While thumbing through Lightfoot’s The Apostolic Fathers today, it occurred to me that these epistles and other documents from the second century of Christian history must still strike many today as strange, divorced as they are from our common experience of the Church. Indeed, many of the most treasured works from the centuries following the Ascension bear little resemblance to the theological manuals, spiritual scribbings, and unctuous religious prose that Christians of all confessional commitments consume on a regular basis. This isn’t a novel observation, mind you; it’s just an unsettling one. Could it really be that the Church of today—One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic—is not only far removed from the “church of yesterday,” but really amounts to little more than a hollowed-out relic that people cling to out of cultural habit more than sincere religious conviction?
As 2016 draws to a close, I would prefer to not slip into pessimism, but it is . . . difficult. Still, in these times, I try to remind myself that I have no right to despair. None of us do. The problem is that hope, sincere and realistic hope, is so alarmingly elusive. It’s not enough to just say, “I hope for the best” or “I hope things will improve.” That desire never leaves. What doesn’t wish to stay is the sense that this hope can lead anywhere except to crushing disappointment. And then I look back to the Apostolic age, the Arian crisis, Iconoclasm, the Great Schism, and the relatively more recent onslaught from atheistic communism and I start to see, albeit faintly, that what unites the Church of Christ through the ages is suffering for the truth. Granted, in this day and age of entertainment and ease, the meaning of suffering has been grossly distorted to the point where we might need a new word to describe experiences more agonizing than poor cell phone reception or slow download speeds for pornography. So it goes.
Confronted with these truths and listening to them with attention, ye shall know how much God bestoweth on those that love (Him) rightly, who become a Paradise of delight, a tree bearing all manner of fruits and flourishing, growing up in themselves and adorned with various fruits. For in this garden a tree of knowledge and a tree of life hath been planted; yet the tree of knowledge does not kill, but disobedience kills; for the scriptures state clearly how God from the beginning planted a tree [of knowledge and a tree] of life in the midst of Paradise, revealing life through knowledge; and because our first parents used it not genuinely they were made naked by the deceit of the serpent. For neither is there life without knowledge, nor sound knowledge without true life; therefore the one (tree) is planted near the other. Discerning the force of this and blaming the knowledge which is exercised apart from the truth of the injunction which leads to life, the apostle says, Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. For the man who supposes that he knows anything without the true knowledge which is testified by the life, is ignorant, he is deceived by the serpent, because he loved not life; whereas he who with fear recognises and desires life plants in hope expecting fruit. Let your heart be knowledge, and your life true reason, duly comprehended. Whereof if thou bear the tree and pluck the fruit, thou shalt ever gather the harvest which God looks for, which serpent toucheth not, nor deceit infecteth, neither is Eve corrupted, but is believed on as a virgin, and salvation is set forth, and the apostles are filled with understanding, and the passover of the Lord goes forward, and the congregations are gathered together, and [all things] are arranged in order, and as He teacheth the saints the Word is gladdened, through Whom the Father is glorified, to Whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
– Epistle to Diognetus