Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wisdom from the pre-Constantinian Church

I am not one who complains about the conversion of Constantine or doubts his sincerity. And I have read enough history to be grateful that the Church was there to fill the vacuum of leadership in a declining empire. It is difficult to comprehend what western history and the western cultural tradition would have been like otherwise.

But even as this was evolving, many Christians felt that if the Church’s Gospel and values influenced the empire, so the empire at its most decadent was making inroads into the Church. Hence the development of monasticism and other movements seeking to keep alive the kind of experience of God that was common in the pre-Constantinian Church.

Many observe that in the West the Constantinian Church Age is finally coming to an end. The spiritual poverty and bureaucratisation of State Churches, the rapid secularisation of societies whose foundations had been built on Gospel values, and a widespread cynicism regarding all Christian traditions, catholic and protestant alike, probably means that we will need to look much more for inspiration at the life and witness of the Church in the period before 315 AD. 

There are lessons to be learned from that period about witnessing as a small minority in cultures that run along different lines to our beliefs, and about nurturing the continuities as well as recognising the discontinuities between the surrounding culture and the Gospel.

I have long thought that one of the documents that would become more significant to us as we live through the 21st century is the Letter to Diognetus, a second century attempt to explain Christianity and the Church to a pagan official.

Philip Rushton says HERE that it “gives us a glimpse into the way Christians were perceived in the ancient world. These Christians were fully immersed in their culture and yet they lived a life that was radically different from others. They gained a reputation for their integrity, generosity, chastity, and love for people of all nations and backgrounds. There is so much in this letter that we need to grasp if we are to truly impact our culture. It reminds us that true outreach and true cultural engagement requires that we practice what we preach.”

A summary of the Letter and quotations from it can be found HERE.

A lively modern translation of the entire Letter (together with some explanation) is HERE.

And a couple of paragraphs from the Letter to inspire you:

“Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. It is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

“As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers. They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They share a common table, but not a common bed. They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

“They are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.

“To sum it all up in one word, what the soul is in the body, that is what Christians are in the world.”


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