Reading: Unit 5 Lecture Transcripts

Unit 5 Lecture 1

In chapter 2 of the book of Revelation we read this:

To the Church in Smyrna

8 "To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty--yet you are rich!I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. 

I imagine the church getting the letter and pondering what it might mean to them. What would you say if your church received a letter in which Jesus informs you that a time of suffering is going to come upon you and some of you will be imprisoned; some will be persecuted in other ways; and some will even die. If we were to date the book of Revelation to about the year 90, we can picture a young man of about 20 years of age, sitting in the congregation as the letter is read to the gathered ecclesia.

The young man was a personal friend of the author. He had studied the Christian faith with the apostle John in Ephesus for some years. Now he lived in Smyrna and was already at this time seen as a young man in whom God was at work. 

In the following years, this young man would grow into a strong leader of the church. As one who had been mentored by John, he had a direct link to Jesus. And the members of his church looked up to him as one who knew Jesus and the power of his death and resurrection. He became the spiritual leader of the church in Smyrna. As such he embodied what the church members read in the gospel of John in what we call chapter 15. There Jesus tells his disciples that he is the vine and they are the branches and that if they abide in him they will produce much fruit. That phrase much fruit can be taken over into English as the name attributed to this young man who became the bishop of Smyrna –Polycarp. Poly is the Greek word for many and carp is a shortened form of the Greek word carpos or fruit.  He was a man in whom the church members saw much fruit. They knew he was abiding in the true vine. As such, they wanted him to continue to be their spiritual leader.

Over the years, there were occasional outbreaks of persecution, but when Polycarp had reached the great age of 86, there arose a very difficult persecution of the church in Smyrna. Polycarp was being hunted by the city leaders for being the teacher of the hated Christians. They thought that if they could just get Polycarp to stop leading the church in their refusal to worship the emperor, things would chagne. All they wanted him to do was to burn a little incense to the genius of Caesar and renounce Jesus as Lord. That’s all. It would take less than five minutes. Then he could go free and the problems with the Christian refusal to submit to the spiritual leadership of the emperor would be dismantled.

The church hid Polycarp for as long as they could. But one day, one of the church members, as they were being tortured gave away where Polycarp could be found. There were law officers who were dispatched immediately to the place where Polycarp was to be found. There he was arrested. But the officers asked him to please, in view of your great age, just agree to burn incense to Caesar. But he refused. When he came to the arena where he would stand before the city ruler, a great tumult arose as the crowd demanded the death of Polycarp.

The governor of the city asked Polycarp if he would burn incense to Caesar and he refused. The magistrate then went on to ask him to simply say a line of denunciation of Jesus as the Christ. And he refused with a line that has come down to us as one of the most profound ways of declaring one’s allegiance to Jesus. He said, for 86 years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?

The crowd gathered a pile of wood to lay around him. They were going to nail him to the stake to make sure he would not get away, but he said, "I will not be going anywhere. The one who grants me grace to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pile." 

When the fire refused to burn Polycarp, an executioner was sent to stab him to death. So finally Polycarp met his death at the hands of the persecutors.  As Jesus said, remain faithful even unto death and I will give you the crown of life. Polycarp lived that faith and his story is one which continues to inspire all of us who face persecution even today.



Today I am going to begin taking you on a timeline based survey of the early Christian teachers. These are names that have stood out over the centuries as being very important for us to know. These were teachers who knew the challenges of facing persecution, heresy, and personal struggles as they worked at being teachers for the church.  They did not have the benefits of the wonderful ways of communicating that we have today, so even though they knew one another by reputation and by writings, many of these teachers did not have the opportunity to discuss things among themselves. They had to teach what they knew and what they had discovered as they studied the Word of God. They are the men who first taught us how to understand the many doctrinal implications of the facts of Scripture. They are men whose lives were given to the task of helping all the churches to know the solid foundations on which to build their faith.

We begin our survey with a group that we know as the apologists. 

What is interesting for us in our day is that in the days of the late first century and early second century, only about 5% of the population was literate. So it is significant that among the educated class, we have so many brilliant minds who took up the cause of Christianity. These were not the lower classes of Roman society, but the educated who turned their efforts to defending the Christian faith from the many attacks that came from both within and outside the church.

The most articulate of the critics of the faith from outside the church was a man named Celsus. He attacked the church by singling out what he thought of as very strange teachings. He made a careful case as to why Jesus could not have been divine. He made a case for the paternity of Jesus being a Roman soldier named Pantera. He was convinced that the birth stories of Jesus were totally fabricated by the church to try to give Jesus a parentage that was not possible.

He further said that Jesus did his miracles, but by the power of divination or sorcery. So Celsus continues in his attach on the faith of the church. But, his reason for attacking them is less radical. He says they may continue in their fanciful ideas, but they need to keep them private and participate in the Roman civil religion. Then all would be fine. Just burn a little incense to Caesar and all will be well.

It may be that Celsus was a teacher in Alexandria in the early 100’s. Various scholars have made a case for that. Perhaps the most significant one is that the books of Celsus have been lost, but Origen, who lived and worked in Alexandria in the early 200’s, has reproduced the book of Celsus called the True Word in his great apology called Against Celsus. In his work, Origen includes almost all of the book of Celsus and line by line refutes the teaching of Celsus.

Another aspect of the attack by Celsus had to do with what he called the secret teachings of Christianity. What he is reacting against is the practice of the early church of dismissing from the gathering of the church all those who were merely curious before they would celebrate the Lord’s Supper. They were guarding the purity of the table by making sure that those who joined in the supper were those who believed and had professed their faith. This disturbed people like Celsus a great deal. He must have looked upon himself as fully capable of understanding any teaching that went on and so why should an uneducated person be able to stay for the teaching that surrounded the Lord’s Table while he was escorted out? It did not go over well at all!

The third major obstacle which Celsus found in the teachings of the church was that of a God who was eternal, and therefore above all non-eternal things, had made himself known in human history. Celsus simply could not accept such a thought. To him it was irrational. 

What we notice with all these thoughts from Celsus is that the problems with the Christian faith have not changed much over the millennia. These are still among the main charges against Christianity. Jesus could not have been divine. That is a construct of the pious mind. No one really thinks that God became a human being do we?

It was in the context of these challenges that the early apologists began to write their defense of the faith once for all delivered unto us. The first of the great apologists is Justin Martyr. In his vigorous defense of the faith, he argued for the truth of the Christian faith. Justin wanted to have his readers know that he was convinced of the supremacy of the Christian faith.  One of the most important contributions Justin made to the teaching of Christianity was his ability to show the superiority of his faith and philosophy to that of the Greeks. He addressed his first apology to the Emperor to inform him of the way the Christians lived and acted and believed. His appeal was that the emperor would find that persecuting the Christians really was not in the best interest of anyone who was trying to be noble in their lives.

Justin also played a role in the development of what we will be looking at further in the coming weeks—that of the development of the canon of the New Testament. He quotes or makes some kind of reference to each of the four gospels and to many of Paul’s letters. In this way, Justin’s letters show us that by his day, in the first half of the second century, there was already a level of dedication to these writings as the new revelation of God to his people.

The second of the great apologists in this short survey is Irenaeus.  His great work written in 185, was the defense of the faith against the Gnostics. He goes into great detail to explain the ideas of the Gnostic groups and gives a response to each of them. In the process, he develops a history of the Christian church up to his day. That is one of his most important gifts to us today. One of the examples of what Irenaeus did for the church is his writing down of a creed that was recited in his day. He also, in his apology, uses sources from the four gospels and from almost all the books of the New Testament we have today. So by the latter half of the second century, the creed was being carefully developed. In his book called Against Heresies, Book 3, in chapter 4 we find the following:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question3319 among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition,3320 believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents,3321 have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.

As a last person to mention here today, I point you to a man named Theophilus of Antioch. He wrote his books in the late 100’s as well. In them he addresses the pagan community as he takes great pains to explain the theology of the Church. He is the first writer we have who uses the word trinity to describe God. It is an interesting note that he does not seem to be coining a new phrase, but uses one which he assumes will be understood by the Christian readers of his work. He also is recognized as the first person to use the term “the divine Word” when speaking of various of the books we have in the new testament. So by 175 or so, the church was saying of the letters of Paul and the four gospels, these are Scripture just as we accept the writings of Moses and Isaiah as Scripture from God.

That is where we will leave our survey off for today.



When faced with a drastic situation such as a very severe persecution, what does one do when a person has been a Christian, but who during the persecution, lapsed back into paganism to save his or her life?  It was not unusual in the days of the persecutions under the Romans for many believers to lapse back to paganism and then after the persecution waned, they wanted to return to the church as members in good standing. Many times the church leaders did not know what they should do with these individuals. Could they assure these people of forgiveness? So they would require a significant show of repentance. But still it was difficult to accomplish the act of forgiving. How do I forgive these people, when I myself have been tortured to the point of death during the persecution? How can I say to these who forsook the faith when the going got tough, that now that the terror is past, that you are welcome to come back. What does one do? Enter the lawyer and theologian Tertullian. Here is what he says:


A point I now insist upon is this, that the penance which has been revealed to us by the grace of God, which is required of us and which brings us back to favor with the Lord, must never, once we have known and embraced it, be violated thereafter by a return to sin....Grant, Lord Christ, that Thy servants may...know nothing of repentance nor have any need of it [after baptism]. I am reluctant to make mention here of a second hope, one which is indeed the very last, for fear that in treating of a resource which yet remains in penitence, I may seem to indicate that there is still time left for sin. God grant that no one come to such a conclusion.   On Penitence 5-7 [emphasis added]

Tertullian is one of the apologists who made a major impact on the church in terms of Christian doctrine. His lasting influence was his use, not of the Greek language, but of Latin. Tertullian is the man who introduced the church to the language of the law courts of Rome. 

Tertullian was born in Carthage in North Africa. He was the son of a roman centurion and was educated in the law. It seems he practiced law in Rome itself prior to becoming a Christian. But once he was a Christian, he returned to North Africa and became a prolific writer on many subjects of interest to the church. We have over 30 books by him and there is good evidence of more. Some of his major contributions included works on modesty, on repentance, on the Trinity, and so forth.

Tertullian is the man who gave us the first Latin definition and use of the word trinitas. God, he wrote, is one God in three persons, Father Son and Holy Spirit. He coined the famous phrase, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. He was adamant that Greek philosophy and the Christian faith were not to be mixed together. He cries out What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Away with a mottled Christianity!

As the history of the church continued to develop, the positions of men like Tertullian became more and more necessary for the church to deal with the world in which it found itself.  In his book Against Praxis, Tertullian goes to great lengths to define some of the terms we have for God and the person of Jesus. His formulations would be given an official voice some 200 years later at the council of Chalcedon. So his thoughts have come down to us as the way to express something of the God whom we serve.

The story of Tertullian is not complete without going on to the later part of his life when he joined up with the sect of the church called the Montanists. This movement had originated in the area of Phrygia, but spread to many differing areas of the Empire. It had most of the same tenets as the church did, but it also had a desire to hear new prophecies. It can be compared to the movement in the world today of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church.  In his day, Tertullian was committed to supporting the authority of the bishops in the churches, but he also desired to have the freedom to follow the leading of the Spirit. The last years of his life were spent in a tenuous relationship to the church since the bishops of Carthage had sidelined him due to his Montanism.  It is somewhat of a letdown to end up with that as we think about one of the great minds of the Christian church. We will examine Montanism more next week.

I need to backtrack a few decades here to about the middle of the second century – about 150 AD. At that time there was a teacher named Marcion who had a profound influence on the development of the canon of Christian Scripture. 

What happened was Marcion spent a considerable amount of time studying the Old Testament scriptures as well as the new writings that handed down the teachings of Jesus. He came to the conclusion that the teachings of the Jewish scriptures about God were incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. So he developed a dualist idea of faith. Marcion declared that the Christian faith and Jewish faiths were two incompatible ways of believing.

For example, Marcion was convinced that the God of the Old Testament could not have been the God of whom Jesus spoke as his father. For one thing, in the story of Adam and Eve, Yahweh is walking in the Garden of Eden and calling out to Adam, where are you? How could it be that a God who knew all things, had to ask where Adam was? So the OT God was simply not the same as the Father of Jesus.  Here is where his importance lies: to make clear that these were two different gods, Marcion produced a New Testament canon of scripture which supported his teachings.

His New Testament consisted of a shortened gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul. By setting forth his authority for his teachings, which were declared to be a heresy, Marcion challenged the church to demonstrate that he was mistaken. Thus Marcion, although he had no intention of doing so, called upon the church to decide which newly composed and revered writings were authoritative and which were not. Were they to be held as equal to the Scriptures of what we call the Old Testament or were they superior or inferior. All these and more questions arose from the challenge of Marcion. In response to his teaching, the church set about developing the New Testament canon, the church began to recognize that not every bishop in the church was of equal authority when it came to doctrinal teachings, and the church began to establish a body of teaching which was considered orthodox. In that way, even a man whose teachings were considered heretical, helped to move the church forward toward the positions she had to take in regard to formulating a book of sacred writings.

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