CHRIST AND CULTURE

 

As we begin the third century, evangelism remains the church's top priority. The church then could either withdraw from society to avoid persecution and solidify itself against heresy or it could penetrate the world with the Gospel.

The church today faces an identical choice. We can confront culture constructively or develop a "fortress mentality". Penetration demands an aggressive mentality while retreat requires only defense and protection.

When the church hit the third century it no longer enjoyed any status whatsoever as a minor Jewish sect. Still, Christianity could not escape attention. Second century apologists tried to make Christianity acceptable. Third century believers wrestled with the same goals. Now, however, rather than trying to persuade the general population--including the government--it found it necessary to appeal to intelligent and reasonable men.

My purpose here is to survey two of Christianity's reactions to culture. These two approaches correspond to the different regions in the Empire. The eastern Empire, influenced by Greek abstract thought, adopted one course. Christians living in the western, more practical culture, adopt another tack.

I. The church in Egypt (the East).

Christians living in the Empire's eastern provinces found themselves confronted by Hellenism. Alexandria, the most Greek city outside Greece itself, illustrates this. Alexander the Great envisioned Alexandria as a cosmopolitan city based on Greek thought and culture. He established the city to demonstrate the Greek culture's superiority. As a result, this great Egyptian city became an intellectual center with opportunities for intellectual pursuit and philosophical enquiry.

Christians knew that for the Gospel to penetrate such a city it could not be perceived as anti-intellectual or simplistic. Alexandrian Christians tried to make Christiantiy palatable through philosophy. At the time, Alexandria housed a number of philosophical schools. Seeing such schools as an outreach tool, Christians developed their own "school" to communicate their beliefs to the city. I have to mention several important individuals associated with the Alexandrian School.

Sometime around A.D. 180, Pantaenus, a Stoic philosopher, arrived in Alexandria. Someone brought him to Christ and he established a catechetical school. Pantaenus's school existed for two reasons. First, it served as a communications tool to take Christianity to the city's intelligentsia. Second, the school prepared believers for baptism and full acceptance into the Christian community. Pantaenus named his approach "Christian Gnosticism." It was "gnostic" because it asked big questions about meaning; but it was "Christian Gnosticism" because it retained orthodox answswers. Pantaenus reached many for Christ with this approach.

Pantaenus's outstanding reputation drew an Athenian Christian, Clement, to Alexandria. Clement of Alexandria succeeded Pantaenus as the school's leader. We know Clement primarily through his extant writings. In these documents he demonstrates a thorough knowledge of Scripture and classical literature. Because of his broad education, he knew how to effectively apeal to young intellectuals. Bruce Shelly says of Clement:

Clement's purpose was clear. He seized not only the external garb and forms of expression of contemporary pagan philosophers, but also their problems. If, for example, he discussed the universe and its meaning (cosmology), so loved by the gnostics, he did not do it with the intention of proving these ideas wrong offhandedly and then discarding them quickly, but instead he pointed out how the fundamental religious questions about the creation of the world, the existence of evil in this life, and the salvation through the Word, Jesus Christ, found their last and deepest answer in Christian revelation.

Clement blended Christianity and Greek philosophy. Clement tried to make Christianity relevant for his students. Clement recognized the risks but stood willing to take them.

Origen, a third important Alexandrian teacher, studied with Clement. In time Origen overshadowed his teacher. An Alexandrian native, Origen stood for the faith even as a lad. Remember, had not his mother hidden his clothes Origen would have joined his father, Leonidas, in martyrdom. During the Severan persecution, Clement left town, and Origen, who was 17 or 18, found himself head of Alexandria's Christian school.

Origen kept the school open and continued relating Christianity to the culture. Many of Origen's contemporaries recognized him as one of the most significant of Alexandrian thinkers. He is recognized as the first textual critic. He published the Hexapla, a six version New Testament. He also produced at least 50 commentaries. Most Christian writers focused on refuting heresy. Origin, however, set out to explain Christianity's intellectual framework. Some of his teaching earned him the brand of "heretic." His writings are difficult to grasp. He seems to drift toward universalism thinking that even Satan would ultimately be converted and Hell emptied.

About A.D. 229 Origen traveled to Athens where he had many admirers. Passing through Palestine, he accepted ordination at Caesarea. This ordination caused conflict with his bishop, Demetrius of Alexandria. Demetrius publicly condemned Origen so Origen remained in Caesarea where he finished some of his greatest works. Origen was arrested during the Decian persecution and tortured. The Romans enjoyed his torment but finally released him in 251. The ordeal weakened Origen so much that just three years later he died.

While Pantaenus, Clement and Origen tried to identify Christianity with culture, there were those who strongly objected to the approach. The North African writer, Tertullian, objected strongly to linking philosophy with Christianity. He felt philosophy was the "mother of heresy." Tertullian reputedly said, "What fellowship hath Jerusalem with Athens?" Hippolytus of Rome agreed and stated that every heretic got his ideas from Greek or pagan philosophy. Both men criticized any effort to create an amalgamation in Alexandria since Valentinian Gnosticism abounded there.

II. The church in the west.

The pressure to relate Christianity to culture existed in the west, too. In the west, however, the pressure is to compromise the faith not accomodate it. How do you keep the faith in a heathen culture? Even more specifically, how do you keep the church pure? The church grew rapidly during this period. Rapid growth brought with it doctrinal and shepherding problems.

Callixtus, our friend in Rome, illustrates the problems. The basic problem is Modalistic Monarchianism. Sabellius taught that Christ and God are identical; the only difference is their mode of appearance. In an attempt to refute the monarchians, Hippolytus described the relationship between Father and Son as a subordinate relationship. Zephrynus, Rome's bishop, and Callixtus accused Hippolytus of "ditheism." Hippolytus wrote blistering tracts against Callixtus.

Friction between Callixtus and Hippolytus ran deep. Hippolytus was a member of the "old guard". Callixtus was a newcomer who possessed poor credentials. Each man saw the church differently. Callixtus took a broad view holding that the church should be open to all but the worst sinners. (With Callixtus' background this is understandable.) Rome, however, was a major city with a population of 1,000,000 and filled with temptations. New believers often came from situations where vice and corruption were the rule. Christians often succumbed to the temptations and found themselves trapped in serious sin. Callixtus took the position that guilty Christians needed shepherding not exclusion.

Hippolytus took a much stricter view. He said only the best people should be brought into the church and Christians who stumble should be excluded. To Hippolytus, the view Calluxtus took represented a lowering of standards. That offended the "old guard." Hippolytus finally withdrew to form a "true church." He remained a schismatic until his death. He represented an older tradition, a tradition that is passing away.

From outside, the doctrinal problem appeared to be the cause of the rift between Callixtus and Hippolytus. The real problem focused on the question of whether or not the church is for the stout-hearted, the pure, or for everyone.

Tertullian provided an second example. Tertullian was a Carthaginian lawyer in North Africa. He converted to Christianity because he saw Christians' faith in martyrdom. He held to a militant view of Christianity. Christians should be pure and stand aggressively for Christ. He stood strongly opposed to Callixtus' policy towards sinners in the church. Tertullian became a Montanist because of the laxity he saw in the orthodox church. For all of the Montanist excesses, they demanded a strict moral lifestyle. Montanism represented a super-spirituality attractive to many who desired holiness and sinlessness.

How wide is the church's scope? Is the church only for the strict, or is it also for the weak? Clement and Origen wanted to appeal to everyone! Callixtus wanted to shepherd all, even the weakest Christians! How do you keep up the quality? This problem plagues the church. Tertullian and Origen are key men here. Tertullian died out of communion as a Montanist. Origen died excommunicated. Tertullian, however, shaped western theology while Origen shaped eastern thought. Later both men are admired and revered.

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