Ressourcement: retrieving our past for present faithfulness

Ressourcement: retrieving our past for present faithfulness
--true history in The Letter to Diognetus

Imperial Rome, especially in the first two hundred years of its existence, was "obsessed with time" and its place in the flow of history.[1] This obsession with time was linked to a deep reverence for the past and a conviction that if something was true it was old. What was new must perforce be false.[2] The Roman world also housed a deeply violent, hate-filled culture, from its bloody gladiatorial shows in the arena to its regular use of crucifixion and child exposure to solve socio-political problems on the macro and micro levels. Yet, it was in this world, which took history ever so seriously but was starved for love, that the Christian Faith providentially first made its appearance. To be sure, Christian monotheism stood out in a world of polytheism--the Roman universe was a place filled with deities, from the Olympian gods to various lesser deities that inhabited the very hearths and doors of Roman homes and the glades and streams of their countryside--but so then did Judaism. What made Christianity differ even from Judaism in this world of Roman hegemony was its insistence on the path of love--"violence is not an attribute of God" is the way one early Christian put it [3] --and that this love was primarily manifest in the life and death of the historical personage Jesus of Nazareth. The confession that Jesus was crucified under the Roman procurator of Judaea Pontius Pilate consequently turns out to be of deep significance when it comes to the profoundly historical nature of Christianity.[4] Christianity thus answered two very important questions posed by its surrounding culture: "What is our place in history?" and "Where is love to be found? In this first essay in this series on early Christian ressourcement, we look at the Letter to Diognetus' answer to the first question. Our next essay will examine the reply to the second question. 

The Letter to Diognetus: an introduction

Without a doubt, one of the best of the various early Christian attempts to respond to such questions raised by Imperial Roman culture is The Letter to Diognetus. Transmitted to the modern world via a sole manuscript discovered in a fish-shop in Constantinople by the Italian Renaissance scholar Thomas d'Arezzo in 1436, the identity of its author is unknown.[5]  From the Greek text of this tract, though, it is clear that the author had had a superb education in the Greek language.[6] As to who is Diognetus, this is also not known with any degree of certainty. The letter should probably be dated to the last quarter of the second century.[7] 

However, what is very clear is why the letter was written. It seeks to provide answers to three general questions about the Christian Faith, two of which, regarding history and love, have already been alluded to: why has Christianity only recently appeared in the world and why do Christians love one another the way they do? The third question is more general: who is the God in whom Christians so believe that they patently reject the pagan gods, are very evidently not Jewish and are not at all afraid of dying for their faith in this God?[8]

True history

The classic Roman view of history that justified Roman imperialism had been expressed by the poet Virgil (70-19BC) in The Aeneid, his epic retelling of the story of Troy. Regarding the Romans, "that toga-clad people" who were "the masters of all in existence," Virgil had Jupiter, the king of the gods, state:

For these I set no limits, world or time,
But make the gift of empire without end[9]

Over against this explanation of the meaning of history, Christianity offered the reality of what took place in the incarnate Son of God during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate in Judaea. The writer of the letter to Diognetus introduced this remarkable fact by first noting that the Christian concept of God is not the product of human thought or mere philosophical reflection. 
As I said before, it is not an earthly discovery that has been passed on to them [i.e. Christians]. That which they think it worthwhile to guard so carefully is not a result of mortal thinking, nor is what has been entrusted to them a stewardship of merely human mysteries. On the contrary, the Almighty himself, the Creator of the universe and the invisible God, has from heaven planted the Truth, even the holy and incomprehensible Word, among men and fixed it firmly in their hearts [10]
Christian truth is rooted in God's revelation of himself through the incarnation of his Son in space and time. God has not, the author wrote, 
sent to humanity some servant, angel or ruler... Rather, [he has sent] the very Designer and Maker of the universe, by whom he made the heavens and confined the seas within their bounds; ...from whom the sun is assigned the limits of its daily course and whom the moon obeys when he bids her to shine by night, and whom the stars obey as they follow the course of the moon. He is the One by whom all things have been set in order, determined, and placed in subjection--both the heavens and things in the heavens, the earth and things on the earth, the sea and the things in the sea, fire, air, abyss, the things in the heights and those in the depths and the realm between. Such was the One God sent to them. ...In gentleness and meekness he sent him, as a King sending his son who is a king. He sent him as God, he sent him as [man] to men, he sent him as Saviour [11]
Christianity, then, is ultimately not a human attempt to find God; rather, it is founded on God's revelation of himself, and that in a person, his Son. Although the name of Jesus is not mentioned in this passage or even in the treatise as a whole,[12] there is no doubt that this is the person of whom the author here writes so eloquently. The Son clearly does not belong to the order of creation. The Son's dominion over the entirety of nature, and by implication his deity, is trumpeted forth. Who is this One whom God has sent to reveal himself? Well, he is "a Son." He is sent by God "as God." As L.B. Radford has commented: "He is God so truly that His coming can be described as the coming of God."[13] And he is "the Savior": our salvation is grounded in the historicity of the Incarnation and the purpose of that historical reality--the death of Christ for sinners.

The importance of the Old Testament

This discussion of the way in which God has revealed himself now opens the way for the author to provide an answer to the query about the antiquity of Christianity. As has been noted, it was axiomatic in Graeco-Roman antiquity that what was true was old and what was new was questionable and probably false. This raised an obvious problem for those seeking to convince men and women of the truth claims of Christianity, for Christianity took its rise from the appearance of Christ. The standard approach among second-century Christian apologists like Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165) or Theophilus of Antioch (fl. 170-190) was to refer to the history of salvation in the Old Testament that finds its fulfillment in Christian faith or engage in a typological exegesis of the Old Testament, which was then seen to foreshadow the coming of Christianity. In the light of these approaches, Christianity had a much better claim to antiquity than either Greek or Roman thought, neither of which were over a millennium old.

The Letter to Diognetus, however, takes neither of these approaches. This is probably due to the fact that earlier, in the sections dealing with Judaism, the author had taken a hard line against Judaism and accused it of engaging in worthless ritual.[14] There, the impression is given that Judaism was of no value at all, not even as a forerunner of Christianity. Thus, the author is forced to argue that God's design of sending his Son to redeem humanity was divulged at first to none but the Son. He waited until men and women had shown by their "unbridled passions,... pleasures and lusts" that they were both "unworthy of life" and  "incapable of entering into the kingdom of God by their own power." Then, at the opportune time, God sent forth his Son.[15]

As this argument stands, without any hint of the Old Testament period of preparation and the history prior to the Incarnation, it is an inadequate response to the query about Christianity's antiquity. A pagan respondent could easily ask for proof of these claims and, in the terms in which they have been given, none would be forthcoming. Although it is very evident that the author is not a Gnostic--he is completely committed to the importance of history--this seeming disinterest in the Old Testament was characteristic of the various Gnostic systems on the second-century religious landscape. This is an important reminder to us of the enormous value of the revelation of the Old Testament.

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] Anthony Grafton, "Dating history: The Renaissance and the reformation of chronology", Daedalus 132 (2003): 82.

[2] Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), 21-22; Wolfram Kinzig, "The Idea of Progress in the Early Church until the Age of Constantine" in Elizabeth A. Livingstone, ed., Studia Patristica (Louvain: Peeters Press, 1993), 24:123-125.

[3] Letter to Diognetus 7.4.

[4] See Giorgio Agamben, Pilate and Jesus, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).

[5] For the history of the manuscript, see Henri Irénée Marrou, A Diognète (Sources chrétiennes, no. 33; Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1951), 5-10.

[6] For some speculation as to the identity of Diognetus, see the discussion of Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics (New York: Corpus Instrumentorum/Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 28-29. Recently Charles E. Hill has argued for Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155/156) as the author. See his From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus' Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of Ad Diognetum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006). 

[7] For this dating, see Robert M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1988), 178-179; Theofried Baumeister, "Zur Datierung der Schrift an Diognet", Vigiliae Christianae, 42 (1988): 105-111.

[8] Letter to Diognetus 1.

[9] The Aeneid 1, lines 281, 374-375.

[10] Letter to Diognetus 7.1-2. 

[11] Letter to Diognetus 7.2, 4.

[12] On this fact, see Marrou, A Diognète, 185-187.

[13] The Epistle to Diognetus (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1908), 39. 

[14] Letter to Diognetus 3-4.

[15] Letter to Diognetus 8.9-9.2.


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