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The Epistle to Diognetus and to Scapula, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1494

Essay

The anonymously penned “Letter to Diognetus” and Tertullian’s “To Scapula” may be read as two crucial Early Christian documents which try to underscore the uniqueness of the Christian theological world-view within the historical context of a highly pluralistic religious world. Both texts function, in this regard, within the continuity of the apologetic tradition, and are testimony to a certain hostility and hesitation directed against Christianity. The particular defenses mounted by both the anonymous writer of the Letter to Diognetus and Tertullian employ a symmetrical form that consists in the attempt to advance the notion that Christianity marks a radical break with other religious traditions, according to the unique content of the revelation of Christ indicative of the primacy of love within the Christian faith. Accordingly, both “The Letter to Diognetus” and “To Scapula” can be understood as defenses of Christianity through a conceptualization of the Christian notion of love that differs from other religious phenomena practiced by various historical structures.

The “Letter to Diognetus” begins with a clear statement of intent: the author is to explain to Diognetus the characteristics that distinguish Christianity from other religious forms. The author presents the particular Christian “mode of worship” (R 226) by immediately distinguishing it from other religious practices, such as paganism and Judaism, which are defined by “esteem” and “superstition” respectively: Christianity is to be understood as a novelty in religious thought, one that does not find an analogue in other religious traditions. For the author, this is primarily because the Christian world-view is crystallized in notion that the Christian is “to look down upon the world itself, and despise death” (R 226): this is a total hostility to death in all its forms that can be understood as consistent with a notion of universal Christian love. With Christ, God thus shows himself “not merely a friend of mankind, but also long-suffering.” (R 227) In the Christian vision, God is no longer a transcendent being separated from the world. Rather, through the Son, God becomes immanent to the world itself, demonstrating his fundamental care for the world in his sacrifice of his son: “He appeared to neglect us, and have no care over us. But after He revealed and laid open, through his beloved Son, the things which had been prepared from the beginning.” (R 228) The crucial differentiating characteristic of Christianity is its postulation of an amorous relationship between God and the world, in the form of the creator’s love for his creation. In this sense, Christ means that creation is not merely the capricious play-thing of a transcendent being, but is rather the object of this transcendent being’s love. For the author, it is crucial to understand how such a conception is radically different from other religious traditions. For example, paganism is understood as a largely materialistic religion, based on the worshiping of idols. ( R 226) In essence, such a “vanity of idols” demonstrates the lack of faith in a transcendent being at the heart of paganism, as demonstrated in the neglect of the idols (R 226) which the author describes. Christianity breaks from the pagan world-view by asserting the transcendence and immanence of God as manifested in the notions of the Son and the Father. Moreover, that the transcendent God has decided to become immanent to the world and furthermore is crucified within this same world at the hands of men can only underscore the love of God for the world: God cares about the acts of men. This viewpoint also breaks with the Jewish doctrine, wherein God is described as a bargaining God, placated by “the smoke of sacrifices and burnt-offerings…and that by such honours they show Him respect.” (R 227) This can be understood as a certain anthropomorphization of God, in which “to offer these things to God as if He needed them” (R 227) becomes a means with which to acquire from God what one desires. The notion that God lacks something and thus needs sacrifice is what the author opposes, insofar as this contradicts with the notion of an all-powerful and supreme God. The Christian faith does not conceive God in this manner, and rather only demands the reciprocal love for God that God himself demonstrates through Christ. Accordingly, the author defends a conception of Christianity as a certain new metaphysics in which the transcendent and the immanent worlds are co-joined through the image of the creator’s love for creation. It is the novelty of this world-view that distinguishes Christianity from the general social context of other religious.

Tertullian’s “To Scapula” employs a similar apologetic approach that stresses the radical newness of the Christian vision, one that is primarily defined by such a metaphysics of love that conjoins the creator and creation, the transcendent and the immanent. In the letter, Tertullian opposes the persecutions of the Christian faith, here addressed to the Proconsul of Carthage, Scapula. Tertullian is to argue against these persecutions by stressing their significance to the Christian faith itself, insofar for the latter the suffering at the hands of men does not cause “any great perturbation or alarm” (R 235) since Christians have “fully accept[ed] the terms of its covenant.” (R 235) The social normativities and social structure that persecute Christianity are understandable for the Christian, precisely because such a social structure is not a Christian social structure: this persecution is the law of another social system, one which Christianity is radically opposed to in its essence. Thus, Tertullian emphasizes at the opening of the text that what distinguishes Christianity from all other forms of religion is the follwoing: “For all love those who love them: it is peculiar to Christians alone to love those that hate them.” (R 235) The regular social normativities that construe love as something particular is overturned by the love without compromise of Christianity. This universal conception of love, thus, can even understand the persecutor: this is a religion based on an entirely different metaphysical principle. The historical persecution of Christians is merely indicative of the fact that this metaphysical principle has not been accepted in its total novelty. Nonetheless, Tertullian simultaneously expresses a certain concern over the prosecutions, and even a certain acknowledgement of the very political systems that persecute Christianity, noting that “A Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor Rome, whom he knows to be appointed by his God, and so cannot but love and honour.” (R 235) Such an endorsement appears to indicate Christianity’s fidelity to existing social systems despite their non-Christianity: their existence must be the will of God. This would seem to be yet another religious practice which supports political hegemony and the status quo, as opposed to an entirely new religious conception. However, as Tertullian writes, “Those whom you regard as masters are only men, and one day they themselves must die.” (R 237) Tertullian thus underscores the phenomenon of the transience of the world itself, such that the current social order is merely itself a temporary phenomenon. The religious phenomena that Tertullian critiques in this piece, such as sacrifice, are also indicative of this mundane social order, which conceives God essentially as another master that must be appeased through ritual. Christianity, in its unconditional love for even its enemy, evinces the love for God for the world that is to be reflected in the love of men for men, insofar as Christians follow the example of Christ. The opposition to early Christianity is the opposition of a particular social order to Christianity, one social order among many. Christianity, for Tertullian, essentially marks a break with how society itself is structured, according to the prominence of the unique Christian conception of love.

Accordingly, both texts evince the essentially hostile historical context within which Early Christianity struggled to articulate its faith. What distinguishes this struggle, however, is precisely its emphasis on a notion of love as central to the Christian world-view. Accordingly, the defenses of Christianity are not directed against an opponent, but rather take the form of a certain desire to express the uniqueness of Christian doctrine, insofar as the latter is defined by love. The argumentative force behind both texts arguably lies in the very novelty of this conceptualization of religion within its time period. The two texts nevertheless can be said to differ to the extent to which, for example, Tertullian states that the rule of the Roman Emperor must be something that is willed by God, thus demonstrating a certain fidelity to the existing social order, whereas the anonymous author of the Latter to Diognetus stresses the total radicality of the Christian world-view to other texts. Both texts nevertheless contain a reference to such a novelty that sets Christianity apart from other religious phenomena within its precise historical context. Accordingly, both defenses of the faith take the form of advancing this very newness to its intended audience, hence offering the possibility of a new way of looking at and conceiving of the world, radically different from any historical precedents.

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