What We Can Learn from the Letter to Diognetus

Map of the Roman Empire, 2nd century AD. Publication of the book “Meyers Konversations-Lexikon”, Volume 7, Leipzig, Germany, 1910

Fellow blogger Joel Edmund Anderson wrote a short summary of the Letter to Diognetus on his blog, Resurrecting Orthodoxy (March 19, 2022). This is part of his series on early church fathers.

I feel like we tend to believe that we have advanced from our peers centuries ago, and I am ever skeptical of that advancement. I tend to believe the writer of Ecclesiastes:

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Yes, we have made great technological advancements, but how different are people, really? I direct your attention to the Ukraine where Russian bombs fall on hospitals, schools and people fleeing a war with very questionable motivations.

Lest we be too smug, more people died at the hands of despotic rulers in the 20th Century than all the previous centuries combined.

But, I don’t want to preach, and I don’t exempt myself from my personal indictment. I am not exempt. People are still people, and we have a tendency to do bad things.

On this point, though, I like reading the thoughts of ancient minds to remind myself of the ways in which we tread the same ground. The Letter to Diognetus is a good example, and I commend the article I have linked for your consideration.

Joel Edmund Anderson observes that the Letter to Diognetus is the first communication (in records we have) attempting to explain Christianity to pagans. It was written early, around 130 AD, and it distinguishes Christianity from Judaism and from paganism.

Who is Diognetus? What was the occasion for the letter? Was the letter sent unsolicited? Did Diognetus inquire about Christianity? Was it the product of a discussion? Who wrote the letter? We don’t know.

I imagine the letter wasn’t unsolicited. Writing utensils and parchment, papyrus or whatever medium was used then not in abundant supply in the 2nd Century. Writing was an effort.

That the letter was preserved speaks, perhaps, to the way the letter was received. Whoever received this letter thought it was valuable enough to keep it and preserve it.

As I read the summary of the letter today, though, I am interested in several points made in the letter and how they relate to us 19 centuries later.

One point is the writer’s statement that Christians were dispersed throughout the known world. The writer says that as a basis to explain that Christians are citizens of heaven. Thus, they are scattered throughout the known world. They don’t have their own country.

I suppose those statements might seem as strange, then, as they seem today. Not so much the point that Christians are scattered throughout the world. We take that for granted. Rather, the explanation why Christians are found throughout the world is the notable point here.

Christians in the United States think in terms of the United States being a Christian nation. Many Christians are fighting tooth and nail to prove that point and keep it that way. Christians in the US may have a hard time identifying with this point made to Diognetus, yet we find harmony with that statement throughout the New Testament writings:

Peter calls believers “foreigners and exiles”

1 Pet. 2:11 (NIV)

Jesus calls us “not of this world”

John 17:16 (NIV)

It’s easy to see how we have settled into the notion of a Christian nation. Within 200 years of the Letter to Diognetus, Constantine ended the prohibition against Christianity. Within 300 years, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Within 1000 years, Christianity was so intertwined with the Roman Empire and it’s offshoots that we have a hard time distinguishing where the church and empire begins and ends. That is our history. It conditions us to conflate empire and the church.

We forget that Jesus said,

“My kingdom is not of this world”

John 18:36

Christians in Nigeria where they suffer persecution from the majority Muslim leaders probably don’t conflate earthly kingdoms with the kingdom of God. Christians in China where the Chinese government carefully monitors them and punishes activities out of step with officially sanctioned conduct probably don’t confuse empire and following Christ.

We tend to think that they are, or should be, one and the same.

Perhaps, we forget that the Holy Roman Empire was a failure at sustained spirituality. Our country was formed because of it. Our ancestors escaped the fighting, the persecution among sects of Christianity vying for supremacy, the inquisitions, burning at the stake, and corruption that characterized the unholy marriage of state power and religion.

The idea of the separation of church and state was meant as much to protect the state from the church as to protect the church from the state – maybe more. Religious freedom, freedom of conscience, is a wise principal to be protected.

We cannot distinguish between freedom for Christians, freedom for Buddhists, freedom for Muslims, and freedom for atheists. If we want freedom to follow our own consciences, to follow Christ, we must protect freedom for all. This principal is eminently biblical, as Jesus said:

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Matthew 5:44-45

Just as the Father causes the sun to side on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, we are right to protect the freedom of all. We don’t do this simply to protect our own freedom; we do it because this is what our Father in heaven does.

We do this because we are not of this world. We are foreigners and exiles here in this world. We rightly understand that the kingdom of God is not of this world.

If we understand this well, as the writer of the Letter to Diognetus, we might note to the pagans and other religions of the world that Christ’s followers are dispersed around the world because we do not claim a kingdom in this world.

We are citizens of heaven, as the writer of the Letter to Diognetus said. We are citizens of the kingdom of God that even now is growing until one day Christ will return and take his rightful place. On that day, there will be no other nations.

Until then, we are the leaven that causes the bread to rise. We are the mustard seeds that grow branches for the birds to perch in. We are salt and light until that day comes, waiting for the true Light that will drive out all darkness.

(More details and additional thoughts on the Letter to Diognetus can be found at this link.)

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