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History of the 3rd Century Church: Part 4

Nov 03, 2007

The Christian philosophers wrote to fellow philosophers, in order to convince them that Christianity was the true Philosophy. Tertullian, on the other hand, pleads for Christians as a lawyer. Philip Schaff tells us in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, p. 830,

". . . Minucius Felix pleads for Christianity as a philosopher before philosophers, to convince the intellect; Tertullian as a lawyer and advocate before judges, to induce them to give fair play to the Christians, who were refused even a hearing in the courts."

As a lawyer familiar with past decrees and other judicial records, Tertullian was able to refer his readers to the official records on file in the Roman courts. In his Apology, a "confession of faith" addressed to the Emperors of Rome, he reminds them that the Emperor Tiberius himself had looked with favor upon Jesus, saying in chapter V,

"Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ's divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favour of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians. Consult your histories; you will find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect, making progress then especially at Rome."

Nero, of course, was the first to persecute the Christians (64 A.D.) more than 30 years after its inception. Tertullian again reminds his Roman readers in Apology, XXI,

"All these things Pilate did to Christ; and now in fact a Christian in his own convictions, he sent word of Him to the reigning Caesar, who was at the time Tiberius. Yes, and the Caesars too would have believed on Christ, if either the Caesars had not been necessary for the world, or if Christians could have been Caesars."

He tells his readers to consult the official records mentioning the time of darkness when Jesus was on the cross (Luke 23:44). He says in Apology, XXI,

"In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse. You yourselves have the account of the world-portent still in your archives."

The sun and moon were positioned opposite each other on that day. As the sun began to set that day, there was a lunar eclipse at 5:10 p.m. while Joseph and Nicodemus were hurrying to bury Jesus before sundown. But science tells us that one cannot have a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse on the same day. Tertullian tells us, then, that this was a supernatural darkness that took place during the crucifixion, and that it was a matter of public record in the archives of Rome.

Tertullian also reminds his readers of the answer to prayer that Emperor Marcus Aurelius had received when his Christian troops prayed for rain in 164 A.D. Apology, V reads,

"So far from that, we, on the contrary, bring before you one who was their protector, as you will see by examining the letters of Marcus Aurelius, that most grave of emperors, in which he bears his testimony that that Germanic drought was removed by the rains obtained through the prayers of the Christians who chanced to be fighting under him. And as he did not by public law remove from Christians their legal disabilities, yet in another way he put them openly aside, even adding a sentence of condemnation, and that of greater severity, against their accusers."

Tertullian makes the point that Christianity--unlike Judaism--was under an apostolic mandate to submit to the Romans and to pray for their peace. In chapter XXX, he writes,

"Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish."

Tertullian goes so far as to attribute the lack of internal enemies to the fact that there were so many Christians in every city.

"If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves; who can suffer injury at our hands? In regard to this, recall your own experiences. How often you inflict gross cruelties on Christians, partly because it is your own inclination, and partly in obedience to the laws! . . . Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil for evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve an ample vengeance?

"If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be lacking in strength, whether of numbers or resources? . . . For what wars should we not be fit, not eager, even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay? . . . .

"For if such multitudes of men were to break away from you, and betake themselves to some remote corner of the world, why, the very loss of so many citizens, whatever sort they were, would cover the empire with shame; nay, in the very forsaking, vengeance would be afflicted. Why, you would be horror-struck at the solitude in which you would find yourselves, at such an all-prevailing silence, and that stupor as of a dead world. You would have to seek subjects to govern. You would have more enemies than citizens remaining. For now is the immense number of Christians which makes your enemies so few--almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ. Yet you choose to call us enemies of the human race, rather than of human error."

Toward the end of his Apology, he gives his famous statement about the martyrs, "The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed."

Meanwhile, in far-off Britain, the Church continued its quiet progression--not because of Rome, but in spite of her. Tertullian speaks of the prophecies in the Psalms and in Isaiah of the gospel going out into the whole earth, and then shows how Christianity, not Judaism, has fulfilled this prophecy. He writes in An Answer to the Jews, VII,

"For upon whom else have the universal nations believed, but upon the Christ who is already come? For whom have the nations believed--Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and they who inhabit Mesopotamia, Armenia, Phrygia, Cappadocia, and they who dwell in Pontus, and Asia, and Pamphylia, tarriers in Egypt, and inhabiters of the region of Africa which is beyond Cyrene, Romans and sojourners, yes, and in Jerusalem Jews, and all other nations; as for instance, by this time, the varied races of the Gaetulians, and manifold confines of the Moors, all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons--inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ, and of the Sarmatians, and Dacians, and Germans, and Scythians, and of many remote nations and of provinces and islands many, to us unknown, and which we can scarce enumerate?"

Christians were welcome in areas of Britain that the Romans found dangerous, perhaps north of Hadrian's wall or in parts of Wales. The gospel had spread from Britain to India and had prospered.


This is the fourth part of a series titled "History of the 3rd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 3rd Century Church


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