Persecuted, But Not Forsaken: Lessons from the Second Century Church

At the end of his watershed book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman recommends that Christians today should look to the church of second century for inspiration and guidance in how to live in the 21st century, because they faced challenges much like our own:

In the second century, the church was a marginal sect within a dominant, pluralist society. She was under suspicion not because her central dogmas were supernatural but rather because she appeared subversive in claiming Jesus as King and was viewed as immoral in her talk of eating and drinking human flesh and blood and expressing incestuous-sounding love between brothers and sisters.[1]

As anyone who has read the book will know, Trueman’s recommendation is made in light of our culture of expressive individualism. In a world in which self expression has been psychologized, sexualised, and politicized, Christians are seen as a threat to the established order, just as they were in second century Rome.

Trueman’s recommendation seems a sensible one then. But for most Reformed Christians, the second century is unfamiliar territory. Where is one to begin? In this article, I will offer some suggestions about what Reformed and evangelical Christians can read and look for in this fascinating period of Church history as they seek to face our contemporary zeitgeist.

A Historical Overview

The best introductory history of the early church currently available is Donald M. Fairbairn’s The Global Church (Zondervan, 2021). Fairbairn describes the early church’s experience of persecution, its worship and fellowship, its authority structures, and its conflict with heresies. This book is especially good at showing the strong unity and consensus present in the early church’s teachings and practices, even across divisions of language, ecclesiastical custom, and various doctrinal disputes.

A more comprehensive treatment of the second century Church is Michael Kruger’s Christianity at the Crossroads (IVP Academic, 2018). Kruger’s academic expertise is in the history of the biblical canon, which was one of the most significant issues for Christians in the second century, and he addresses the topic and its related questions very well here.

To understand any period in church history, it is very important to know what doctrinal questions were being discussed, and how these questions came about. We will be disappointed if we come to the second century looking for answers based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. We must be prepared to think about different questions, asked in different ways, and answered without the benefit of centuries of refinement and reflection. This context is presented in a very readable way in Donald Fairbairn and Ryan Reeves’ The Story of Creeds and Confessions, (Baker Academic, 2019), particularly Chapters 2-4, which explain the background to the first two ecumenical councils and the Nicene Creed that they produced.

These overviews are also excellent preparation for diving into the primary sources.

Primary Sources

Of course, it is hugely worthwhile to press beyond overviews and get into primary texts for ourselves. Reading old texts can be difficult, but there are good reasons to persevere. First, it is cheap! These ancient texts are all freely available online, though you may prefer to buy paper copies, and you may want to purchase more recent editions with better translations. Second, these texts offer a fascinating combination of the unexpected and the familiar. These authors lived many centuries ago, in cultures vastly different from our own, so there is much that will be unfamiliar. At the same time, it is amazing how much they have in common with us. They loved the same God that we love, and they studied the same Scriptures that we read and preach. Third, reading primary texts by great theologians is often easier than reading about them in more recent works. C.S. Lewis put it this way in his preface to Athanasius, On the Incarnation: “the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”

In the second century, there are only a few major authors whose writings have come down to us. Three are particularly important to know: Justin Martyr (100-165), Irenaeus of Lyons (140-200), and Tertullian of Carthage (155-220). These men were quite different in background, gifting, and temperament. Justin was a philosopher who reasoned with Greeks and Jews; Irenaeus was a pastor who expounded Scripture and warned against error; Tertullian was a lawyer who used his gift for argument to guard against spiritual and moral decline in the Church. Together, these men show us three different aspects of Christian faith and leadership in the second century.

The Philosopher: Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr was a Greek-speaking Christian teacher from Samaria who died a martyr around 165AD. After moving through a series of philosophical schools, he converted to Platonism, which captured his imagination with its insight into immaterial reality. Later, Justin met an old man on a beach who told him that there were teachers even older than the Greek philosophers, with even profounder insight into ultimate reality. In fact, this old man said, everything that the philosophers knew, they learned one way or another from these older teachers. These older teachers were the Hebrew prophets, starting with Moses himself. This man led Justin to appreciate not only the deep insight and truth of the Bible, but also that Christ had fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, thus confirming its truthfulness. Justin converted to Christianity, his heart burning with a longing for truth. He kept his philosopher’s cloak, though, signaling that he considered Christianity the fulfillment of his earlier search for truth.

The First Apology is Justin’s appeal to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, that he prevent Christians from being unjustly persecuted by local governors. Major themes in this work include the relation of Greek myth and philosophy to Christianity, the New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and the place of Christians in society. Along the way, Justin mentions some of the Gnostic false teachers (Simon Magus and Marcion) who threatened to unsettle the Church’s doctrine. Near the end of this work is an early description of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day.

The Dialogue with Trypho is a record of Justin’s debate with a Jewish critic of Christianity. It opens with the narrative of Justin’s conversion, and deals especially with the foundational question of the relation between the Old Testament and the New. Justin spends a good portion of the dialogue expounding various Psalms, to show how they speak of Christ.

Justin Martyr’s works are in Volume 1 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, which is widely available in print and online. A more recent translation is available in the Fathers of the Church series from Catholic University of America Press, translated by Thomas Falls.

The Pastor: Ireneaus of Lyons

Irenaeus grew up in Asia Minor. His spiritual mentor was the aged bishop and martyr Polycarp, who was himself mentored by the aged Apostle John. So Irenaeus was a spiritual grandson of the Apostle John. John said that he had no greater joy than that his children would walk in truth (3 John 4), and he would have found much joy in Irenaeus. As a young man, Irenaeus was sent to serve as the bishop of Lugdunum in the province of Gaul (modern Lyons in southern France). He must have been a promising leader, for he was soon chosen as the church’s delegate to a synod in Rome.

This was a tumultuous time to be an up-and-coming church leader. While Irenaeus was away, the bishop of Lugdunum was martyred. Upon his return, Ireneaus was selected as his successor, serving as bishop for about two decades before his own death. During that time he wrote Against Heresies, the Church’s first big theological textbook, and Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, a small survey of the Bible. He probably wrote more than these, but these are the only writings that we still have.

State persecution was an issue for Irenaeus, but he focused his writing on combatting false teaching, which he considered an even greater danger. The Church stood firm against violent enemies without, but could it stand firm against heretical enemies within?

Irenaeus was just the person to tackle this problem. First, he was painstakingly careful in his research into the various strands of Gnostic error. Second, he was profoundly insightful into Christian doctrine. For example: Justin had habitually described the Son and the Spirit as lower beings than the Father, a mistake common enough at the time, and whose full implications would not be clear until such thinking grew into the heresy of Arianism in the fourth century. But the antidote to this error did not need to wait for the Council of Nicaea: only a few decades after Justin, Irenaeus improved upon his work by describing the three persons as equally divine.[2]

Against Heresies is the first systematic theology and the first biblical theology of the Christian church. It is not always an easy read, partly because of its sheer size, and partly because large sections are taken up with the various forms of Gnosticism. It is entirely worth the effort, though, not least because Gnostic teachings persist in our society. Our culture devalues the human body much as the Gnostics did. This attitude leads us, as it led them, either to indulge every whim of our bodies or to mistreat our bodies severely. Another feature of Gnosticism that we see today is a political elitism shrouded in mystical knowledge. Such elitism is commonplace in history, but the Gnostic version of this is especially relevant because it involved co-opting the Bible to fit a political agenda, just as our nominally Christian leaders often do. Finally, Gnostics were very anti-institutional, despite their interest in holding positions of influence. This was a major reason that they wished to co-opt the Church—it had an institutional strength that they could never build for themselves.

This work is available in full, in a translation from the nineteenth century. This translation is in Volume 1 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series, widely available in print and online. The best way to start reading this book is in the condensed edition by James R. Payton Jr., entitled Irenaeus on the Christian Faith. This edition cuts out a lot of the detail about Gnosticism, putting the focus on Irenaeus’s exposition of Christian truth from Scripture. The translation is also somewhat revised.

The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching is a short work, discovered only about a century ago in a Syriac manuscript. The focus of this work is in showing that the Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the New Testament, thus confirming the message of the apostles. I have found it to be the most accessible patristic text available. It is available in a lovely paperback edition in the “Popular Patristics Series” from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

The Lawyer: Tertullian of Carthage

Justin and Irenaeus were clergymen, working in Greek. Tertullian, on the other hand, was a layman working in Latin. In some respects, he is not the best representative of the Church Fathers. He had a very intense moral and spiritual vision which led him to some extreme views. For instance, he dismissed all non-Christian philosophy, denigrated the institutional church and its ministry, and embraced a charismatic movement marked by prophecies and miracles.

However, Tertullian did contribute a great deal to the church of his day. He was a lawyer who employed his legal mind in defending and articulating the faith. His prolific writing includes the first use of the word “Trinity” (trinitas in Latin).

Against Marcion is Tertullian’s most important work. Marcion was a wealthy Christian teacher in Rome who was determined to influence the Church, but was kept out of the ministry. In response, Marcion founded a rival church and used this as a platform for spreading his distinctive ideas, which were in step with the Gnostic teachers of the day. The most famous characteristic of Marcion’s false teaching was his claim that the Old Testament was about a lower creator-god, and the New Testament was about a higher God, the Father of Jesus. Tertullian shows the falsity of this claim by demonstrating the unity of the Bible.

Marcion rejected the Old Testament entirely, along with portions of the New Testament that he thought were sympathetic to the Old. He thought of Paul as a standard-bearer for a form of Christianity that truly was a Gentile alternative to the Jewish scriptures. Accordingly, he acknowledged only the Pauline letters and the Gospel of Luke, and even in these books he cut out some material that he considered too favorable to the Old Testament. For this reason, a good portion of Tertullian’s work is an extended commentary on Luke and on Paul’s letters, in order to show that Marcion’s view of things fails to understand the Scripture that he himself acknowledges.

One of the best parts of the book is Tertullian’s exposition of 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul teaches the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. This doctrine was profoundly distasteful to Gnostic sensibilities, but was at the very center of the Christian faith. This doctrine is still profoundly counter-cultural, as Silicon Valley consultants dream of uploading the contents of our brains to an immortal cloud server.

Against Marcion is available in Volume three of Ante-Nicene Fathers.


The Church of the twenty-first century faces many challenges. Our world is awash in sexual immorality and false ideology, and our society holds a sharply negative attitude to the Church. Inside the Church, many are seeking to steer our institutions towards agreement with the world’s agenda. There is a chaotic aspect to the life of the church today that makes it relatively easy to accomplish that agenda. Many Christians have only a surface knowledge of biblical teaching on many subjects, so they absorb the prevailing cultural “common sense” and dress it up in biblical language—exactly what the Gnostics were trying to get Christians to do in their own day.

This happens in the realm of sexual morality, as Christians struggle to maintain a biblical sexual ethic over against hookup culture, easy divorce, homosexuality, and transgenderism. It happens in the realm of doctrine, as Christians hear from the pulpit secular ideas—“Love is love,” “the right side of history,” “your truth”—dressed up in biblical terminology. Many Christians are quite ignorant of the Old Testament, and so they find it plausible that we should (in the words of megachurch pastor Andy Stanley) “unhitch ourselves” from it.

In light of all this, we should be thankful for second-century fathers who taught on the relationship between philosophy and theology, the unity of the Old and New Testaments, Christian worship, sexual ethics, and community life.

The main thing is not to read everything about the second century and its history, but to actually share in the spiritual and intellectual life of the great Christian teachers of that time. They loved the Bible, and held to it against the trends of their society. They loved each other, and found a way to build lasting communities of worship and charity. They loved the truth, and pursued it not only in Scripture but wherever it could be found, thus offering an unexpected fulfillment of the human search for truth that was the heart of ancient philosophy. We may hope that what God accomplished through them, he will accomplish again in our own time.

Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC Sunnyvale in Sunnyvale, California.

  1. Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 406-407.

  2. On this point see Fairbairn and Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions, 31.

*Image Credit: Unsplash


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