Dec 042017
 

Essentials

The Letter to Diognetus

“No, you can’t tell people anything, you’ve got to show ’em.” 

Bruce Springsteen 

Born to Run

 

The Franco-Prussian war was in full fury.  Prussian General August von Werder was laying siege to the French city of Strasbourg.  He had decided to reduce the city through a massive and continuous bombardment.  On 24 August 1870, Prussian artillery rained down shells on the city and destroyed Strasbourg’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Municipal Library. Thousands of manuscripts, rare books and ancient artifacts were destroyed.  Among them was the sole surviving manuscript of the second century Epistle to Diognetus. Discovered in Constantinople in 1436, the manuscript had made its way across Europe, eventually coming to reside in Strasbourg.  Now it lay in ashes.  Thankfully, before its destruction, two accurate recensions had been made so, while the manuscript was lost, the message was not.

It causes one to wonder, how much has been lost through the centuries?  From the destruction of the great library of Alexandria (first under the Romans, then under the Copts and finally under the Muslim conquest) down to the destruction of monastic libraries in our own time, by the former Marxist government in Ethiopia or the destructive rage of ISIS, tens of thousands of ancient Christian manuscripts  and codices have been reduced to ashes.  What treasures might have been among them? Perhaps the earliest Gospel manuscripts, or the original letters of Ignatius of Antioch, or some lost account of the Council of Nicaea?  Perhaps Jerome’s list of sources as he prepared his Latin translation of the Bible? We will never know.  Yet, in spite of the destruction of much that was written, the life of the Church has continued; and that life has been a greater witness to the truth of the Gospel than all the ancillary writings that have surrounded it.

Now, what of the text before us?  Firstly, it has been mistakenly called an epistle or letter, owing to the document being addressed to one Diognetus.  It is not a letter.  It is, perhaps, one of the earliest examples that we have of an apology for the Christian faith. It has been postulated that this apology may have been written to the famed tutor of Marcus Aurelius, which may indicate a dating of c. 150.  Another possibility, however, is a magistrate of the same name in Alexandria who is referenced in papyri dated between 197 and 203.  On the other hand, it may have been addressed to a figure from antiquity who is wholly unknown to us. The style of the letter and the concerns raised within the text causes me to opt for the earlier date of the mid-second century. The text itself has been divided into 12 short sections or chapters.  The final two chapters, 11 and 12, may be from a different hand. There are also two small gaps in chapters 7 and at the end of chapter 10 that perished after its original transcription in antiquity.  What has survived, however, is remarkable.

An “apology”, in this context, is not saying “sorry” for a slight or an offense. Instead is a reasoned defense of one’s belief and/or behavior.  Within the hellenistic culture of the day, an apology (apologia or “defense”)  was, strictly speaking, the speech offered by one accused in a judicial proceeding.  In time, however, it morphed into a defense of a philosophical or theological position given in a speech or in literature, sometimes, but not always, given at a trial or inquiry. We think of the speech given by Socrates at his trial in Athens or, indeed, Paul’s defense given at his hearing before Festus and Agrippa (Acts 26:2).  During the second and third centuries, the Apology became an important genre of Christian literature as the early Church sought to stake its own identity over against the claims of Judaism on one side, and Graeco-Roman culture on the other side. 

It is important to note in this context that Christians were viewed with enormous suspicion during this period.  Regarded as messianic renegades by the Jewish diaspora, Christians were also considered ignorant and superstitious when measured against the panoramic backdrop of Greek philosophy and Roman literature. Moreover, Christians avoided the normal social life of the day. They did not frequent the baths or the gladiatorial games.  Most Christians came from the lower ranks of society, even to the inclusion of slaves as equals.  They failed to participate in civic rituals.  They considered marriage as a permanent state, rather than transitory.   They refused to offer even token sacrifices to the genius of the Empire, or to the local gods who protected and ensured the welfare of the cities in which they lived.  Given to private meetings of “brothers and sisters” and secret ceremonies apparently involving private communal bathing (baptism) and participating in meals rumored to consist of human flesh and blood (the Eucharist) they were suspected of incest, immorality, magic, human sacrifice and cannibalism.  If all this were not enough, they worshipped a Jew who had been executed under Roman law, and spoke of another kingdom, exciting charges of disloyalty, revolutionary activity and treason.

It is against this background of popular perceptions, that the anonymous author pens his defense of the faith to Diognetus.

The text is very short. It can be read in the space of ten or fifteen minutes. The author writes to explain the manner in which Christians worship God (Diog. 1).  As would be expected, in chapters 2-4, the author carefully explains why Christianity is superior to the worship of idols (in the Graeco-Roman context) as well as superior to the sacrifices, laws, and customs of the Jews, from whom he makes a pronounced differentiation in terms of the Christian community.  In chapters 5-6 the author provides a description of the Christian community as a contrast.  This is followed in chapters 7-8 by a theological and philosophical defense of Christianity as being of not only divine origin, but also of being God’s instrument of salvation in terms of human history. The 10th chapter is an appeal to Diognetus himself to embrace this faith.  The remaining two chapters (Diog. 11-12) are likely an addendum by another hand (possibly later). It may, in fact be a short homily, which is of interest simply owing to its antiquity and the thematic presentation of Christ the logos coming into the world (a favorite theme of early apologists) and the Church as the continuation of that advent.

Now, for contemporary students of apologetics, one might note that this is not an ancient version of Evidence That Demands A Verdict which focuses on “the trustworthiness of the Bible and its teachings”.  If anything, second and third century apologists might have a bit more in common with modern day equivalents such as C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, all the while, however, addressing the concerns of their own time.  Today, of course, we have apologetics and apologists spread over a wide field of topics –  Biblical Apologetics, Scientific Apologetics, Philosophical Apologetics, Historical and Legal Evidentialism, Moral Apologetics, and even Creationist Apologetics.  Yet the heart of the apologetic argument in this second century text is not really about any of these topics.  It is about who Christians are and how their faith is evidenced by the lives they lead.  To quote Mr. Springsteen, “No, you can’t tell people anything, you’ve got to show ’em.”

“Christians differ not from other men in country, or language, or customs. They do not live in any peculiar cities, or employ any particular dialect, or cultivate characteristic habits of life. The truths which they hold result not from the busy ingenuities of human thought; the counsels of man in them possess no champion. They dwell in cities, Greek and barbarian, each where he finds himself placed, and while they submit to the fashion of their country in dress and food and the general conduct of life, they yet maintain a system of interior polity, which beyond all controversy is full of admiration and wonder. The countries they inhabit are their own, but they dwell like aliens; they take their part in all privileges, as being citizens; and in all sufferings they partake as if they were strangers. In every foreign country they recognize a home; and in their home they see the place of their pilgrimage. They marry like other men, and exclude not their children from their affections: their table is open to all around them; they live in the world, but not according to its fashions; they walk on earth, but their conversation is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their lives transcend all law; they love all men, and are persecuted by all; they are unknown, and yet are condemned. Death to them is life; of their poverty they make many rich, and in the extremity of want they still possess all things. They are treated with dishonor, and by dishonor are made glorious; their integrity is insured by the insults which they suffer; when cursed they bless, and reproaches they pay with respect. When doing good they are punished as evil-doers; and when they are punished they rejoice as men that are raised unto life. By Jews they are treated as aliens and foes, by Greeks they are persecuted; and none of their enemies can state a ground for their enmity.”

“In truth, Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body.”  (Diog. 5-6)

Today, we are surrounded by words. Books line our shelves. The inbox on our email servers are filled with correspondence, newsletters and the like.  If we tire of the talking heads spewing words on the television screen, we can self-select even more words in blogs and videos online. Moreover, we can also easily add to this proliferation of words. Owing to advances in technology, we have the ability at our fingertips to constantly “tell” people what we believe concerning a myriad of topics on a wide variety of social media platforms and in varied forums.  

Yet, maybe we have it wrong.  

For the apologists of the early Church, the central argument for the faith was to be found not in words, but in the actual lives lived by Christians. Interestingly enough, this is a pattern of what one might call “practical apologetics” that has been repeated through the centuries.  When, in the 13th century, the early Franciscans were viewed with suspicion and alarm by many owing to their embrace of a radical Christianity, their answer was remarkably simple – “Come and see the life we live”.  When John Wesley and the early Methodists were excoriated by church leaders for their “Holy Clubs” and societies, the response was the same, “Come and see…” When Anglo-Catholic clergy were exiled by their bishops to slum parishes in the 19th century and attacked for restoring the centrality of the Eucharist to Anglican worship, they invited their critics to leave their comfortable establishment parishes and experience for themselves the “beauty of worship” amongst the poor of the city.  Even in our own time when a middle-aged pastor in southern California outraged many of his fellow evangelical and charismatic leaders by allowing into his church hippies, kids off the beach, rock musicians and the like, his response to his critics was simple, “Come and see…”

Our greatest apologia is the life that we live as the Church.

Maybe it’s time to return to that earlier form of “practical apologetics”.

Maybe it’s time to not merely “tell” people what we believe.

Maybe it is time to “show” them what we believe; that is, if we can…

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD

The Project

  61 Responses to ““Essentials”: The Letter to Diognetus by Duane Arnold, PhD”

  1. This is actually my favorite of the series so far.

    Does this describe the church you know today?

    I think we have been subsumed by the prevailing culture…

    “Christians differ not from other men in country, or language, or customs. They do not live in any peculiar cities, or employ any particular dialect, or cultivate characteristic habits of life. The truths which they hold result not from the busy ingenuities of human thought; the counsels of man in them possess no champion. They dwell in cities, Greek and barbarian, each where he finds himself placed, and while they submit to the fashion of their country in dress and food and the general conduct of life, they yet maintain a system of interior polity, which beyond all controversy is full of admiration and wonder. The countries they inhabit are their own, but they dwell like aliens; they take their part in all privileges, as being citizens; and in all sufferings they partake as if they were strangers. In every foreign country they recognize a home; and in their home they see the place of their pilgrimage. They marry like other men, and exclude not their children from their affections: their table is open to all around them; they live in the world, but not according to its fashions; they walk on earth, but their conversation is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their lives transcend all law; they love all men, and are persecuted by all; they are unknown, and yet are condemned.’

  2. Greetings to the Beloved,

    Is there a resource available, that has both the OT and NT in the historical order that they were written, and an online purveyor that I can purchase this from?

  3. There are scads of them
    Just go to Amazon and search for “chronological bibles”.

  4. lots to ponder in the words Michael quoted @ comment #1

    with respect due to those who do not hold the view of the removal of the Church for a period of years or to a millenium rule yet ahead of us where Christ rules mortal man…

    the following gives those of us who do believe the above something to chew on…
    “In truth, Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body.” (Diog. 5-6)

  5. “Maybe it is time to “show” them what we believe; that is, if we can…”

    My carefully prepared message was postponed last night as we discussed as a church how to do this…

  6. #1 Michael

    I think we’ve also said to the world/culture at large, “Put the spot light on what we say”. In our current state (and, of course, there are exceptions) we are much less willing to say, “Put the spotlight on who we are and what we do.”

  7. Duane,

    The emphasis has always focused on doctrine instead of deed…thus, the huge backlash against “social gospel” ministries.
    We can have both…

  8. Michael

    I’ve been doing a good bit of thinking about such matters these days. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not about being a “perfect” church (whatever that might be) but, I think it is about being a “normal” church. So many churches “brand” themselves by their particular eccentricities, that normal is sometimes hard to find…

  9. I seem to remember some long-hairs in a storefront church in my hometown teaching me the simple truth, back in the day; they liked to say,
    “Your talk walks, and your walk talks, but your walk talks better than your talk walks.”

  10. Tom,

    Well said… even if a tad difficult to say… 🙂

  11. Duane,

    Correct me if I’m wrong…but it also struck me that any “culture wars” the church engaged in were intramural…the issues about the ‘confessors’ , matters of doctrine, yes, but also faith and practice.

    If someone wrote today what they perceived Christians to be, I guarantee it would begin with political positions…

  12. #11 Michael

    Yes, the controversies were mainly intramural. The issues of leadership (such as being in a perceived line of authority from the Apostles – Irenaeus), the role of the Holy Spirit (Tertullian and the Montanists) or the Donatist controversy – all intramural. They mainly dealt with internal church order. Put simply, until the fourth century politics were of little or no concern to the church.

  13. I have a friend who is not a believer. She’s bright, able and well educated. Whenever she sees a story relating to the church, she always asks me about it. They are usually not great stories – pedophilia, abuse, White nationalists, money, etc. I have to admit that the stories are often true. She also sees the stories of forgiveness (Charleston and Texas) outreach to the poor, soup kitchens, etc. I tell her that they are also true. She’s confused.

    So much, bad and good, is done in the name of the Church, I don’t think we always realize how difficult it is for people outside the faith to sort it out. One thing I do believe… many have stopped listening to the words. They’ll only believe what they see in regard to the church.

  14. I would hasten to add that one need not only do things under the banner of the local church.
    Simply by applying biblical principles and ethics in front of people who know of your faith is a very powerful apologetic.

  15. #14- anyone who has spent time in the business world knows how true this is … if I justify lying or cheating or even an inconsiderate because the person I have commerce with isn’t a Christian, I do damage to our Lord’s reputation…
    Like Dr. Arnold noted, if you have contact with those outside the Faith, you’ve probably heard some complaints… I’ve heard way too many

  16. #15 Em

    You feel my pain…

  17. #16… if the pain is in not knowing how to answer, to excuse, to justify…. how does one answer?

  18. #17 Em

    I’m afraid we have to explain “wheat and tares” to a skeptical observer. Difficult at best…

  19. Maybe we’d benefit from some graduate courses – start with an in depth study of Romans 12…? … maybe? I was saying ouch as I read

  20. Duane wrote:
    “For the apologists of the early Church, the central argument for the faith was to be found not in words, but in the actual lives lived by Christians”

    I like that Duane! Living out the Gospel.

  21. #20

    Gandhi: I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.

    No one walks the walk anywhere near perfectly, but there needs to be a certain alignment between words and action. Anyone can flap their gums.

  22. @13 Duane. I’ve referred to the early letters to the churches, to demonstrate the facts that when early believers were going off the rails… and that the Bible addresses this. What is different now than 2000 years ago regarding human tendency towards sin?

    I worked for my boss from a 93-97. Left to work out of state on Oregon from 97 to 2000. Worked again for him ever since.

    Last year he told me something like, “your morals are impeccable.” He has 11 years experience on me in the tech industry. I thought, “was it because I don’t back stab, lie or misrepresent data, and take accountability for my mistakes with humbleness?” I was actually too embarrassed to ask him what he meant. I’m not saying this to seek honor, but teether to tell a story. It also told me what a low bar there was in office politics. At least from my point of view.

  23. I think part of the problem today is that we’ve lost the idea that “conversion” is not merely verbal assent to theological propositions. They used to speak of “conversion of manners” or “conversion of life”. It didn’t imply perfection, but it did imply a changed life and changed attitudes. When it’s only about the words, we’ve lost the true meaning of what it means to be a Christian, much less what it means to be the church.

  24. Duane,

    The problem you describe has doctrinal roots. But if we’re not willing to call error, error, then the problem will never get addressed.

    You cannot achieve orthopraxis from heterodoxy.

  25. Jean

    I think the doctrinal aspect can be as simple as the Creed. We “say” that Christ will return and judge “the quick and the dead”… do we live our lives as though that is true? We are supposedly looking for “the life of the world to come”… sometimes it sure does not look like it.
    Even that Christ became incarnate, which should change entirely the way in which we look at our fellow human beings, is confessed, but often ignored in practice. Doctrine that does not inform life is simply consigned to a book on a bookshelf.

  26. Duane,
    “We are supposedly looking for “the life of the world to come”… sometimes it sure does not look like it.”

    How is this supposed to look? I believe the Creed phrase you quote but I don’t know how anyone would know that by my life style. I am centered and concerned about what happens in this life – the now, by how I treat my family, my neighbors, my employees —- even my enemies.
    What is the old saying, ‘being so heavenly minded you are no earthly good?”

    Please do not mistake this for a statement that bad behavior is acceptable.

  27. But I must admit, that just may be my former Jewish life speaking.

  28. MLD

    I do think, for Christians, it is part of our “internal compass” – not seen by others, but part of what directs us in our lives and actions.

  29. #26 – if we weren’t supposed to center our concerns on the here and now, why would God have left us, the Church, here to live out our lives… how you treat your family, your neighbors, you employees – and your enemies is the reason we’re here – how we conduct ourselves as we do so is what gives the world a witness to Christ (the One who has our hearts and is our treasure, the One we’re tasked with learning about, renewing our minds in)… no matter whether they admire or hate us… or so it seems to me

  30. Em, I don’t think my lifestyle witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ or his teachings. It may just state that I believe what I say — but I could be wrong.

    What if a guy in my office does all of the lifestyle stuff correctly, he has taken in and cares for his elderly parents, he has adopted 3 children from Antarctica, and he plays Santa Claus at the orphanage each year? So I go to him and say “what is it that makes you tick?” – what if his reply is “Well, I am a Buddhist and a follower of the Dali Lama, the most holy man walking the earth today – so I do what I do”

    Does that give ‘witness’ to who Buddha and the Dali Lama are? You should be able to tell I am not much on Lifestyle Evangelism 😉

  31. “Sometimes we are told that sanctification is best left to itself, that conscious attempts to please God lead to hypocrisy, and if we just preach the Gospel, sanctification will happen automatically. No. We are not automata, “dead machines”; we have a renewed will which ‘is not idle in the daily practice of repentance, but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that He accomplishes through us.’ ”

    Kurt Marquart

    I think lifestyle still matters – simul justus et peccator does not give us the option of ignoring how we live our lives.

  32. “and if we just preach the Gospel, sanctification will happen automatically.”

    Duane, who teaches that? I’v never seen it. What I see in most of your posts and in American evangelicalism in general is the Law preached to the Christian with little or no Gospel. Can you lecture a Christian into sanctification? Warren and others have been trying to do it for years.

    “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?”

  33. Duane, good shot but next time try interacting with what I said. I did not say lifestyle is not important – however it is not a evangelistic tool – otherwise you end up with the phony St Francis quote and people thinking that is how it is done.
    No one has ever been saved by seeing me help some elderly person across the street.

    Now, quoting a fine Lutheran was a nice touch. 🙂

  34. Now, are you going to make me have to quote the so-called straw epistle? I think we show our faith by what we do…

  35. Jean

    I think Marquart is right (at least on this point) – “we have a renewed will which ‘is not idle in the daily practice of repentance, but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that He accomplishes through us.’ ”

  36. Duane – we show our faith to one another.

    How about my Buddhist example – is his Buddhism on equal footing with our Christianity because his behavior matches or exceeds ours? If lifestyle is the standard, we should all be Mormons.

  37. Neither do men light a candle, and put it
    under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it
    giveth light unto all that are in the house
    Let your light so shine before men, that
    they may see your good works, and
    glorify your Father which is in heaven.

  38. Duane,

    “I think Marquart is right (at least on this point) – ‘we have a renewed will which “is not idle in the daily practice of repentance, but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that He accomplishes through us.” ‘ ”

    Bingo! But here is what I think many miss: All of God’s gifts: the renewed will, works of the Spirit, etc., are given unto faith. Thus, faith must be nourished and sustained. For some reason, many people think faith sustains itself. No, it comes by hearing….

  39. I’ll answer the Buddhist question. He’s closer to God than we want to believe. Start the pyre…

  40. I’ll also say that the greatest lie the devil speaks today is that only doctrine matters. Get some more wood…

  41. #30 – our witness is not how nice we are… how passive and compliant we are…
    so the question well may be, what exactly is our witness? We are offensive when we declare that all religions and good deeds won’t give you an in with your creator, the one true God…
    So just how are we unique? Why are we here?
    Lots of sermons have been preached on those questions, I guess….

  42. We may differ on that part of the Sermon. What is the light that we are not to hide? What is the light we are to raise up? What is the light that lights the whole house (world)? It’s the preaching df the gospel – the sharing of the good news – this is that “good work” that get’s people praising my Father in heaven.

  43. While good behavior doesn’t make a Buddhist right, it certainly makes him more likely to be heard.

  44. But I have not denied good works – good works are what the Christian does and there is not such thing as a Christian who does not do good works. My point again is that no one is saved by seeing my good works. No one is brought to an understanding that there is even a god because I give them a donut (or is it doughnut?).
    If you guys want to burn yourselves on the pyre, that’s fine with me – but you are doing it to yourselves.

  45. There are points to be made beyond our salvific doctrinal formulations.

  46. I think Donut is the correct spelling, though it is clearly a take off of DOugh-nut.

  47. “I’ll also say that the greatest lie the devil speaks today is that only doctrine matters.”

    No one I know says that. However the preaching of the gospel is what matters. Faith comes by hearing – and hearing something specific. Nothing else.

  48. “Don’t cast pearls before swine” or words to that affect… Yet…
    People, most of them, will like you because you are nice… they’ll tell you so, but don’t tell them that there is only one God and their eternal destiny depends on what they do with that fact… Our message has something to do with the fact that declaring, “what the h*’ll !” isn’t going to send you there. ..

  49. Do all deaf people go to hell?

  50. #42 MLD

    That is the most convoluted interpretation of those two verses that I think I have ever encountered…

  51. Duane,
    So help me out brother – what is that light I am to shine?

  52. Michael

    Room on the pyre for two?

    The dichotomy between faith and works is, in my mind, a false dichotomy. I’m not saying that “works save”… works, however, are the evidence of saving faith. The more I look at the first centuries of the Church, it is really inescapable.

  53. Duane,
    There’s always been room for more… 🙂

  54. MLD

    Look at the context… it is about what we do…

  55. #46 Josh

    “The earliest known recorded usage of the term dates to an 1808 short story describing a spread of ‘fire-cakes and dough-nuts.’

    The original spelling is still used outside of the US…

  56. Duane – and delivering the gospel message, the Good News of Jesus Christ is not something we do? (what is it chopped liver now?)

    Since I am teaching in Revelation, I may need to think this one through. Do you think John was put in the Patmos prison for preaching law and gospel to the surrounding population too much or for performing too many good works to convert people?

  57. When did preaching and good works become binary choices?

  58. MLD

    Sorry, both are “bait and switch” examples. As I said, look at the context, before and after. It is about what we do…

  59. #57 Michael

    Indeed…

  60. MLD

    By the way, when Julian the Apostate came to the throne, he wanted the pagan priests to be more circumspect in their conduct because they were put to shame by the Christians…
    “Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?”

  61. “Do all deaf people go to hell?” 😯 Some of the deafest people are those with perfectly good ears. ..
    Looking at the human race taken as a whole, one can see the need for a hell – still we cannot say for certain who God will put there… I do think that to give the gospel of salvation in Christ a hearing and then proceed clear thru life having decided against it makes your eternal destiny pretty certain… Was it Paul who said, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation as God has provided us?

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