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The second-century Church was forced to develop its theology by its confrontation with false religions on the outside and with heresies on the inside. This is the positive side of freedom of thought and speech, for as new ideas are conceived, the ideas force us to discern what is of God and what is not.
Unfortunately, there is also a tendency to be irritated with ideas that we believe are incorrect. When we see people being convinced of ideas we believe are false, we are tempted to try to suppress the expression of those ideas. Yet God has a purpose for them, for when Truth is believed without testing, it can easily be discarded when the next appealing idea comes along.
In the second and third centuries, the Church did not have the power to suppress heresy except by persuasive writing or preaching. It is only when we come to the fourth century that the Church was able to appeal to the Christian Emperor to legally enforce any bans on heresy. This often resulted in the persecution and death of the heretics. This policy, however, did much more harm than good.
The first heresy confronted as early as the first century was that of Gnosticism, which attempted to merge the “wisdom” of pagan religions with that of Christianity. Very early, it degenerated into sexual license, much like the early religion of the Canaanites. Because the Gnostics claimed to be the true Christians, the Church was forced to draw a distinction between them, because the vast majority of the Greeks and Romans had begun to assume that the Gnostic immorality represented all of Christianity.
Gnosis means “knowledge.” There were two types of Gnostic teachings—the search for the true knowledge of God as set forth in the Scriptures, and the false Gnosticism to which we now apply the name. For this reason, in a study of Church history, occasionally one will run into a statement about the Gnostic writings or Gnostic gospels which came largely out of Egypt. This epithet has more to do with the allegorical method, and does not necessarily mean that the writing came from the false Gnostics. Clement of Alexandria writes much about the true Gnostic—essentially, one who has a knowledge of God as set forth in Scripture.
The most important Christian leader who wrote books to refute the various heresies that had arisen was Irenaeus of Lyons (in Gaul, now France). He lived from about 120-202 A.D. and spent his youth in Smyrna in Polycarp's church. Polycarp himself sent Pothinus to Gaul to evangelize among the Celts, and he set up his headquarters in Lyons. Irenaeus joined him later as a presbyter, and these two students of Polycarp ministered there together.
In the year 177, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius Caesar (161-180), great persecution came to the Church in Lyons, Lugudnum, and Vienne. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors,” at least from the Roman perspective. He was perhaps the last great philosopher of Stoicism, which was already in decline. Ironically, under this “good” Caesar, the Church was persecuted, while under his decadent son, Commodus, the worst of the Caesars, the Church remained unmolested.
In 174 A.D. Marcus Aurelius led his troops in battle with the Germans and Sarmatians in Hungary. There his troops ran out of water, which put the army into a serious position. The general commanded his army to pray to the gods for water, but to no avail. Then the Christians among the troops came forward and prayed for rain, with great success, for a sudden shower saved them. Not only was Marcus Aurelius impressed by the large numbers of Christians in his army, but he was also impressed by the results that they received from prayer. Eusebius tells us in Book V, vii,
“. . . from then on the legion which by its prayers brought about the miracle received from the emperor a title appropriate to the occurrence, being called in Latin the Thundering Legion. A reliable witness of these facts is Tertullian. . . . What he had to say was this--letters from Marcus, the most sagacious of emperors, were still extant in which he himself testified that in Germany his army had been on the verge of destruction through lack of water, when it was saved by the Christians' prayer; and Marcus had threatened to execute any who attempted to accuse us (Christians).”
Nonetheless, Marcus Aurelius seems to have forgotten this miracle, for just three years later he allowed the great persecution in Gaul to proceed. In that persecution, Pothinus died at the age of ninety in this persecution of 177 A.D., and Irenaeus succeeded him as bishop of that Church. Eusebius writes about this great persecution in his Eccl. Hist., Book V, quoting Irenaeus' account:
“To begin with, they heroically endured whatever the surging crowd heaped on them, noisy abuse, blows, dragging along the ground, plundering, stoning, imprisonment, and everything that an infuriated mob normally does to hated enemies. Then they were marched into the forum and interrogated by the tribune and the city authorities before the whole population. When they confessed Christ, they were locked up in gaol to await the governor's arrival.
“But the arrests went on, and day after day those who were worthy filled up the number of the martyrs, so that from the two dioceses were collected all the active members who had done most to build up our church life. Among those arrested were some of our heathen domestics, as the governor had publicly announced that we were all to be hunted out. These were ensnared by Satan, so that fearing the tortures which they saw afflicted on God's people, at the soldiers' instigation they falsely accused us of Thyestean banquets and Oedipean incest, and things we ought never to speak or think about, or even believe that such things ever happened among human beings. When these rumours spread, people all raged like wild beasts against us. . .”
The Christians were accused of cannibalizing their own children, incest, orgies, etc. The torture that these saints endured seems like it surely occurred in another world. They did not even spare women and youths. A woman named Blandina. . .
“was filled with such power that those who took it in turns to subject her to every kind of torture from morning to night were exhausted by their efforts and confessed themselves beaten—they could think of nothing else to do to her. They were amazed that she was still breathing, for her body was mangled and her wounds gaped; they declared that torment of any one kind was enough to part soul and body, let alone a succession of torments of such extreme severity.”
Another woman, Biblis, who at first denied Christ, discovered that even this would not save her from torture.
“She flatly contradicted the slanderers: ‘How could children be eaten by people who are not even allowed to eat the blood of brute beasts?’ From then on she insisted that she was a Christian, and so she joined the ranks of the martyrs.”
The bodies of the martyrs were then burnt to ashes and swept into the Rhone River.
“And this they did as if they could defeat God and rob the dead of their rebirth, ‘in order,’ they said, ‘that they may have no hope of resurrection—the belief that has led them to bring into this country a new foreign cult and treat torture with contempt, going willingly and cheerfully to their death. Now let's see if they'll rise again, and if their god can help them and save them from our hands’.”
Torture can extract any confession from the weak, whether true or not. Those confessions can put citizens into a rage. Knowing this history, our American forefathers banned “cruel and unusual punishment.” Let us hope that Christians demand an immediate end to the current trend toward allowing torture in the name of security.