By the second century A.D., the Christian religion had spread beyond its original Jewish context into a pagan world that very often misunderstood and hated it. Its circumstances were, in that respect, much like our own. Only worse, of course. For in those days, to become a Christian was to invite more than merely the contempt of the intelligentsia or mockery within the popular culture. It was to risk death at the hands of the state.
But though in a much weaker position than us politically and culturally, our forebears in the Faith were much stronger than us morally and spiritually. Not for them the lax observance and flaccid sentimentality that characterize so much of contemporary Christianity. No, the response of the Church to its second-century predicament made the highest demands on the will and on the intellect. First, rigid obedience to Christian moral and theological teaching, to the point of death if necessary. Second, the rational demonstration of the superiority of orthodox Christian doctrine to the errors of infidels and heretics.
In short, martyrdom and apologetics. That was their program, and it worked. Slowly but surely, the Church conquered the empire that had sought to conquer her. More importantly, she saved the souls of the persecuted and persecutors alike. Sooner or later this program will become ours too. For it is the only program that works, and it is the only program which – in the rigor both of its theory and its practice – can bear witness to the truth of the Catholic Faith. We cannot expect the world to accept that Faith unless we are able to prove it, and willing to live by it and to die for it.
St. Justin Martyr set the pattern. He is widely regarded as the first Christian philosopher and the first great Christian apologist. As his name implies, he defended the Faith to the death. Having lived c. 100-165 A.D., he was extremely close in time to the era of the Apostles, so that he had a visceral understanding of the ethos and teaching of the primitive Church. Accordingly, his intellectual, moral, and theological credentials cannot be disputed. What might he teach us about how the Church ought to encounter a hostile world?
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