Not long ago, I picked up the third edition of The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (ed. and trans. by Michael Holmes). What in the world are the Apostolic Fathers? As stated in the introduction:
The term “Apostolic Fathers” is traditionally used to designate the collection of the earliest extant Christian writings outside the New Testament. These documents are a primary resource for the study of early Christianity, especially the postapostolic period (ca. AD 70-150). They provide significant and often unparalleled glimpses of and insights into the life of Christians and Christian movement during a critical transitional stage in its history.
While, to some of you, this volume may sound like a surefire cure for insomnia, I have long since wanted an excuse to read some primary texts from early church history and expand my Greek beyond that of the New Testament. Not knowing what to expect, I opened my copy and began to read…within minutes I was hooked! I spent time flipping through Clement, the letters of Ignatius, the Didache, and others before finally settling on the one text I had never heard of or read about, The Epistle to Diognetus. Let me say, I was not disappointed by this wonderful and previously unheard of letter.
The Epistle to Diognetus is a marvelous example of early apologetic work, discussing the superiority of Christianity over paganism, but it is a bit of a mystery with respect to its author, recipient, and date. As Holmes points out in the letter’s introduction, “The author is anonymous, the identity of the recipient is uncertain, the date is unknown, the ending is missing, and, rather suprisingly, no ancient or medieval writer is known to have mentioned it.” That said, Holmes and most others would date the letter between 150 and 225 AD and agree that the Diognetus to whom the letter was written was a tutor to Marcus Aurelius. In addition to its apology against pagan idolatry and Jewish worship, Diognetus describes the distinctiveness of Christians in the world, the gracious revelation of Jesus as God’s son and Savior. He sounds a call to imitate Christ and ends with a short ‘homily’ on the Word of God. While I will hopefully write on several of these topics over the course of the next few days/weeks, in the midst of reading and mediating on the Easter Passion narratives, I have been especially fascinated by the letter’s explanation of the hidden God revealed in Christ.
As we take up Diognetus, we read of the gracious self-revelation of God to humanity (Note: while not formatted as poetry in this edition, I have taken some license to do so here as the language is so poetic I think it is warranted:
The omnipotent Creator of all, the invisible God himself, established among humans the truth and the holy, incomprehensible word from heaven and fixed it firmly in their hearts,
not as one might imagine,
by sending them subordinate,
or one of those who manage earthly matters,
or one of those entrusted with the administration of things in heaven,
but the Designer and Creator of the universe himself,
by whom he created the heavens,
by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds,
by whose mysteries all the elements faithfully observe,
from whom the sun has received the measure of the daily courses to keep,
whom the moon obeys as he commands it so shine by night,
whom the stars obey as they follow the course of the moon,
by whom all things have been ordered and determined and placed in subjection, including the heavens and the things in the heavens,
the earth and the things in the earth,
the sea and the things in the sea,
fire, air, abyss,
the things in the heights,
the things in the depths,
the things in between–
this one he sent to them!
Thoughts…God, in his mercy, sent his Son–the Designer, Creator, Ruler, and Sustainer of all things–to reveal himself from the heavens to the depths of our hearts. This Sovereign King could have sent any emissary he chose, in fact we would expect a lower ranking emissary to be sent to such as us, but he sent his own Son, the very second person of the Trinity, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” (as the Nicene Creed puts it). Continuing:
But perhaps he sent him, as one might suppose, to rule by tyranny, fear, and terror? Certainly not! On the contrary, he sent him in gentleness and meekness, as a king might send his son who is a king; he sent him as God; he sent him as a human to humans. When he sent him, he did so as one who saves by persuasion, not compulsion, for compulsion is no attribute of God. When he sent him, he did so as one calling, not pursuing; when he sent him, he did so as one loving, not judging. For he will send him as a judge, and who will endure his coming?
More thoughts…unlike the gods of the pagan nations, Christ’s first coming was not as warrior-king or tyrant, but in meekness as an infant. He came to call the sick, the lame, and the sinful to true healing, wholeness, and cleansing–to redemption from sin and death! But for those who reject him, let them beware his second coming in judgment, for “who will endure his coming?”
There is a lot to love about this Epistle, but I am captivated by the poetic language here, by the wonder of the incarnation and the condescension of Christ, who took humanity upon his deity and dwelt among us, Immanuel (God with us). Amen!