Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Tag: early Christianity (page 1 of 2)

How to React to the Fall of Rome – Part 2

In the previous post we saw that the ancient church’s view of a historical phenomenon (namely, the Roman Empire) shifted dramatically within the space of a few generations, on account of their particular experiences with that empire.

I would suggest that we have seen something somewhat similar take place over the past few generations up until our day–though not with an empire, per se.

I think it is particularly interesting to see how many Christians lament over the end of modernism the way Jerome mourned the fall of Rome. So many of us weep over modernism as if it was a Christian creation, designed for the spread of the gospel–God’s chosen means for reaching the world.

In reality, there is little that is further from the truth. In and of itself modernism was never a friend to the gospel. Secular modernist philosophers and scientists have always used modernism as a means of attacking and discrediting the claims of the Christian faith.

For all the ways that modernism has provided a platform for displaying the truthfulness of Christianity (text criticism, archaeological studies of ancient cities, much of creation science, etc.), it was never a ‘Christian’ view.

The trustworthiness of Christianity in a modern mindset boils down to little more than making a ‘case for Christ’ logically. The trouble is that Christianity, by its very nature, will not fit in these categories.

All that we are as Christians is based on the claim that Jesus Christ was entirely God and entirely man, lived a perfect life fulfilling God’s law, suffered and died to take on the curse of the law for us who receive his righteousness, and that God really did physically and literally raise him from the dead.

But here’s the deal: I can’t prove that to you in a scientific way. I can point to evidences, but that’s all. There is something necessarily personal and experiential (existential?) about the Christian faith. What we believe is not relativism, because our believing does not determine whether something is true or false, but our faith is what saves us.

In other words, it’s something personal, internal, ‘unprovable’ that makes all the difference in the world. That’s what our religion is based on. This is the kind of thing that modernists can’t grasp. They want something to touch, to examine, to test, to prove.

So what then? Do we rejoice over the fall of Rome? Do we rush off to align ourselves with the newest invaders who have come to expose Rome’s weaknesses? Do we embrace all that is postmodernism with open arms?

I suggest that we do what Augustine did. We use this opportunity to look around and evaluate from the perspective of eternity. What about modernism was evil and passing? What was good? What reflected God? How was modernism used for the spread of the kingdom?

And then, we ought to begin asking some careful questions about the ’empire’ that is coming upon us. How can we use its strengths and its weaknesses to further the cause of the kingdom? How does postmodernism provide ways for the gospel to go forth that modernism never would?

In the end we must remember that neither modernism nor postmodernism is ‘God’s perspective.’ These philosophical mindsets are of man, and they will pass. We need to examine the world around us closely so that we can see how to better hope in, trust in, and point to the world that is to come.

How to React to the Fall of Rome – Part 1

Looking over my notes today from my early church history course, I noticed something interesting. It’s nothing new or profound, but it caught my attention anyway. The church’s response to the fall of Rome was weird, in many ways.

I think it’s necessary to lay some background before we move on.

From the founding of Christianity (Pentecost somewhere around 33AD) to 64AD the Christian church enjoyed religious protection, since it was seen by Rome as a Jewish sect. When Rome burnt in 64AD, however, Nero needed someone to blame and so he blamed the Christians.

Nero’s actions set the precedent for persecution of Christians that would last the next few hundred years. Rome was ruled by pagans who hated Christians. From the heart of Rome all the way up to places like Gaul (southern France) Christians were persecuted.

It is important to note that throughout this time period, Christians saw the hand of Satan at work in the Roman Empire, as both he and they sought to destroy Christ’s church.

Skipping ahead a few centuries, we find that in 312AD a Roman Emperor (Constantine) becomes a Christian. This is part of a monumental shift for the way Christianity and Rome came to relate. Though (contrary to popular belief) Constantine did not legislate Christianity, he did legally protect Christians from persecution.

As Christianity gained favour with the upper segments of society (it’s popular to like what the emperor likes), Rome grew in favour with the Christians as well.

Within a few generations, it seems, Christians had forgotten that Rome had for so long killed and persecuted their forefathers in the faith. Now Rome was a friend to them, and they could see it as nothing else.

This is seen nowhere more clearly than in Jerome’s reaction to the fall of Rome. In his writings, he laments the fall of the Roman empire, citing Scriptures originally speaking of Jerusalem, and now using them in reference to Rome! Christians like him wept and lamented that this ‘Christian’ empire could fall.

This is a far cry from the view of Christians who had lived only a few generations before him, who saw Satan at work through the Roman empire.

How could this shift have happened?

It happened because Christians like Jerome were so consumed with what they could see in their own time, that they lost sight of what the scriptures truly do say about kingdoms, empires, and earthly regimes.

Just as a side note, in closing, it must be noted that my personal hero, Augustine, did not fall prey to such a short view. In response to Jerome, Augustine would write letters to him, admonishing him to look past Rome to the City that will never fall. Likewise, against the pagans who said that the fall of Rome meant the fall (and failure!) of Christianity, Augustine wrote the City of God which functions as a theodicy and an apologetic to the philosophers of his day.

What does all this have to do with us and how we view history today, as it unfolds? That’s for another post.

I Love Christians!

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately for several of my courses about textual criticism of the New Testament Greek texts. It’s been really interesting, to say the least, and I’ve been learning lots.

One of the greatest things I learned was this. In the first century AD the copying of manuscripts was a highly developed profession. It would typically take place in what was called a Scriptorium. There an author would dictate (or, if they were making copies, then someone would read aloud from the original manuscript) and a whole crew of thoroughly trained men (usually slaves) would record the words being read. In this ways dozens of copies of books could be made in quite a short period of time, and quite inexpensively as well. It is remarkable to read about the procedures for training these men and for checking the manuscripts for accuracy as well.

But if that’s the case, you ask, then why are there so many variant readings and wordings in hundreds of places in the New Testament? Shouldn’t it be more uniform?

Well… here’s the thing. If the New Testament were produced only for the rich aristocrats, it probably would have. But the average Christian was either a slave with no expendable income, or else just too poor, and couldn’t afford to have a New Testament done like this.

But they were unwilling to live without a copy of the Scriptures. That’s what I love about Christians. No matter how poor, no matter their circumstances, they depend on the Bibles as their very spiritual food.

So, they took to making copies. They made their own copies, had copies done by less than professionals, and found any way they could to get more copies distributed. Of course, since these are non-professionals doing it now, you’ve got all kinds of manuscript errors creeping in, which is unfortunate, but I can hardly blame them.

As an interesting side note, many scholars have conjectured that it was Christians who invented the codex (or, ‘book’) format of manuscripts, rather than the scroll, which was always used at this point in history. Why? So that they could each have their own copy of the Scriptures, so that they’d be able to carry it with them, and so that they could look passages up much more quickly. Can you ask for better motivation than that?

Their love for the Bible changed the way humans formatted books.

And most of us have about 15 translations sitting on our bookshelves in various formats, with all kinds of different study notes. Most of them are collecting dust.

I’m glad it was the early Christians who got the Bible first. They may not have copied it with all the accuracy we would’ve liked, but at least they loved it, copied it, made it their own.

What have I done with my Bible?

Tertullian and Contemporary Biblical Ethics

Tertullian lived ca.150-ca.225 AD. He was born in Carthage, which is in North Africa (so he was probably a little darker than the picture would suggest). He was a man brilliantly gifted by God for writing. He wrote extensively on things like apologetics and ethics and often wrote polemically against the heretics of his day (eg. Marcion and Praxeas). He ably defended both Scriptures and the Trinity. In his writings–which are easily dated from the end of the second and early third centuries–Tertullian quotes from the New Testament, plainly citing it as being on par with Old Testament Scriptures, thus indicating an already accepted Canon, long before Nicaea.

All that said, Tertullian was not perfect (as no saint has ever been). Tertullian was associated with a movement in his day known as Montanism. Based on the teachings of a ‘Prophet’ named Montanus, this group believed that the age in which they lived was the dispensation of the Holy Spirit (the Old Testament was the dispensation of the Father, the Gospels were the dispensation of the Son). Since this was the age of the Holy Spirit, they relied heavily on prophecies and other miraculous revelatory gifts for their doctrine and ecclesiastical practice.

Citing John 16.12-13, Tertullian and the Montanists claimed that the ethics Jesus declared were not finally absolute, nor fully developed, but that they were all that the disciples were able to handle at that point in redemptive history. The Holy Spirit, who was to come, would then have the ministry of revealing a heightened ethic to Jesus’ followers in the days and years to come.

It is absolutely essential to notice, however, to what end Tertullian and friends used this position. They argued for the insufficiency of Scriptural ethics in several areas: namely, marriage / remarriage, and flight from persecution. Whereas Jesus had made allowances for both of these, the Holy Spirit was now teaching them to advance beyond what Scripture had revealed to a higher ethic.

Why in the world would they choose these areas? Because that’s what their culture demanded. Asceticism was the philosophical milk Tertullian had been raised on, and persecution had become the norm for Christians of their day. For Christianity to be consistent, relevant, and morally / ethically contemporary with the philosophical ideals of the day it needed to be advanced from what Scripture had revealed.

The irony, of course, is that looking back from about 1800 years later it seems absurd to us (in a completely removed culture) to suppose the Holy Spirit would counsel against marriage (or even remarriage after one’s spouse dies) or that he would specifically command that Christians not flee, but rather, seek persecution.

Since we don’t breathe that air, it smells real funny to us.

But here’s the thing: People today insist on making the same mistake as Tertullian and the Montanists. No, not with the marriage / remarriage thing or the persecution thing (in fact, we’re tempted to loosen the biblical commands here rather than tighten them), but rather, with the ordination of women to the position of elder, or to accept some forms of homosexuality as legitimate lifestyle alternatives.

People argue now, like Tertullian argued then, that the Bible’s ethics are unfinished; they merely establish a trajectory that we must follow, and by the guidance of the Spirit (and by finding the ‘spirit of the text’) we can ultimately determine a better ethic than the one laid out in Scripture.

But it’s all hoogly! I would be willing to bet–if any of us could be around–that 1800 years from now people will look back on our times and wonder why in the world we would think the Scriptures were insufficient in these areas.

Just like we look back on Tertullian and see him reading Scriptures and conforming Christianity to his culture, so we must see that we ourselves are always being tempted to do the same. The simple fact is that we live in a profoundly feminist, pro-gay culture. The pressure we face is always to accept these things. We have been raised and educated, indoctrinated from our youth to accept these things. The ‘highest’ of ethics in our culture is an accepting one that does not place boundaries on other people, especially when it comes to gender or ‘sexual preference.’

Those are our ‘hot-button issues’, just like Tertullian’s were asceticism and persecution. We must not be like him. We must stand firm and stick to the Scriptures. It is them alone which are able to make us wise for salvation, and them alone which equip us for every good work.

The real questions we must ask are not about whether women should be ordained as elders or homosexuality should be accepted; we already have the answers to those questions!

The real question that needs to be asked is this: Am I willing to stand on the authority of the word of God alone? Do I have enough faith in God to base my ethics on it, even when it makes me appear ‘morally backward’ in a culture of acceptance? Is God’s word enough?

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For a fuller treatment of ‘Trajectory ethics’, see here.
For another post on the influence of asceticism on Christianity, see here.

Gnosticism: A Very Brief Introduction

In our times Gnosticism has had a startling revival. It continues to pop up in popular books, magazines, news articles, etc. Where did this thing called Gnosticism come from? Who were some of the key players?

What follows is a very brief introduction to the second-century Gnosticism engaged by early Christians like Irenæus (c.130-c.202).

The Gnostics were individuals who belonged to various religious movements, who believed that people could be saved only by their knowledge (gnosis). This knowledge was secret—known only by those to whom it had been revealed by God. Though Gnostics were involved in a variety of religions and sects, they particularly flourished through their association with the fringes of Christianity.

Gnosticism is known widely for its particularly sharp dualism: that which is “spiritual” is good, but that which is physical is bad. This influenced everything they thought and taught. For example, creation was the result of the fall of “wisdom.” Thus, even the very act of the creation of the physical was a result of sin. The one sent by God to be the redeemer of the universe, then, is sent so as to bring a “secret knowledge” to God’s people by which they may be saved.

Also as a result of this sharp dualism morals of Gnostics varied. Some believed that since knowledge of the spiritual was all that was required for salvation how one behaved physically was of no relevance, and thus rampant immorality was encouraged. Others argued that since the physical was bad, it should not be indulged in any sense. This latter group was the more common position and resulted in drastic asceticism. Under this view marriage, sexuality, wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and many other things essential to the Christian life had to be abandoned.

The Christology of Gnostics was affected drastically by the idea that anything physical is evil. They were forced to hold to a Docetic view of Christ, insisting that he was not human, nor physical, nor were his sufferings real. Rather, all of these were mere apparitions.

The Gnostics were also dualists in their view of God. They saw a sharp contrast between the God of the Old Testament and the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The God of the Old Testament was a God of justice and anger, committed only the nation of Israel, willing to destroy all the nations of the world for their sake. The God of the New Testament, they argued, is much more merciful and loving. The God of the Old Testament created the world which is physical and therefore evil, but the God of the New Testament is spiritual and is concerned with saving people through a secret knowledge of the spiritual which is revealed in Jesus.

The Gnostics were prolific writers and produced many works still extant even now. The Mandaean communities currently living in modern day Iraq and Iran are the only remnant of Gnosticism in today’s world. Even this sect, however, did not come into existence until at least the second century ad and thus had no influence on the world of Christ or the writing of the New Testament.

It is argued that Simon of Acts 8 was a prototype which later Gnostics would follow and modify. Several other key Gnostic figures and teachers include Cerinthus, Marcion, Basilides, Carpocrates, and the most prominent teacher, Valentinus.

Good Stuff to Read

If you’re like me, you can’t help but feel horribly ignorant with regard to much of our Christian heritage. I know a few of the main figures, but very little aside from the biggest names.

It has been a wonderful blessing to study this past year or so under Dr Haykin at TBS because he has done so much to bring church history to life for me. Fortunately, he does it in a way that challenges you with very practical application to the Christian life that we live now. It is no mere academic exercise.

I’m currently going through a couple of Dr Haykin’s books and have enjoyed another one previously, so I thought I’d recommend them to whoever thinks they’d like to make themselves a little more familiar with a couple of our forefathers in the faith.


I had the chance to read this book several years ago. It simply contains about 50 of Watts’ lesser known hymns. Absolutely fantastic devotional material.


Oliver Cromwell is an absolutely fascinating character who is often written about and studied, but few have come to appreciate the Puritan spirituality that pervaded all of his life and his thought.


Whitefield is always a wonderful study. The devotion with which he writes stirs the heart.

These books are all available from the Joshua Press website and are all very inexpensive. The format is simple and easy to read: the first section contains writings by Dr Haykin overviewing the spirituality of the person in question. The other part of the book is made up of selections from their writings so that you can familiarize yourself with the figure in a firsthand sense by engaging with the primary sources (and you don’t even have to go to a library!).

These books are absolutely wonderful because they introduce you to some key figures of our faith without being incredibly demanding of your time or mental energy. And as with everything Dr Haykin does, these books are primarily concerned with practical spirituality and how our lives can be more conformed to the image of Christ by the power of the Spirit now because of what these men wrote so long ago.

A Time for Asceticism?

Ever wonder why asceticism figures so prominently in church history? It started very early on. Many of the figures we are much indebted to (Augustine, Jerome, Basil the Great, Benedict, Patrick, etc.) throughout church history have had some strong leanings toward monasticism.

Now that the ‘clean sea breeze of the centuries’ has blown our minds clear from excessive faults, we often look back and wonder with amazement: ‘How could such great Christians have been so blind as to become ascetics?’ We don’t understand what brought them to this.

A bit of background, then, is in order. Christianity was persecuted on and off and to varying degrees for the first few centuries after Christ. It is absolutely miraculous, and a wonderful testimony to the power of the Spirit and the grace of God, that the church continued to grow by leaps and bounds throughout the Empire, even under such hardships. After a while, however, the persecution stopped. When Emperor Constantine was converted (around AD 312) the seeds of ‘cultural Christianity’ were beginning to grow roots. It would still be some years, however, before Christianity became the ‘state religion.’

Up to that point, to identify yourself as a Christian cost you something. You had to be willing to suffer and to lose things you had worked for. Once Christianity became cultural, there were no more martyrs, no more persecution. Now it cost nothing to be a Christian. Anyone could do it. The churches were soon all filled to the brim as people began to realize there was much socially and politically to gain from being a ‘Christian.’

Where once Christianity had been identified with righteousness of life and high moral standards, the now popular religion began to see moral decay from within. The high standards were lowered to the point that one could hardly tell the difference between ‘Christians’ and unbelievers.

Of course, the true believers were put off by this! Moral compromise should never be tolerated in the church, under any circumstances, and they recognized this. They knew that to be a Christian should cost them something, that they should stand out and be different than the decadent culture around them.

So… Christianity is popular and acceptable. It costs nothing to be a Christian. The churches are full of ‘cultural Christians.’ The Christians don’t look a lot different than the decadent society in which they live. (Am I describing their culture or ours?)

Their answer, of course, was that the truest, highest form of Christianity is that which costs the most. So they left everything behind: all their possesions, their family and friends, the luxuries of urban living, the right to marry, and the wealth of food, etc.

The New Testament seems relatively clear that we are not called to an ascetic lifestyle. But rather than condemning these brothers and sisters for fleeing to monasteries, we should seek to understand why they did what they did. And understanding that, we need to emulate their desire to stand out! They were not content with Christians who look just like unbelievers–and we shouldn’t be either!

So we can err by becoming ascetic and we can err by not seeking to be different at all. But we can also err in another way: We can seek to become ‘righteous’ in the way that our philosophical climate deems good. Why did they resort to asceticism when they thought they should be different? Because that’s what the greatest thinkers of their time valued as great righteousness.

When we seek to be different from the culture around us, we need to be careful that we’re not merely emulating the philosophical, ethical ideals of our day. Paul said, ‘Do not be conformed to the pattern of this age,’ and I think he meant it. Which of course means that we need to think hard.

How do I live as a Christian in a way that is different from nominal Christianity, but not simply according to the patterns that the world has established as right and good and self-sacrificing?

All this, of course, means that we need to continue to let that ‘clean sea breeze’ blow… we need to read church history so that we’re not merely influenced by the ideologies of our day. But more than anything, it means we need to be people of the book. We need to read the Word of God and know it intimately so that we’ll be able to discern all that is pleasing and right in the eyes of the God who wrote the book.

That is, after all, why we’re here.

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