Novelty or Antiquity?

One of the questions frequently raised with regard to Christian preaching by some of its earliest hearers in the Roman Empire is one that is rarely heard today: why has this new way of thinking or mode of living just appeared now if it is really true? It was axiomatic among the ancients—both Greeks and Romans—that what was true was old and that what was new was questionable and probably false. Our culture, it should be noted, has the opposite problem with regard to the Faith. It regards what is old as useless and ready for the garbage heap. That which is the latest is regarded as the best and most desirable. Christianity—with its antiquity—seems far too antiquated for far too many in our world. But to the ancient world, Christianity’s big problem was its novelty. Since Christianity appeared to take its rise from the appearance of Christ, this was a major question that had to be answered. Theophilus of Antioch (fl. c.180 A.D.), an early Christian apologist, noted that pagans responded to his testimony about Christ with the assertion that the Christian “Scriptures are new and modern” and are therefore utter nonsense. He quoted some pagans as saying that the Christian “message has been made public only recently, and that we have nothing to say in proof of our truth and our teaching; they call our message foolishness.” [To Autolycus 3.1, 4, trans. Robert M. Grant, Theophilus of Antioch: Ad Autolycum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 101, 105].

The standard answer among Christian apologists was Christianity was rooted in the Old Testament era. Seen in this light, Christian truth had a much better claim to antiquity than either Greek or Roman thought, neither of which were over a millennium old.

The Letter to Diognetus

One early defence of Christianity against the pagan charge of novelty, though, takes a somewhat different approach to this question. The Letter to Diognetus, an anonymous tract written in defence of Christianity some time in the late second century, argues that although God conceived the design of sending his Son to redeem humanity, at first he told it to nobody but the Son. Then, when men and women had shown by their “unruly instincts and…sensuality and lust” that they were both “unworthy to achieve life” and “unable to enter into the kingdom of God by [their] own power,” God sent forth his Son Letter to Diognetus 8.9-9.2 [trans. Maxwell Staniforth, Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), 147, altered].

The unknown author does not say a word about the Old Testament period of preparation for the coming of Christ. One possible reason may be that while Christianity is indeed the Ancient Faith, it does partake of a quality of newness that the author does wish to emphasize, as we shall see.

“O sweet exchange!” Something new

The author has argued that God revealed his plan of salvation to none but his “beloved Son” until men realized their utter and complete inability to gain heaven by their own strength. But then, when men were conscious of their sin and God’s impending judgment, God,

“instead of hating us and rejecting us and remembering our wickednesses against us, he showed how long-suffering he is. He bore with us, and in pity he took our sins upon himself and gave his own Son as a ransom for us—the Holy for the wicked, the Sinless for sinners, the Just for the unjust, the Incourruptible for the corruptible, the Immortal for the mortal. For was there, indeed, anything except his righteousness that could have availed to cover our sins? In whom could we, in our lawlessness and ungodliness, have been made holy, but in the Son of God alone? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable working! O benefits unhoped for!—that the wickedness of multitudes should thus be hidden in the One righteous, and the righteousness of One should justify the countless wicked!” [Letter to Diognetus 9.2-5 (trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 147-148, altered)].

This is a truly marvellous text, as the author, overwhelmed by what took place at the cross, is lost in rapture, awe, and praise. Here, as so often happens in the writings of Paul, theological reflection leads to praise and worship and doxology.

Yet, the doxological nature of this passage should not lead us to overlook the way that it also contributed to the author’s defence of the Christian worldview. Why should the truth claims of Christianity be weighed seriously? Because, unlike other religions, it deals decisively with the ever-perennial problem of human sin. A renowned historian of this era, Henry Chadwick, puts this point well when he states that one of the major reasons for the growth of the church was the fact that the gospel it preached “spoke of divine grace in Christ, the remission of sins and the conquest of evil powers for the sick soul, tired of living and scared of dying, seeking for an assurance of immortality” [The Early Church (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967), 55].

And this was something truly new for the pagan world and something that that world truly needed to hear.

“At once so ancient and so new”

But that message—“at once so ancient and so new” (Augustine, Confessions 10.27)—is equally needed in our world that seems capable of only being fired up by what is modern and up to date. The ancient message of the new birth and the new covenant is still good news to modern—or should I say post-modern?—men and women and children grappling with the ever-present problems of sin and death and meaning and hope.