A Blast from the Past: the Epistle to Diognetus
One of the earliest apologetically writings, if not the earliest, is known as the Epistle to Diognetus. This was written around the year 130 AD and it gives some great insight into the thought of the early church. While reading this short but wonderful work, one of its sections jumped out to me. The author (unknown but originally thought to be Justin Martyr) is writing to defend the Christian faith and as part of his argument for the true faith he says the following:
“Do you not see them exposed to wild beasts, that they may be persuaded to deny the Lord, and yet not overcome? Do you not see that the more of them are punished, the greater becomes the number of the rest? This does not seem to be the work of man: this is the power of God; these are the evidences of His manifestation.” -The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus
What an amazing defense of the faith. On its face it sounds counterintuitive that the persecution of Christians would, first lead to more converts and secondly strengthen the persecuted one’s faith. Counterintuitive perhaps, but there is strong theology behind this testimony. In Philippians 4:13, we see an application of this verse practiced in the witness of these Christian martyrs’ ability to withstand the threat of death faithfully.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” –Philippians 4:13 (NKJV)
“they may be persuaded to deny the Lord, and yet not overcome.” -Epistle of Diognetus, Chapter VII
The Holy Spirit strengthens the Christian for His glory so that they may not be overcome. Matthew 10:19 illustrates further that God will provide in times of distress and punishment for our witness.
“But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” –Matthew 10:19-20
Theology Creates Consistency
Knowing the theology behind the results borne out by the persecution faced by these Christians, the author’s apologetic gains its strength. The Roman pagan’s defense becomes inconsistent in its application because there is no truth in it; only cleaver arguments from a depraved mind. Therefore, one defender of paganism will vary from another in his argument. We see a modern example of this inconsistency in atheism apologetics today. As modern science changes its explanation of the universe so does the Atheist his arguments. But the Christian faith, rooted in the truth of Christ, endures forever.
“Do you not see that the more of them are punished, the greater becomes the number of the rest?” -Epistle of Diognetus, Chapter VII
Again, knowing that it’s the power of God unto salvation through the gospel of Christ coupled with the knowledge that God is strengthening saints for persecution, it only seem sensible that it would lead to an increase of Christians rather than the Roman expectation of destroying it. With correct theology in hand, the sword of the apologist swings with accuracy and deals a death blow to its opponents.
A Modern Epistle
But one has to consider something. If “Christians” in today’s America where subjected to the same deadly and brutal persecution as it was during the first three century under the Roman government, would the same defense work? Could a modern Epistle to Diognetus be written about American Christianity? Or are we so occupied by our freedom in Christ and relative peace that we have grown spiritually obese and unable to realize the true application of Philippians 4:13? In time the answer will be revealed.