Review: Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity in the Roman empire

Christianity in the Roman EmpireRobert E. Winn. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A survey of Christian history in the post-apostolic era from 100 to 300 A.D., introducing the reader to key figures, events, controversies, and the development of various church practices and structures.

For many of us, there is a huge gap in our knowledge of the history of Christianity that extends from the close of the New Testament era until the Reformation era. The era this book covers, 100-300 A.D. was particularly crucial not only in the church’s response to persecution, but also in the development of various aspects of church order and practice and the growing recognition of the body of works the church would consider canonical, and figuring out the relation of these to the Hebrew scriptures they began to call the Old Testament. In addition, controversy forced the church to more clearly articulate its understand of key beliefs, particularly related to the person of Christ.

Robert E. Winn presents this material in a compact 137 pages of text, suitable for use in an adult education series, small group, or reading group, as well as for personal reading. He divides his treatment into three parts:

  1. Christianity in the Year 100. He begins with the contours of Christianity in the first generation following the apostolic era. They had arisen out of a Jewish context that has been decimated in its rebellions against Rome from which they drew apart, they spoke of Jesus as “Lord” and had developed clear authority structures and a moral life. Roman rulers like Pliny were presented with a conundrum of how to treat them. Early teaching in The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas set out the distinctive way Christians ought live. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians builds on this and reminds them of their common faith, as well as obedience to the bishops as key to their unity. Ignatius, in addition to addressing the importance of obedience to the bishops, is perhaps the earliest to address false teaching, both from “Judaism” and from the docetists, who maintained that Christ only “appeared” to be human. The section closes with these teachers instructions on church order including baptism and the Eucharist, laying groundwork still evident 2000 years later.
  2. Christianity in a Hostile World. Over the next 150 years, the church confronted attacks on its teaching and very existence. The section opens with the first comprehensive attack on Christian doctrine and practice by Celsus, and the anonymous response in the epistle to Diognetus, a Roman official. Then, Winn summarizes Justin Martyr’s First Apology, responding to charge that Christians are atheists, immoral, and disloyal to the empire. While Christians are not searched out from house to house, key leaders are martyred, including Polycarp, and two women, Perpetua and Felicity, whose stories are recounted. The persecution threatens the unity of the church about how those who denied their faith to escape death should be treated if they seek re-admission to the church. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was a key figure in arriving at a response that was kind of a via media between extreme factions on either side of the issue.
  3. Faith and Practice in the Third Century. The church’s belief and practice continued to develop in the third century. Winn opens his discussion with the development of a canon, and the different ways of reading scripture that developed, the typological being represented by Melito, and the allegorical represented by Origen. Irenaeus of Lyon’s articulation of the faith around the triune God, against heretical ideas, is considered. Tertullian’s defense of Christianity against Marcion follows in defending the divinity and humanity of Jesus. He returns to Origin in his teaching on prayer, emphasizing both the hours, and the postures of prayer. We close with Eusebius’ history of early Christianity, striking in his account of Christians’ response to plague, the transmission of the faith, and the dealing with heretics like Paul of Samosata.

Each chapter includes questions at the conclusion to review and reflect on the chapter content. Chapters are short and many include quoted material from the early Christian writers. There is a “What to Read Next” section at the end of the book that provides both general readings and books on each part, many of which are texts on, or by, the early church fathers.

Perhaps the one surprising omission in this work is the lack of discussion of Gnosticism, and the challenge it posed, particularly in the second century. This is all the more significant given the resurgence of interest in Gnosticism in our own era, and even the contention that it was an alternative form of Christianity that was suppressed by “official” Christianity. Irenaeus was a key figure in these controversies and Against the Heresies an important part of the church’s response. Winn summarizes this work but is silent about Gnosticism.

What this book does do is provide a concise treatment of early Christian history, focused on Christian practice, key beliefs, and the response to the ever-present threat of persecution from Rome. Winn acquaints us with the writings of the early fathers (the reading of which I would encourage!). He helps us see the origins of ways of reading scripture, of articulating and defending the church’s faith, and ordering the church’s life that are with us in some form to this day.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Early Christian Writings

Early Christian Writings

Early Christian WritingsVarious, Translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Revised by Andrew Louth. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.

Summary: A collection of early, post-apostolic Christian writings concerned with the organization, leadership, worship, conduct, martyrs, and doctrinal teaching of the nascent church.

How does a movement that survives beyond its earliest leaders begin to define the structures and practices and teaching that will sustain and order its life? The canonical scriptures of the New Testament give us some account of the very early stages of that project for what would become the Christian church as it spread throughout the Roman empire, narrated in Acts. Paul’s occasional letters articulate define core beliefs and apply them to questions of Christian practice and morality, particularly in this new situation of gatherings comprised both of Jews and non-Jews. The pastoral letters address church leadership, its tasks and character. Other letters by Peter, James, and John and the writer to the Hebrews also make sense of the work of Christ arising out of its Jewish setting and how these new communities live set apart lives in the world.

These nascent churches were still very much a work in progress. The writings in this collection reflect the next stage in the church’s development. They include the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, seven epistles written by Ignatius enroute to martyrdom in Rome, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians as he faces martyrdom and an account of that martyrdom, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache.

A common concern in a number of these writings is the distinctive character Christians are to exhibit in the world in their love for each other, their abstinence from sexual and other forms of immorality, their generosity in giving and refraining from the love of money, and their faith. Clement and Ignatius and the Didache repeatedly emphasize obedience to the bishops and deacons who are to serve with diligence and care.

A number of these writings include calls to “stand firm” in the Lord. We hear how Ignatius regards his own impending martyrdom in Rome in his Epistle to the Romans:

“I must implore you to do me no such untimely kindness; pray leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am his wheat, ground fine by the lions’ teeth to be made purest bread for Christ. Better still, incite the creatures to become a sepulchre for me; let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh, so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I fall asleep. When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus Christ’s disciple.”

The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom includes his stirring testimony before the Governor:

“The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. ‘Take the oath and I will let you go’, he told him. ‘Revile your Christ.’ Polycarp’s reply was, ‘Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?’ “

These works taught early Christians how to face similar martyrdom, should it come. Polycarp also exemplified better sense than some, eluding captors when he could, but calmly facing them when he could not.

In the Epistle to Diognetus, we have an early example of a Christian “apologetic,” emphasizing the follies of both paganism and Judaism, the upright character of the Christian community, that functioned as the soul to the body of the world, the supernatural character of revelation, the mystery of the incarnation and a concluding section urging readers to faith. The Epistle of Barnabas gives us an early example of the allegorical reading of the Old Testament that reveals their spiritual meaning with the coming of Christ.

Finally the Didache gives us another example of Christian moral teaching defining the Two Ways (of Life and Death) and how those on each Way live. Much of these are concise exhortations, as relevant today as then. One example:

“Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with persons of eminence, but choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.”

After this first part on the Two Ways is an early example of a “Church Manual” with instructions on baptism, fast days (not on the same day as hypocrites!) and prayer, the Eucharist, welcoming itinerant Apostles and Prophets and distinguishing the genuine from the impostors, Sunday worship, local officials (bishops and deacons) and Eschatology.

There is much of profit here, in “overhearing” the order of early Christian congregational life, in understanding the early roots of practices we observe to this day, and in considering the faithfulness of these early believers and teachers. The Didache, for example, in its section on the Two Ways, offers a great rubric for personal examination of one’s life, especially, perhaps, before taking the Eucharist.

For many of us, our knowledge of the two millenia of church history is one of the biblical narrative of the earliest Christians, perhaps a bit of Reformation history, and little more. These writings give us a glimpse of those who followed the Apostles, and how they began to work out the theology, organization, and character of Christian life entrusted to them.