Another Way To Respond To Satanists And Other Pagans (Part 2)

On the assumption that we in the West live in what Aaron Renn calls a “negative world” (i.e., a culture that is predominantly hostile to Christianity, that Christendom is never to return, and that various forms of neo-Paganism are likely to fill the void left by the marginalization of Christianity), how should we respond? This is the question with which we were confronted by the erection of an ersatz Satanist shrine in the Iowa state capitol during the Christmas holiday. In response, I pointed you, dear reader, to one early Christian response to paleo-paganism from about AD 150.1

Why We Should Pay Attention to the Past

In this installment, I am inviting you to consider another response written about the same time as the Epistle to Diognetus, in what was then an even more negative world than we are experiencing today. By AD 150, a noticeable but relatively small number of Christians had been put to death by the empire simply because they were Christians and because they refused to renounce Christ and acknowledge Caesar as a god. A century later, and for the following decades right up to the early fourth century and the legalization of Christianity in the empire, pagan hostility toward the Christians would become even more intense and more deadly.

Thus, Christians do well to pay attention to the way our brothers and sisters navigated that hostility, and what it was that they sought from the pagans and the empire. This is significant because, in our time, after Christendom, we still see many Christians (perhaps American Christians more than most, since the loss of Christendom is still fresh and the wound has not yet healed) longing for the good old days, when Mainline WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were culturally dominant and, as people say now, privileged.

Of course, all the pixels burned advocating Christian Nationalism are in the service of what my friend and colleague Brad Isbell has called “cosplay” (i.e., costume play—think of ComicCon or the local Renaissance fair).2 In real life, cosplayers are accountants and Uber drivers; but on the weekend, they pretend to be medieval knights, or perhaps Jedi knights. So it is with those advocating for Christianity to be established as the state religion. At the federal level, it would require a significant amendment of the United States Constitution at a point when the influence of Christianity in the culture is arguably at its lowest ebb in a very long time. That means reversing course on a founding principle, the wisdom of which is very much in doubt. The obstacles to establishing Christianity as the state religion in any of the fifty states are also considerable. The case law is considered settled. State constitutions would also have to be rewritten. Then there is the matter of a mass conversion of pagans to Christianity. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is capable of doing such a thing and such a conversion is much to be desired (even if the establishment of Christianity is not), but such an eventuality belongs to the secret providence of God, which is never a great starting point for public policy.

Background

The response of our earliest post-apostolic theologians is a wise and practical alternative to theocratic cosplay. Two outstanding examples of an early post-apostolic response to paganism are Justin Martyr’s First Apology (i.e., defense) and his Second Apology.3 Leslie William Barnard explains the condition of Christians in AD 150:

Persecution in the early Church was mainly of a sporadic and local nature—certainly no “general” persecutions occurred before the time of Decius and Diocletian. Nevertheless Christians, in some areas, went in fear of their lives with the hated delator or informer never far away. A faith that shunned popular vices and amusements provoked a hatred that took the form of blackening the character of Christians. A faith that forbade its followers to sacrifice to the state deities could be held, it was said, only by a community of atheists capable of any crime. The Christians were therefore accused of all kinds of wickedness. Their assemblies for worship, for instruction, and for the celebration of the eucharist were none other than secret gatherings for incest, child murder, and cannibalism. Such calumnies no doubt came to the notice of the Roman authorities who, while not encouraging false accusations, could not completely ignore them.4

Again, we dearly wish that our neo-Theodosians would recognize that it was because paganism was the established religion that Christians were persecuted by the state. As we will see, the earliest post-apostolic Christians never asked the authorities to remedy the situation by instituting Christianity as the state religion in place of paganism.

As Barnard observes, one problem the Christians faced was that because they abstained from the state religion and from the ways the pagans amused themselves, they were misunderstood and misrepresented. The Christian practice of worship was secret in the early years of the church, so what little information leaked out was misconstrued. Some pagans mistook infant baptism as infanticide. Others misunderstood holy communion rather grossly.

To be sure, the Roman authorities (e.g., Pliny the Younger, c. AD 114) were, by turns, puzzled and irritated by the Christian stubborn refusal to conform to the Roman pattern, but they did not see them as immoral or a threat to the empire. When Pliny mentioned to the emperor Trajan that some citizens had anonymously released a list of Christians, Trajan replied that Romans do not prosecute on the basis of anonymous charges. Apparently natural law really exists and was actually known by pagan emperors.5

Justin The Martyr (c. AD 100–165)

Born to pagan parents, Justin was born at Flavia Neapolis and was a Samaritan.6 We do not know a great deal about his life, but we do know something of his education from comments he made in his Dialogue With Trypho (c. AD 160).7 He studied with a “Stoic, with a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean, and finally a Platonist teacher.”8 First he became a Platonist, and then he was converted to Christianity.

As to the contours of his biography, Barnard explains, “We only know that Justin taught at Rome in the reign of Antoninus Pius and that he was martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, from which we infer that his birth occurred either late in the first century or early in the second century c.e. His martyrdom . . . [occurred] somewhere between 162 and 167 c.e.”9 His martyrdom may have had something to do with a conflict with Crescens, a Cynic philosopher.10 We call him Justin Martyr because he died for the sake of Christ.

Justin and his companions are brought before Rusticus, the prefect of Rome, and commanded to sacrifice to the gods. On examination, Justin testifies to Christianity as the truth. He confesses that he has held meetings, on his second visit to Rome, in the house of one Martinus over the bath of Timotinus—although only there. After a brave refusal to sacrifice, Justin and those with him are condemned to be beaten with rods and beheaded. They pass to their deaths praising God and confessing Christ; later faithful Christians secretly carry away their bodies in order to give them a decent burial.11

His conversion probably occurred around AD 130. He taught in Rome at different times, in Ephesus, and in other places.12 According to Eusebius, “But this same Justin, after having contended with great success against the Greeks, addressed also other works, containing a defense of our faith, to the emperor Antonine, surnamed the Pious, and to the senate of Rome. He also had his residence at Rome.”13

The Audience

According to Barnard, Justin addressed his First Apology to a couple of philosophers and to the emperor in order to gain a hearing. “Although it is not to be supposed that Justin’s Apologies never reached the emperors.”14

I have already mentioned what Justin never asked—that the emperors declare Christianity the state religion of the empire or even of a particular region. My main interest in these two apologies now, however, is to consider what Justin did ask of his pagan neighbors.

As mentioned, he addressed his First Apology to “Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar” (AD 86–161), the adopted son of Hadrian (d. AD 138).15 Antoninus Pius was a late-middle-aged man when he was adopted and succeeded Hadrian, who called him “noble, mild, tractable, and prudent.”16 He must have been since he deliberated before accepting the offer to succeed Hadrian. Michael Grant characterizes him as part of the “new governing class of Rome.”17 After some opposition from the Roman Senate, because Hadrian had some of them killed, they finally deified Hadrian and ratified Antoninus Pius as Caesar Augustus.18 It is not entirely clear why he was denominated Pius, which was unusual. Grant theorizes that of the five grounds for such a title, it was the same gentleness that Hadrian had observed.19 Another aspect Grant mentions was Antoninus’ fidelity to the Roman cult.20 By the time Justin wrote his Apologies, Antoninus had been Caesar a little more than a decade.21

Next time we will consider sections of the First Apology.

Notes

  1. See RSC, “Another Way To Respond To Satanists And Other Pagans.”
  2. For more on Christian Nationalism, see RSC, “Resources On Christian Nationalism.” For more from Brad Isbell, see “Resources on Author Archives: Brad Isbell.”
  3. Justin Martyr, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies, ed. Walter J. Burghardt et al., trans. Leslie William Barnard, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 56 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997).
  4. Leslie William Barnard, “Introduction,” in The First and Second Apologies, 1.
  5. Barnard, 3.
  6. Barnard, 3.
  7. Barnard, 4.
  8. Barnard, 4.
  9. Barnard, 3.
  10. Barnard, 3.
  11. Barnard, 3–4.
  12. Barnard, 5.
  13. Eusebius, An Ecclesiastical History to the 20th Year of the Reign of Constantine, trans. Parker S.E. (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1847), 156; See also Barnard, 5.
  14. Barnard, Introduction, 6.
  15. Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies, 23.
  16. Michael Grant, The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition (London: Routledge, 1994), 9
  17. Grant, The Antonines, 10.
  18. Grant, 11.
  19. Grant, 12.
  20. Grant, 12.
  21. Barnard, 11. Barnard dates both Apologies to c. AD 151–55.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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