Ressourcement: Love and Its cost in The Letter to Diognetus

Ressourcement: retrieving our past for present faithfulness, part 2
Love and Its cost in The Letter to Diognetus

The Apostle Paul's descriptions of the social fabric of the pagan world of his day are not pleasant. "Living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another" (Titus 3:3) is the way that Paul depicts life in the first-century world, for example, in his letter to Titus. No wonder that Christian communities stood out like brilliant lights in a dark firmament (Philippians 2:14). 

"O the sweet exchange"

The pagan Diognetus, to whom an anonymous Christian author wrote in the late second century, is another powerful witness to the fact that life in the Church was qualitatively different from the pagan world, for he asked this author--thus in part prompting the letter that we began to look at last month--"What is the warm fraternal affection they [i.e. believers] all feel for one another?"[1] The author's answer to this question is tied to his argument for the antiquity of Christianity. The author has argued that God revealed his plan of salvation to none in the past but his "beloved Son"--a weak argument as it fails to take account of the place of the Old Testament in salvation history as was noted last month. The author continued: when human beings realized their utter and complete inability to gain heaven by their own strength and were conscious of their sin and impending judgment, God, 
did not hate or reject us or bear us ill-will. Rather, he was long-suffering, bore with us, and in mercy he took our sins upon himself. He himself gave his own Son as a ransom for us--the Holy One for the godless, the Innocent One for the wicked, the Righteous One for the unrighteous, the Incorruptible for the corruptible, the Immortal for the mortal. For what else was able to cover our sins except his righteousness? In whom could we, who were lawless and godless, have been justified, but in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange! O the inscrutable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation!--that the wickedness of many should be hidden in the one Righteous Man, and the righteousness of the One should justify the many wicked![2]
The use of the term "ransom" at the head of this passage recalls the statement of Jesus in Mark 10:45 about the ultimate purpose of his coming into the world, his substitutionary death on behalf of sinners: "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." 

The Letter to Diognetus has five dialectical ways of expressing this act of substitution, one of which--"the Righteous One for the unrighteous"--almost exactly reproduces a phrase from 1 Peter 3:18. What is highlighted in this dialectic are the twin soteriological themes of the Son's utter sinlessness and humanity's radical depravity. This is a truly marvelous text, as the author, overwhelmed by what took place at the cross, is lost in rapture, awe, and praise. Here, as so often happens in the writings of Paul, theology gives way to doxology: "O the sweet exchange! O the inscrutable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation!" 

Imitating God

The author is now ready to answer Diognetus' question about the love of Christians for one another. Christians love one another because God first loved them when they were sinners and showed that love through the awesome substitutionary sacrifice of his own beloved Son on their behalf. Embracing the Son's death for one's sins by faith alone--earlier the author had stated that God "has only revealed himself to faith, by which alone are we permitted to know God"[3] --leads to a desire to imitate God, the great Lover of mankind.
God loved the race of men. It was for their sakes that he made the world; it was to them that he gave dominion over everything in it. On them he bestowed reason and understanding, and they alone received permission to lift their eyes to him. He formed them in his own image; he sent his only-begotten Son to them; he promised them the kingdom of heaven, and to those who have loved him he will surely give it. Once you have grasped these truths, think how your joy will overflow, and what love you will feel for him who loved you so.[4]
And it is in this mutual love of believers for one another and for their neighbors that evidence is seen that "God lives in heaven" (10.7). Christian love is thus a key evidence for the truth of the Christian worldview.

Pagan hatred & Christian martyrdom

However, like many other peoples in history, those of the Roman Empire responded to Christian love with fear and hatred, ostracism and persecution. This hatred and the Christian response to it are mentioned a number of times in the letter. For example, in chapter 5 of the Letter to Diognetus we read this about these early Christians:
They show love to all men--and all men persecute them. They are misunderstood, and condemned; yet by suffering death they are quickened into life. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance. They are dishonoured, yet made glorious in their very dishonour; slandered, yet vindicated. They repay calumny with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evildoers; and under the strokes they rejoice like men given new life. Jews assail them as heretics, and Greeks harass them with persecutions; and yet of all their ill-wishers there is not one who can produce good grounds for his hostility [5]
As this passage lays bare, Christians were verbally abused by their fellow Greeks and Romans, despoiled, put on trial as evil-doers, and condemned to death. Notice, though, how they reacted: with love: "they show love to all men."

The Roman mode of executing enemies of the state and criminals varied, for Roman punishment was tailored to the social status of the criminal rather than the crime. Thus, beheading was the major form of execution for citizens of the Empire who committed a capital offence. Non-citizens and slaves could be exposed to a whole range of horrific means of execution, including burning and being mauled to death by ferocious beasts. Both of the latter are mentioned in this letter. In 10.8 we read of believers who "endure for righteousness' sake a transient flame."[6] And at the close of chapter 7 the author mentions death by wild beasts: 
[Have you not seen Christians] flung to the wild beasts to make them deny their Lord, and yet remaining undefeated? Do you not see how the more of them suffer such punishments, the larger grows the number of the rest? These things do not look like the work of man; they are the power of God, and the evident tokens of his presence.[7]
The way in which the author views the martyrdoms of believers is noteworthy. They are, first of all, a means by which the church grows. As the North African theologian Tertullian (fl.190-215) once put it: "the blood of Christians is seed."[8] Second, the author of the Letter to Diognetus sees in the steadfastness of the martyrs nothing less than a proof for the truth of the martyrs' testimony. Apologetics in the Ancient Church took place not only by means of reasoning through the spoken word and such tracts as this letter, but also in the midst of horrific martyrdoms. 

Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165), who himself was martyred, was brought to Christ by watching the way that believers died in the arena. "When I myself revelled in the teachings of Plato," he tells us, "and heard the Christians misrepresented and watched them stand fearless in the face of death and every other thing that was considered fearful, I realized the impossibility of their living in sinful pleasure."[9]  Similarly, Tertullian spoke of the apologetic power of those who shed their blood for their love of Christ: "whoever beholds such noble endurance will first, as though struck by some kind of uneasiness, be driven to enquire what is the matter in question, and, then, when he knows the truth, immediately follow the same way."[10]

Learning from the past

In any defence of the Christian Faith, God's revelation of himself in his Son, Jesus Christ, and Christ's death for sinners must play the central role. It is the death of the Son that frees men and women from sin and shame and bondage to idolatry, and thus enables them to genuinely participate in God's love, both as recipients and as agents of love to others. 

Another important element in witness is the love of Christian believers for one another, their life together, and even their dying for their faith. To pick up on this final point of dying for one's faith: this treatise is a marvellous witness to the fact that the Ancient Church knew there are some things more important than life itself. In the words of Justin Martyr: "the lover of truth must choose, in every way possible, to do and say what is right, even when threatened with death, rather than save his own life."[11]

Michael A.G. Haykin is the Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has written widely on the Ancient Church and eighteenth-century Dissent


[1] Letter to Diognetus 1.1.

[2] Diognetus 9.2-5, trans. Michael A.G. Haykin.

[3] Letter to Diognetus 8.6, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), 147, altered.

[4] Letter to Diognetus 10.2-3, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 148, altered.
[5] Letter to Diognetus 5.11-17, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 145.
[6] Letter to Diognetus 10.8, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 149, altered.

[7] Letter to Diognetus 7.8, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 146. At the beginning of this verse there is a gap in the manuscript, and the material enclosed in square brackets is supplied to make sense of what follows.

[8] Apology 50.13, trans. Emily Joseph Daly in her, Rudolph Arbesmann and Edwin A. Quain, trans. Tertullian: Apologetical Works and Minucius Felix: Octavius (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 125.

[9] Second Apology 12, trans. Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr (New York: Christian Heritage Inc., 1948), 132.

[10] To Scapula 5, trans. Rudolph Arbesmann in his, Daly, and Quain, Tertullian: Apologetical Works, 161.

[11] First Apology 2.1, trans. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, 34.