The Defense of the Faith in the Early Church
It is difficult for an army to fight on more than one front at once. When it must do so, it is often defeated. During the Second World War, Germany had to fight not only against the Allied armies pushing in from the west but also against Russia on the east. This was too much even for its superb fighting forces.
In its preaching and writing, the early church had the difficult task of defending itself along three fronts. First, there was the battle against heresy stemming from Jewish sources. Second, there was the battle against heresy stemming from the Hellenistic society around it. Third, there was the battle against the reigning paganism of the day.
Christianity is rooted in the Old Testament. The seed of the Old Testament gave rise to the plant of the New Testament. The old order, with its laws and its sacrifices, pointed forward to the reality that was to come in Christ Jesus. With the corning of Christ, this old order had to fall away. But even after Christ had come, there was still a time of transition before these antiquated forms, which had prepared the way, actually disappeared.
This is illustrated by something I once observed in my garden. I had planted some flower seeds. As the young plants pushed their way out of the ground, a withered seed clung to the side of each one of them. These seeds were spent, but they remained for a while, until they dropped off of their own accord. Similarly, the ancient Israelite customs clung to the Christian church for a time, before they dropped off, especially when Jerusalem was destroyed.
As we look back on the early church, we see that there was a transition period. Paul was pre-eminently the apostle to the Gentiles, but he knew that it would be difficult for Jewish Christians to break away immediately from the received customs. He also saw that as mere customs these practices were harmless enough. They had prefigured Christ and done their work. He knew that when the church fully realized that these customs were outgrown, they would of themselves drop away. Thus, when Paul went to Jerusalem with the collection for the saints, he felt free to enter the temple with men who had taken a vow. He did this in order to show the Jewish people that he was orderly in his conduct. So Paul, willing to be all things to all men, went along with the customary practices of the Jerusalem church so that he would not be an offense to anyone.
It was quite a different matter, however, when the apostle Paul thought that Christ himself was being made subject to these same customs. When certain teachers came and said, in effect, that one had to be a Jew before one could become a Christian, Paul objected strenuously.
We find references to this kind of teaching in the early church. Paul himself battled it in his letter to the Galatians. The apostle was being pressured to circumcise the Gentiles who had been converted to the Christian faith. But, he said, one who had been circumcised was obligated to keep the entire law. There is also a reference to this struggle in Revelation 3:9. We also find references to it in the letters of the early church father Ignatius.
Ignatius was a bishop of the church in Antioch of Syria. He was apprehended in a short but violent persecution of the church there, and he was taken to Rome to be martyred by fighting with wild beasts. The time of his martyrdom is uncertain, but it probably took place during the reign of the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117). As he was being taken to Rome by a squad of Roman soldiers, Ignatius wrote letters to various churches.
The group stopped at Philadelphia in Asia Minor. The church there had been riddled with Judaizing teaching, although it was not as bad as the heresy against which the apostle Paul had had to fight. The Judaizers in Philadelphia did not demand that Gentiles be circumcised. Nevertheless, they required observance of the Jewish Sabbath and other Jewish traditions, and they said that various Jewish allegories had to be believed.
When Ignatius wrote to the church in Philadelphia, he was critical of this Judaizing. He said,
But if anyone interpret Judaism to you do not listen to him; for it is better to hear Christianity from the circumcised than Judaism from the uncircumcised. But both of them, unless they speak of Jesus Christ, are to me tombstones and sepulchers of the dead.
(Philadelphians, 6; the quotations of Ignatius are generally taken from the Loeb Classical Library)
He similarly warned the church in Magnesia: Be not led astray by strange doctrines or by old fables which are profitless. For if we are living until now according to Judaism, we confess that we have not received grace. For the divine prophets lived according to Jesus Christ.
Ignatius asked, If then they who walked in ancient customs came to a new hope, no longer living for the Sabbath, but for the Lord's Day, on which also our life sprang up through him and his death … and by this mystery we received faith … how then shall we be able to live without him of whom even the prophets were disciples in the Spirit and to whom they looked forward as their teacher? (Magnesians, 9)
He declared, It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism.
The early church had to war not only against Judaizing heresy but also against Gentile heresy. As Ignatius continued his journey toward Rome, he came to Smyrna, a city on the coast of Asia Minor. This was the city of the noble bishop Polycarp, who was later also to lose his life as a martyr in Rome.
Smyrna was also rife with heresy. This was just as subtle and dangerous as the Judaizing heresy that was troubling Philadelphia. It had already been referred to in the New Testament, in the writings of the apostle John. Even then there were some who said that the body was so evil that it was unthinkable that the eternal Son of God could have been incarnated in it. At best, they taught, it only seemed that the Son of God had a body. Therefore, it was difficult to think that Christ could actually have been born of a virgin, could actually have suffered, could actually have died on the cross, and could literally have risen from the dead.
Those who promulgated this heresy were called Docetists. This term stems from the Greek word dokein, which means "to seem." These false teachers were saying that it only seemed that Christ had a body.
The apostle John attacked this heresy in his first epistle, declaring that his message was based on that which they had seen and heard. He said that their hands had handled the Word of life. He says,
That … which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.1 John 1:1
It is this reality, not a phantasm that they declared to the church.
In his letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius wrote: He suffered all these things for us that we might attain salvation, and he truly suffered even as he also truly raised himself, not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was merely in semblance,- but it is they who are merely in semblance, and even according to their opinions it shall happen to them, and they shall be without bodies and phantasmal.
Then Ignatius sought to answer the question whether Christ rose bodily from the dead. For I know and believe, he said, that he was in the flesh even after the Resurrection. And when he came to those with Peter he said to them: Take, handle me and see that I am not a phantom without a body.
Ignatius called the Docetists "wild beasts in human shape" (Smyrnaeans, 4). He was going to meet wild beasts in Rome, but would these Docetists then praise him for his sacrifice and for his suffering for Christ? Hardly! What meaning would his sufferings have for them, if they did not believe that Christ himself had really suffered?
As to the meaning of his sufferings, he wrote, If it is merely in semblance that these things were done by our Lord I am also a prisoner in semblance. And why have I given myself up to death, to fire, to the sword, to wild beasts? Because near the sword is near to God, with the wild beasts is with God; in the name of Jesus Christ alone am I enduring all things, that I may suffer with him, and the perfect man himself gives me strength.
The Defence Against the Pagans
Persecution of the early Christians was occasional, but also sharp. They were accused by the pagans of denying the gods, and they were suspect because of their refusal to venerate the emperor. It was during one of these sporadic persecutions that Ignatius was taken prisoner.
During his visit to Smyrna, Ignatius sent a letter ahead to the Christians at Rome, where he was to be martyred. This was a highly personal message, which dwelt on his coming sufferings and which asked the Roman church not to interfere by interceding for him. Some have found this attitude strange and even offensive. This, however, is not fair. We must remember parallels in the teachings of the apostle Paul. In Philippians 1:21 he says, "To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." Ignatius firmly believed that if he shared in the sufferings of the crucified and risen Lord, he would also be glorified with him. He was convinced that he was mystically one with Jesus Christ and that in his own sufferings he was learning to walk in Christ's way and be his disciple. There is precedent for his attitude in Colossians 1:24 where Paul says that in his sufferings he is filling up that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.
Thus, Ignatius wrote. Things are off to a good start. May I have the good fortune to meet my fate without interference.Romans, 1
Ignatius believed that his death would be a great testimony to God. He says to the Romans,
Nor can you, if you be but silent, have any better deed ascribed to you. For if you are silent concerning me, I am a word of God.Romans, 2
Ignatius firmly believed that his testimony in death would be greater than his testimony in life. He was afraid that if the Roman church interfered, his testimony would become empty.
Ignatius felt that, by participating in the sufferings of Christ, he was beginning to be a disciple. For a disciple, the world would have to pale. With a reference to 1 Corinthians 9:15, he continues,
It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth. I seek him who died for our sake. I desire him who rose for us. The pains of birth are upon me.Romans, 6
From Smyrna, Ignatius and his party went to Troas, from whence they would sail to Macedonia En route to Rome. While he was there, Ignatius learned that the persecution in Antioch, during which he had been condemned, had subsided. He had messengers sent to Antioch, congratulating the church there that their peace had been restored. He himself, however, was already committed by the world powers to seal his testimony with his own blood!