As you now know, my book on the second century has just been released in the UK: Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (SPCK, 2017). It will be released in the US with IVP Academic in the Spring.
Since it has been released, folks have been asking how this book connects to the modern church. In other words, can we learn anything from the Christians of the second century that may help us in our current cultural moment? Absolutely. Here are a few lessons to consider.
1. Second-century Christians were regarded as “haters.” One might think the small size of the early Christian movement would allow it to be overlooked or ignored. But this is not what happened. On the contrary, the Roman government noticed Christians and didn’t like what they saw. Christians were seen as offensive, rude, peculiar, and a threat to a stable Roman society. Consequently, they suffered significant political persecution (arrested, thrown in jail, sometimes martyred).
Why were Christians viewed this way? Because of their refusal to worship the Roman gods. Christians were insistent that only Jesus was worthy of worship. And to not worship the Roman gods was to run the risk of invoking their displeasure. So, Christians were viewed as reckless and callous to the welfare of their fellow man. They were called “haters of humanity” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44).
Put bluntly, it was the exclusivity of Christianity that was made it so offensive. The same is true today.
2. Second-century Christians were regarded as intellectually deficient. In addition to political persecution, the Christians suffered significant intellectual persecution. Christian doctrine was regarded as ridiculous, silly, and not worthy of the assent of the intellectual Roman elites. The likes of Lucian, Galen, Fronto, and Celsus offered scathing critiques of this “new” religion, mocking its books (the Gospels) as well as its founder (Jesus).
So, if you think the level of cultural ridicule Christians receive today is new, think again.
3. Second-century Christians were a textually-centered, “bookish” movement. In spite of the intellectual ridicule noted above, it is worth observing that second-century Christians were characterized by their distinctive commitment to the Scriptures as the basis for everything they did. They not only read these books, but they studied them in great detail, copied them in great numbers, and distributed them across great distances.
So dominant was the Christian commitment to their “books,” that even the critics took notice. Indeed, this is the reason that Christianity was often regarded more as a philosophy than a religion. In the ancient world, religions were not typically associated with written texts so directly. So, Christianity stood out in this regard (along with Judaism).
While some in the modern day will insist that Christians did not use or need the Scriptures in the earliest stages, the historical data says otherwise. Indeed, this “bookish” aspect of Christianity has been lost in some circles today. And this is one of the core elements that we need to recover.
In the end, these are three observations from the second century that have many implications for today. While prior generations of Christians might have enjoyed a time when the modern church was a lot like the church of the fourth and fifth centuries, the current generation of the church finds itself in a situation that looks a lot more like the second.
Thus, in order to engage with our modern world, perhaps we don’t need a new apologetic but an old one. A second-century one.