There is one early Christian letter that stands out as a remarkable testimony about second century Christianity. It is included among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and provides an early example of the defense for the Christian faith. It is something we often call an apologetic although not the common confrontation form. Rather, it is much more irenic in tone. We know very little about the author or recipient of the Letter to Diognetus. Nevertheless, it is a clear example of an apologetic in the same spirit and tone as we read from the Apostle Peter:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ maybe put to shame. (1 Peter 3:13-16)
In this section, the author of the letter provides details about the lives of early Christians who lived through difficult times. They were judged by the culture, persecuted by religious others, and misunderstood in their effort to live faithfully as imitators of Christ. Even so, they maintained the dignity of the faith as well as respect for others. Something that is needed in our polarized day.
The Letter to Diognetus 4b-6
But you must not expect to learn from any human the mystery of the Christians peculiar way of worshipping God.
For the Christians are not distinguished from other people by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any distinctiveness. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of clever people. Nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, living in Greek as well as barbarian cities, according to the lot determined for each of them, and following the native customs regarding clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They live in their own countries, but simply as strangers. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all. They bear children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws and at the same time surpass the laws by their private lives. They love all people and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich. They are in need of all things and yet thrive in all things. They are dishonored, yet are glorified in their very dishonor. They are spoken of as evil, yet are justified. They are cursed, yet they bless. They are insulted and repay the insult with honor. They do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if brought to life. They are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks. Yet, those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.
To sum up all in a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body. And Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and indeed Christians are known to be in the world, but their worship of God remains invisible.
The flesh hates the soul and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures. So also, the world hates the Christians, though it is in no way injured because they renounce pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it as well as its members. Christians likewise love those who hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body. And Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle. And Christians dwell as strangers in the perishable, looking for an imperishable dwelling in the heavens. Yet, the soul, when mistreated with food and drink, becomes better. In like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position which it was not proper for them to forsake.
Excerpted from Dr. Cooper’s forthcoming book, First Christian Voices: Practices of the Ancient Church (Samuel Morris Publishing). Coming this spring.
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