3rd Century Persecution & Theology

How did the periods of persecution cause the church to think about the doctrines of salvation and the church?

Persecution during the third century only intensified, but as Everett Ferguson states, “The expectation of eternal reward sustained Christian endurance in the face of persecution and other hardships.” It was during the strong emperor rules of Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus that Christianity faced some of its hardest times. Part of this stemmed from Christianity being illegal and the other part came out of the Christians being blamed for everything from the fires under Nero to the plague under Marcus Aurelius. During the reign of Septimius Severus, he went as far as banning the conversion to Christianity and Judaism despite there being an established distinct difference between the two religions. The Romans believed these new religions had upset the balance in their polytheistic paganism and had angered their gods.

Despite the persecution and martyrdom, Christianity still grew extensively and although there were two significant periods of peace during the third century, Emperor Decius and Valerian as Ferguson puts it, “Declared war on the church with an effort at systematic oppression.” This oppression and persecution led to increasing apologetics and martyrdom as Christians were put to death for maintaining their faith. Out of this, Tertullian coined the saying; “The blood of the martyrs is the seed for the church.” This war on Christianity caught the church unprepared and much of the higher clergy were arrested and forced to sacrifice to the Roman gods. While many church members compromised their faith, some held fast and chose martyrdom instead. It was after martyrdom, the individuals new birthday became the day of their death as the anniversary of their immortality was now to be celebrated.

If a baptized believer succumbed to persecution and gave up his/her faith, did the church believe salvation was lost as a result? Also, could the church include Christians who denied their faith?

Under the persecution of Decian and Valerian, the unity of the church was in jeopardy which caused a schism to develop between Cyprian: the bishop of Carthage, Novation: a leading presbyter in the church at Rome and other church leaders. One of the major issues was what to do with those people who had fallen away from their faith during the persecution. Should the church and its members who did not compromise their faith immediately reconcile them? This was the consensus of church leaders; they believed those who did not fall away had been given an extra measure of the Holy Spirit and were entitled to forgive those who had strayed. Cyprian was against this and argued once the bishops were safe to return from hiding they should agree on a unified policy. As Ferguson states, “Cyprian confronted the extremes of both rigorism, which said apostates could not be restored to full fellowship, but must be kept in the condition of penitents for the rest of their lives, and laxism, which said that penitent apostates could be restored to full communion immediately.” Other issues such as rebaptism, backed by Stephen: bishop of Rome was also a major controversy with Cyprian as well as the validity of baptisms that were administrated by anyone outside the Catholic Church.

Novatian also faced a schism in the church at Rome opposing any reconciliation of apostates to full communion in the church. Whether or not the believer’s salvation was lost depended on which church leader you asked. This only showed how much disunity resulted from the persecution. Cyprian believed the validity of the baptism was relative to whom the baptizer was meaning there could always be an element of uncertainty in one’s salvation. Stephen viewed himself as the successor of Peter and believed strongly against rebaptism as passed down from the apostles. Out of this debate, we see Cyprian say, “Custom in the antiquity of error” meaning just because something is old does not make it right. Ultimately, Ferguson concludes, “The position of Stephen came to prevail, although Cyprian’s view lived on in North Africa, being powerfully revived by the Donatists in the next century.”


Ferguson, Everett. Church History: Volume One From Christ to the Pre-Reformation 2nd Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.


2nd Century Apologetics

apologetics defenders of the faith

Describe Christian apologetics in the second century.

To fully understand apologetics in the second century one must first understand Christians were viewed as criminals by the Roman Empire during this time. It was in the midst of these allegations and persecutions where martyrs were willing to die for their beliefs and Christian apologists became defenders of their faith and sought to articulate their faith to pagan intellectuals, to the Roman state itself, to the Jews, and finally to the heretics. As defenders of the faith, they spoke out of tolerance on a foundation based on monotheism, morality and sound theology.

There were three primary issues apologists dealt with:

1. Universality of Salvation: This stemmed from the religion only dating back less than two centuries. As Ferguson points out, “A major difference between the modern world and the world in which Christianity arose is that people today consider the latest the best, the most recent the truest.” This was not true in the Greco-Roman world where the older something was the truer it became. A major question asked by people of the day was if Christianity was true, why had it come so late in human history?

2. The Scandal of the Cross and a Suffering Messiah who at the Same Time is God: The apologist’s answer connected the Word of God with Jesus: Logos. This was a huge stepping-stone in reaching the pagan audience because it connected Jesus who was the focus of Christian’s faith with Greek philosophy and showed how Christ could be one with God and yet distinct from Him as the Triune God.

3. Providence of a Good God: The apologist’s answer came from the victory Jesus had over death and hell through His resurrection and would be fully fulfilled in Christ’s second coming. Athenagoras believed and taught the superiority of Christian morality and Christian views of God over pagan deities and provides one of the earliest accounts of the trinity doctrine.

What were the accusations against Christians?

As Everett Ferguson notes, “In good times, people will tolerate others with strange customs or beliefs, but in bad times they take a negative attitude.” With the succession of each emperor, times were getting harder and while in the past, Christianity was frowned upon for political reasons, now Christianity was being blamed for everything from the fire under Nero to the plague under Marcus Aurelius. It was during the second century numerous charges were being held against the Christians, laws were being enacted, and sentences were being carried out:

The Most Common Accusations Against Christians Were:

1. Atheism: This was the result of Christians not believing in the traditional pagan practices and because they believed in a God which could not be seen or held.

2. Cannibalism: This accusation most likely came as a result of poor understanding of the Eucharist: taking the Lord’s Supper. To the Romans, the language of eating the body and drinking the blood without proper context could have easily been misunderstood.

3. Incest & Immorality: These charges could have stemmed from several different misinterpretations ranging from believers referring to themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ to allegations of orgies taking place during the many festivals and feasts, which were observed.

How did apologists like Justin respond?

As Ferguson states, “[Justin is] arguably the most important and most influential of the second century Christian Apologists… who embodied in his life and death the two Christian responses to persecution: apologetics and martyrdom.” As Ferguson suggests, Justin was someone who attempted to build bridges to his audience and to the people in his past, while his student Taitan sought only to burn bridges from his past. This illustration continues to this day as we are called to embody the Christian thought and action of Justin, but instead chose to live out Taitan’s belief by ostracizing the very people God has called Christians to reach.

Justin was truly an ambassador of the word of God and his chief aim was the conversion of the entire empire. He sought to show the emperor how Christians were outstanding citizens and could be counted on. While he responded to all the allegations against Christians he also did something Jesus was known for: he made Christian teaching understandable and acceptable even to his pagan audience by explaining the practices. While Jesus used parables, Justin employed Greek mythology, analogues, and illustrations to help his audience understand Christianity.

Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, also addressed several important issues that had arisen between Jews and Christians:

1. Why Christians did not live different than Gentiles.
2. Why Christians put their hope in a crucified man.

These two questions formed three main issues:

1. Christology: Was Jesus the Messiah announced in Scripture?
2. Law: What was its true meaning and purpose?
3. True People of Israel: Was the church the new people of God?

Justin believed the Old Testament law was punishment for the Israelites and only temporary. He insisted it was only in preparation of the new covenant found through belief and acceptance of the Messiah Jesus Christ. Justin also believed there were two kinds of Jewish believers in Jesus: those who insisted converted Gentiles observe and keep the law and those who did not insist on converted Gentiles doing so. Converted Gentiles, regarding what Jewish Christians should do regarding the law, also expressed the same two views.
What apologetic principles could be used today in a modern context?

I believe the best principle, which can be applied in a modern context, is making Christianity and its practices as easy to understand to non-believers as possible. At the same time, it is equally as important to live one’s life as the apologists did in word and action. At the moment of salvation, there should be a deep burden for all the people already in our lives to also come to faith in Jesus Christ. Instead, we see believers either afraid of rejection or what their friends and family will now think of them. As believers, if we are not willing to die for Jesus, we will fall for anything the world has to offer. In America and in our modern day culture we do not face the same persecution the early church did, but we are seeing this same persecution all around the world and we are only fooling ourselves if we believe we will be spared from this same persecution as God is being systematically taken out of everything our great nation was founded upon.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History: Volume One From Christ to the Pre-Reformation 2nd Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.