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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ante-Nicene Fathers – Volume 2 – Athenagoras: An Embassy for the Christians

So I have this 10 volume collection of writings by the Ante-Nicene Fathers (the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325) that I’ve been carrying around with me for several years.  I bought them from a library that was about to discard them and over the years I have used them occasionally as I’ve studied and prepared for sermons.  A couple of years ago I finally challenged myself to actually read through them all.  I got through the first volume before we moved again, and so they went into boxes, were moved, were unpacked, and then placed on new shelves – and my challenge was, not quite forgotten, but put on hold. I’d lost my inertia.  But now I’m back to it, and I’ve made a good start into volume 2. 

I'm about 150 pages in, having just finished reading Athenagoras’ Plea for the Christians[1] - or as it alternately titled An Embassy for the Christians. 

Athenagoras was, like many of the other Ante-Nicene Fathers, an apologist for Christianity, writing a defense of the faith to different parts of a hostile empire.  Some wrote to friends, some wrote to local rulers, some, like Athenagoras wrote to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son, (co-emperor with his father) Commodus. 

Now it may have been a bit of common flattery – but Athenagoras praises the Co-Emperors, not for their power, or their military might, but because they are “more than all, philosophers.”[2]  It never hurts to flatter the emperor a little, right? Especially when one wants a favorable decision in one’s case – but these men really were considered philosophers, especially Marcus Aurelius.  Athenagors relies on their “love of wisdom” to guide them as he attempts to plead for the Christians living in the empire. 

In this treatise, Athenagoras attempts to deflect the three main charges that are being brought against the Christians, and demonstrate that Christians are as loyal and well behaved citizens of the empire as the members of any other religious group, and that there is no just cause for their persecution.

The charges that he refutes are 1) The Christians are atheists 2) the Christians practice “Thyestean feasts” and 3) the Christians are guilty of “Œdipodean intercourse.” [3]

The first charge – atheism – would seem like an easy charge to refute – but Athenagoras spends most of his time with this argument.  It is obviously not true that the Christians are atheists for, Athenagoras says, they worship one creator God who is before and separate from his creation.  Athenagoras goes to some great lengths to describe this God – even to some explanation of the concept of the Trinity. 

The charge of atheism is blatantly false – but stems from the fact that the Christians refused to offer sacrifices to the gods.  ‘Why should we?’ Athenagoras asks, when our God does not need blood or sacrifices…

The second charge – “Thyestean feasts” – is a reference to cannibalism. In Greek mythology Thyestes had an affair with his brother’s wife.  When the brother discovered it, he killed Thyestes’s sons, cooked them (except for their hands and heads), and served them to Thyestes.   The charge against the Christians is in relation to their Eucharist. “Eat this, it is my body” and “drink this, it is my blood” sound rather cannibalistic when taken out of context (indeed, even in context …)

And the third charge – “Œdipodean intercourse” is a charge of incest – referring to Œdipus who, according to the stories, slept with his mother, killed his father and gouged out his eyes.  The charge stems from the Christian practice of referring to each other as “brother” or “sister” – and their greeting each other during their gatherings with “a holy kiss.” 

But this is all perfectly chaste, Athenagoras explains.   We call each other “brother” and “sister” because we are instructed to love one another as a family.  And besides, Athenagoras insists, Christians aren’t interested in recreational sex.  “Therefore, having the hope of eternal life, we despise the things of this life, even to the pleasures of the soul, each of us reckoning her his wife whom he as married according to the laws laid down for us, and that only for the purpose of having children.  For as the husbandman throwing seed into the ground awaits the harvest, not sowing more upon it, so to us the procreation of children is the measure of our indulgence in appetite.” [4]

Yeah.  Well… No one should claim that the early Church Fathers were geniuses…

The main thrust of Athenagoras’ plea (or embassy) for the Christians is that they deserve the same protections afforded to other religious groups within the pluralistic empire.  If they break the laws, then arrest them, try them, punish them, of course.  But they shouldn’t be arrested and persecuted merely for the fact that they are Christians. 

Today, we hear a lot of Christians (at least in an American context) complaining about religious persecution.  But there seems to me to be a very big difference between Athenagoras’ plea and today’s complaints.  In the second century, Christians were a minority and disenfranchised group.  They had no power, no position, no place.  Those American Christians who today claim to be persecuted do so in a context where Christianity has been protected and even empowered for a very long time. 

A gross example in the news recently is of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) (founded by Pat Robertson in 1990) - and its European branch – the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) condemns laws against blasphemy in predominately Muslim countries, but supports them in traditionally Christian nations.  They’re not interested in equal protection in a pluralistic society, but in a society in which they’re in control.  

This is not what Athenagoras was arguing for.

[1] Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume II, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1962.
[2] Page 129
[3] Page 130
[4] Page 146

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