Editor’s note: The following comprises the sixth chapter of Defenders of the Faith: The Christian Apologists of the Second and Third Centuries, by the Rev. Frederick Watson. M.A. (published 1879).
Christians and Christianity
We come now to the Apologists’ description of Christians and Christianity. We must, now as before, bear in mind their object; namely, to defend themselves, not to convince the heathen. Their appeal is, Put a stop to the persecutions; not, Become Christians. So their account of themselves and their religion is mainly intended to answer accusations and misrepresentations. They could best show what they were not, by describing what they were.
We have already noticed the Apologetic account of the heathen deities; let us now contrast with it Tertullian’s description of the Christians’ God. “The object of our worship is the One God; He who by His commanding word, His arranging wisdom, His mighty power, brought forth from nothing this entire mass of the world, with all its array of elements, bodies, and spirits, for the glory of His majesty; whence also the Greeks have bestowed on it the name of Cosmos (order). The eye cannot see Him, though He is visible. He is incomprehensible, though in grace He is manifested. He is beyond our utmost thought, though our human faculties conceive of Him. He is therefore equally real and great. That which, in an ordinary way, can be seen, and handled, and estimated, is inferior to the eyes by which it is taken in, and the hands by which it is touched, and the faculties by which it is discovered; but that which is infinite is known to itself. Hence we are enabled to make an estimate of God, while at the same time He does not admit of our estimation. Thus the force of His greatness presents Him to men, as at once known and unknown. And this is the crowning guilt of men, that they will not recognize one of whom they cannot possibly be ignorant.”
The superiority of the Christian conception of God does not need pointing out; but it is worth while noticing that Tertullian is defining his position against both classes of his antagonists. As against votaries of the religion of the gods he says, God is incomprehensible, God is infinitely great. As against the philosophers he says, God is, and He is manifested. We know something concerning Him, though we can not know all.
We notice next the Apologetic teaching concerning God’s Providence. In no particular is the superiority of the Christian religion to the heathen more clearly to be seen, than in its conception of God’s dealings with mankind.
The heathen deities did, indeed, concern themselves with the affairs of earth, being in fact men on a larger and more powerful scale; they came and meddled and tyrannized amongst men in much the same way as a few big boys might in a school of little ones; like them, taking opposite sides in any dispute, utterly unreasonable in their likes and dislikes, and thwarting each other to the best of their power. But they were confessedly not all-powerful beings. There was a power above them of which they were conscious, but whose dealings were so little understood that they gave it no form. Against this abstract power, which they called Fate, it was useless to struggle, — gods and men were alike powerless in its hands. Christianity came in with its flood of light and transformed the abstract Fate into a personal God, who watched over His creatures with all the tenderness of a Father, and all the power of an Almighty Being. The heathen never imagined that close personal attention extending to thoughts and words, that ever-watchful, ever-present care which the Christian represented his God as exercising over the affairs of men. Such ideas appeared to him absurd. In the language of the heathen in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, “What strange and portentous imaginations do the Christians form to themselves concerning their Deity! that this God of theirs, whom they cannot show to others, nor themselves see, carefully examines into the dispositions of all men, and into the behaviour of all men, and even into their words and most secret thoughts. They describe Him as continually running hither and thither, and as present everywhere; as a Being, troublesome, restless, and immoderately inquisitive; who at all actions is a bystander, and who strays into every place; although it is impossible that He should regard particulars while attentive to the whole, or be sufficient for the whole while He is occupied about particulars.”
The Christian replies, “All things celestial and earthly are known to Him, and full of Him.” “He is in all places most near to us; nay, He is infused into us all. Consider again the sun, fixed in heaven, and yet spread over the whole earth; he is equally present in all places, and blended with the whole creation, and everywhere his brightness remains inviolate. How much more is God, who made and who surveys all things, — how much more is He present in darkness, and present even in that profound darkness — our thoughts! We not only act under His inspection, but, I had almost said, we live with Him.” “Neither let us men amuse ourselves with the fond hope of impunity because of our numbers. In our own sight we are many, but to God we appear very few. We make distinctions of peoples and countries, but to Him the whole world is as one house. Kings are not otherwise acquainted with the details of their dominions than by the ministration of inferior officers; but God needs not to be informed of anything, for we live not only under His eyes, but in His bosom.”
The heathen had, as we have seen, many gods; they gave to each god his own little work to do; and yet they did not imagine that their gods, in their limited spheres, exercised that providential care, which the Christian believed His one God exercised, in every single part of the whole universe.
“The Immortality of the Soul” and “the Resurrection of the Body” were doctrines put prominently forward by the Apologists. The former of these had been taught by some poets and philosophers, but it was not generally received or practically applied. The heathen, in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, speaks of it as a fiction of a crazed fancy, and a foolish topic of consolation on which the poets have sported in melodious and deceitful verse. He argues that the God who will not or cannot aid his own in this life, cannot be able to restore men to life when dead. “It is madness,” he says, “to promise immortality after death and extinction to us men, who, as we came into being, must also cease to be.”
On the other hand, the Christians accepted these doctrines as the practical basis of their life, and as a sure ground of confidence in the hour of death. “We,” says Tertullian, “who receive our awards under the judgment of an all-seeing God, and who look forward to eternal punishment from Him for sin; we alone make real effort to attain a blameless life.” “If we believed,” says Athenagoras, “that we should live only the present life, then we might be suspected of sinning; but since we are persuaded that, when we are removed from the present life, we shall live another life, better than the present one, and in heaven, or, perishing with the rest, a worse one, and in fire, it is not likely that we should wish to do evil, or deliver ourselves over to the Great Judge to be punished.” “After death I shall exist again,” says Tatian. “Even though you destroy all traces of my flesh, the world receives the vaporized matter; and though dispersed through rivers and seas, and torn in pieces by wild beasts, I am laid up in the storehouses of a wealthy Lord.”
The Apologists use the argument from analogy to recommend the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body to the heathen. The world bears in itself a witness, nay, the exact image of the resurrection. Light, every day extinguished, shines out again; and with like alternation, darkness comes and goes. The defunct stars relive; the seasons, as soon as they are finished, renew their course; the fruits are brought to maturity, and are then reproduced. The seeds do not spring up with abundant produce, save as they rot and dissolve away; all things are preserved by perishing, all things are refashioned out of death. Thou, man, of nature so exalted,…. lord of all these things that die and rise, shalt thou die to perish evermore? Thus Tertullian, and even still more beautifully, Minucius Felix: “See, therefore, how for our consolation all nature suggests a future resurrection. The sun sinks in the ocean and emerges. The planets glide on in their course and come back; the flowers fall and live anew; after a temporary old age, the shrubs reassume their foliage; and seeds must be corrupted before they can put forth shoots. So is the body in the grave: it resembles trees, which in winter conceal their vegetation under a feigned appearance of withering. Why should you be impatient for its revival and restoration while winter is yet intense? We must await the spring-time of the body.”
Passing on to the doctrines exclusively Christian, we find the Apologists clearly stating who the founder of their religion is. “Our teacher of these things,” says Justin, “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 we reasonably worship Him, having learned He is the Son of the true God Himself.” “We Christians,” says Arnobius, “are nothing else than worshippers of the Supreme King and Head, under our Master, Christ. If you examine carefully, you will find that nothing else is implied in our religion. This is the sum of all that we do; this is the proposed end and limit of our sacred duties. Before Him we all prostrate ourselves, according to our custom; Him we adore in united prayers; from Him we beg things just and honourable, and worthy of His ear.”
Amongst the various titles of our Lord perhaps “The Word” is the one most commonly used by the Apologists. They describe His work as the revelation of God to man, and the restitution of truth to men. The deeper mysteries concerning sin and atonement were kept hidden from the profane gaze. Naturally, also, they touch but seldom on the doctrines of His Person and Nature. Such discussions would have been out of place in Apologies addressed to unbelievers. As vindication for their own conduct in taking Him as their Master and Teacher, they give three reasons, — the wisdom and morality of His words and deeds, ancient prophecies concerning Him, and miracles wrought by Him.
The first of these was easily stated, and could be easily grasped, and, without doubt, came home to many thoughtful heathen hearts. Many who did not acknowledge Christ as their Lord, did homage to the beauty of His character, the purity of His teaching, and the beneficence of His life. Tiberius is said to have wished to enrol Christ amongst the gods. On one occasion the oracles were consulted by Pagans whether Christ might be worshipped along with the other gods. They answered, “He who is wise knows that the soul rises immortal from the body; but the soul of that man is preeminent in piety.” When they were asked why Christ suffered death, the answer was, “To be subject to light sufferings is always the lot of the body, but the soul of the pious rises to the fields of heaven.” Porphyry takes occasion to say that Christ must not be calumniated, though he condemns those who worship Him. The Emperor Alexander Severus had a bust of Christ in his Lararium. He intended to have caused Christ to be enrolled amongst the Roman deities; and he constantly repeated the words of Christ: “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” The purity of Christ’s teaching and life was then a fact acknowledged by many heathen. The Apologists make use of this. They often point out that so pure a teacher is hardly likely to have as his followers those practising the worst of crimes. They show how His teaching extended more deeply than that of any other to the words and thoughts of men. “We alone,” says Tertullian, “are without crime. Is there anything wonderful in that, if it be a very necessity with us? For a necessity it is. Taught of God Himself what goodness is, we have a perfect knowledge of it as revealed to us by a perfect Master.” The Christian idea of virtue, he remarks, did not rest on human opinion, nor was it a matter of human obligation. And which, he asks, was the ampler rule, “To say, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ or to teach, ‘Be not even angry’?” Which is more perfect, to forbid adultery, or to restrain from even a single lustful look? Which indicates the higher intelligence, interdicting evil-doing or evil-speaking? Which is more thorough, not allowing an injury, or not even suffering an injury done to you to be repaid?”
Very commonly the Apologists appeal to the evidence of Prophecy in their vindication of the claims of Christ to be a teacher sent from God. They allege predictions of undoubted antiquity spread over hundreds of years, and show their fulfilment in the life, and death, and work of Jesus Christ. This argument was far more subtle than the former one, and required great discrimination in its use. The Apologists cannot be said to have had the discrimination necessary. They always seem to approach the subject from their stand-point of believers. They do not seem at all able to distinguish between those prophecies which could serve only to comfort and instruct a man who has already accepted the truth, and those which might convince an unbeliever of the truth. Justin Martyr is a great offender in this respect. In his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho he proves that the twelve bells attached to the robes of the high-priest were types of the twelve Apostles, and then goes on to remark, “In short, by enumerating the other appointments of Moses, I can demonstrate that they were types, and symbols, and declarations of those things which would happen to Christ, of those who, it was foreknown, were to believe in Him, and of those things which would also be done by Christ Himself.”
Origen is perhaps the most cautious in selecting his proofs from prophecy; but no Apologist is very happy in the statement of this part of his case. It may indeed be doubted whether it was wise in them to enter into any prophetical details. For the due appreciation of the evidence, research, conscientious beyond all expectation, on the part of those whom they addressed, was required, and an examination of books accessible only to Jews. It was quite competent for them to appeal generally to the evidence of the ancient books of the Old Testament. The Septuagint translation had made them comparatively widely known, and the Jews were the guardians of their integrity. It was quite competent for them to point out the consistency and harmony, the accuracy and extent of the revelation therein contained. They could, if they pleased, claim, in general terms, that Jesus of Nazareth was He whom the prophets said would come, and rule, and save. Thus doing, they would have given their religion that antiquity which it wanted in the popular idea. But it is probable that, in going further, they wasted their time and energy, and defeated their purpose, by giving arguments beyond ordinary grasp. It was quite understood, and practically carried out by many of the Apologists, that in their works testimonies from Scripture were out of place. The words of Lactantius are well worth recording. “Cyprian,” he says, “when endeavouring to refute Demetrian, did not handle his subject as he ought to have done; for he (Demetrian) ought to have been refuted, not by the testimonies of Scripture, which he plainly considered vain, fictitious, and false, but by arguments and reason. For, since he (Cyprian) was contending against a man who was ignorant of the truth, he ought for a while to have laid aside divine readings, and to have built up from the beginning this man as one who was altogether ignorant, and to have shown to him by degrees the beginnings of light, that he might not be dazzled by the whole of its brightness being presented to him.”
The argument from the miracles of Christ was not at first so commonly used as we might have expected. Miracles were commonly ascribed to magic, and magicians were not men likely to obtain the respect of any. To appeal to Christ’s miracles was to be met by the retort that He was a magician and imposter. The later Apologists deal with the question. Lactantius says that magic has no power except to deceive the eyes. Origen, in answer to Celsus, who had compared Christ’s miracles to the tricks of jugglers, compares the objects and the agents in the two cases. The dealers in magical arts performed their works only for show, and in return for a few oboli. They never invited the spectators to reform their manners, and indeed their own lives were full of the grossest and most notorious sins. Christ, by His miracles, induced those who beheld them to change their lives, and He Himself was the pattern of a most virtuous life. Arnobius draws clearly and thoroughly the distinction between Christ’s miracles and those of all others. He is answering the charge that Jesus was a magician, and an adept at secret arts stolen from Egypt. He asks what magician has ever, even in the thousandth degree, worked miracles like Him? The magicians work by the power of incantations, the juice of herbs and grasses, the anxious watching of sacrifices and seasons, and by the invocation of deities. Christ worked without any aid from external things, without the observance of any ceremonial, without any fixed mode of procedure, and by the might of His inherent power. The deeds of the magicians were useless and harmful. They consisted in the infliction of diseases, the stirring of discord, the revealing of secrets, the “getting at” (to use a modern phrase) horses, the exciting unlawful love by philtres. Christ did nothing hurtful or injurious, but only that which was helpful and full of blessings to men. Was He one of us, he asks, at whose voice infirmities and diseases of the body fled away? Was He one of us, whose very sight the race of demons was unable to bear? Was He one of us, at whose word the raging and maddened seas were still, who walked over the deepest pools with unwet foot, who with five loaves satisfied five thousand of His followers? Was He one of us, who ordered the breath that had departed to return to the body? Was He one of us, who saw clearly in the hearts of the silent what each was pondering? Was He one of us, who, after His body had been laid in the tomb, manifested Himself in open day to countless numbers of men? Was He one of us, who appears even now to righteous men of pure mind who love Him, whose name when heard puts to flight evil spirits, silences the soothsayers, and frustrates the magicians? Was He one of us, who conquered those decrees of fate to which even the gods are subject? Compare Him not with your deities. The comparison will not hold. They have at times relieved disease by medicine; the credit is due to the drug, not to the giver. They have, it is said, healed a few; but how many thousands, life-long suppliants, have been sent empty away! Christ ordered diseases to fly from men at a touch and a word. Christ healed all who came to Him, good and bad alike. And more wonderful still, He communicated His powers to others, and to whom? fishermen, artisans, rustics, and unskilled per sons of a similar kind. He gave them the power to do all things which He had done.
What say ye? O minds incredulous, stubborn, hardened! Did that great Jupiter Capitolinus of yours give to any human being power of this kind? Did he endow with this right any Pontifex Maximus? To be able to transfer to a man your own power, to share with the frailest being the ability to perform that which you alone are able to do, is a proof of power, supreme over all, and holding in subjection the causes of all things, and the natural laws of methods and of means. Cease in your ignorance to receive such great deeds with abusive language. There was nothing magical in Christ. He was God on high, sent by the Ruler of all things as the Saviour God. But you do not believe these things. Yet eye-witnesses believed them, and transmitted their belief. If the record is false, how is it the belief has spread? How is it that nations dwelling widely apart unite in one conclusion? They have been prevailed upon (you say) by vain hopes and mere assertions to run voluntarily the risks of death. Nay, was it not because they had seen these things? Was it not because the force of truth had overcome them, that they devoted themselves to God, and reckoned it but a small sacrifice to surrender their bodies to you?
Thus conclusively, by a comparison of the means used, results achieved, universality of success, trans mission of the power, and the enthusiastic and practical belief which they inspired, does Arnobius prove the superiority of the miracles of Christ.
When the Apologists are comparing the religion of Christ with the religion of the gods, they have no more legitimate ground for boasting than the moral results the profession of Christianity produced. Over and over again they appeal to the purity of Christian lives as a proof of the truth of the Christian faith. The close connection, it must be remembered, between morality and religion, which seems to us so obvious, was not obvious to the heathen mind. On the contrary, gross immoralities were connected with the worship of the gods; and the rule of faith was quite dissevered from the rule of life. Lactantius, the latest Apologist, brings home most clearly this fact. “The worship of God,” he says, “of all things requires the greatest devotedness and fidelity. How can God love the worshipper, if He Himself is not loved by him? How can He grant the petitioner his request if he draw nigh without sincerity or reverence? You heathen,” he says, “present your gods with nothing from within, no uprightness of mind, no reverence or fear. When your worthless sacrifices are completed, you leave your religion altogether in the temple where you found it. You took no religion there, and you take none away. So your religious observances are not able to make men good, or to be permanent in themselves. Men are easily led away from them, because they teach nothing as to conduct, or as to wisdom, or as to faith. For what is the religion of the gods? What is its power? What is its discipline? What its origin? What its principles? What its foundation? What its substance? What its tendency? What its hope? There is nothing in it that cannot be learned by rule of thumb. On the other hand, our religion is firm, and solid, and unchangeable, because it has its existence in the soul of the worshipper, because it has the mind of man itself for a sacrifice. In the heathen religion nothing is required but the blood of animals, and the smoke of incense, and the senseless pouring out of libations. In ours is required a good mind, a pure breast, an innocent life. The heathen rites are frequented by harlots, gladiators, robbers, thieves, and sorcerers, who pray for nothing else but that they may commit crimes with impunity. But in our religion there is no place even for a slight and ordinary offence; and if any one shall come to a sacrifice without a sound conscience, he hears what threats God denounces against him; that God, I say, who sees the secret places of the heart, who is always hostile to sin, who requires justice, who demands fidelity. What place is there here for an evil mind or for an evil prayer? The unhappy heathen do not understand how evil it is to worship when stained by sin. They imagine that they offer a pious sacrifice if they wash their skin, as though any stream could wash away, or any seas purify, the lusts shut up within the breast. How much better it would be to cleanse the mind defiled by evil desires, and to drive away all vices by the one laver of virtue and faith. He who shall do this, although he have a body defiled with sin, is sufficiently pure.”
It was of course the fact that worship was not a mere ritual observance, but the offering up of the whole man, body, soul, and spirit, to his God, that made Christians so determined in their refusal to join in any of the idolatrous ceremonies. The heathen were utterly unable to understand their obstinacy, as the records of all the persecutions show. It seemed to them utter folly to choose “to be tortured and slain rather than to take incense in three fingers and throw it upon the hearth.” “They do not know,” says Lactantius, “how great an act of impiety it is to adore any other object than God, who made heaven and earth, who fashioned the human race, who breathed into them the breath of life, and gave them light. If he is accounted the most worthless of slaves who runs away and deserts his master, and if he is judged most deserving of stripes, and chains, and a prison, and the cross, and all evil; if a son likewise is thought abandoned, and impious, and worthy of being disinherited, who deserts his father, how much more does he who forsakes God, in whom the two names entitled to equal reverence of Lord and Father alike meet!”
Animated with this intense devotion to their God, the Christians did not fear what man could do unto them. “With a fury more insatiable than that of wild beasts,” says Lactantius, “you rage against us. When their appetite is satisfied they rest in peace. You, with iron teeth, ever rage throughout the world. You are not content with tearing in pieces the limbs of men, you break their bones, and rage over their ashes, so that there may be no place for their burial. You deny light to the living, earth to the dead. Death is too merciful a thing for you. Some of you contend how you may conquer by inflicting exquisite pain, and you avoid nothing else, except only that the victims may not die under the torture. You carefully tend the tortured in order that they may be capable of enduring fresh tortures. One of you was elated with joy because a victim who had resisted for two years with great spirit appeared at length to yield. Can you not see that it is not foolishness, but wisdom, which causes us to be thus steadfast in suffering? It is not one place, or one sex, or one age, which furnishes examples of endurance. Everywhere there is the same patient endurance, the same contempt of death. There must be some foundation for that religion which thus thrives under persecution. Robbers and strong men with you cannot bear similar torture, but amongst us not even boys and delicate women are overcome. You may boast in your Mucius, who laid his hand upon the burning hearth as an atonement for his crime. You may boast of your Regulus, who gave himself up to death rather than live a life of shame. But our weak women and our slender boys endure laceration in the whole body, and not even the fire can extort from them a groan. They could escape if they so wished; they voluntarily endure all because they put their trust in God. And what is the result of all these persecutions? Our numbers are increased. Some hate cruelty and are drawn to us. Some are pleased with virtue and faith. Some suspect that there must be evil in that worship which we abjure at the cost of life. Some desire to know what that good is which we prefer to all the joys of life, and from which no loss of goods, no bodily pain, deters us. In the midst of your torments we tell the bystanders that sacrifices are not due to stocks and stones, graven by art or man’s device, but to the living God who is in heaven. Many, when they hear, believe it to be true. A fresh crowd is added to us, because of the wonderful nature of the virtue displayed.”
The same religion which made Christians thus faithful to their God, and thus patient in enduring persecution, also made them just and kind to their fellow-men. They reckoned themselves, as children of one Father, to be all equal in the sight of God. None was poor but he that was without justice; none rich but he who was full of virtues. The excellent were the good and innocent; the renowned, those who were most merciful. To the question, “Are there not among you Christians some poor, and others rich, some servants, and others masters?” the answer was, “There is no difference between one man and another. Why should we call one another brethren, except we reckoned ourselves to be equal? In lowliness of mind we are all on an equality, the free with slaves, and the rich with the poor, nevertheless in the sight of God we are distinguished in respect of virtue. Every one is more exalted according to his greater justice.”
It is the life of holiness towards God, love towards their fellow-men, and patience under injury, to which Lactantius points as the sacrifice which God desires. ” God does not desire,” he says, ” the sacrifice of a dumb animal, nor of death and blood, but of man and life. In this sacrifice there is neither need of sacred boughs, nor of purifications, nor of sods of turf, which things are plainly most vain, but of those things which are put forth from the innermost breast. Therefore on the altar of God, which is truly great, and which is placed in the heart of man, and cannot be defiled with blood, there are placed righteousness, patience, faith, innocence, chastity, and abstinence. Spiritual gifts must be offered to God, who is a Spirit. His offering is innocency of soul, His sacrifice praise and a hymn. The worship of God consists of one thing, — not to be wicked.”
But perhaps it will be said, that it is impossible, if the Christians had been so pure and lovely in character, they would have been so intensely hated. And yet our Lord is a convincing proof to the contrary. We know also that “he that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” Wicked men search diligently for bad motives to good actions. That was the case with many heathen in the first three centuries. They tried to account for the Christians’ lives and deaths, and they came to the conclusion that a senseless enthusiasm and wicked superstition animated them. When they had settled this to their own satisfaction, they gave them no reverence for their virtues, and despised them for their fanaticism. The objection may also be raised that this description of Christian lives and deaths comes from those who were Christian themselves, and that more impartial witnesses are needed. It is certainly important for us to know what the heathen of the first three centuries thought of the Christians, and so we shall give two descriptions of them from heathen sources. They are both made by philosophers, and neither of them appears to have been a man of moral worth.
The first description is that given by Lucian. It is contained in his account of the death of a certain Peregrinus, who was perhaps a real, perhaps only a fictitious, character. This Peregrinus was a traveller from place to place, and a wanderer from one sect of philosophy to another. He was obliged to leave his native country because of his crimes; and in the course of his travels he learned in Palestine the wonderful doctrine of the Christians. In a short time they were but children to him; he held all their offices — prophet, high priest, and ruler of a synagogue. He wrote some books for them and interpreted others. They called him a god, and took him for a lawgiver, and gave him the title of master. They were still worshippers of the great man who was crucified in Palestine — the founder of their religion; and for this reason Peregrinus was put in prison. He turned his imprisonment to good account; the Christians were much grieved at it, and tried to procure his liberty in all ways. Not being able to effect that, they did him all sorts of kindnesses; and these, not casually, but with the greatest care. Early in the morning old women and little children would be at the prison gates. The chief men would spend the night with him; they had a supper together, and the sacred books were read. Even from Asia some Christians came commissioned to relieve, encourage, and comfort him. It is incredible what expedients they use when any of their friends are known to be in trouble. They spare nothing on such occasions; and so Peregrinus’s chain brought him in a good sum of money. These miserable men have no doubt they are immortal; and they despise death, and surrender themselves to suffering. Their first lawgiver has taught them that, when they have forsaken the gods of the Greeks, and worship Him, and engage to live according to His law, they are all brethren. They despise the things of the world, and regard them as common, and trust one another without security. Any subtle fellow can impose upon them, — so simple are they. Peregrinus was ultimately liberated from prison; he was provided with money for his travelling expenses, and he lived in great plenty. So it went on for some time. At last he separated from them; he had given them offence, as Lucian supposes, by eating some forbidden food. Remembering what Lucian was, — a scoffer at all religions and a licentious wit, — is it not matter of pride that he has nothing worse to say of us than this? Have we not a most beautiful picture of faith, hope, and love shining forth in Christian life? And may we not triumph in the thought that the subtle, worthless philosopher, reverenced as a god forsooth, and ministered to with such undeserved kindness, was found out in the end by the simple people whom he had deceived?
And now for another picture of Christians painted by a heathen: this we shall find to be of quite a different character. It is painted by the philosopher Celsus, and it is to be found in his own words in Origen’s answer to him.
He compares Jews and Christians together “to a flight of bats, or a swarm of ants issuing out of their nest, or to frogs holding council in a marsh, or to worms crawling together in the corner of a dunghill, and quarrelling with one another as to which of them are the greater sinners, and asserting that God shows and announces to us all things beforehand; and that, abandoning the whole world, and the regions of heaven, and this great earth, He becomes a citizen among us alone; and to us alone makes His intimations, and does not cease sending and inquiring in what way we may be associated with Him for ever.” “It is only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the Divine Word wish to make converts.” They have laid down as a rule, “Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent (for such qualifications are deemed evil by us); but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence.” Thus “they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children.” Others invite to participation in their mysteries those of clean hands and a pure tongue; but the Christians say, “Every one who is a sinner, who is devoid of understanding, who is a child, and, to speak generally, whoever is unfortunate, him will the kingdom of God receive.” “What others would a man invite if he were issuing a proclamation for an assembly of robbers?” They are like “the jugglers who gather crowds around them in the market-places, but who never dare to approach an assembly of wise men, or dare to exhibit their arts among them.” “They act insolently towards God, in order to lead on wicked men by empty hopes, and to persuade them to despise better things. They are a set of people associated together contrary to law. Their religion is barbarous in origin and secret in practice. Their system of morals is not new, and their miracles are worked in the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations. Like the devil-worshippers, they take advantage of the ignorance of those who are easily deceived. They do not wish either to give or receive a reason for their belief, but keep repeating, ‘Do not examine, but believe.’ ‘Your faith will save you.’ ‘The wisdom of this life is bad, and foolishness is a good thing.’ At first, being few in number, they held the same opinions, but when they grew to be a great multitude, they were divided and separated, each wishing to have his own party. They differ from one another widely, and assail one another in their disputes with the most shameful language, and yet they say, ‘The world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.’ If all were like them, kings would be left in utter solitude and desertion, and the affairs of the earth would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarians; and then there would no longer remain among men any of the glory of their religion, or of the true wisdom. If they refuse to render due service to the gods, and to respect those who are set over this service, let them not come to manhood, or marry wives, or have children, or, indeed, take any share in the affairs of life; but let them depart hence with all speed and leave no posterity behind them, that such a race may become extinct from the face of the earth.”
Such is Celsus’s description, or rather caricature of Christians and Christianity. There is very little in it to trouble us. It is sad, indeed, to see the divisions of Christians already attracting the attention of heathen. Perhaps, too, there are indications that the teachers of the gospel were not always careful enough to show the reasonableness of their faith; and that the believers of the gospel sometimes neglected their duties as citizens in the State. But most of the reproaches cast by Celsus are our glory. We rejoice to hear that the spiritually sick came to Christ, for in their healing His power was magnified. We rejoice to hear that the Christian religion attracted all kinds of men. We rejoice to see that the Christians reckoned all else as dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus their Lord. Celsus, it is plain, saw no beauty in the Christian character or in the Christian religion. That need not trouble us, for he saw no beauty in Christ our Lord. “If they have called the Master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of His household.” Celsus can see no beauty or dignity in the Incarnation. In Christ’s deeds there was nothing truly great or worthy of a God. His sufferings were only a proof of His weakness. His denial and betrayal by His own followers, and His punishment as a malefactor, were an utter refutation of His claims. He does not even allow that Christ was a virtuous man. He describes Him as “gathering round Himself ten or eleven persons of notorious character, the very wickedest of tax-gatherers and sailors, fleeing in company with them from place to place, and obtaining His living in a shameful and importunate manner.” He says that the Christians set up “as a God one who ended a most infamous life by a most miserable death.” If he could thus misrepresent and misconceive Christ, what wonder is it if he slanders the Christian faith and Christian men. Still his misrepresentations have a value for us, for they show us how Christianity and Christians were regarded by some at least of their heathen contemporaries; and we are better able to realize the nature of the opposition against which the Apologists had to contend.
We now proceed to the last point in the Apologetic description of Christianity on which we shall touch ; viz. the Christian Worship. It will be remembered that the heathen viewed with the greatest suspicion the nocturnal assemblies of the Christians. They were thought to be scenes of gross immorality, and the meeting-places of conspirators against the rulers in the State. Two of the Apologists, Justin and Tertullian, endeavour to remove these suspicions by describing them as they really were. Justin’s account is as follows. Those who are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to live accordingly, are taught to beseech God with fasting and prayer; and we pray and fast along with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated by the washing of water, in the name of God the Father and Lord of the Universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ This washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. The baptized person is then brought into the assembly of our brethren, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and the newly baptized, and all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, to be found by our works also 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. Then to the President bread and a cup of wine mixed with water are brought. He takes them, and gives praise and glory to the Father through the name of the Son and the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks for our being counted worthy to receive these things at his hands. When he has concluded, all present say, Amen. Then the deacons distribute the consecrated bread and wine mixed with water, and carry away portions to the absent. This food is called Eucharist, and is only for those who believe and are baptized, and are living a Christian life. Not as common bread and wine do we receive it, but as the flesh and blood of the Incarnate Jesus, and in accordance with His command. We continually remind one another of these things. And on Sunday we gather together, and the memoirs of the Apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, and afterwards the President instructs and exhorts. Prayers, thanksgivings, and the Communion follow. Every one gives alms according to his own will. The President distributes the money collected amongst the orphans and widows, the sick and the needy, the prisoners and the strangers.
Tertullian does not add much to this account. He is endeavouring to show that the assemblies of the Christians are in no sense factious or treasonable. So he tells the heathen the prayers were made with united force for the Emperor and all in authority. Besides this, he tells us the Sacred Scriptures were read, exhortations made, rebukes and sacred censures administered. The offertory in his time was monthly. It was quite voluntary. There was no compulsion whatsoever. There was no buying or selling of any sort in the things of God. The money was used, not for feasting, but for the burial of the poor, the education of orphan children, the support of the old, and the assistance of those suffering for the truth’s sake. The Christian feast (the Agape) permitted no vileness or immodesty. It began and ended with prayer. There was no such thing as immoderate eating and drinking. When the cravings of hunger were satisfied, hymns were sung by each in turn to God. Such a meeting, Tertullian thinks, ought not to be called a faction, but a Curia, a sacred meeting.
(Go back to previous chapter)
(Continue to next chapter)