Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, once said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Here it is, 2017 and his words still ring true. While modern Christians may face some challenges that are unique to our age, I’ve learned that a great many more are not. From the accusation that Christians are “intolerant haters” to the insult of being “ignorant” for “believing such foolishness”, many Christians are learning that the first and second century Church Fathers have already navigated similarly choppy waters and there is much we can learn from them.
An Introduction To The Past
A couple months back I was attending a lecture for the C. S. Lewis Institute’s Fellows Program where Dr. Tim McGrew was speaking on the topic of apologetics. He suggested that modern Christians would do well to study the early Church Fathers and learn from their example on how they engaged with the culture of their day because the parallels between now and then were stunning.
This intrigued me because as a self-proclaimed “history nerd”, it was the historicity of the eyewitness accounts found in the gospels that eventually led me to believe that the resurrection was the best explanation for those events. I committed my life to Christ and ultimately, started down the path to seek out more knowledge which plunged me into the world of apologetics.
Recently, Dr. McGrew suggested that I read a book called “Testimonies of Heathen and Christian Writers of the first two centuries” by Rev. Thomas Browne. The book is a simple collection of letters from Taticus to Tertullian and many in between. Reading the translated letters from both Christians and non-Christians in first two centuries has been a complete eye-opener!
Parallels found between what the Christians in the first two centuries faced and what we face today are striking. Which is why we need to begin to rediscover our roots and learn from the wisdom of the early Church Fathers.
A Few Key Similarities To Think About
Take for example the charge of being an “intolerant hater”. We may flinch at such an accusation, but when you read Tertullian (AD 200) you’ll find that the Christians in his day were also called, “haters of mankind.” Why? Because the early Church refused to worship the Roman gods which were thought to help hold the Roman Empire together. In response, Tertullian wrote in his apology that Christian teaching was the exact opposite:
“If we are commanded to love our enemies, whom have we to hate? If, when injured, we are forbidden to return evil for evil, lest we should be like our adversaries, whom can we hurt?”
Or how about the insistence that Christians are “stupid” or “foolish”? That’s not new, either. Celsus (AD 170) was one of the first non-Christians to write against Christianity. He took particular exception to what he believed was the ignorance of the early church:
“Some of them say, ‘Do not examine, but believe, and thy faith shall save thee:’ and, ‘ The wisdom of this world is evil, and the folly good.’ All wise men are excluded from the doctrine of their faith: they call to it only fools, and men of a servile spirit.”
Forget for a moment that Celsus seems to be misrepresenting Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 3:19 which states “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God”; but if you take a moment you’ll see that it kind of reads like a comment you’d find on a YouTube page. Unfortunately, Celsus wasn’t alone in his mockery of the early church. Marcus Antoninus (AD 161) also wrote that Christians were, “…an obstinately-prejudiced, ignorant, and unphilosophical race of men”
However, Justin Martyr (AD 140) answered similar insults by gently pointing out that those who criticized Christianity as foolishness were themselves ignorant of its teachings:
“…they accuse us of madness, saying that we give the second place after the unchangeable God, the Creator of all things, to a man who was crucified: and this they do, being ignorant of the mystery which is in this matter.”
Even many arguments against Christianity aren’t unique to our era. Celsus also wrote of the discrepancies between the eyewitness accounts of the disciples as proof that they were false:
“To the sepulcher of Jesus there came two angels, as is said by some, or, as by others, one only.”
Yet, Origen (AD 248) answered the challenge set forth by Celsus, “He had observed that Matthew and Mark mention one only, Luke and John, two. But these things are easily reconciled.”
Spend any amount of time perusing skeptical blogs, books or YouTube channels and you’ll doubtlessly encounter similar arguments, misrepresentations or insults. While we may have the Internet, giving us access to a seemingly infinite amount of information, we are pitiably misinformed. Misinformation and sometimes, even prejudice toward Christian beliefs and teachings are just as alive now as they were during the first two centuries.
Debunked arguments and slanders continue to find new legs with new audiences due to access to the World Wide Web and the folks who insist on perpetuating them. Paraphrasing Dr. James White, “The internet has turned bad arguments into the Walking Dead. You shoot ‘em in the head, and they keep shuffling forward.”
Following The Map That Has Been Drawn For Us
We truly stand on the shoulders of giants. Most of the apologetic heavy lifting has already been done for us. There is so much that we can learn from the early church in how they not only approached apologetics but also in how they engaged and responded to a culture that was hostile to their beliefs. It’s a strange comfort to see the obstacles that we face today and know that those who have gone before us faced similar challenges and, despite the best arguments, insults and efforts of some, the Church remains.
So, shine up your apologetic shields and let the barbs and the arrows come from those who believe that they possess some sort of “new” argument that will “destroy” Christianity. As the Early Church shows us: they don’t.