In a brief episode of the Heidelcast, I offered five or six points about the controversy over the placement of a Satanist altar in the Iowa state capitol, its destruction, and how Christians ought to think about the controversy.1 In the ensuing discussion on the Heidelblog, one theme has emerged: some American Christians are having a difficult time accepting their new status. They want Christendom back, and some of them want the government to enforce religious orthodoxy to some degree. More than a few either assume that America is a Christian nation or that it was and should be again.2 My postmillennial friends are confident that it will be a Christian nation before Jesus returns.3 Each of these approaches, however, consciously or unconsciously relies on Christendom as the paradigm.
The Death of Christendom In America
The difficulty in accepting the culture shift is understandable. Our current status is quite new. As late as the mid-1990s we saw our impenitently sexually promiscuous president prominently carrying a Bible to church on Sundays. As I have mentioned in this space before, politicians and presidents regularly spoke of America as a “Christian nation” without betraying any sense of irony. Historians will probably connect the formal death of Christian America to the Obama administrations. In reality, Christian America probably began sometime in the early nineteenth century and lasted about a century. American elites had given up Christian orthodoxy before World War I and the state of the church in the twentieth century reflected that apostasy. The unbelief of the elites trickled down from the upper classes through upwardly-aspiring middle classes to the blue collar/working classes.
The visible church is a marginal institution in American society. Aaron Renn wants to bring back the mainline church but I ask, what mainline church?4 It is numerically and theologically hollowed. Statistically, they are a shell of their former selves. Theologically, the mainliners mainlined liberalism more than a century ago and, as a result, have vitiated themselves. In just a few years, the PCUSA will be no bigger than the PCA. It will be far wealthier because of ancient gifts and compounding interest on investments and endowments, but it has been spiritually and theologically bankrupt since before they expelled J. Gresham Machen in 1929. This is the one-hundredth anniversary of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, and in that little work, Machen indicted the liberals in the PCUSA for their apostasy.5 There is no resuscitating the mainline churches because, were they to repent and believe again, were the people, presbyters, and pastors to take up God’s Word and the Westminster Standards sincerely again, they too would be exiled from the denomination. The powers that be in the PCUSA will not have Christian orthodoxy.
Whatever the pretensions of some within the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) sideline denominations, they are, at best, marginal in American life. There are two kinds of sideliners in the P&R world: those who accept reality and those who do not.
Politics is downstream from culture, and what is in people’s hearts emerges at the polls and in most pulpits. Almost no one said a word when the blue laws (Sabbath, liquor, etc.) were repealed from the mid-1970s to the 1990s. Today, the legalization of drugs and gambling makes even small American towns look more like Pottersville than Bedford Falls.6 Even my hometown is dotted with dumpy vape shops, thinly disguised weed dispensaries, and the radio stations play ads promising quick and easy money via gambling on sports.
Mocking Not Capturing
Our paradigm for engaging a post-Christian culture is not the Reformation (though, if we are to be of use to pagans and Christians, we should learn our Reformation theology well and thoroughly); nor is it the medieval church (though, again, we have much to learn from the better medieval theologians). Our paradigm is not even the late patristic period (i.e., from AD 380–500). It is the three-and-a-half centuries from the death of the Apostles until the establishment of Christianity by Theodosius I. That period covers not only hundreds of years, but also multiple settings and relations between Christ and culture and church and state.
I understand that this is a hard sell, as they say in the sales business. For one thing, most Christians are unfamiliar with this period of church history. It seems strange and remote. Again, it was only a few years ago that Christianity had privileged status in our culture and that visible Christian leaders were promising to “take back” America for Christ.
Still, we do well to learn this period of church history and to observe carefully how the church related to the prevailing paganism of its time. As we get to know that period and the writings of our Christian brothers during that time, we will see that they knew they were not in charge of the culture or the politics, and they did not expect to be. Indeed, there is no evidence that they wanted to be in charge. Again, this is a difficult thing for American Christians to accept, but we should.
Regular readers of this space will know that the so-called Epistle to Diognetus (Ad Diognetum, c. AD 150) is one of my favorite works from the period.7 I have frequently quoted from chapters 5 and 9 which put forth a clear vision of how the anonymous author expected the church to relate to the prevailing culture, and in which he also articulated the gospel in ways that any Reformation Christian can understand. The twofold kingdom of Christ is presented quite clearly, as is a doctrine of common grace and the doctrine of free justification by grace alone, through faith alone. It is a remarkable piece of work.
The available online editions are not very good and do not do justice to the text, at least not as of 2023. Bart Ehrman’s translation in the Loeb Classical Library is fine, but my favorite (and the one I use in class) is that by Michael W. Holmes in his edition of the Apostolic Fathers.8
First, there is little evidence that this work was actually an epistle. It is a treatise and probably a record of a speech by a Christian to a certain Diognetus. We do not know who Diognetus was. He might have been a tutor to Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180) but we do not know that with certainty. Charles E. Hill has argued that Polycarp is the most likely author, but Holmes favors Quadratus, from whom we have only fragments. This speech was made to a pagan with some authority by someone who had some theological education and insight. For reasons that are not easy to understand, the author of this speech is not usually classified among the apologists, even though he certainly defends the faith.
Evidently, Diognetus had asked our author for some account of the Christian faith. It is tempting to imagine that this is the sort of thing Polycarp would have said, and that Diognetus would be the type of person to whom he would have said it, had he the opportunity. After all, he indicated to the authorities that he had no interest in casting pearls before swine, but that he would nonetheless give a reasoned defense of the faith to the authorities were they to ask: “You I might have considered worthy of a reply, for we have been taught to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm; but as for these, I do not think they are worthy, that I should have to defend myself before them.”9
So what did our author, who called himself a “disciple” (μαθητής), say to his pagan audience?10 He began by explaining how Christians and Christianity differ from the Jews and Judaism on the one hand, and from paganism on the other. His critique of Judaism is sharp and possibly surprising. Judaism was a legal religion. They had no obligation to perform the Roman religious rituals. Christianity, so long as it was considered a sect of Judaism, might have been considered to be covered by that exception, but the author had no interest whatever in being identified with Judaism. The first thing our apologist did was to lay into paganism as stupid and blind. If this is a record of a speech made before Digonetus, which it may well be, then our speaker was quite bold.
Chapter two of Ad Diognetum is devoted to mocking idolatry in a way that would make any Old Testament prophet proud. He called Diognetus to see “not only with your eyes but also with your intellect what substance or what form those whom you call and regard as gods happen to have.”11 He grants no quarter but proceeds to denounce the worship of the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25). He mocks gods made of stone since we walk on stones.12 It is foolish to worship gods made of bronze since we forge utensils from bronze. The same is true for wood—it rots! Silver gods are no good since they need a guard to watch them lest someone steal them.13 Iron gods are worthless since they corrode, and gods made of pottery are the most stupid since we made toilets (e.g., chamber pots) from pottery.14 All these things are created. They are all perishable.15 They were all forged by a craftsman, who is himself a creature and who could just as easily have formed the materials into something else. These things are all mutable and, by implication, anything mutable—Open Theists take note—can be no god.16
Further, all these things are deaf and mute. They cannot hear and they cannot speak.17 They have no souls and they have no feelings. “These,” our apologist says, “are the things you call gods; you serve them, you worship them, and in the end you become like them.”18
I mentioned the possibility that our apologist was standing before Diognetus and giving this defense orally. If so, the next line indicates just how bold he was: “This is why you hate the Christians: because they do not consider these objects to be gods.”19 He went right to the spiritual root of the problem, but he also identified Diognetus’ pretense. He, Diognetus, is no mere casual enquirer, a student of the phenomenon of religion—rather, according to the apologist, he is a hater of Christians (whom one pagan critic regarded as haters of humanity).
Further, the apologist said, Diognetus and the pagans who profess to love the gods, in fact, hate them.20 “Are you not mocking and insulting them much more when you leave unguarded the stone or pottery gods you worship but lock up the silver and gold ones at night and post guards by them during the day, lest they be stolen?”21 Clearly some gods are more valuable than others. Who worships gods that are not even worth being protected?
If the gods are aware of the worship (they are not) “then you are in fact insulting them,” but if they are not, “then you are showing them up by worshiping them with the blood and fat of victims.”22 We know that it is so because no human would willingly put up with such treatment.23
The only thing the apologist wants to capture is Diognetus’ heart, mind, and soul for Christ. There is no evidence that he sought political power, the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, or the state enforcement of religious orthodoxy. What he wanted was for Diognetus to repent from his paganism and believe in Jesus Christ.
This is the sort of thing that the Apostle Paul did at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17). I have always found N. B. Stonehouse’s account of Acts 17 most helpful.24 Paul did two things there: (1) he preached the law by pointing out that the Stoics and the Epicureans were both, in their own ways, religious—but idolatrously so; (2) he then preached the gospel of the resurrection to them. To the Epicureans he was saying that God is and that he became incarnate, that he is near, and that there is indeed a judgment. To the Stoics he was saying that there is good news, there is salvation, and there is more than the universal rational principle.
Our apologist did the same thing. He responded to the prevailing paganism of his age not by iconoclasm, but by a withering critique of the foolishness of paganism. Like the apostles, the apologist feared neither the pagans nor their gods. He was not afraid of losing his place in society because he had no place. He saw himself as a sojourner and an exile (1 Pet 2:11). He described himself thus in chapter 5. He knew that whether he lived or died, he belonged to Christ. He wanted Diognetus to belong to Christ more than he wanted his approval or a place in the culture.
The apologist who spoke to Diognetus was modeling for us how to respond to neo-paganism: by making fun of it. We ought to point out the foolishness of Satanism and all other sorts of paganism. We ought to call our fellow citizens to put their faith not in the gods of this age but in the God who made all the ages, who became incarnate, and who is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
- See Clark, “Heidelminicast Special: On Smashing Satanic Statues.”
- See Clark, “The Myth of ‘Christian America.’”
- See Clark, “Heidelminicast Series: Contra Postmillennialism.”
- Aaron Renn, “Can Mainline Protestantism Be Rebuilt?,” Aaron Renn (blog), August 30, 2023, https://www.aaronrenn.com/p/rebuilding-mainline-protestantism.
- See Clark, “Resources On Machen, Christianity, And Liberalism.”
- See RSC, “Have We Become Bedford Falls Without George Bailey?”
- For an online version, see Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, trans., Diognetus, Early Christian Writings, www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diognetus-roberts.html. Note that I will not be quoting from this version. For the edition I use in this article, see footnote 9.
- Bart D. Ehrman, ed. and trans., Epistle to Diognetus, in The Apostolic Fathers, Volume II, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 25 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); J. B. Lightfoot and Michael W. Holmes, trans., The Epistle to Diognetus, in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed., Michael W. Holmes, ed. (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).
- J. B. Lightfoot and Michael W. Holmes, trans., The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 10:2 in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 2nd ed., Michael W. Holmes ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 235. Hereafter, Ad Diog. All quotations are taken from this edition.
- Ad Diog., 11:1.
- Ad Diog., 2:2.
- Ad Diog., 2:2
- Ad Diog., 2:2
- Ad Diog., 2:2
- Ad Diog., 2:3
- Ad Diog., 2:3
- Ad Diog., 2:4
- Ad Diog., 2:5
- Ad Diog., 2:6
- Ad Diog., 2:7
- Ad Diog., 2:7.
- Ad Diog., 2:8
- Ad Diog., 2:9
- N. B. Stonehouse, Paul Before the Areopagus and Other New Testament Studies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
- Subscribe To The Heidelblog!
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- What Must A Christian Believe?
- Heidelblog Contributors
- Resources On Public School, Homeschooling, Christian Schools, And Education
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button or send a check to
Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization