Editor’s note: The following comprises the first chapter of Defenders of the Faith: The Christian Apologists of the Second and Third Centuries, by the Rev. Frederick Watson. M.A. (published 1879).
The Enemies of the Faith
For one reason or another the views of most of us about the early history of the Christian Church are very indefinite. We read that history to the point where it is left in the Acts of the Apostles, and then we stop, and scarcely ask ourselves what became of the Apostles, or what became of the Church when the Apostles died. We know that the work went on; we know that that little seed, which, in the Bible narrative, we see sprouting, grew into the greatest of trees. We know that the growth of the Church was not easy or unchecked. We have read of the sufferings of the martyrs, and have learnt something of the cruel torments inflicted upon men, women, and children to cause them to deny their faith. But our notions are quite vague. We scarcely know why the Christians were persecuted, or how they defended themselves. We could not tell the names of the champions of the faith after Apostolic times. We know something about Bible times, and we know something about Reformation times, but the intervening history is far too much of a blank to us. The Church was living and doing its work all that time. Why should we know nothing about it?
Now it is quite certain we lose very much by our ignorance. Do we want to be interested? By our ignorance we lose the most thrilling and beautiful stories. Do we want to be instructed? By our ignorance we lose the most noble examples, encouragements, and warnings. There is something in the early history of our Church — remember it is ours — which is likely above all things to fire us with noble purposes, and to inspire us with new zeal for the work we have in our generation to do. Why is it that we enjoy so much the fine old stories of English history, how Alfred defeated the Danes, and firmly established his kingdom, or Harold and his English stood firm against the Norman invader, and died for their country? Why is it that Edward I’s wars with the Scots, and Edward III and Henry V’s wars with the French, interest us so much, and yet we care so little for the battles and the victories of the Christian Church? “I am an Englishman,” you say, “and therefore it is that I am proud to hear what my brave English ancestors did in the olden days.” You are quite right, but remember also you are a Christian — you belong not only to the English nation, but to the Christian Church. Listen, then, to the story of the noble deeds of your Christian ancestors. Oh, they were very brave! Oh, they were very patient! They won far nobler victories than Cressy or Agincourt. Your English ancestors, in days gone by, won for you freedom and a noble name, and you love them. Your Christian ancestors won for you a still greater freedom and a still nobler name. Will you not love them too? You read how the arrows came clouding the air, and the horsemen came rushing headlong to crush the little army of English who stood all firm and undaunted, and who, though few, said that they did not ask for reinforcements, they were enough to conquer, and they were enough to die. They stood in their ranks, they fell bravely, they triumphed nobly, and we are proud of them. But oh! be proud also of that army which is fighting still, and to which you yourself belong, “who through faith subdued kingdoms….waxed valiant in fight, and turned to flight the armies of the aliens.” Remember they suffered, and so you have not to suffer; they laboured, and you have entered into their labours; you are fighting the same battle and under the same banner; they have won the victory, and you must win the victory in the same way. Will it not be well for you then to inquire into their history, so that you may learn who were their enemies, and what were their weapons, and where were their battlefields, and why they fought, and how they fought, and how in God’s strength they won the victory? And now the subject of this book has been pretty clearly stated. It is to tell you the story of the battles of the Christian Church, and the champions of the Christian faith, in early times. For the most part we shall confine ourselves to the second and third centuries A.D. Occasionally there will be something to say about the first century, and once or twice we shall have to go a little way into the fourth; but for the most part we shall be concerned only with the time extending from 100 A.D. to 300 A.D.
Now there are two things specially to notice about this period. The first is, the Apostles were then all dead, and those who succeeded them had not the same outward tokens of God’s presence. The preachers of the Gospel were not able, generally at least, to heal the bodies of men, and so their task was in some respects far more difficult, and a hearing was not so easily obtained by them. The second thing to notice is, that all this while the rulers of the state were heathen, and therefore more or less opposed to Christianity. Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and he did not come into his power till the year 312 A.D. So you see, during this period, on the one hand, some of the help God had hitherto given the Church was taken away, and on the other, she had difficulties to contend against which were afterwards removed. This was the time of the hardest struggle of the Christian Church; this was the time also when her most brilliant victories were gained; this was the time, it is not too much to say, the battle of The Faith was won.
And now to proceed to my subject. When the last surviving Apostle died, only a beginning of the great work which Christ had entrusted to His Church had been made. At the end of the first century, the Christians were only a feeble folk. The world was just beginning to know about them. So far as they were known, they were hated much, but despised more. The Roman Empire was already feeling jealous about them, as people who might one day be troublesome; it was soon about to try to put them down. As we may say, the two armies — the army for Christ and the army against Him — were then being put in array, army against army. The one army was like “two little flocks of kids,” but the other filled the whole earth. If you looked on the one side you saw nobody of any importance; at the present day we scarcely know more than half a dozen of their names. We may safely say that there were very few of noble birth, very few who were wise with worldly wisdom, very few indeed who had, as far as men could see, any qualifications for the task of overcoming the world. They belonged mostly to the most despised nation of the world, and that nation had cast them out of her bosom. The Jews, persecuted by all others, were themselves persecutors of the Christians.
And then, on the other side, what was there? There was the whole world; and a world united under one man, who ruled it according to his own will and pleasure. Such was his power, such the reverence he received, that more than human honours were paid him; even whilst living he was worshipped as a god.
Now, this concentration of power under one head added greatly to the difficulties of the Church. Other great movements have, in their infancy and weakness, profited greatly by the fact that sovereignty was shared by many kingdoms, commonly rivals, and jealous of one another. Political necessities have often produced the strangest combinations, and the most unexpected results. At the worst of times, the authority of a State could not extend beyond its own limits; and hence those persecuted in one city would flee into another. But the Church owed its victory to no such external circumstances; in those early times there was but one State and one ruler of it. The law said, “The Christians ought not to be”; and the magistrates, when required, had always to enforce the law. And when the emperor said, as he sometimes did by a special edict, Put that law into force, there was then no one to be their defender, no land to which they could fly for refuge, no political combinations which could stay the persecuting hand. And thus the Christians, without any earthly defender, had to contend against the whole force of the Law; they had to withstand the united force of the great Roman Empire with its Emperor-god.
But this was not all; all the wise men of the world were against them. The philosophers of that day were, for the most part, men without religion and without morality. They were too wise to believe in the old heathen gods, but they were not wise enough to attain to the knowledge of the one true God. They were able, some of them, to lay down excellent rules of life, but few thought it necessary to put them into practice. They were proud and self-sufficient, and looked down with contempt upon the unlearned and ignorant common people. The Christians were, for the most part, unlearned and uneducated; and yet, notwithstanding their deficiencies in philosophic training and intellectual qualifications, they dared to speak authoritatively on matters concerning which the wisest teachers professed their ignorance. The philosophers had pulled down many religions in their time; they were foes to all superstitions, and now they banded together to pull down what they considered to be the last and worst of all. And thus the leaders of Thought joined the rulers of the State in the battle against the Christian name. The force of Reason was added to the force of Law.
To these two a more popular and widely-reaching force was added — the force of Interest. It is marvellous to see how closely intertwined were the heathen religion and all that concerned the outer life of a man and the administration of the State. The religion of a man had little or nothing to do with his thoughts or affections, and it exercised little or no influence over his morals; but it entered into every relation and action of his family and public life. When you were born, when you were married, and when you died, gods had to be propitiated, lest they should do you harm, and in order that they might do you good. At the corners of the streets, and at the doors of the houses, in the halls, and in the bed chambers, at every turn one might say, images met your eye. There was no occupation over which some god did not preside, no public festival without its religious sacrifices, no act of business without its idolatrous ceremonies. It followed, of course, that there were thousands of people who got their living from the idolatrous worship; and therefore thousands of people who were most anxious that the old heathen customs should be kept up. Very early we see the force of interest exerted against Christianity. “By this craft we have our wealth,” said Demetrius to the makers of silver shrines for Diana. By Paul’s preaching, “this our craft is in danger to be set at nought.” The fear of such a result was sufficient, as we; forthwith the craftsmen stirred up the people. Similarly, Pliny (A.D. 100 circa), Governor of Bithynia, noticed that in his province there was no demand for the sacrificial victims; in consequence, he ordered an inquiry, and ultimately a persecution. It was of direct importance to the Government that the temples should be well attended; when they were deserted their revenues declined. By the advance of Christianity, the priests lost their profits and their influence, the armies their soldiers, the lawyers their clients, the taverns their customers, and the sculptors and painters their patrons. All the artists and craftsmen derived the better part of their gains from the requirements of the heathen religion. And besides the temples and their gods there were also the shows and the games. The Christians could not join in the idolatry of the one, they dared not come in contact with the pollutions of the other. The hangers-on at the shows were only less numerous and various than those at the temples; and thus we see the contingent to the army against Christ, collected under the banner of Interest, was very large. With intense bitterness all these men banded themselves together against a religion, which deprived them not only of the gods which they worshipped but of the food which they ate. And thus to the force of Law and Reason was added the force of Interest.
To these three forces, strong as they were, yet an other, perhaps the strongest of all, was added — the force of Superstition.
The philosophers might have sneered to their heart’s content; those who earned a livelihood from idolatry or the public games might have grumbled; but the State and the powers of the law would have been indifferent; had it not been that the common people rose with one voice and said, ” Away with these fellows from the earth, for it is not meet that they should live.” In most of the persecutions of the 2nd century, it was the people, not the State authorities, which took the initiative. No doubt interested agitators were behind the scenes, but the popular fury was, beyond all, the persecuting force. The order of proceedings commonly was, first, popular risings against the Christians, and then, proceedings against them ac cording to the forms of law. Very often the Emperor and the provincial governors were their best friends. Trajan discouraged anonymous informations. Hadrian said the Christians were not to be arrested on mere popular clamour. Antoninus Pius strongly disapproved of the violent proceedings of the mob. Aurelius says the Christians must be punished with diverse tortures yet so that justice is mingled. The governors also sometimes did not fear the people, and contrived means of dismissing the Christians unpunished. Certainly of all the enemies of the Church the people were the most bitter and violent. Tertullian tells us that none more frequently than the rabble demanded the lives of the Christians. “How often,” he says, “does the hostile mob, paying no regard to you (i.e. the authorities), take the law into its own hand, and assail us with stones and flames!”
And the reason of this appears to be quite plain. It was their Superstition which urged the people on. We must remember that the heathen religion was an elaborate plan for securing national prosperity. The sacrifices were bribes to secure the favour of the gods, or rather, perhaps, magic spells to compel them to act according to the sacrificer’s wish. If everything was done properly, without a mistake in the prayer of consecration, or the occurrence of a sight or sound of ill omen at the time of sacrificing, or a defect in the entrails of the victim, then the wished-for result was sure to be secured, the god was compelled to be propitious. Of course it followed that times of difficulty, danger, or calamity, were times for special vows and sacrifices. Generals uttered vows just be fore joining battle with the enemy. A pestilence filled the temples with devout worshippers. The idea in many minds, at such a time, was, the gods, one or all, are angry because we have neglected them; if we only sacrifice largely enough, prosperity will return. The expense incurred by the State on these sacrifices for national prosperity was very great. Sometimes it was so difficult to get sacrifices that representations in bread or wax took the place of the animals themselves. As many as three hundred bulls were offered in one sacrifice to one god. At the death of Tiberius and at Caligula’s accession to the throne, upwards of 160,000 victims were sacrificed. Augustus and Marcus Aurelius used so many beasts, that it was said all oxen and calves hoped that the emperors might never return from their journeys or campaigns, as otherwise they would be infallibly lost.
It so happened that in the 2nd and 3rd centuries there was a constant succession of calamities in the State. There were “famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes.” “The gods are angry,” was the general cry. “These calamities have fallen upon us because their shrines are neglected; we must propitiate them with sacrifices.” They did so. But there were many gaps in the line of worshippers; the Christians absented themselves. By them were addressed no supplications, by them were offered no gifts of expiation to the angry gods. Then the popular anger burst forth in uncontrollable fury. “It is because of those impious Christians,” they said, “that we are suffering all these troubles. Away with them to the lion.”
At such times the Christians suffered without trial at all. Although the magistrates might scoff at popular superstition, they quailed before the popular wrath. They might expostulate, but when they saw that they prevailed nothing and that rather a tumult was made, they let the people have their own way. They put the existing law in force against men for whom they cared nothing, and who in their opinion deserved punishment for being so obstinate and troublesome.
And thus we see that these four forces, Law, Reason, Interest, and Superstition, were all combined against the disciples of Christ. The learned few and the superstitious many, the law administrators and the lawless mob, those who reckoned the heathen religion to be the great support of the State power and those who knew that it gave them support and subsistence, the priests and philosophers, the kings and people, all hated the name of Christ, and all at times combined together to give His Church a crushing blow. The heathen raged, the people imagined a vain thing; “the kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.” And what was the result? He that dwelleth in heaven laughed them to scorn; the Lord had them in derision. He said, “I have set my King on my holy hill of Zion.” He fulfilled His promise, “Ask of me and I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.”
(Continue to next chapter)