“Essentials”: The Letter to Diognetus by Duane Arnold, PhD
“No, you can’t tell people anything, you’ve got to show ’em.”
Born to Run
The Franco-Prussian war was in full fury. Prussian General August von Werder was laying siege to the French city of Strasbourg. He had decided to reduce the city through a massive and continuous bombardment. On 24 August 1870, Prussian artillery rained down shells on the city and destroyed Strasbourg’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Municipal Library. Thousands of manuscripts, rare books and ancient artifacts were destroyed. Among them was the sole surviving manuscript of the second century Epistle to Diognetus. Discovered in Constantinople in 1436, the manuscript had made its way across Europe, eventually coming to reside in Strasbourg. Now it lay in ashes. Thankfully, before its destruction, two accurate recensions had been made so, while the manuscript was lost, the message was not.
It causes one to wonder, how much has been lost through the centuries? From the destruction of the great library of Alexandria (first under the Romans, then under the Copts and finally under the Muslim conquest) down to the destruction of monastic libraries in our own time, by the former Marxist government in Ethiopia or the destructive rage of ISIS, tens of thousands of ancient Christian manuscripts and codices have been reduced to ashes. What treasures might have been among them? Perhaps the earliest Gospel manuscripts, or the original letters of Ignatius of Antioch, or some lost account of the Council of Nicaea? Perhaps Jerome’s list of sources as he prepared his Latin translation of the Bible? We will never know. Yet, in spite of the destruction of much that was written, the life of the Church has continued; and that life has been a greater witness to the truth of the Gospel than all the ancillary writings that have surrounded it.
Now, what of the text before us? Firstly, it has been mistakenly called an epistle or letter, owing to the document being addressed to one Diognetus. It is not a letter. It is, perhaps, one of the earliest examples that we have of an apology for the Christian faith. It has been postulated that this apology may have been written to the famed tutor of Marcus Aurelius, which may indicate a dating of c. 150. Another possibility, however, is a magistrate of the same name in Alexandria who is referenced in papyri dated between 197 and 203. On the other hand, it may have been addressed to a figure from antiquity who is wholly unknown to us. The style of the letter and the concerns raised within the text causes me to opt for the earlier date of the mid-second century. The text itself has been divided into 12 short sections or chapters. The final two chapters, 11 and 12, may be from a different hand. There are also two small gaps in chapters 7 and at the end of chapter 10 that perished after its original transcription in antiquity. What has survived, however, is remarkable.
An “apology”, in this context, is not saying “sorry” for a slight or an offense. Instead is a reasoned defense of one’s belief and/or behavior. Within the hellenistic culture of the day, an apology (apologia or “defense”) was, strictly speaking, the speech offered by one accused in a judicial proceeding. In time, however, it morphed into a defense of a philosophical or theological position given in a speech or in literature, sometimes, but not always, given at a trial or inquiry. We think of the speech given by Socrates at his trial in Athens or, indeed, Paul’s defense given at his hearing before Festus and Agrippa (Acts 26:2). During the second and third centuries, the Apology became an important genre of Christian literature as the early Church sought to stake its own identity over against the claims of Judaism on one side, and Graeco-Roman culture on the other side.
It is important to note in this context that Christians were viewed with enormous suspicion during this period. Regarded as messianic renegades by the Jewish diaspora, Christians were also considered ignorant and superstitious when measured against the panoramic backdrop of Greek philosophy and Roman literature. Moreover, Christians avoided the normal social life of the day. They did not frequent the baths or the gladiatorial games. Most Christians came from the lower ranks of society, even to the inclusion of slaves as equals. They failed to participate in civic rituals. They considered marriage as a permanent state, rather than transitory. They refused to offer even token sacrifices to the genius of the Empire, or to the local gods who protected and ensured the welfare of the cities in which they lived. Given to private meetings of “brothers and sisters” and secret ceremonies apparently involving private communal bathing (baptism) and participating in meals rumored to consist of human flesh and blood (the Eucharist) they were suspected of incest, immorality, magic, human sacrifice and cannibalism. If all this were not enough, they worshipped a Jew who had been executed under Roman law, and spoke of another kingdom, exciting charges of disloyalty, revolutionary activity and treason.
It is against this background of popular perceptions, that the anonymous author pens his defense of the faith to Diognetus.
The text is very short. It can be read in the space of ten or fifteen minutes. The author writes to explain the manner in which Christians worship God (Diog. 1). As would be expected, in chapters 2-4, the author carefully explains why Christianity is superior to the worship of idols (in the Graeco-Roman context) as well as superior to the sacrifices, laws, and customs of the Jews, from whom he makes a pronounced differentiation in terms of the Christian community. In chapters 5-6 the author provides a description of the Christian community as a contrast. This is followed in chapters 7-8 by a theological and philosophical defense of Christianity as being of not only divine origin, but also of being God’s instrument of salvation in terms of human history. The 10th chapter is an appeal to Diognetus himself to embrace this faith. The remaining two chapters (Diog. 11-12) are likely an addendum by another hand (possibly later). It may, in fact be a short homily, which is of interest simply owing to its antiquity and the thematic presentation of Christ the logos coming into the world (a favorite theme of early apologists) and the Church as the continuation of that advent.
Now, for contemporary students of apologetics, one might note that this is not an ancient version of Evidence That Demands A Verdict which focuses on “the trustworthiness of the Bible and its teachings”. If anything, second and third century apologists might have a bit more in common with modern day equivalents such as C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, all the while, however, addressing the concerns of their own time. Today, of course, we have apologetics and apologists spread over a wide field of topics – Biblical Apologetics, Scientific Apologetics, Philosophical Apologetics, Historical and Legal Evidentialism, Moral Apologetics, and even Creationist Apologetics. Yet the heart of the apologetic argument in this second century text is not really about any of these topics. It is about who Christians are and how their faith is evidenced by the lives they lead. To quote Mr. Springsteen, “No, you can’t tell people anything, you’ve got to show ’em.”
“Christians differ not from other men in country, or language, or customs. They do not live in any peculiar cities, or employ any particular dialect, or cultivate characteristic habits of life. The truths which they hold result not from the busy ingenuities of human thought; the counsels of man in them possess no champion. They dwell in cities, Greek and barbarian, each where he finds himself placed, and while they submit to the fashion of their country in dress and food and the general conduct of life, they yet maintain a system of interior polity, which beyond all controversy is full of admiration and wonder. The countries they inhabit are their own, but they dwell like aliens; they take their part in all privileges, as being citizens; and in all sufferings they partake as if they were strangers. In every foreign country they recognize a home; and in their home they see the place of their pilgrimage. They marry like other men, and exclude not their children from their affections: their table is open to all around them; they live in the world, but not according to its fashions; they walk on earth, but their conversation is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their lives transcend all law; they love all men, and are persecuted by all; they are unknown, and yet are condemned. Death to them is life; of their poverty they make many rich, and in the extremity of want they still possess all things. They are treated with dishonor, and by dishonor are made glorious; their integrity is insured by the insults which they suffer; when cursed they bless, and reproaches they pay with respect. When doing good they are punished as evil-doers; and when they are punished they rejoice as men that are raised unto life. By Jews they are treated as aliens and foes, by Greeks they are persecuted; and none of their enemies can state a ground for their enmity.”
“In truth, Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body.” (Diog. 5-6)
Today, we are surrounded by words. Books line our shelves. The inbox on our email servers are filled with correspondence, newsletters and the like. If we tire of the talking heads spewing words on the television screen, we can self-select even more words in blogs and videos online. Moreover, we can also easily add to this proliferation of words. Owing to advances in technology, we have the ability at our fingertips to constantly “tell” people what we believe concerning a myriad of topics on a wide variety of social media platforms and in varied forums.
Yet, maybe we have it wrong.
For the apologists of the early Church, the central argument for the faith was to be found not in words, but in the actual lives lived by Christians. Interestingly enough, this is a pattern of what one might call “practical apologetics” that has been repeated through the centuries. When, in the 13th century, the early Franciscans were viewed with suspicion and alarm by many owing to their embrace of a radical Christianity, their answer was remarkably simple – “Come and see the life we live”. When John Wesley and the early Methodists were excoriated by church leaders for their “Holy Clubs” and societies, the response was the same, “Come and see…” When Anglo-Catholic clergy were exiled by their bishops to slum parishes in the 19th century and attacked for restoring the centrality of the Eucharist to Anglican worship, they invited their critics to leave their comfortable establishment parishes and experience for themselves the “beauty of worship” amongst the poor of the city. Even in our own time when a middle-aged pastor in southern California outraged many of his fellow evangelical and charismatic leaders by allowing into his church hippies, kids off the beach, rock musicians and the like, his response to his critics was simple, “Come and see…”
Our greatest apologia is the life that we live as the Church.
Maybe it’s time to return to that earlier form of “practical apologetics”.
Maybe it’s time to not merely “tell” people what we believe.
Maybe it is time to “show” them what we believe; that is, if we can…