Wednesday, January 28, 2009

52 Men Trying Part 3 – Justin Martyr

On the heels of the apostolic fathers was a group of writers known as the 'apologists.' Justin Martyr was known for his clear defense of the Christian faith against philosophers and Jews who found the new religion barbaric or idiotic.

Justin was a philosopher by training, and found that his pursuit of philosophy led him to the conclusion that Christianity was the true philosophy. The Concise History of Christian Thought says the following about his philosophical leanings: "When he became a Christian he did not renounce philosophy, he became a better philosopher, a true philosopher. He said that the relationship between the philosophers and Christ is that between the incomplete and the complete, between the imperfect and the perfect."


He gives the following account of his conversion, which follows directly on the heels of his journey from one tutor to the next, not finding satisfaction with their systems:

"When I wished at one period to be filled with great quietness, and to shun the path of men, I used to go into a certain field not far from the sea. And when I was near that spot one day, a certain old man, by no means contemptible in appearance, exhibiting meek and venerable manners, followed me at a little distance. And when I turned round to him, having halted, I fixed my eyes rather keenly on him. And he said, 'Do you know me?' I replied in the negative. 'Why, then do you so look at me?' 'I am astonished,' I said, 'because you have chanced to be in my company in the same place; for I had not expected to see any man here.'

'I delight,' said I, 'in such walks, where my attention is not distracted, for converse with myself is uninterrupted; and such places are most fit for philology.'
'Are you, then, a philologian,'
(i.e. literary study and classic scholarship)
said he, 'but no lover of deeds or of truth? And do you not aim at being a practical man so much as being a sophist?' 'What greater work,' said I, 'could one accomplish than this, to show the reason which governs all, and having laid hold of it, and being mounted upon it, to look down on the errors of others, and their pursuits? But without philosophy and right reason, prudence would not be present to any man.'

'Does philosophy, then, make happiness?' said he, interrupting.

'Assuredly,' I said, 'and it alone.'

'What, then, is philosophy?' he says; 'and what is happiness? Pray tell me, unless something hinders you from saying.'

'Philosophy, then,' said I, 'is the knowledge of that which really exists, and a clear perception of the truth; and happiness is the reward of such knowledge and wisdom.' 'But what do you call God?' said he. 'That which always maintains the same nature, and in the same manner, and is the cause of all other things —that, indeed, is God.' So I answered him; and he listened to me with pleasure, and thus again interrogated me:—

After the man 'interrogated' him about the truth for a few minutes, Justin asks the following:

'Should any one, then, employ a teacher?' I say, 'or whence may anyone be helped, if not even in them there is truth?'

The old man responds:

'There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom.'

"When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Savior. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may—since you are not indifferent to the matter —become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated,
live a happy life."

His conversion is encouraging for you see a man that is completely committed to the pursuit of truth, instead of being blinded by his own agenda or existing philosophical systems. How often do men blind themselves to the truth, choosing to create their own realities? Instead, pursue the freedom that comes with the truth (John 8.32).

In the summer of 2007 I studied some of Justin's writing in the original Greek. The thing I found most encouraging and humbling was his absolute command of the Old Testament (OT). In his Dialogue with Trypho, (Trypho was a Jew who Justin debated publicly) he presented scripture after scripture that pointed to Christ as the culmination of the entire OT. In fact, he rarely cited New Testament writings, if at all, during the debate (thus understanding his audience). I was humbled by how little OT scriptures I had memorized in relation to Christ. Sure, I had read through the OT plenty of times, but have not hidden many of the key sections that clearly point to Christ in my heart. Since the OT is often ignored in today's churches, it seems Justin's example is more important than ever for gaining a greater appreciation for the power of the entirety of God's word.

Death and Martyrdom

Now, you have to wonder that if you grew up with a last name like "Martyr" what your future may hold. Justin was martyred, but not because of his last name. The surname "Martyr" was added later because of his example. The story goes that around 160 AD, when the Roman soldiers came to arrest him, they demanded that he sacrifice to the Roman gods, or be executed. Justin responded by saying, "No one who is rightly minded turns from true belief to false."

Worship in the Early Church

One of the more exciting part of Justin's writings for me is his comments on the practices of the early church. He says the following in his First Apology:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who provides for the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

This is very similar to what we see in Acts 2.42, 45: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… and they were selling their possessions and belonging and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." Though we tend to make church rather complicated these days, the early church kept it simple: fellowship, food, prayer, teaching, and meeting the needs of others. Of course, there are many different ways to do these basic things, and I am grateful the Bible does not prescribe the form by which we should gather and worship. But it seems we've over complicated our public exercise of devotion and worship these days, creating many hoops to jump through that are not necessarily biblical. Nothing wrong with programs and meetings, but the error occurs when we equate holiness with adherence to those things, especially when those things become substitutes for the biblical examples. For instance, many churches would find the Holy Spirit showing up in fresh new ways if as much time were dedicated to public prayer as were preaching and singing.

If you find Justin's comments interesting, then you'd also enjoy reading the Didache, aka The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache means teaching in Greek). This is an early church document, written during the same century as Justin's works, which describes in great detail the practices of the church of that time. The work is about the length of a long chapter in Matthew. You can read an English translation here.

For all the other men who are 'trying', take encouragement from Justin's example by always seeking truth and standing for that truth, listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, knowing your Old Testament, and keeping worship simple.

Page from the Didache

Friday, January 16, 2009

52 Men Trying Part 2: Polycarp

There is a group of writings that immediately follow the New Testament called "The Apostolic Fathers." These include the authors that lived roughly from 100-200 AD, most of whom likely knew one or more of the apostles, or were even mentored and appointed by an apostle.

Polycarp is one of the early leaders of the Christian Church, and was believed to be a disciple of the Apostle John. He was the bishop of Smyrna until his execution around 150-160 AD. His example of martyrdom is one of the more inspiring in the early church. The story goes that spectators had become increasingly blood-thirsty with the death of each Christian at the Roman coliseum. Aware of his piety, then began calling for Polycarp to be brought for trial and persecution. The search ensued:

"Now the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard the news, was not disturbed. In fact, he wanted to remain in town, but the majority persuaded him to withdraw. So he withdrew to a farm not far distant from the city, and there he stayed with a few companions, doing nothing else night and day except praying for everyone and for the churches throughout the world, for this was his constant habit. And while he was praying he fell into a trance three days before his arrest, and he saw his pillow being consumed by fire. And he turned and said to those who were with him: "It is necessary that I be burned alive…

Friday about suppertime the mounted police and horsemen set out, armed with their usual weapons as though chasing after an armed rebel. And closing in on him late in the evening, they found him in bed in an upstairs room in a small cottage; and though he still could have escaped from there to another place, he refused, saying, "May God's will be done." So when he heard that they had arrived, he went and talked with them, while those who were present marveled at his age and his composure, and wondered why there was so much eagerness for the arrest of an old man like him. Then he immediately ordered that a table be set for them to eat and drink as much as they wished at that hour, and he asked them to grant him an hour so that he might pray undisturbed. When they consented, he stood and prayed, so full of the grace of God that for two hours he was unable to stop speaking; those who heard him were amazed, and many regretted that they had come after such a godly old man.

The fact that his captors lamented taking him says much about his gracious piety towards even his worst enemies. In fact, the head of the unit tasked with escorting him to his death pleads for Polycarp to avoid the stake:

Herod, the police captain…tried to persuade him, saying, "What harm is there in saying, 'Caesar is Lord,' and offering incense and thereby saving yourself?" Now at first Polycarp gave them no answer. But when they persisted, he said, "I am not about to do what you are suggesting to me."

What follows is an edited version of this story, with some commentary in italics – which portrays his commitment to Christ in the midst of imminent death. Though the section is a little long, it is fast reading and worth the time.

As Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: "Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man." And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. [Those familiar with the martyrdom of Latimer and Ridley will recognize the version of this saying 'act like a man" as "Play the man" – also quoted in Farenheit 451.]

And then, as he was brought forward, there was a great tumult when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. The proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, "Have respect for your age," and other such things as they are accustomed to say: "Swear by the Genius of Caesar; repent; say, 'Away with the atheists!'" [Note that when the crowd says 'Atheists' – they are referring to Christians – since Christians did not believe in the Roman Gods.] So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, "Away with the atheists!" But when the magistrate persisted and said, "Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ," Polycarp replied, "For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

The Proconsul continued to insist, saying, "Swear by the Genius of Caesar." Polycarp answered: "If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the Genius of Caesar, and pretend not to know who I am, listen carefully: I am a Christian. Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing." The proconsul said: "Persuade the people." But Polycarp said: "You I might have considered worthy of a reply, for we have been taught to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm; but as for these, I do not think they are worthy, that I should have to defend myself before them."

So the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind." But he said: "Call for them! For the repentance from better to worse is a change impossible for us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is evil to righteousness." Then he said to him again: "I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind." But Polycarp said: "You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish."

As he spoke these and many other words, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his face was filled with grace, so that not only did he not collapse in fright at the things which were said to him, but on the contrary the proconsul was astonished, and sent his own herald into the midst of the stadium to proclaim three times: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." Then the crowd began to shout out in unison that Polycarp should be burned alive. For it was necessary that the vision which he received concerning his pillow be fulfilled.

These things then happened with such swiftness, quicker than words could tell, the crowd swiftly collecting wood and kindling from the workshops and baths, the Jews being especially eager to assist in this, as is their custom. When the pyre was prepared, he took off all his clothes and removed his belt; he also tried to take off his shoes, though not previously in the habit of doing this, because all the faithful were always eager to be the first to touch his flesh. For he had been treated with all honor on account of his holy life even before his gray hair appeared. Then the materials prepared for the pyre were placed around him; and as they were also about to nail him, he said: "Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails."

Then he offered up a lengthy prayer of thanksgiving for the opportunity to be burned for Christ. When he had offered up the "Amen" and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit the fire. And as a mighty flame blazed up, we saw a miracle (we, that is, to whom it was given to see), and we have been preserved in order that we might tell the rest what happened. For the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a very fragrant odor, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice.

When the lawless men eventually realized that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this, there came out a large quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd was amazed that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. Among them most certainly was this man, the most remarkable Polycarp, who proved to be an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, bishop of the holy church in Smyrna. For every word which came from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.

The Romans were so concerned that Polycarp would be worshiped that they went ahead and burned his body, leaving only his bones to be collected by his followers.

Significance of Polycarp to the Early Church

Polycarp's life bridged two important eras in church history, since he "spanned the time between the end of the apostolic era and the emergence of catholic Christianity." The text of Polycarp's letter to the Philippians, his only surviving letter, has a number of elements important for orthodox Christianity. Polycarp shows much familiarity with both the Old and New Testament texts, leading us to believe these were in wide circulation during his service as Bishop. Not only does he quote freely from the New Testament, he clearly views these words as authoritative for faith and practice. He even commends his readers to study the letters of the "blessed and glorious Paul, who… accurately and reliably taught concerning the word of truth" because, "if you study them carefully, you will be able to build yourselves up in the faith that has been given to you."

It is also significant that Polycarp was "particularly known for his opposition to Marcion" (who created his own 'Bible', leaving out the entire Old Testament, and including only 10 of Paul's letters and a heavily edited Gospel) and directly opposes Gnostic teachings in his letter when he writes, "he who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist." It is noted that he once met Marcion. Upon their meeting, Marcion demanded that Polycarp recognize his group as a legitimate form of Christianity. Polycarp replied, "Yes, I recognize you; I recognize the first-born of Satan!"

Polycarp was so adamantly opposed to Marcion and Gnosticism in general because of his firm conviction that actions flow from beliefs. Wrong actions will flow from wrong beliefs, because "for him, orthopraxy is the other side of the coin of orthodoxy." Thus how can one worship a Christ that they do not truly know? It seems this same dilemma faces the modern church. Though most are not as overt as Marcion, who cut out unwanted portions of scripture developing his own canon for teaching, many evangelicals do have a "Canon inside the cannon," or parts of the Bible they do not recognize as important or worth reading (such as Leviticus).

Significance of Polycarp for Today

Working with marriages and families has revealed one primary dilemma in today's church: a poor understanding of theology. So many of the marital issues would be resolved if many husbands and wives understood how their marriage was meant to reflect the nature of Christ's love for the church. Not only must they understand it; they must believe it. But so many of the actions of our church members reflect the problem of Polycarp's day, since "he believed wrong behaviors were evidence of wrong beliefs, and wrong beliefs axiomatically produced wrong behaviors."

If you are one man trying, then embrace Polycarp's conviction that "actions flow from beliefs," and begin each day allowing the scriptures to "renew your mind" (Rom 12.2), for 'by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil' (Prov. 16.6).

NOTE ON READING – If interested in reading the writings of the Apostolic Father, you can read some online here for free, though I prefer this print edition. For the print edition that includes the Greek text, click here. Both of these print editions have excellent introductions to each work and the modern translation is easier to read than the online version. If you own logos, then pick up the electronic version with full parsing.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

52 Men Trying Part 1: Athanasius

In 2009 One Man Trying will highlight one historical church figure per week. Why? To highlight the courage and bravery of the fathers of the faith. One weakness of the modern church is a lack of teaching on the history of the church, thus we tend to repeat some of the mistakes that previous generations worked hard to resolve. We also forget all the courageous acts that have laid the foundation of our faith today. These posts will help us remember – for there is great danger in forgetting God's faithfulness (Deut 6.12).

Thus the first featured figure is Athanasius, the timing of which is directly tied to the recent advent season. Athanasius was born around 300 AD and was known as the "black dwarf" (he was short and dark skinned). Theologically, he is best known for his relentless fight for the belief in the deity of Christ. In fact some say that he alone stood in the gap to protect Orthodoxy against ultimate corruption. The common phrase to describe him was Athanasius contra mundum, or "Athanasius against the world."

The main group he opposed was led by Arius, who taught that Jesus was created by God the Father (a belief also held by modern day Jehovah Witnesses). To spread his teaching, Arius coined the phrase, "There was a time when he (Jesus) was not." But Athanasius understood the absolute centrality of the deity of Christ to the Christian faith. If Christ was not fully God, then how did he have the power to forgive sins? Only God can forgive sins. Athanasius fought for the truth and appeared to win when Arius was declared a heretic by the council of Nicea (325 AD) and condemned to exile. In order to clear up confusion about the term "begotten" (John 3.16), they clarified that Jesus was "Begotten, not made." So whatever begotten means, they were sure it did not mean "created/made." In his Orations against the Arians Athanasius explains that, "The sun's rays belong really to it and yet the sun's substance is not divided or lessened. The sun's substance is whole and its rays are perfect and whole. These rays do not lessen the substance of the light but are a true offspring from it. Likewise we understand that the Son is begotten not from outside the Father but from the Father himself. The father remains whole while 'the stamp of his substance' (Heb 1.3) is eternal and preserves the Father's likeness and unchanging image."

Everything seemed settled, but politics were a big part of early church government (imagine that). Shortly after the banning of Arius, Constantine reversed the decision and ordered Athanasius of all people to restore Arius as a bishop! Athanasius refused and was threatened with exile. He stood firm and faced the consequences. This was not the first time he knew of persecution. Growing up in Alexandria, he spent much of the first 15 years of his life in fear of a particularly ruthless persecutions headed by the Roman government. As Bishop, he was in and out of exile four more times, spending a total of 15 years away from his work as Bishop of Alexandria.

During these exiles, he spent much time with the monks, eventually writing a 'best-seller' about the life of Antony, one of the first monks. Many would see an exile as time wasted, but God used Athanasius' writings from this period to lead many to faith in Christ. In fact, his book on Antony played a key part in Augustine's conversion!

One of his contemporaries described him as follows: "He was sublime in action, lowly in mind; inaccessible in virtue, most accessible in intercourse [conversation]; gentle, free from anger, sympathetic, sweet in words, sweeter in disposition; angelic in appearance, more angelic in mind; calm in rebuke, persuasive in praise, without spoiling the good effect of either by excess, but rebuking with the tenderness of a father, praising with the dignity of a ruler, his tenderness was not dissipated nor his severity sour, for the one was reasonable, the other prudent, and both truly wise; his disposition sufficed for the training of his spiritual children, with very little need of words; his words with very little need of the rod."

What a description! And all this is said of a man who stood firm for truth. His example proves that one does not have to be a hot-headed loud-mouth to be persuasive. Not in the church, not at work, and not with your wife or kids. "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov. 15.1).

I end with some of Athanasius' own words (heading the advice of C.S. Lewis), from his book On the Incarnation. This is a short read (about 100 pgs) that I highly recommend, especially the edition with an introduction by C.S. Lewis. I picked up this book around Christmas, and will likely make a habit of reading it every December for years to come. In this book, Athanasius defends the need for God to come to earth as a human and builds a case against pagans who would laugh at this "absurd" notion.

In refutation of the Gentiles, he says: "They laugh at that which is no fit subject for mockery, yet fail to see the shame and ridiculousness of their own idols." (p75)

Of Jesus' limitations he says: "His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone… nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it. For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it. Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling" (p45-46).

On why Jesus allowed the Jews to kill him: "A generous wrestler, virile and strong, does not himself choose his antagonists, lest it should be thought that of some of them he is afraid. Rather, he lets the spectators choose them, and that all the more if these are hostile, so that he may overthrow whomsoever they match against him and thus vindicate his superior strength. Even so it was with Christ… who did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind" (p54).

Athanasius – he was one man trying to do the right thing, not matter how much it hurt.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Christ Centered Parenting for 2-Year Olds

In this 6-minute clip, C.J. Mahaney and his wife Carolyn are asked "How does one do Christ-centered parenting with a 2-year old?" Her response is profound: "Obedience is the gateway to the gospel." She says that by teaching them obedience you are preparing their little hearts to be receptive to the gospel once they can understand more. You can also download their two messages on parenting for free here.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Lewis on Reading Challenging Works of Theology

“I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Lewis on Books - Part III

“Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…

None of us can fully escape the blindness [of our own age], but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false, they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Years Without Tears

Today is a day of setting new goals, aspiring towards long held dreams, and setting resolutions. Below is a list of a few activities that you may want to put on your list:

  • Our entire church is being encouraged to follow this Bible reading schedule. (FYI – while averaging 62 books per year for the last three years, President Bush also read through the Bible each year.)
  • This poster gives a comprehensive plan along with syntax notes for reading through the Greek New Testament in a year.
  • One blogger is encouraging people to read through the entire ESV Study Bible (including all the articles and study notes) in the coming year. He is even giving away copies to a few who agree to do it with him.