The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian is a Presbyter of the Church of South India and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.
This article first appeared as "Permeating all things with divinity: Jesus in Selected Writings of the Teachers of the Early Church in the Second Century," in Gnana Robinson, ed. Challenges and Responses: Church’s Ministry in the Third Millennium – Challenges for Theological Education (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 2000), pp. 294 – 314.
For us in the Indian and Asian context, an analysis of the Christological issues and themes which so engaged the teachers of the early church in the second century, as well as the adherents of the Jesus-movement, ought not to be a mere exercise in historical curiosity or because of the allure of antiquarian excavation. All Christians in India – Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Pentecostals – have inherited a legacy of God-talk and Christ-imagery.
Introduction: In Search of a Context
"Christologies based on a Europe-centered history, a too narrow or deductive Christ-centered theology, and a church-centered mission tied to classical dogmas about the person of Christ and theories of the atonement, which respond to Western needs, are not only irrelevant to the life of the people but often obstruct the life and witness of the church in Asia."
Interest in the man called Jesus has never waned. Both at the popular and the academic level, Jesus continues to exert fascination over the minds and hearts of all kinds of people. The recent BBC series anchored by Mark Tully, and the book that emerged out of this, is just one such indication. There have also been several attempts to bring to the "popular" level the technical aspects of the attempt of historical reconstruction, and also to present the distillation of extensive and detailed research in the form of books, which have reached the status of becoming "best-sellers." The meaning of Jesus at the intersection between religions, scriptures, and theologies, in his relationship to the marginalised, continues to appeal to perceptive people in varied situations. At the academic level, the field of New Testament studies has shown its sensitivity to various theories emerging from diverse fields by wrestling with the challenges issuing from such theories. Various inputs from the fields of poststructuralism and postmodernism have been critically engaged with. One such effort is the book which in its wickedly delightful subtitle challenges us to explore startlingly fresh possibilities. In a candid admission the writer notes:
The feature of poststructuralism that draws me most strongly is … essentially the same feature that once drew me to historical criticism. I refer to the latter’s shape-shifting ability to make the familiar seem startlingly strange, books of the Holy Bible acquiring human (all too human) authors, ghostwriters, copy editors, places and dates of publication — everything, in short, but an ISBN number.But poststructuralism’s powers of redescription exceed even those of historical criticism.
In the Indian context, this possibility of redescription has been passionately articulated by Dalit theologians such as V. Devasahayam, who, in reflecting on the Johannine affirmation that "the word became flesh and lived among us," notes:
The earlier formulations on Jesus Christ focussed on the first part, ‘the word became flesh’ while Dalit theology wants to focus on the latter part ‘and dwelt among us’ i.e. on the historical Jesus’ identification with the oppressed. Because of Jesus’ identification, Jesus is perceived as a corporate personality, as representing the oppressed collective. As a representative of the oppressed collective, his dwelling among us and participation in life is characterized by protest and struggle against the forces of oppression, sin and death.
In methodological comments in my doctoral work, in writing about Dalit theology, I asked:
In this context where those who have often been provided answers to questions that they neither asked, nor were permitted to ask, now question the very basis on which theologising has been done in the Indian context, would it be too presumptuous to claim that the return to the "fathers" could be one possible way of renewing theological reflection and praxis?
This paper is an attempt to work out some implications of this question. Using some of the writings of selected early teachers of the faith, mainly from the second century, I attempt to raise questions regarding the way in which the person and work of Christ has been responded to and understood. I do not do this in a spirit of enumeration and description, but rather, recognising our situatedness and the search for Jesus in an Indian context, offer these as a contribution to an ongoing dialogue where we take seriously the point made by Robert M. Grant, regarding the writers in the second century that
[t]hey reached no solutions with direct "relevance" for twentieth- or twenty-first-century theology, but they stated perennial problems in fresh ways that only later became classical and offered possible moves toward dealing with them. Later Christians need to review their exegetical search in order to continue it.
Reviewing the exegetical search of the early writers involves, then, for those of us who have come into the inheritance of these traditions, the responsibility not only to interact with these inherited traditions, but also to interpret these in the context of the "extratextual hermeneutics that is slowly emerging as a distinctive Asian contribution to theological methodology [which] seeks to transcend the textual, historical, and religious boundaries of Christian tradition and cultivate a deeper contact with the mysterious ways in which people of all religious persuasions have defined and appropriated humanity and divinity."
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In Search of a Response: Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch
The response of the teachers of the early church to the person and work of Jesus, both in the period which saw the emergence of the New Testament and in the decades following, was by no means uniform or standardized. The use of the phrase "teachers of the early church," is itself symptomatic of a reassessment of the role of those whose views came to prevail and those who were to be treated as deviants or heretics. It has been pointed out that "[n]othing is as problematic in contemporary work on the early Christian Church as Orthodoxy." In his lively study on the archaeology of early Christianity, W. H. C. Frend, while asking "Whither Christian archaeology?" points out that
Church history is no longer a history of ‘orthodoxy and heresy’. A whole new world of divergent beliefs and teaching has been opened up. We now know a great deal more than we did about Montanism, Donatism, Manichaeism and Monophysitism. Something of the fullness of the Christian heritage has been revealed and the vivid kaleidoscopic character of the lives and beliefs of its different adherents.
One of the earliest documents from the time of the early church, contemporaneous with several New Testament writings, is the first epistle of Clement, bishop of Rome, written in about 95 CE, in response to reports that there was a schism, or at least deep divisions, in the church at Corinth. In this context the writer reminds the recipients that
Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of God’s Majesty, was in no pomp of pride and haughtiness – as it could so well have been – but in self-abasement …
Already in this early document there is a clear recognition that the theological undertaking could not be easily separated from the leadership struggles. The writer, regretting that those in Corinth had turned out of the office of bishop those who had been "serving honourably and without the least reproach," and with "impeccable devotion," candidly notes that "our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop." The plea is made that one ought to fix one’s thoughts on the "Blood of Christ," since "its outpouring for our salvation has opened the grace of repentance for all mankind." The hope is expressed that Christian love would be manifested among the disputing parties since "our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave His blood for us – His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives." Thus, an analysis of this letter reveals that the approach to Jesus at the turn of the first century as testified to in this epistle was one of reaffirming the nature of the lowly one, who did not care for pomp and prestige, and whose blood was the medium for salvation. There is no speculation as to how precisely this happens. We face ethical challenges through Jesus, who offers the possibility of repentance through the reminder of how he offered himself for us. The claim is set forth that the one "who keeps the divinely appointed decrees and statutes with humility and an unfailing consideration for others, and never looks back, will be enrolled in honour among the number of those who are saved through Jesus Christ, … ."
We now move on to a consideration of the seven letters that we have from Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who was arrested in Antioch, and sent under guard to Rome where he was martyred during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 – 117). For Ignatius, who harboured no illusions about the fact that at the end of his journey his end would come at the teeth of beasts in the amphitheatre of Rome, the letters, with their plea to the recipients that their hope to retain their unity lay in their regarding "a bishop as the Lord himself," the letters also offer a vehicle to counter the Gnostic/Docetic heresy. "In an almost pathetic manner, he protests that it is not possible for him to accept an ethereal disembodied view of Christ. Since it is Christ’s actual suffering in the body that establishes the mimetic model for martyrs like himself, to hold that Christ’s suffering was only a ‘thought experience’ is unacceptable, indeed unthinkable." With these two strands intertwining in the existential experience of Ignatius, it is possible to see how the emergence of theological affirmations about Christ emerge here in a context of existential imperatives, like the reality of schism, division, and breakage of unity, as well as the approach of the gift of death. Thus Ignatius affirms:
… since love does not permit me to be silent concerning you, I have accordingly taken it upon myself to exhort you that you might run together with God’s purpose. Indeed Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the Father’s purpose; as also the bishops, appointed in every quarter, are in the purpose of Jesus Christ.
Thus, what we see here is that Christological affirmations are not detached from the prescriptions for the practical life-situations of the congregations. Such a link is clearly evident in the Christological hymn that Ignatius uses to proclaim his understanding of Christ. Condemning those who parody the Name through unworthy actions and evil deceit as "rabid dogs," Ignatius writes that
"There is one physician
both fleshly and spiritual
begotten and unbegotten,
come in flesh, God,
in death, true life,
both of Mary and of God,
first passible, and then impassible,
Jesus Christ, our Lord."
This is immediately linked up with the quick statement to those who are entirely of God that even though there are those who are oriented to fleshly things, who cannot do spiritual things, and vice versa, just like faith cannot succumb to things of unfaithfulness and the other way around, but "what you do even according to the flesh, that is spiritual; for you do all things in Jesus Christ." Thus Jesus who bears in himself the ambivalence of seeming contradictions is the one who helps overcome the ambiguity of incompatibility in the believer. The depth of Ignatius’ feelings against those who would interpret the passion of Jesus in a docetic manner, is revealed when he writes that those who claim that Jesus "suffered in appearance" are unbelievers, since "I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection." This is made clear through the fact that even after the resurrection, Jesus "ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although spiritually united with the Father," thus denying any docetic tendency to spiritualize the resurrection. Although it can be shown from an analysis of the individual letters that the "opponents" being addressed are varied and the situations in the different congregations diverse, nevertheless the challenge that is thrown down is to affirm the reality of the actual suffering of Christ in the given situation since
[n]othing that appears is good; for our God Jesus Christ rather appears by being in the Father. The deed is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric, but Christianity is characterized by greatness when it is hated by the world.
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In Search of Legitimacy: Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria
There is an element of pathetic arrogance in the apology of Justin (c. 100 – 165) when he writes in his First Apology (addressed grandiloquently to the Emperor, his son, the court philosophers, the Senate, and the Roman people), that there is a clear break in the behavioural pattern of those who "since our persuasion by the Word, … follow the only unbegotten God through His Son," in that former fornicators are now chaste, have given up the use of magic methods, have given up an aquisitory tendency in terms of money and goods in favour of pooling resources, and have overcome divisions on account of differences and past hatreds and prejudices. It is this redeemed community that has to present its understanding of Christ, not as an in-house theme for internal consumption, but in relation to the questions, queries, and allegations being made about the Christians, "who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them." For Justin, the inescapable connection between Christ, who is "both Son and Apostle of God the Father of all," and the name Christian, ought to lead to the seeking of parallels with what the Romans were most familiar with in their imagery of the divine beings. Thus he claims that "the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter." Justin goes on to point to examples as well as paper over disreputable elements in these narratives, and writes that
the Son of God called Jesus, even if only a man by ordinary generation, yet on account of His wisdom, is worthy to be called the Son of God; for all writers call God the Father of men and of gods. And if we assert that the Word of God was born of God in a peculiar manner, different from ordinary generation, let this … be no extraordinary thing to you, who say that Mercury is the angelic word of God.
Justin goes on to say that even crucifixion has its parallels. However the intention of Justin is revealed in his comment that having set the case of Jesus within the parameters of Roman religion he would go on to "prove Him superior." What is of importance to us here is not the enumeration of the various proofs and convoluted arguments based on Scripture passages that Justin assembles to "prove" his case (although one cannot help but being credulous about anyone who builds up a case based on what may have the status of scriptures for a believing community, but, in practical terms, is of no consequence for those whom he purports to address), but statements about Jesus ("in whom abideth the seed [spevrma] of God"), such as his assertion that the blood of the Word, "the first power after God, … should not be of human seed, but of divine power."
For Justin, the argument culminates in an affirmation of the universality of the Christian principle, leading to a claim of "anonymous Christians." He writes:
[w]e have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared … that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably (meta; log´ou) are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; … 
Thus, for Justin, the struggle is to show that the Jesus who was crucified is simultaneously the first-born of God, under whom all human beings stand under judgement. For him all human learning and philosophy is ultimately derived from Moses, who is "older than all writers." Hence, the author of a recent study of Justin notes that
[i]n Jewish thought the Word was the source of being, the origin of Law, the written Torah and a person next to God. Early Christianity announced the incarnation of this Person, and Justin makes the further claim that Scripture is the parent of all truth among the nations, and that the Lord who is revealed to us in the New Testament is the author and the hermeneutic canon of the Old.
In the writings of Clement of Alexandria, (c. 150 – 215), we find clear evidence that Jesus is now being seen more and more as the one who integrates everything in him and through him. This is clearly spelt out in statements where Clement argues that Jesus, the Son, in whom all the powers of the Spirit terminate is
neither simply one thing as one thing, not many things as parts, but one thing as all things; whence also He is all things. For He is the circle of all powers rolled and united into one unity. Wherefore the Word is called the Alpha and the Omega, of whom alone the end becomes beginning, and ends again at the original beginning without any break. Wherefore also to believe in Him, and by Him, is to become a unit, being indissolubly united in Him; and to disbelieve is to be separated, disjoined, divided.
Thus, for Clement, the person of Christ now emerges as the lynch-pin which holds everything together. In addition, Clement "accepts as Divine teaching whatever sayings of the philosophers seem to him to promote religion and virtue. As regards religion and the theory of the universe he finds this teaching chiefly in Plato, as regards ethics in the Stoics, but for both he leans much on the authority of Philo … ." Such dependence is revealed in the various attributes he applies to the Son, such as the Name, Face, House, Image of God, Heavenly Man, Charioteer, Pilot, Sum of Ideas and Sum of Powers. Calling for the fruits that result from "the training of Christ," Clement says that all speculation and interpretation about God and God’s activity has to recognise that "the greatest and most regal work of God is the salvation of humanity," and that in this task the Word functions as the Instructor, from whom "we learn frugality and humility, and all that pertains to love of truth, love of man, and love of excellence." With all his usage and sympathy for the philosophical quest, Clement can nevertheless assert that, "[p]hilosophers … are children, unless they have been made men by Christ." This was because philosophy was a preparation to bring people to Christ, since Christian doctrines are anticipated in Greek philosophy, in particular in the teachings of the Timaeus of Plato, which, Clement is convinced, was learnt by Plato from Moses.
One point to be noted is that in his desire to fit Christ into a philosophical jacket and draw parallels, Clement tends to move in a direction where the earthly Christ proves occasionally to be an embarrassment. Quoting Valentinus, one of the most significant Gnostic teachers of the second century, with approval, Clement goes along with the thinking that "Jesus had a digestive system so well-balanced and regulated that he was wholly spared the embarrassment of excretion." All this leads to the inescapable conclusion that the rarefied atmosphere of philosophical speculation can often cause the feet-on-the ground dimension to be lost sight of. However, both Clement and Justin Martyr cannot be faulted in terms of not being sensitive to either actual, potential, or imagined questions emerging from the religious atmosphere in which certain forms of discourse about Christ was not only necessary, but inevitable.
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In Search of "Orthodoxy": Irenaeus of Lyons
In her "Introduction" to a special issues of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, which had as its theme "The Markings of Heresy: Body, Text, and Community in Late Ancient Christianity," Virginia Burrus noted that the essays collected
exhibit interest in the social and discursive processes of "demarcation" by which orthodoxies define, and thereby in some sense create, heresies — not only as the inevitable cartographic by-products of the impulse to draw boundaries and create centers, but also (paradoxically, and in multiple ways) as necessary sources of "nourishment" for orthodoxies themselves.
The writings of Irenaeus, (c. 130 – 200), especially his massive work Against the Heresies (Adversus Haereses), is a case in point. Irenaeus wrote at a time when the very understanding of what it was that comprised the quintessence of Christianity was at stake. He also wrote as bishop of Lyons, where in 177, a violent uprising had taken place against the Christians, resulted in the martyrdom of almost fifty Christian men and women. In the centuries immediately following, the issues under debate were more oriented to the understanding of Jesus as the Christ, and then the question of the Trinity, which led to the great ecumenical councils, to say nothing of the "conversion" of Constantine. "Although the Christian writers of the first two centuries had to address basic questions of trinitarian and christological importance, they had to do so in a time of testing from external forces that the later church, more confident of its continued existence, did not have to face."
For Irenaeus, in the face of much speculation about the nature of God in relation to Platonic philosophy as well as Gnostic claims (among many others!), much effort was expended in affirming the godness of God. After enumerating an almost doxological list of the attributes of God, Irenaeus turns to Christ and affirms that the Son is "eternally co-existing with the Father, from of old, yea, from the beginning," and "always reveals the Father to Angels, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, and all to whom He wills that God should be revealed." The work of this Word was indicated in his affirmation that "the Word of God … dwelt in man, and became the Son of man, that he might accustom man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father."
God’s Word is "our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the last times was made a man among men, that he might join the end to the beginning, that is man to God." For Irenaeus, the Word remains a Teacher, "who did, through his transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself." This affirmation comes in his treatise which has been devoted to the explication and refutation of various "heresies" including that of Simon Magus and the Simonians, Nicolaus and the Nicolaitans, Meander, Cerinthus (in the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic era) Carpocrates and the Carpocratians, Saturninus, Basilides and the Basilidians, Credo or Cerdon, Valentinus and the Valentinians (who were Gnostic teachers of the second century), and other teachers and sects of the second century including Marcion and the Marcionites, the Ebionites and the Encratites. Faced with such a multitude of wares in the marketplace of religious possibilities and options, Irenaeus could only offer a clear alternative in terms of a closed system where "[s]alvation depended on the acceptance of set forms of belief, organization, and worship."
The clearest affirmation of the humanity of Jesus, in this context comes when Irenaeus declares
in every respect, too, He is man, the formation of God; and thus He took up man into Himself, the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in Himself: so that as in super-celestial, spiritual, and invisible things, the Word of God is supreme, so also in things visible and corporeal He might possess the supremacy, and, taking to Himself the pre-eminence, as well as constituting Himself Head of the Church, He might draw all things to Himself at the proper time.
With Irenaeus we come to the end of our analysis of second-century Christology, an analysis which has showed us how varied life-situations result in kaleidoscopic responses. In my own work on Cyprian, I emphasised that "it is precisely within the kaleidoscope that the quest for memory ought to be located, ‘as part of a discursive formation, rather than as part of a continuous tradition with roots stretching back to antiquity.’ "
Conclusion: In Search of Connections
For us in the Indian and Asian context, an analysis of the Christological issues and themes which so engaged the teachers of the early church in the second century, as well as the adherents of the Jesus-movement, ought not to be a mere exercise in historical curiosity or because of the allure of antiquarian excavation. All Christians in India – Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Pentecostals – have inherited a legacy of God-talk and Christ-imagery. No inheritance remains static. We have brought to such an inheritance our own peculiar emphases, through the reality of our own situatedness in terms of location, privilege or lack of it, religious background and through the varied nature of our encounter with missionary bodies. A rediscovery and a re-reading of those who wrestled with the issue of the understanding of Christ in the second century can only enable us to "free ourselves from the belief that either Nicaea or Chalcedon was predestined." At the same time the rediscovery of this period is of crucial importance, a period coming well before the Constantinian turning-point, which in the words of one perceptive commentator "did not cause the triumph of Christianity. Rather, it was the first, and most significant step, in slowing down its progress, draining its vigor, and distorting its moral vision. Most of the evils associated with Christianity since the middle of the fourth century can be traced to establishment." The second century is the period before the "peasant Jesus [is] grasped … by imperial faith … a progress that happened so fast and moved so swiftly, that was accepted so readily and criticised so lightly … ."
Those of us who venture back to such writings do so in order to "reinscribe the past, reactivate it, relocate it, resignify it." Like the teachers of the early church whom we have considered, we look back to the historical Jesus because we are privileged and permitted through him "to taste the wisdom of eternity."
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