stronger vessel, that is, a divine revelation.

   When the Christians appeared on the scene, they did not offer a new philosophy supported by human reasoning but rather a sacred history, the “facts of the gospel.” It was a report of good news which offered salvation to men—Heilsgeschichte the Germans call it, or “Salvation-history.” Its reliability was guaranteed by miraculous signs, as John states near the end of his gospel: 

Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

The words and deeds of Jesus, taken together, were all the proof that was needed to establish his claim to be the Christ, the one who fulfilled the announced purpose of God. When his apostles went about preaching the good news, they were able, like their master, to confirm the word which they spoke by the signs which followed (Mark 16:20). By this means, and not by any human philosophy, the grace of God appeared, which brought salvation to all men who would receive it.

   Paganism.  The third antagonist was paganism. The world was full of temples and idols and their worshippers. Athens was typical of the ancient world—it was said that one could find a god there more easily than a man. Every household, every club, and every city had its patron deity. In the capital city stood the gods of Rome, protectors of the empire, and especially of the emperor, and all loyal subjects were expected to honor them. Despite the skepticism of the enlightened, there were superstitions of every kind among the common people. Moreover, the pagan gods were tolerant of immorality. The old mythology represented Jupiter and the rest of the gods as often engaged in amorous escapades and in crimes of every sort. Whenever they chose, men could find among the gods examples to justify their own violent or immoral life. When Christians denounced all this, they naturally incurred dislike. Sometimes they were called “atheists,” sometimes “haters of the human race.”

   But the Christians regularly appealed to the conscience of their neighbors and their rulers. They wrote tracts in their own defense, such as the so-called “Apologies” of Justin and Tertullian. Christians, they argue, love their neighbors and even their enemies. They are obedient to the laws and surpass the requirements of the law in their daily conduct. They are not atheists, but worship the one God who is Creator of all mankind. If they criticize the many gods of the pagans, they do no more than was done by the greatest of Greek and Roman philosophers, moralists, and statesmen. In such a debate the Christians easily came out triumphant, for the best of the pagans were already on their side. For the intelligent, the old superstitions were absurd. At last, in order to check the advance of the church, the pagans attempted to give their religion a new face. The myths were explained as allegories, intended to set forth physical facts or give moral instruction. Julian, the nephew of Constantine, tried to rebuild the pagan system by organizing a sort of church, with sermons of moral instruction delivered by the priests and works of charity designed to match those of the Christians. The effort was regarded as absurd—even the pagans laughed at him. And when he died, leaving no pagan ready to succeed him, his last words were said to be: “Thou hast conquered, Galilean!”

   The Roman State.  The fourth antagonist was the pagan state. In the ancient world, religion had always been an integral part of the social structure, and religious worship was a function of the state. This was the case with the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans. The city-state was the focus of national pride, and every demonstration of that pride was tied in with the worship of the gods. The noblest specimen of architecture was the Parthenon, where the Athenians worshipped their patron goddess, Athena. Greek drama was presented only in festivals held in honor of the gods. The great athletic contests, such as the Olympic games, were also a part of religious festivals. If there was any lack of respect for the gods of the city, citizens were easily offended. Thus in Ephesus when Paul preached against idolatry, the mob was stirred to go about for two hours, shouting “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”

   Rulers, moreover, had a personal concern with the state religion, for they were often made objects of worship, and penalties were imposed on those who refused to take part. From the eastern kingdoms the Romans adopted the forms of ruler-worship. The living emperor was called “Augustus,” a term earlier reserved for gods and sacred objects. Upon his death, the emperor was regularly consecrated as one of the gods of heaven. Though the living ruler was not yet a god, he at least had his “Genius,” a sort of double, or guardian angel. To him sacrifice was made before the emperor’s statue, and by him oaths were taken.

   Before the end of the first century Domitian went further, being saluted in his lifetime as “our Lord and God.” Hence it is not surprising that he became a persecutor of the Christians, who refused to join in the required formalities. It was in Domitian’s persecution, according to tradition, that John was banished to the isle of Patmos. In the book of Revelation the worship of the “beast” and his image seems clearly to refer to the required worship of the emperor.

   The situation of the Christians is somewhat further clarified by an exchange of letters about the year 112, between the emperor Trajan and Pliny, a Roman governor in Bithynia. He reports that a number of persons had been brought before him, charged with the crime of being Christians. The implication is that they were members of an illegal or outlawed society. Some of the accused denied the charge and proved that they were not Christians by offering incense and wine before the emperor’s image (Pliney, Epistle 10, 96, 5). Those who admitted the charge and refused to renounce their faith were led away to execution. “For I do not doubt,” Pliny writes to Trajan, “that whatever the character of the crime may be which they confess, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy certainly ought to be punished.”

   Thus began a struggle of two centuries between the church and the pagan state. There were intervals of peace between ten persecutions, as the Christians numbered them, until in 313 Constantine granted toleration. In our day of religious freedom it seems incredible that such a contest was ever begun, or, if begun, was not speedily ended. Rome was generally tolerant about the religion of her subjects. The Christians were a harmless and unresisting people and boasted of their obedience to the laws. It was a Christian lawyer, Tertullian, who near the year 200 challenged the persecuting rulers to produce their records and to see if they could find the name of any Christian who was charged with ordinary crime, such as murder, robbery, or bribery. “Not a Christian is on your list,” he says, “unless it be simply as a Christian. Or if any further charge be entered against him, he is no Christian” (Apology 44).

   Today, with a growing experience of the methods of totalitarian states, we may perhaps gain a better understanding of the ancient persecutions. Japan, until her defeat in the last war, practiced an emperor-cult that somewhat resembled that of Rome. As in Rome, Japanese Christians either compromised or suffered. As in ancient times, a stubborn refusal to conform was interpreted as a mark of disloyalty. The fascist governments of Italy and Germany were intolerant of any form of organization which could not be brought into the service of the state. In Italy the Catholic church and the Fascist regime entered into a “concordat,” or agreement for mutual support. In keeping with this agreement, the pope blessed Mussolini’s invasion and conquest of Ethiopia, and the government passed laws which restricted or suppressed the liberty of non-Catholic churches. In German, Hitler made a similar concordat with the pope, while his followers understood to dominate the Protestant church and make it an active ally of Hitler’s party. Those who refused to submit were sent to concentration camps.

   Japan, Italy, and Germany were defeated in war, but we have not come to the end of struggle with totalitarian states. Stories of new persecutions arrive day by day from many parts of the globe. The “earthly city,” to use Augustine’s language, is still at war with the city of God. In Augustine’s day the Catholic church achieved a kind of triumph by favors she received from the Christian emperors and then went on to the medieval triumph of the papacy over the so-called Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the ancient church gained the whole world and lost her own soul.

   In the present divided state of Christendom it does not seem likely that any church will achieve a triumph of the ancient or medieval sort. It seems more likely that Christians will from time to time be found facing the demands of earthly powers which deny freedom to believe and teach the word of God. To study the history of the ancient persecutions and the writings of the defenders of the faith may contribute something to our preparation against that possibility.


Originally delivered:
 Annual Apologetics Forum
Pepperdine College, 1963

Dr. William McAllen Green (1897-1979) was a professor of religion at Pepperdine University. In 1980, the University launched the William M. Green Distinguished Christian Scholar Lecture Program. The Tenth Annual edition of this series featured Professor Jerry Rushford who spoke on the theme: “A Road Beaten Hard: The Legacy of Dr. William McAllen Green.” The introduction and closing remarks were delivered by the late Frank Pack, also a professor of religion at Pepperdine.

Works Cited:

Clement of Alexandria. “Stromateis.” Ante-Nicene Fathers.

Justin. Dialogue with Trypho.

Pliny. Epistle.

Tertullian. Apology.