2. Some Famous Martyr's of the Patristic Church:
a. Ignatius ( 30 - 107 A.D.):
As Ignatius, the disciple of the Apostle John, was being led in chains to Rome, he wrote a letter to the Church there requesting them not to try to rescue him from his death sentence in the amphitheater with the lions. In his own words:
"I am writing to all the churches, and give this injunction to everyone, that I am willingly dying for God's sake, if you do not prevent it. I plead with you not to do me this "unseasonable kindness". Allow me to be eaten by the wild beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so I may become the pure bread of Christ...Do me this favor...Let there come upon me fire, and the cross, and the struggle with wild beast, cutting and tearing apart, racking of bones, the mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body...only let me attain unto Jesus Christ".
Ignatius ultimately received his wish. His passionate letters to the various churches on his way to his death rank as some of the most dramatic and moving writing that has ever been penned.
b. Polycarp (d. 156 A.D.):
Polycarp was also a disciple of the apostle John. Bishop of Smyrna and associate of Ignatius, Polycarp was martyred at the age of eighty-six. He had reportedly had a vision that he must be burned at the stake for his faith, a fate which he accepted unhesitatingly. The church has handed down the account of his trial and martyrdom. It is apparent from this account that the Roman proconsul took no pleasure in executing Christians and tried repeatedly to get Polycarp to do anything that would indicate a break with the faith. At one point in the trial, he had pointed to the other Christians who were awaiting trial and said to Polycarp "say 'away with the atheists'". Since Christians did not worship the traditional Roman gods, they were designated as atheists. Polycarp, having a different concept of the term, wryly turned to all of the hostile pagans looking on and shouted at them "away with the atheists." I would suspect that the other believers found some encouragement in Polycarp's ability to be humorous, even in the moments before his death. From The Martyrdom of Polycarp:
Then the proconsul said "Swear, and I will set you free, curse Christ". Polycarp declared, "These eighty-six years I have served Him, and he never did me injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?...since you pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian"....Then the proconsul said "I will cause you to be consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you repent". But Polycarp said "You threaten me with a fire which burns only for an hour, and after a little while is extinguished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will"
Polycarp was burned at the stake before the crowds in the amphitheater. The traditional account records that he requested not to have his hands nailed to the post, as was customary, since he said that God would give him strength to remain unmoved in the fire. The account says that the people witnessed the flames arch all around Polycarp, yet without burning him. After several minutes we are told that a soldier stabbed Polycarp in the heart, since he was not being injured by the flames. As Polycarp expired, his blood is said to have extinguished the flames around him.
c. Justin Martyr (d. 165 A.D.)
Justin was one of the first apologists who came out into the public in Rome to defend the claims of Christianity. He made much of his appeal on the superiority of Christianity as a philosophy and religion to every other philosophical and religious system. Not only was he willing to engage other philosophers in debate on the issue, he even went so far as to write letters to the Emperor and the Senate detailing the claims of the Bible, and superiority of Christianity. Justin was aware that this type of high-profile lifestyle could very well earn him a conviction as a Christian and a death sentence. He was right. When he was protesting some of the death sentences that had been carried out by the Roman proconsul on the mere accusation that one was a Christian, Justin prophetically commented that he expected one of his professional rivals, a lawyer named Crescens, to eventually formally accuse him and get him convicted. Years later, to settle a personal grudge, Crescens did initiate the accusation which resulted in Justin's execution in 165 A.D. In the account of Justin's trial, both he and his students were questioned as to whether they would recant their Christian testimony:
"Well then" said prefect Rusticus, "let us come to the point at issue, a necessary and pressing business. Agree to sacrifice to the gods." "No one of sound mind", said Justin, "turns from piety to impiety". The prefect Rusticus said "if you do not obey, you will be punished without mercy." When they replied "Do what you will; we are Christians, and we do not offer sacrifices to idols," Rusticus pronounced sentence: "Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and yield to the emperor's edict be led away, to be scourged and beheaded in accordance with the law."
Justin and half a dozen of his students were summarily taken away, flogged, and executed. His legacy is not only one of courage and determination, but he stands as one of the first great philosophers and scholars in the Latin world for Christ. He epitomizes the principles of the Apostle Paul used on Mar's Hill, when Paul stood and addressed the Greek academia by framing the Gospel in their language, and supported it by citing their own indigenous poets and authors. Justin supports his argument to the Philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius (First Apology) with the words of Plato and Euripides, his argument with Trypho the Jew (Dialogue with Trypho) with hundreds of prophecies from the Old Testament, and his discourse for the Greek populace (Address to the Greeks) with citations from The Illiad.
d. Irenaeus (d. 202 A.D.):
Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp. After the bishop of Lyons was martyred in 177 A.D., Irenaeus was elected to take his place. Irenaeus wrote one of the greatest works of the second century "Against Heresies" which is perhaps the most comprehensive theological work of the era. In it he dissects every Gnostic and unorthodox belief that was present in his day. His clear and concise statements on the "rule of faith" stand as the preeminent expression of the faith of the church. He was said, according to Jerome, to have been martyred with several thousand Christians during the persecution instigated by the Emperor Severus in 202 AD.
Besides his tremendous contribution to apologetics and his courageous stand against heretics outside of the church, Irenaeus is also known for his efforts to assure unity between the Eastern and Western churches. While he was bishop in Lyons, a controversy arose between the Eastern churches and the bishop of Rome over the proper dating of Easter. (Passover). The Eastern churches based their dating on the Jewish calendar, following the 14th day of Nisan for the Paschal celebration. The Western churches had itís own system, which was dependent on the timing of the vernal equinox. Polycrates, who then held primacy among the bishops of Asia, was contending with Victor of Rome over the proper time for the celebration. Polycrates and the Asian bishops claimed, as the eastern churches had done since the very beginning of the second century, that their practice was passed on directly from the apostle John. Victor claimed Peter and Paul as his source for his dating method. This controversy had arisen many years earlier, with Polycarp of Smyrna and Anicetus of Rome representing the two opposing sides, yet the church had maintained essential unity without excessive division over this relatively small matter of practice. In the original case, Polycarp and Anicetus both recognized that each otherís custom had apostolic basis, and were therefore, equally valid. They exchanged communion with each other on both days. In this controversy during Irenaeusí day, however, Victor attempted to classify all of the Eastern churches as unorthodox and heretical for their dating methodology. Realizing that this would split the catholic apostolic church in two, Irenaeus rebuked Victor for his presumption and arrogance, and Victor capitulated.
e. Origen: (d. 254)
Origen is one of the most prolific (and controversial) writers of the early church. When he was only seventeen, his father was arrested and convicted for being a Christian. Origen had intended to join his father in martyrdom, but his mother hid all of his clothes, prohibiting him to leave. His father was martyred, leaving Origen to help his mother raise his six younger siblings. Origen lived an ascetic lifestyle, punctuated by fasting, extended periods without sleep, and rigorous work. Some estimate that he wrote 6,000 books, including his magnus opus commonly called "The Hexapla"; which consisted of all of the contemporary versions of the Old Testament in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek (including Theodotionís and Aquilaís), arranged side by side in six columns. (The Hexapla by itself was 50 large volumes). During his lifetime, he was famed for being able to covert some leading heretics of his day to faith in Christ, among them Ambrose, and Gregory Thaumaturga, as well as Eusebius, the church's first historian, and Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem. After Ambrose was converted, he provided for Origen more than a dozen people to work for Origen in copying, editing and taking Origenís dictation.
Origen had a number of beliefs that would be considered speculative, and even unorthodox. He apparently believed in the pre-existence of souls, and that our state in this life is determined by our actions in the pre-existent state. In the preface of his work "First Principles", however, Origen clearly delineates between what he received as apostolic tradition versus what was speculation of his day. What he says was "received" differs in no way from the orthodoxy that is attested to by the other patristic writers and apologists. The errors that are laid at Origenís feet in later years are never dogmatic statements of doctrine, but merely sections of philosophical and speculative indulgence that Origen offers his readers, and should be treated as such.
When Origen was 65, he was arrested during the persecutions instigated by Emperor Decius. He was stretched on a rack, loaded with chains and an iron collar, and imprisoned for many weeks, yet he would not recant his faith. Decius' death brought about Origen's release, but being in poor health from the torture, he died several years later from the lingering effects of his imprisonment and torture..
f. Cyprian:(d. 258)
Cyprian converted to Christianity in 246. Because of his extreme passion for the Lord, and his great learning, he was elected to be bishop of Carthage just two years later in 248. When the Decian persecution began two years after that, Cyprian went into hiding. He was criticized by other churches for his action, yet despite this, he oversaw and pastored the large African church through numerous and frequent epistles. After that persecution ended, he returned to his bishopric. In 257, the new Emperor Valerian renewed a systematic effort to extinguish Christianity. This time Cyprian held his ground. He was beheaded the next year when Valerian ordered all clergy to be rounded up and executed.
Cyprian is perhaps best remembered for his decisive statements on the position of Rome amongst the other apostolic churches of his day. When Cornelius of Rome was challenged for the episcopate of Rome by Novation, Cyprian came out strongly in favor of Cornelius, citing the primacy of Peter, and Novationís inability to demonstrate a right by succession to the position. Novationís grievance was that Cornelius was too quick to forgive and reinstate those who had lapsed or denied the faith during persecution. Cyprian saw this as an internal squabble over discipline that certainly did not justify splitting the Church at Rome. Cyprianís writing in support of Cornelius is frequently cited by Roman Catholic scholars to defend the hypothesis that bishop of Rome was always regarded as the incontrovertible head of the church. Just a few years later, however, Cyprian came into conflict with Stephen I, the bishop of Rome (254 -257 A.D), over the question of the rebaptism of heretics. Stephen of Rome had ruled that any heretic coming to the catholic faith would not have to be rebaptized, and whatever baptism they may have received in their sect was valid. In this instance, Cyprian saw that instead of being a mere question of church polity, a significant issue was at stake. If heretical baptism was just as valid as an orthodox baptism, then the whole principle of "One catholic and apostolic" church was threatened. Scores of bishops from both Africa and the Eastern churches railed against Stephen I, sometimes in very unflattering terms (see Firmilianís letter in "Leadership" section, page 101 ). The Council of Carthage was convened to specifically decry Stephenís position in the matter. The ultimate arbiter in the matter seems to be time. Just a few years after the Council of Carthage, the Valerian persecution took Cyprianís life. In Rome, the "heretics", now orthodox, that had been admitted without being rebaptized had assimilated into the church with out incident. At this point, it was veritably impossible to go back and now exclude those who had become faithful members in good standing. Like the precedent set by Callistus a generation earlier, the Roman church affirmed that the efficacy of one in a ministerial office, in this case, a heretic practicing baptism, was not dependent upon the orthodoxy of the minister himself.
Touching upon the hundreds of thousand of other lesser known martyrs of the early church, we have just small glimpses into their legacy. Some of the accounts of martyrdom are horrific and graphic. We have Tacitusí previously mentioned description of believerís being wrapped up in pitch and tar, and being used to light Neroís gardens for his social events. Clement of Rome, in his Letter to the Corinthians (97 A.D.), one of the very first extra-biblical Christian writings, mentions that the elect
Having through rivalry endured many indignities and tortures, furnished us with a most excellent example. Through rivalry those women, as Danaids and Dircae, being persecuted, after they had suffered terrible and unspeakable torments, finished the course of their faith with steadfastness.
The reference to the "Danaid and Dircae" is alluding to the fact that the Romans liked to make the Christians dress as characters from mythological stories for their twisted and perverted sense of amusement. Dirce was dragged to her death by a bull, which was seems to be a common, albeit barbarous way of torturing a Christian woman to death. The daughters of Danai, in mythology, were given in marriage to the winners of a foot race. It may have been the practice to have men compete in the amphitheater, and the winners publicly rape the Christian women and girls before killing them. Many writers and historians have documented the extreme tortures, and cruelties endured by these heroes of the faith. The barbarism went on for some 250 years, with only sporadic periods of respite. Yet throughout all of this, the church thrived and grew. Ultimately, it would be the worldliness and concessions to paganism that occurred during the periods of peace that threatened to destroy the church, far more than the wrath and persecution of the Roman Empire ever did. For it was during the periods of trial that the purity and true mettle of the church was shown, resulting in numerous individuals concluding that the Christians were indeed righteous and without reproach. A number of the early Christian writers mention that, before their conversion, they were drawn to investigate Christianity after witnessing the manner of death of some believers being executed. The bravery, conviction and unrelenting faith of the martyrs in that moment spoke more persuasively than any Madison Avenue advertisement could do today. New converts swarmed into the church after the Roman government displayed it's impotence in trying to forcefully control, by use of torture, a superior philosophy and mode of life. Tertullian said of this:
"For as much as you mow us down, we increase in our numbers, for the blood of Christian is seed." (First Apology)
Perhaps there is a pertinent lesson for us in American evangelicalism, who, although still untried by real persecution, have seemingly made our civil rights and protection of our lifestyle a divine mandate. We have become accustomed to answering any abrogation of our "rights" as we perceive them, with a lawsuit from a Christian legal agency. We pour millions of dollars into Christian lobbyists in Washington, to hopefully affect legislation that will mold our culture into a society more reflective of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Much of our resources are spent firing at the perceived "enemies" (gay rights supporters, feminists, abortionists, "liberal" social policy) with a rhetoric that would match the rhetoric of any Roman Emperor. In doing so, we have alienated the very people we say we wish to reach with the gospel. This is not to say that there is not a cultural mandate for our society that we need to pursue; there indeed is, but it should not be at the expense of compromising our Christian witness. There is no place for slang terms like "fags" or "femi-Nazis" or the like. We really donít have the right to say whether God supports a certain political party or not. All we should know is Christ crucified, the ultimate expression of mercy for the lost. There is no partisan debate on this issue. We have helped the non-Christian culture see a mean-spirited, hate-filled "Christian Right" that is out to shove it's values down their throats. Compare this with the common attitude of the early church as expressed by Tertullian in "Of Flight In Persecution" in the late Second century:
Persecution, by means of which one is declared either approved or rejected, is the just judgment of God. This is the fan that now cleanses the Lord's threshing floor- the Church...then is faith both more zealous in preparation, and better disciplined in fasts, and meetings, and prayers, and lowliness, in brotherly-kindness, and love, in holiness, and temperance. There is no room, in fact, for ought but fear and hope. So even by this very thing we have it clearly proved that persecution, improving as it does the servants of God, cannot be imputed to the devil."
We can see that the early church had a strong inclination to view all circumstances in light of God's Providence. Even the most repressive of situations had a redeeming quality and was under the direct oversight of an omnipotent God. I might speculate that we have allowed our reactions to personal injustice to be dictated by the Constitution's Bill of Rights, rather than the Sermon on the Mount. The Bill of Rights gives legal recourse during persecution or discrimination for American citizens, and carries the authority of Constitutional law. The Sermon on the Mount, however, is the recourse for citizens of God's Kingdom, and it is executed and backed up by the supernatural power of the Supreme Lawgiver.
If we prioritize our affections for God's Kingdom, and temper our actions and reactions in light of God's Providence, then, perhaps, in the future, we can recast this image of the "Right-wing-religious-fanatic-extremist" back into the image of Christ on this earth. We don't need to engage in sectarian politics just for the sake of politics. I hope in the future, we can see that we don't need to react with animosity and "us vs. them" rhetoric just because we feel some elements in our culture may be hostile towards our Christian testimony. That perceived hostility may give us the opportunity to show what the Spirit of Christ is all about. We need to concentrate more on expressing a position of love and compassion, coupled with a clear defense of the gospel, rather than just posturing and positioning for legal and legislative battles on sectarian issues. We can see from the early church fathers that the Christian church frequently bears the most fruit because of those hostile elements. They demonstrated how the church could win the hearts and the minds of a hostile culture, even when they were being rounded up like sheep for slaughter. Jesus said to "Rejoice, and be glad" when you are unjustly treated for his sake. Understanding how such things can actually further the gospel may be the key to capitalizing on such elements without creating artificial barriers to non-Christians to prohibit them from coming to a knowledge of the truth
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