Fresco from 2 centuries after Mathetes.

How did the early Christians interact with the world around them? We have the book of Acts, which gives us a brief history from Luke’s perspective but beyond that do we have any record of how they viewed their world and how they interacted with it? Actually we do. There is a brief letter called The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus which many scholars believe was written about 130 AD.[1] This is actually a rather brief letter, the entirety of which you can read here. In it a Christian named Mathetes tries to describe who Christians are and how they live to a non-Christian friend named Diognetus. Of particular interest to me is a sentence in Chapter V which I believe shows the Early Churches aversion to Greek philosophy.

The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. I’d like to make a number of observations about this quote which I believe can help us understand how our early brothers thought and how therefore they can be of service to us to get us back on track to what the Church was originally designed to be.

Observation 1: Mathetes is focused on conduct, not speculative thinking. To the early Christians how we lived was much more important that doctrinal speculation. How we lived showed who we were. This was not done by merely reciting doctrinal statements.

Observation 2: Mathetes is responding to the Greek world around him and contrasting Christianity from it. The Greek world around him, at that time, was fascinated with philosophical speculation. Of particular interest was Platonic thought which placed much emphasis on concepts and ideas (called ideals) and placed little or no importance on how we live.

Observation 3: Mathetes is concerned more specifically with following “speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men” and “mere human doctrines.” He is taking a swipe at the humanism of the day, the idea that men can figure things out and determine what truth is. Mathetes’ world was humanistic and so is ours. In fact, the humanism of our day is based philosophically on the humanistic philosophy of Mathetes’ day.

In Diognetus’ world people were obsessed with their own ideas and interpretations. They lived in a world of ideas and doctrine, not the world of life defined by concrete action. Christians of Mathetes’ world were different. They, in essence, said, look at how we live then you will know who we are.

Modern day Christianity has more in common with Diognetus’ world than it does with Mathetes’ world. We argue about doctrine, which, let’s face it, is the speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men.” Many have become “advocates” of “merely human doctrines.” Some are followers of Luther, others are followers of John Calvin, some are Pentecostals while others hold to the doctrine of cessationism. Some hold firmly to Postmillenialism while others are willing to stake their lives on a pre-tribulation rapture. We are behaving exactly like the realities that the early Christians such as Mathetes spoke against. I discuss these issues more in my book Viral Jesus: Recovering the Contagious Power of the Gospel.

Am I against doctrine? No. Am I against getting wrapped up in arguments about doctrinal ideas rather than living a Spirit controlled life? Absolutely. Our faith should be most easily be defined not by details of our doctrine but by the unique beauty of our lives…which will show what we believe, which, if necessary, could be written down as doctrines. There is a significant difference between those two views; one is deep experiential spirituality, the other is mere Christian humanism. Many people nowadays long for deep experiential spirituality. Almost nobody is searching for Christian humanism. Mathetes understood this, so he chose the first option in Chapter V of his letter, which he called displaying a “wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” You can read Chapter V, which is just a couple of paragraphs, then think through the following questions.

  • Do you think the average Christian today lives a wonderful and confessedly striking method of life? Why or why not?
  • Is Christian behavior today so markedly different that it shows up statistically such as in divorce rates?
  • In some ways Mathetes said the Christians were just like those around them, in other ways they were markedly different. How would you characterize the ways they were the same and the ways they were different (see below)?
  • How do Christians today try to distinguish themselves from non-Christians?

 


[1] This is probably an accurate dating. Another theory is that it was written in the early 3rd century. But that seems to be based on evidence from the last two chapters who most believe was a later addition from Hippolytus of Rome.

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