Part 4: The Early Church. Lesson 7 of 7.
Lesson 25. Church Intellectuals
Through today’s lesson, we hope you will see the early appearance of Christian intellectuals and literature, and will learn the importance of using the language of the day to explain Christianity. We hope you will be equipped to face the church’s continuing encounter with those who claim to have secret knowledge or revelations, and will embrace the atonement of Christ as the touchstone for distinguishing truth.
1.Facing Criticism. Believers in Christ in the Roman Empire were criticized by the intellectuals in society, but the church faced this problem by producing its own intellectuals, and we also can face it today. Some of these intellectuals who looked down on the church were philosophers. Acts 17:18 mentions two schools of philosophy, the Epicureans and Stoics. They are explained below:
2.Happiness first. The Epicureans felt that the purpose of life is happiness and contentment. This does not mean they did immoral things, for many of them felt that the best way to become happy was to avoid immorality. This is not in conflict with the Confucian teaching. The Bible gives a different purpose of life: our purpose is to show forth the life of Jesus in us, even when we are persecuted. 1 But Paul does not miss the chance to show the Epicureans that Jesus can provide the ideals that they were striving for: Paul says that he has learned to be content in any situation.2 This is an example of making the gospel relevant to a group of people.
3.Self-control first. The Stoics believed that only material things existed, not invisible things. Nevertheless, they felt that people should be strong, do their duty, and face whatever they received from fate with harmony and resignation. This is not in conflict with the ideas of Taoism. Recent philosophers in the West have also placed emphasis on material things and on depending on self to do our duty in the face of conflict. The Bible however says that people do have limits, but that God is limitless. Paul makes clear that it Is not wise to place our faith only on material things. 3 Paul may have had the Stoics in mind when he wrote about the fruit of the Spirit, 4 because these were all ideals that the Stoics were striving for. The last one, self control, in particular, could help people to stand bravely and do their duty. From Paul’s example, we can see that a good way to witness is to determine what other people are striving for, and show them how Jesus can provide these things for them. Their interests provide a bridge to bring up the gospel. In this case, the good news that Paul added to the list of ideas was that these things are not produced by our own efforts, but can be given to us by the Holy Spirit.
4.Misunderstandings. The people of the Roman Empire had many misunderstandings about the church. Some said that in baptism, believers drowned tiny babies, and in communion, they ate these babies and drank their blood. Some thought the command “love one another” meant that believers had sexual relations with people they were not married to. Even today, people have misunderstandings. Some say Christianity is a western religion (it is really a universal religion that started in western Asia). Some say Christians do not have filial piety (in fact, the Bible urges people to love their parents). Some say that Christians do not love their country. In fact, the Bible stresses government as God’s gift to us. 5 Paul teaches that government is established by God Remember that Paul wrote this about the Roman government, which was persecuting Christians at the time. Throughout history, governments have seen that Christians are models of good citizenship.
5.Intellectuals. In order to respond to these criticisms and misunderstandings, a marvelous group of intellectuals emerged in the church in the early centuries. They wrote many documents at a high intellectual level to show where the charges leveled at Christianity were wrong, and to show the advantages of Christianity. They had so much success that Christianity grew greatly despite the criticisms. We need people today who can do the same thing.
6.Justin. One of the earliest intellectuals was a man named Justin. He explained faith in Jesus in ways the educated Greeks and Romans of his day could understand. In 155 Justin wrote a book addressed to the Roman Emperor, showing the value of faith in Jesus, and inviting him to join hands with the believers in exposing the falsehoods of idol worship. He explained that Jesus is the same essence as God – just like one candle can be lit from another. In 165, Justin was betrayed to the authorities and killed. He had written, “You can kill us, but you cannot do us any harm.” Because he died for his faith, now he is usually called “Justin Martyr.” The next paragraph tells about another problem that intellectuals had to face.
7.Secretive Religions. Some in the Roman Empire believed that they knew secrets about how to get to heaven. Their religion was developed from Plato and other early Greek philosophers. The beginning stages of these ideas were already around in the first century, and that is probably why Paul warned us about them. Paul warns us not to be taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophies. 6
8.Prideful Attitude. In the first few centuries, the people who claimed to have these secrets were called “Gnostics” after the Greek word for “knowledge.” Some of these Gnostics even entered the Christian church and spread their ideas. They mixed the simple teaching of faith alone with other requirements that only a few special people could know and do, and they confused people by using Christian words to share their false ideas. Today the teachings may be different, but humans are always attracted by “secrets” which promise to let them feel they are better that others or smarter than others. If anyone approaches you with a “secret” teaching, you know it cannot be biblical. The teachings of the Bible are not secrets. They are public and simple. Any time we add more requirements to “salvation by faith in Jesus,” we are not becoming more spiritual: in fact, we are moving farther away from God.
9.GnosticTeachings. The teachings of the early Gnostics were very strange: First, they believed that God was so pure that he could not have come into contact with our imperfect world. They rejected the Biblical teaching of a God who is near and concerned. Therefore they concluded that God used many go-betweens, such as angels, to create the universe. Although Gnosticism came to its highest point in the 2nd century, some of these ideas may already have been developing, and Paul warned against them. Paul warns that when people worship angels, they are moving away from God. 7 Those Gnostics who entered the church also suggested that Jesus could have been one of these go-betweens – and therefore Jesus is less than God. Here it is important for us to remember the Bible verses that show Jesus as equal with God. John uses the term “word” to refer to Jesus 8 This term was used in Greek philosophy to mean a basic principle in the universe that enabled the world to exist. John reveals that it is not a principle, but a person, Jesus. Jesus did make the universe, but not as someone who is less than God, but rather as the God involved in creation.
10.About Sin. Secondly, they did not believe in original sin. They believed that people contain divine sparks that have forgotten their origins. Through knowledge they can find their way back to God. But the Bible says the way back to God is not through knowledge but through the blood of Jesus. Paul says that the message of Christ on the cross is set in opposition to two other attitudes: desiring wisdom, like the Greeks did, and requiring signs, like the Jews did. 9
11.Material things. Thirdly, they did not believe that God made everything to be good. In Genesis, all the things that God made were said to be good. 10 They taught that only the unseen (supernatural) was good, but that the visible (material, natural) was evil. This led to two different approaches, both of which are against Bible teaching:
12.Denying self. Some said, since material things are evil, we must deny ourselves. We must not marry. We must frequently fast. We must not take care of our bodies. Paul already warned about this viewpoint. Paul makes clear that these kinds of rules were not made by God, but that they are human teachings. 11 Paul says these people have “false humility.” When people make many rules, they then use these rules to imagine that they are better than other people. In fact, they could become proud and feel that they do not need God.
13.Fasting. Note: When Christians fast, we must be sure it is for the right reason. It is not to become saved The only way to be saved is through faith in Jesus. Christians fast in order to have more time to concentrate on prayer, and to fight our evil thoughts. It is not material things that are evil. It is the sin that is evil and it can affect both our bodies and our minds.
14.Marriage. Note: Christians do not say that the unmarried have more merit with God than people who do marry. Marriage was instituted by God. 12 God does not say that sexual contact is wrong, but God does want sexual contact to take place only between people who are married 1 Corinthians chapters 6 and 7 teach about sex and marriage. Whether or not one is married does not affect one’s one’s acceptance by God? 13
15.Immorality. Some said, since material things are not important, it does not matter whether we are moral or not. If we commit sexual sin, it does not matter, because that only affects our bodies, not our spirits. John may have had these people in mind when he wrote that sinning is serious 14
16.Overcoming Gnostics. Many believers were concerned about the Gnostics and tried to witness to them about the biblical truth. The most famous book written to show the errors of the Gnostics was by a bishop in France. In 185 a bishop 15 wrote a book against the Gnostics. He showed that our world was created by a loving God. Adam fell into sin and corrupted the world. But Jesus has undone the fall of man. Bodies are not evil, for at the last day the bodies of believers will be raised and live with God forever. This man’s fight against the Gnostics helped to raise the respect for bishops because they maintained the teaching of the apostles, who did not teach anything in secret.
17.Later examples. In 228 a man in Persia 16 started a new religion based on gnostic ideas, teaching that there are sparks of light imprisoned in us that must be set free. His ideas spread to Asia. Some of these ideas reappeared in France in the Middle Ages, when some groups 17 taught that there were two equal forces in the word, one good and one evil. The Bible however teaches that God is much stronger than evil. The church needed over a hundred years of preaching, persuasion, and government intervention to prevent these ideas from spreading. Today the so-called “New Age Movement” has similar ideas. Again, there is no sense of sin, but rather a sense that all people have something divine within them that can be developed through secret knowledge.
18.People are still making up new religions today. We often call them cults. Some of them say they are real Christians. You can recognize them because they may repeat some of the mistakes made by the religions defined above. For example, they may add extra rules, rather than teaching that you are saved by grace, through faith. They may claim to have secret knowledge, rather than saying that faith in Christ is free and open to all. Against all these ideas, we need to strongly assert that sin is real, but that salvation is God’s free gift through faith in Jesus.
1 2 Corinthians 4:5-11
2 starting in Philippians 4:11
3 2 Corinthians 4:18
4 Galatians 5:22-23
5 Romans 13:1-2
6 Colossians 2:8
7 Colossians 2:18-19
8 In John 1:1-4, Greek logos, Chinese 道 [dao].
9 1 Corinthians 1:22-23
10 Genesis 1:31
11 Colossians 2:20-23
12 Read Genesis 1:27 and 2:24
13 1 Corinthians 7:17
14 1 John 3:7-8
15 His name was Irenaeus 爱任纽, and his book was called “Against the Gnostics.”
16 The man is named Mani 摩尼 and the religion is Manichaeism 摩尼教. In 694 it reached China where it was called the “religion of light.” In 762 it was the state religion of the Uighur Turks. This influence continued for several centuries in Asia.
17 Albigenses 亚尔（亜爾）比根派 , Bogomils 波各米尔（爾）派, Catharii 迦他利派，清洁（潔）派
Translations: Cults 异端 Epicureans 以彼古罗（羅）派. Gnostics 圣（靈）智派； 诺（諾）斯底主义（義）. Justin Martyr 殉道者游斯丁. Stoics 斯多亚派