Aristides of Athens (2nd century AD) on the conduct of Christians

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In my final post for 2013, I turn to the first half of the 2nd century AD, to Aristides of Athens, a Greek Christian author, who wrote an Apology to the Roman emperor Hadrian, in order to counter the popular notion that Christians were nothing but a sect of erring troublemakers, and the persecution that came with it.

Aristides starts his apology in chapter 1 by stating some of the attributes of the true God. He then says in chapter 2 that there are “four classes of men in this world: Barbarians and Greeks, Jews and Christians”, and goes on to describe the religious practices of each of these “classes”, pointing out the errors of the first three classes and attempting to make a positive case for Christians.

First, of the Barbarians (chapters 3-7) he states that they worship dead warriors and the elements of the Earth, which he claims are the works of God, therefore they do not know who the true God is (i.e. they worship creature rather than Creator).

The Greeks (chapters 8-13) are next because: “they are more subtle than the Barbarians, have gone further astray than the Barbarians; inasmuch as they have introduced many fictitious gods, and have set up some of them as males and some as females; and in that some of their gods were found who were adulterers, and did murder, and were deluded, and envious, and wrathful and passionate, and parricides, and thieves, and robbers.” In other words, Aristides is calling the Greek gods corrupt, immoral and guilty of being human. He concludes his chapters on the Greeks by commenting on the religious beliefs of the Egyptians, who he claims are the most ignorant people on earth since they did not accept the beliefs of the Greeks or Chaldeans and instead worshipped gods modeled after plants and animals.

The Jews (chapter 14) are only commented on in a concise manner. Aristides commends them for their worship of God as the Creator and almighty but claims they have “erred from true knowledge” because “in their imagination they conceive that it is God they serve; whereas by their mode of observance it is to the angels and not to God that their service is rendered:— as when they celebrate sabbaths and the beginning of the months, and feasts of unleavened bread, and a great fast; and fasting and circumcision and the purification of meats, which things, however, they do not observe perfectly.”

In chapters 15 and 16 (given below in full), Aristides then sets forth his description of and apology for the Christians:

“15. But the Christians, O King, while they went about and made search, have found the truth; and as we learned from their writings, they have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations. For they know and trust in God, the Creator of heaven and of earth, in whom and from whom are all things, to whom there is no other god as companion, from whom they received commandments which they engraved upon their minds and observe in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. Wherefore they do not commit adultery nor fornication, nor bear false witness, nor embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. They honour father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly. They do not worship idols (made) in the image of man; and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others; and of the food which is consecrated to idols they do not eat, for they are pure. And their oppressors they appease [literally: comfort] and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies; and their women, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest; and their men keep themselves from every unlawful union and from all uncleanness, in the hope of a recompense to come in the other world. Further, if one or other of them have bondmen and bondwomen or children, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction. They do not worship strange gods, and they go their way in all modesty and cheerfulness. Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins. And further if they see that anyone of them dies in his ungodliness or in his sins, for him they grieve bitterly, and sorrow as for one who goes to meet his doom.

16. Such, O King, is the commandment of the law of the Christians, and such is their manner of life. As men who know God, they ask from Him petitions which are fitting for Him to grant and for them to receive. And thus they employ their whole lifetime. And since they know the loving-kindnesses of God toward them, behold! For their sake the glorious things which are in the world flow forth to view. And verily, they are those who found the truth when they went about and made search for it; and from what we considered, we learned that they alone come near to a knowledge of the truth. And they do not proclaim in the ears of the multitude the kind deeds they do, but are careful that no one should notice them; and they conceal their giving just as he who finds a treasure and conceals it. And they strive to be righteous as those who expect to behold their Messiah, and to receive from Him with great glory the promises made concerning them. And as for their words and their precepts, O King, and their glorying in their worship, and the hope of earning according to the work of each one of them their recompense which they look for in another world, you may learn about these from their writings. It is enough for us to have shortly informed your Majesty concerning the conduct and the truth of the Christians. For great indeed, and wonderful is their doctrine to him who will search into it and reflect upon it. And verily, this is a new people, and there is something divine [literally: a divine admixture] in the midst of them.

Take, then, their writings, and read therein, and lo! You will find that I have not put forth these things on my own authority, nor spoken thus as their advocate; but since I read in their writings I was fully assured of these things as also of things which are to come. And for this reason I was constrained to declare the truth to such as care for it and seek the world to come. And to me there is no doubt but that the earth abides through the supplication of the Christians. But the rest of the nations err and cause error in wallowing before the elements of the world, since beyond these their mental vision will not pass. And they search about as if in darkness because they will not recognize the truth; and like drunken men they reel and jostle one another and fall.”

Aristides concludes his Apology in chapter 17 by requesting the emperor stop persecuting the Christians and convert to their faith; where he ends with a description of the Christian life:

“17. Thus far, O King, I have spoken; for concerning that which remains, as is said above, there are found in their other writings things which are hard to utter and difficult for one to narrate,— which are not only spoken in words but also wrought out in deeds.

Now the Greeks, O King, as they follow base practises in intercourse with males, and a mother and a sister and a daughter, impute their monstrous impurity in turn to the Christians. But the Christians are just and good, and the truth is set before their eyes, and their spirit is long-suffering; and, therefore, though they know the error of these (the Greeks), and are persecuted by them, they bear and endure it; and for the most part they have compassion on them, as men who are destitute of knowledge. And on their side, they offer prayer that these may repent of their error; and when it happens that one of them has repented, he is ashamed before the Christians of the works which were done by him; and he makes confession to God, saying, I did these things in ignorance. And he purifies his heart, and his sins are forgiven him, because he committed them in ignorance in the former time, when he used to blaspheme and speak evil of the true knowledge of the Christians. And assuredly the race of the Christians is more blessed than all the men who are upon the face of the earth.

Henceforth let the tongues of those who utter vanity and harass the Christians be silent; and hereafter let them speak the truth. For it is of serious consequence to them that they should worship the true God rather than worship a senseless sound. And verily whatever is spoken in the mouth of the Christians is of God; and their doctrine is the gateway of light. Wherefore let all who are without the knowledge of God draw near thereto; and they will receive incorruptible words, which are from all time and from eternity. So shall they appear before the awful judgment which through Jesus the Messiah is destined to come upon the whole human race.”

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662): Human society is founded on mutual deceit

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I’ve always held Pensées by Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) in very high esteem. I read it for the first time in my late teenage years while still unconverted, but after my conversion I appreciated it much more, since I started to better comprehend many of the things Pascal addresses in this famous and delightful book. As I was reading through the book again tonight, I came across the excerpt below, which I’ve read a number of times before but it struck me again, and deeply convicted me, as I hope it will do for you. Pascal here offers what I believe to be a very accurate description of human falsehood and hypocrisy, and perhaps a call for introspection:

“‑‑100. Self-love. — The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is to love self only and consider self only. But what will man do? He cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and he sees himself full of imperfections. He wants to be the object of love and esteem among men, and he sees that his faults merit only their hatred and contempt. This embarrassment in which he finds himself produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against that truth which reproves him and which convinces him of his faults. He would annihilate it, but, unable to destroy it in its essence, he destroys it as far as possible in his own knowledge and in that of others; that is to say, he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure either that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them.

‑‑Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion. We do not like others to deceive us; we do not think it fair that they should be held in higher esteem by us than they deserve; it is not, then, fair that we should deceive them and should wish them to esteem us more highly than we deserve.

‑‑Thus, when they discover only the imperfections and vices which we really have, it is plain they do us no wrong, since it is not they who cause them; they rather do us good, since they help us to free ourselves from an evil, namely, the ignorance of these imperfections. We ought not to be angry at their knowing our faults and despising us; it is but right that they should know us for what we are and should despise us, if we are contemptible.

‑‑Such are the feelings that would arise in a heart full of equity and justice. What must we say then of our own heart, when we see it in a wholly different disposition? For is it not true that we hate truth and those who tell it us, and that we like them to be deceived in our favour, and prefer to be esteemed by them as being other than what we are in fact? One proof of this makes me shudder. The Catholic religion does not bind us to confess our sins indiscriminately to everybody; it allows them to remain hidden from all other men save one, to whom she bids us reveal the innermost recesses of our heart and show ourselves as we are. There is only this one man in the world whom she orders us to undeceive, and she binds him to an inviolable secrecy, which makes this knowledge to him as if it were not. Can we imagine anything more charitable and pleasant? And yet the corruption of man is such that he finds even this law harsh; and it is one of the main reasons which has caused a great part of Europe to rebel against the Church.

‑‑How unjust and unreasonable is the heart of man, which feels it disagreeable to be obliged to do in regard to one man what in some measure it were right to do to all men! For is it right that we should deceive men?

‑‑There are different degrees in this aversion to truth; but all may perhaps be said to have it in some degree, because it is inseparable from self-love. It is this false delicacy which makes those who are under the necessity of reproving others choose so many windings and middle courses to avoid offence. They must lessen our faults, appear to excuse them, intersperse praises and evidence of love and esteem. Despite all this, the medicine does not cease to be bitter to self-love. It takes as little as it can, always with disgust, and often with a secret spite against those who administer it.

‑‑Hence it happens that, if any have some interest in being loved by us, they are averse to render us a service which they know to be disagreeable. They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us.

‑‑So each degree of good fortune which raises us in the world removes us farther from truth, because we are most afraid of wounding those whose affection is most useful and whose dislike is most dangerous. A prince may be the byword of all Europe, and he alone will know nothing of it. I am not astonished. To tell the truth is useful to those to whom it is spoken, but disadvantageous to those who tell it, because it makes them disliked. Now those who live with princes love their own interests more than that of the prince whom they serve; and so they take care not to confer on him a benefit so as to injure themselves.

‑‑This evil is no doubt greater and more common among the higher classes; but the lower are not exempt from it, since there is always some advantage in making men love us. Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence, although he then spoke in sincerity and without passion.

‑‑ Man is, then, only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others. He does not wish any one to tell him the truth; he avoids telling it to others, and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart.”

– Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), Pensées, 100

Sinclair Ferguson: Gifts are for service, not self-advancement

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“When we exercise the gifts which Christ has given us we are really saying to our fellow Christians and others: ‘See how much the Lord Jesus Christ loves you and cares for you; He has sent me to serve you in this way; He is using my hands and feet, my lips and ears, to show His love.’

It is a tragic mistake if we think that the message is: ‘See what a superb Christian I am; see the wonderful gifts I have.’ In the Upper Room, Jesus’ disciples were arguing with one another about which one of them was the greatest and had the best gifts (how like the Corinthians!).

By contrast, Jesus was thinking: How can I show these disciples that gifts are not for ourselves but for others? The outcome, of course, was the washing of the disciples’ feet. Gifts are for service, not self-advancement.

We belong to each other (Rom. 12:5); we need each other to reflect the fullness of the love of Christ (1 Cor. 12:21). We must therefore learn to see our gifts as instruments by which we can love and serve others…

We live in Christian fellowship so that we may serve each other with our gifts and thus promote true spiritual growth in the body of Christ.”

– Sinclair Ferguson, Grow In Grace, p. 69

Cornelius Plantinga on “what the Hebrew prophets call shalom”

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“The prophets dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise, and the wise, humble.

They dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps.

People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. Lambs could lie down with lions. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with wonder upon wonder.

All humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God, and delight in God.

Shouts of joy and recognition would well up from valleys and seas, from women in streets and from men on ships. The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom.”

– Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, p. 9-10

Gerald Bray: The love of a shepherd for his sheep

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“God is love. Everything we know about him teaches us that, and every encounter we have with him expresses it. God’s love for us is deep and all- embracing, but it is not the warmhearted sentimentality that often goes by the name of love today. The love God has for us is like the love of a shepherd for his sheep, as the Bible often reminds us. Sometimes the shepherd can guide his sheep simply by speaking to them and, ideally, that is all that should be needed. But sheep are often slow to respond, and then the shepherd has to nudge them along with his staff. Sometimes he has to grapple with them forcibly and insist that they follow him when they would rather go their own erratic way. But however hard it is for the shepherd to keep his flocks in order, he never abandons them. As the psalmist put it, ‘You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The rod and the staff are the shepherd’s instruments of discipline. The sheep may resent them and try to resist their force, but they know that in the end they must go where their shepherd is leading them. As Jesus said, ‘The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’ He is the Good Shepherd, who loved his sheep so much that he gave his life for them. However many have gone astray, we have his assurance that not one of them will be lost.”

– Gerald Bray, God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology, p. 17

The message of Christmas as summarized by the Gallic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism

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It is that time of the year when Christians around the world are commemorating the Incarnation of our Lord. For the past few years at Christmas time, I’ve always been drawn back to that great medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury‘s famous question: cur Deus homo? (why did God become a man?). French Reformed Protestants from the 16th century offered a succinct answer:

1559 GALLIC CONFESSION, ARTICLE XVI
We believe that God, in sending his Son, intended to show his love and inestimable goodness towards us, giving him up to die to accomplish all righteousness, and raising him from the dead to secure for us the heavenly life.

Together with this, the Heidelberg Catechism, in what is essentially a summary of the Christmas message (i.e. the reason for Christ’s Incarnation), states:

Question 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favour?

Answer: God will have his justice satisfied: and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another.

Question 13. Can we ourselves then make this satisfaction?

Answer: By no means; but on the contrary we daily increase our debt.

Question 14. Can there be found anywhere, one, who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us?

Answer: None; for, first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man has committed; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, so as to deliver others from it.

Question 15. What sort of a mediator and deliverer then must we seek for?

Answer: For one who is very man, and perfectly righteous; and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is also very God.

Question 16. Why must he be very man, and also perfectly righteous?

Answer: Because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned, should likewise make satisfaction for sin; and one, who is himself a sinner, cannot satisfy for others.

Question 17. Why must he in one person be also very God?

Answer: That he might, by the power of his Godhead sustain in his human nature, the burden of God’s wrath; and might obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life.

Question 18. Who then is that Mediator, who is in one person both very God, and a real righteous man?

Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ: “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”

Question 19. Whence knowest thou this?

Answer: From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise; and afterwards published by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son.

The Titus 2:1 Award given to Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum

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Titus 2:1 says, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.”

Riley Fraas, pastor of Hope Congregational Church in Bethune, Colorado, USA, is the man behind the High Plains Parson blog and has passed on the Titus 2:1 Award to my blog, Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum. A hearty word of thanks goes out to Riley, and I would also recommend his blog to my readers. In order to celebrate, he has asked me to answer the following questions:

1. If you could have dinner with any historical Christian figure, who would it be and why?

There are numerous historical Christian figures I would love to have dinner with – ranging from early church figures to medieval and Reformation theologians and later. My initial answer would’ve been John Calvin, but at this particular moment I reckon I’d like to have dinner with William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536). I would love to sit down with him and hear all about his battles in bringing the Bible to the English people in the vernacular. I own a copy of Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament and I’d love him to read a piece of his own translation to me. Tyndale is definitely one of my heroes.

2. What one burning question would you ask?

I’d ask him, in retrospect, what he would’ve done differently, and why.

3. Where and what would you eat?

Meat. Plenty of it. Perhaps something like smoked ham, with some ale in a tavern in one of the towns/cities he stayed at while he was in continental Europe, such as Wittenberg in Germany. 

4. What was the last Bible verse you read?

Proverbs 21:31, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the LORD.”

Now it’s time for me to pass the award on to another blogger – a gentleman whose insights and wisdom I greatly admire. Subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity and thoroughly Reformed in his thought, he is well-versed in theology, knows his church history, and is overall just simply a rather amiable person. I have often profited from his blog (especially the more polemical posts – this guy is potent), and so I pass the Titus 2:1 award on to Andy Underhile at Contra Mundum.