Early Church

The History of the Doctrine of God, Part 2

God is simple but not simplistic. On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. James Dolezal joins Dr. Stephen Nichols in the studio to discuss the simplicity of God.

The History of the Doctrine of God, Part 1

God is infinite, transcendent, and unfathomable. On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. James Dolezal joins Dr. Stephen Nichols in the studio to discuss the greatness of God.

Augustus Caesar

Augustus Caesar ruled at the time of the birth of Christ and lived from 63 BC to AD 14. He was the first Roman emperor to use a particular title, and it was in fact his favorite title. In Latin, the title is Divi filius, or “son of a god.”

Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. One of Julius Caesar’s favorite titles was “Divine Julius.” He considered himself to be descended from the gods, and a god on earth. Augustus, when he officially became part of Julius Caesar’s family through adoption, took on the title Divi filius, “son of a god.”

Augustus also set up statues of himself throughout the Roman Empire. In fact, because of the limitations of travel in that day, many more people would have seen his statues and images than would have seen him.

The most famous statue of Augustus had certain characteristics, and it gave birth to a popular style of statute representing him. He had the original statue commissioned while he was middle-aged, but it is an image of him as a young man with ideal proportions. In this style of statue, he’s perpetually youthful and perfect. Also, his feet are bare. Such a representation was only used in the depiction of gods and goddesses, so the statue connects him to the gods of the Roman pantheon.

In these statues, Augustus is also dressed in military garb, and his arm is raised up, as if he is addressing the people. He is represented as their leader, as their victorious military leader, who is leading Rome through all its military endeavors, exploits, and pursuits.

At his right leg, on many of these statues, there is a Cupid riding a dolphin. Now, there’s a double image here. The dolphin represents his victories at sea, and the Cupid represents Venus. It’s a way of signifying that Augustus was descended from the goddess Venus herself.

On his breastplate are figures that signify all of the countries that he had conquered and had brought into the empire, and it represents what we speak of in reference to the Pax Romana, or “peace of Rome.” The unification of various tribes and nations into one people throughout the Roman world was all brought about by Augustus.

One of the famous altars associated with Augustus can be seen today in Berlin at the Pergamon Museum, constructed in 1930. Of course, the foundation of the altar is in Pergamum, but it was moved to Berlin. It was constructed before the time of Augustus Caesar, sometime between BC 150 to BC 100, but blocks, an altar, and a statue of Augustus were later added to it.

On that altar is Augustus’ favorite title, Divi filius. We also find graffiti on the altar’s block and around the title. You might remember that Pergamum was one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2–3. It’s the northernmost of the seven churches in Asia Minor. In the early Byzantine period, as that area was Christianized, someone put two lines of graffiti on the title Divi filius in the symbol of the cross. So, while Augustus Caesar thought he was the son of god on Earth, he was not. It was, in fact, that baby who was born in a manger during his reign. Jesus Christ alone is the Son of God.

Tacitus

Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived in the first century. He was born in 56 or 58 and died in 118. He was an orator and a lawyer who served in the Roman Senate, and he appears to have had some sort of political role in the province of Germania. He is known to us as one of the historians of first-century Rome. In his books, the Annals and the Histories, he tells the story of first-century Rome, starting with the death of Augustus Caesar in AD 14 and ending with Domitian’s death in 96. Through the lens of the emperors, Tacitus looks at the various events of the first century. His history takes on another layer of importance because it coincides with the time of Christ’s earthly life and with the writing of the New Testament and the early church.

Much of Tacitus’ work is lost, but the parts that remain are fascinating. One of the books that remains from the Annals is book 15, which tells the story of Nero’s reign from 62 to 65. This was a very important time, coinciding with Paul’s imprisonment and, as church tradition tells us, Nero’s oversight of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul.

In this period, there was another very important event: the burning of Rome in 64. As Tacitus tells it, Nero himself was thought to be responsible for the fire. He had a desire to rebuild the city, and, if he could simply burn away some of the city’s undesirable areas, it would be easier for him to rebuild. But the fire grew out of control and ended up destroying much of the city. This caused the people of Rome to turn on him.

Tacitus tells us:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations called “Christians” by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origins, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out, not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.

At this point in the Annals, Tacitus reveals what he thinks about Rome: “Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”

Tacitus continues:

Accordingly, an arrest was made of all who pled guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt to serve as nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a chariot. Hence, even for criminals, who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

In this selection from the Annals, we can observe a number of things. We see one of the first references outside of the New Testament to Christ, wherein His life is dated relative to Pontius Pilate and reference is made to His death by crucifixion. We also see the attitude of the Romans toward Christians and the intense, cruel persecution they faced at the hands of Nero.

Macrina

In the fourth century, there was a Christian Roman woman who was very significant in her lifetime. She was named Macrina. Now, we have to make a distinction. This woman is known as Macrina the Younger to distinguish her from her grandmother, Macrina the Elder. They were very wealthy, aristocratic Romans. And they were devoted Christians, very committed to the church and very committed to the Christian faith. Macrina the Younger was born in 330, but her grandmother—a very godly woman—lived before the reign of Constantine, at a time when Rome was persecuting the church. So, this was a family that experienced persecution, and then, all through Macrina the Younger’s lifetime, grew up in that post-persecution Constantinian Roman world. Macrina is interesting in her own right, but she is also interesting because of her brothers.

Macrina came from a very large family. There seems to be a consensus that there were ten children in the family, of which she was the oldest. When she was a young lady, she was betrothed to be married, but her fiancé died. She never fell in love again and never sought marriage again. She felt that her betrothal was almost a marriage, and so she considered herself to be still married. At various times, she would say that her husband was on a journey far away from her and she was making her way to him. Consequently, she committed her life to service and turned the family’s large estate into a monastery and a convent.

So, we have her contribution in her own right, but what’s also interesting is her brothers. She had two brothers who were very significant. One of them was Basil, who went on to be bishop of Caesarea, and the other brother was Gregory. There are a lot of Gregories in the early church, but this one is Gregory of Nyssa. He was a bishop too. Basil and Gregory are two of the three theologians known as the Three Cappadocians.

Gregory wrote of Macrina and her death. He wrote as if she were sharing her testimony at her death. He reports that she said:

You, God, did break the flaming sword and did restore to Paradise the man that was crucified with you and implored your mercy. Remember me too in your kingdom because I too was crucified with you, having nailed my flesh to the cross for fear of thee, and of thy judgments have I been afraid. Let not the terrible chasm separate me from the elect, nor let the slander stand against me in the way, nor let my sin be found before thine eyes. If in anything I have sinned in word, or deed, or thought, or have been led astray by the weakness of our nature.

She then pleaded for God’s mercy.

I find that first line fascinating: “You did break the flaming sword.” Of course, this is a reference to the angel who is keeping us from Paradise after Adam and Eve fell and were expelled from the garden. But God, through what Christ has done, has broken that flaming sword and has restored us to Paradise.

Just War

Augustine of Hippo provided the church with a number of crucial phrases. We have the phrase ex nihilo, meaning that creation was made out of nothing. Another phrase that Augustine gave us is not only important for the church but actually one that’s important for political philosophy. The Latin expression is jus ad bellum, or “just war.”

Augustine’s thinking on the topic grew out of his circumstances. In 410, as the Visigoths were laying waste to Rome, the Romans blamed the Christians and their refusal to participate in the civic religion for the city’s downfall. Augustine wrote an apologetic response: The City of God. In this book, Augustine provides helpful guidance for thinking about what it means to be a Christian in challenging times. But he also sketches out his idea of a just war. He laid out two components to his theory of just war: the first concerned legitimate reasons for going to war, and the second concerned how a state or a military ought to conduct itself in order to wage war in a just manner.

These were important questions for Christians. Many Christians up until Augustine’s day were pacifists, based on their reading of the sixth commandment—“Thou shalt not kill.” Augustine thought about the issue a little bit differently. His reading of the New Testament, and particularly regarding Christians’ obligation to the state as outlined in Romans 13, led him to believe that the state does have an obligation in waging war. So he moved away from a pacifist understanding of war. But how are we as Christians to approach the topic of war from a Christian perspective? This is where Augustine helps us. The first thing he does is ask how we are to think about war and about the point of war. It sounds counterintuitive, but this is what Augustine says: “We wage wars because we are interested in peace. It is ultimately peace that we seek, not war, and war is a means not to itself, but it is a means to peace.” He goes on: “For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing part which compels the wise man to wage just wars, and this wrongdoing, even though it gave rise to war, should still be a matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrongdoing. Let everyone, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils—so horrible, so ruthless—acknowledge that this is misery.” Augustine is saying that war is misery, but it is necessary for peace.

In thinking about war, Augustine lays out criteria for a just war, reasons why a nation should go to war. He makes the case that, first of all, war should be a last resort. Are there other options? States should exhaust diplomatic options before going to war. He then asks, what are the parameters of war? He talks about whether the war will end once the cause for the war is avenged and the reason for the war is accomplished. He asks if there has been a wrong committed that warrants a war. Then he asks, is force used properly? In a war, there should be a distinction between combatants and noncombatants, and civilians should be protected. In asking these questions, Augustine helped us as Christians to think about just war.

On the Canon

Stephen Nichols (SN): Today we have a very special guest: Dr. Michael Kruger. He is the president and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dr. Kruger, welcome.

Michael Kruger (MK): Thanks, Steve. Great to be here.

SN: I’m looking forward to having a conversation with you about a very important topic. You’ve given a lot of attention and energy to the topic of the canon.

MK: Yes.

SN: So, let’s talk about the canon. Now, let’s get one thing straight. We’re talking about canon with one n in the middle. Is that right?

MK: That’s right. Canon, not cannon that would blow somebody up. This is a standard or list or rule.

SN: Okay, so we’ve got that established. This is canon with one n. What do we need to know about the canon in the early church?

MK: Well, there’s a lot to say there, Steve. I think most people probably labor with a number of misconceptions about the canon, and so one of the things I try to do is to help people undo those misconceptions. Probably the largest misconception out there is this idea that canon is a late imposition on books written for another purpose. In other words, people think these books were written with no intention of being authoritative documents; they were written sort of as occasional texts that only later—centuries later—Christians began to realize, “Wow, these are really great books and maybe we should consider these Scripture. Tell you what, let’s have a canon and put these in it,” something like that. So, the first thing, I think, that people need to understand is that these books were not just written as texts that had bearing only a certain situation or people; that Paul, for example, as an Apostle, wrote with conscious authority. Even in the first century, he understood himself as writing books to govern and guide the church. And this is an important thing that I think people miss.

SN: We find Peter speaking of the writings of Paul—and I always find this helpful because I get stumped by Paul sometimes; it’s helpful to know, well, Peter was stumped by Paul—and he’ll say, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16).

MK: Yes, absolutely. And that shows you that even in the first century how in that text, somewhere in the 60s, people were already viewing Apostolic books as scriptural books. So, you didn’t have to wait for the third or fourth century for this idea that you ought to have books that are regarded as Scripture in the New Testament.

SN: Now, as you look at the essence of the New Testament, we see a general consensus around the Gospels, we see a general consensus around Paul, but there were some sort of fuzzy boundaries there in those early centuries. What were some of the issues that were going on?

MK: What I like to help people understand is that by the early second century or middle second century there was really a wide and unified consensus on what we might call the core of the New Testament canon. The core of the New Testament canon would include things like the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters, books like 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, and so on. So, about twenty-two out of the twenty-seven would have been pretty well established. What that means, then, is that for the books that were under discussion, if you will, there was maybe a little bit more disagreement about them were the small ones. So, this would have been books like 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, James, books like that.

SN: Was Philemon ever an issue?

MK: Philemon wasn’t really ever an issue. Philemon was just not talked about very much and often just no one mentioned it. So, for example, Irenaeus, a second-century church father, when he mentions all of Paul’s letters except Philemon, that doesn’t mean he rejects Philemon; it just means that Philemon is such a little book that he may not get around to saying much about it. I imagine that is still true in the modern day.

SN: Then there were other books that we do not have in our twenty-seven books of the New Testament.

MK: Correct.

SN: So, what were some of those?

MK: In the second century there were books in circulation that people sometimes used that they were kind of hanging on the edges. An example of this is the Shepherd of Hermas, which was a popular book in early Christianity, or 1 Clement, which was a letter that some valued. And then you have what we call apocryphal gospels, gospels that are outside the canon such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter. We know people read them now and then but they never had much popularity and they never really were true contenders for the canon.

SN: In fact, we find some very early church fathers outright rejecting these gospels as false gospels.

MK: Yes, despite the claims of many modern scholars that these were popular and widely received, the fact of the matter is that when they were mentioned, which isn’t very often, they were condemned quite directly. So, there was never really a chance that they would be in the canon.

SN: Well, Dr. Kruger, thank you for being with us. I’ve been enjoying our conversation. Maybe we’ll have to have another conversation about the cannon with two n’s sometime. That would be just as explosive.

MK: That would be fun.

Marcion

“Do you know who I am?” That question was posed to Polycarp, the great early church bishop. Polycarp was faithful right up to the very end, and he was one of the early martyrs for the faith. And he had an interesting encounter with another very well known figure in the early church, one who is well known not for the good things he did but for the bad things he did.

This figure was also apparently very impressed with himself. On one occasion, he met Polycarp. He went up to Polycarp, looked him right in the eye, and said, “Do you know who I am?” Polycarp would have none of this posturing. He looked him right back in the eye and quickly retorted, “Yes, I know you very well, you firstborn son of the devil.” This figure was Marcion. He was a well-known heresiarch, or founder of a heresy.

Marcion’s birth year is unknown; estimates range from AD 85 all the way up to 110. We do know that his death was around 160. He was the son of a bishop in Turkey. Marcion was apparently in the shipping trade, and he did very well for himself. Around 140, he made his way to Rome. He wanted to buy influence in the church, so he turned over a significant amount—one estimate says twenty thousand coins—to the church at Rome. Early on, however, church officials saw that he was not a good guy and this was not a good direction for the church to go, so he was quickly excommunicated and sent away with all of those twenty thousand coins.

What was the teaching of Marcion that was so problematic? Marcion had bought into Plato’s idea that matter is bad, and so, the God of the Old Testament, the God who created the world, was not a God that he could stomach. There needed to be a distance between God and matter in Marcion’s thinking, so the creator God of the Old Testament was not a true God or He was a lesser God. As a result, Marcion basically wrote off the entire Old Testament. He also wrote off those New Testament books that are very dependent on the Old Testament. Of the four Gospels, he really only liked Luke. And among the Epistles, he certainly didn’t like Peter or Hebrews. Marcion’s canon—his understanding of what God’s revelation is to us—was a very short canon. It consisted of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, and even then he went back into some of Paul’s epistles and excised some of his teachings.

Marcion’s canon actually had a positive side effect: his heretical teaching prompted the church to think about the canon. By the end of the second century, the church was articulating the canon of the Old Testament, largely in response to Marcion and his heresy. The church also responded to Marcion’s view of Christ. Obviously, Marcion did not have a good view of the incarnation—because he denigrated the material world, he denied the true humanity of Christ. Church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian went after Marcion on this too.

So, “Do you know who I am?” Yes, Polycarp knew who he was, and Polycarp knew that he was bad for the church.

Augustine’s Handbook for Life

Augustine of Hippo wrote many books, including his Confessions and City of God. One of his somewhat lesser-known works is a book from the year 420 called the Enchiridion. Augustine was around sixty-six years old at the time he wrote it, and he had been a Christian for thirty-five years. The Enchiridion is a short handbook or manual. Sometimes it’s called Augustine’s Catechism or his treatise on faith, hope, and love or faith, hope, and charity. I’d like to simply call it Augustine’s “Handbook on Life.”

The book is addressed “to my dearest son, Laurence.” Laurence was not Augustine’s actual son; Augustine is referring to Laurence as a sort of spiritual son or a son in the faith. We don’t know much about Laurence. He was a Roman official, a tribune, living in Africa, and he was a man of some importance and some stature in that day. He had written to Augustine to ask a significant question: How can Christian doctrine be summarized? Augustine takes the question and he sort of says, “Well, Laurence, let me help you articulate the question you’re really asking.” And the question is this: How can God be worshiped? This tells us a lot about what Augustine thinks of doctrine and what he thinks doctrine ultimately leads us to. And not only is the worship of God a way to talk about theology, it is also for Augustine a way to talk about life. So, what we are after here in this little book is, “How shall we then live? How shall we worship God?”

Augustine answers, “God is to be worshiped with faith, hope, and charity.” Now, the majority of the book is about faith. We worship God based on what we believe in and what we believe about God. In order to unfold this idea, Augustine walks Laurence through the Apostles’ Creed. At one point, he talks about faith in Christ the Redeemer and says we are under the wrath of God because of original sin: “We are the enemies of God and God is angry at us.” And then Augustine says this: “When God is said to be angry, this does not mean that his mind was disturbed, like the mind of a person who is angry, but his vengeance, which is nothing but just, is, by an extension of meaning, called his anger.” We are under the wrath of God, the vengeance of God because we are sinners. Then he says this: “So our reconciliation with God by a mediator and our reception of the Holy Spirit to make us children of the one to whom we were enemies . . . this is the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is what we believe; this is where our faith lies.

Then we have hope. When Augustine turns to hope, he turns to the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer gives expression to our hope, our hope for our needs and ultimately, our hope for the kingdom of God. As the Lord’s Prayer ends, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen.” Then Augustine ends with charity. We live in love to God and in love to others. And that, according to Augustine, is a handbook for life.

Augustine on the Psalms

Augustine’s Explanations of the Psalms has been called “Augustine’s longest and at the same time the least read of Augustine’s works.” It is a long book—more than twice as long as The City of God, and recently published as a five-volume set—and it was also a long time in writing. Augustine first worked on it in 392 and he did not finish it until 418. He preached and taught and dictated his way all through the Psalms through those decades. Throughout his interpretations of the Psalms, Augustine’s focus is on Christ. In fact, at one point he says, “Christ is the comprehensive mystery underlying all of Scripture.”

He started his Psalms in 392. That is an important date. He was born in 354, he was converted in 386, and he was ordained as a priest in 391. In fact, it was right after he was ordained as a priest that he requested a leave of absence so that he could pull away from his work and immerse himself in Scripture. Of course, Augustine was quite the scholar. Before he was a Christian, he was a teacher and an academic. He had read all the works of Plato and the works of Aristotle and the works of the great Greek and Roman thinkers. He had written many of his own books. But it was time for him as a priest to immerse himself in Scripture.

This is almost the opposite of how we do it now. Now, if someone wants to be a pastor, they’ll go to college, then go to seminary, then they’ll get ordained. Augustine did it in reverse; he was ordained first and then he put himself through this intense study in Scripture. One of the books that was his focus was the book of Psalms.

And so, in 392, as a newly ordained priest, preaching what would be his first sermon series, he struck out on a series of the Psalms and wrote what amounted to thirty-two lectures on the Psalms. It was just the beginning of his work, and as I said, he continued to work on this through his life and did not finish until 418.

At one point, Augustine calls Scripture the unus sermo Dei—that Scripture is the one sermon of God. What he was stressing in that is that there is an absolute unity, not only of the divine authorship of Scripture, but a unity of the message. And again, that message centered on the Psalms. At one point, Augustine said that the only thing he wanted to know in life was the knowledge of God and the knowledge of his own soul. And in many ways, Christ brings those two together. Christ the God-man—He who is truly God and truly man—gives us the clearest possible answers to the questions “Who is God?” and “Who am I?” In the end, that is the singular message of Scripture, and Christ is the One who holds it together.

Augustine believed that we should be very active readers of Scripture. At one point, he says this about the Psalms: “If the psalm prays, you pray. If the psalm laments, you lament. If the psalm exalts, you rejoice. If it hopes, you hope. If it fears, you fear. Everything written here is a mirror for us.” That’s Augustine on the Psalms.