Why the Church’s Care for the Vulnerable Requires the Reality of God’s Presence among His People
“Something Divine Mingled Among Them”: Care for the Parentless and the Poor as Ecclesial Apologetic in the Second Century: Part 2 of 5
Part 2 of a paper presented at the 2021 Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting, in Fort Worth, Texas. Read part 1 here.
“Aristides,” Eusebius of Caesarea wrote in the fourth century, “has left to posterity a defense of the faith.” Despite the preservation of this defense “by a great number” of Christians in the time of Eusebius, the Apology of Aristides was thought to be lost for several centuries. Those assumptions begin to crumble in 1878, when a group of monastic scholars in Venice published a Latin translation of an Armenian rendering of the text. A Syriac translation of the Apology emerged a few years later. At that point, it became clear that the Apology had never been completely lost at all. Centuries earlier, portions of a Greek text of the Apology had been separated, reworked, and incorporated into a Christian novel known as Barlaam and Ioasaph.
Thus the text of this Apology does not survive in a single edition but in variant recensions, scattered across three fourth-century Greek fragments, a Syriac translation, an Armenian translation, and an eleventh-century novel that preserves portions of the text in Greek. Although surviving versions of the Apology include a number of expansions and interpolations, the sections that form the focus for this particular research are not incongruent with a text written in the second century.
Aristides addressed his Apology to one of two Roman emperors, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, or perhaps both of them, depending on which version of the Apology represents the initial text. Regardless of which emperor Aristides named as the addressee, it seems unlikely that any emperor actually read this work. Much like many “open letters” that circulate today, the Apologia may have been addressed to the emperor knowing that the invocation of the emperor’s name as the purported recipient would attract greater attention from the readers who constituted the actual intended audience.
Aristides of Athens begins his defense by appealing to the beauty of creation and then to an argument from motion that seems to parallel a portion of Aristotle’s Metaphysics:
When I had considered the sky and the earth and the seas and had surveyed the sun and the rest of creation, I marveled at the beauty. I perceived the world and all that is therein are moved by the power of another: God who is hidden in them and veiled by them. (Apology 1)
Although Aristides appeals to a line of reasoning that later apologists would classify under the heading of classical arguments, his usage of these arguments is intended more to raise a question than to provide an answer. His goal is not to demonstrate the existence of a generic deity but to declare the inexplicability of the cosmos apart from a sovereign deity and then to define what attributes would need to characterize such a deity. According to Aristides, the cosmos requires a deity who is “immortal, perfect, and incomprehensible” (Apology 1), and this brings Aristides to the undergirding dilemma on which he structures the bulk of his argument: Which of the four types of people in the world—barbarians, Greeks, Jews, or Christians—serves a deity that meets these requirements, and what manner of life does the worship of each of type of people produce?
Aristides concludes that “Christians, as we have learned from their writings, have come closer to the truth and genuine knowledge than the rest” (Apology 15)—but this is only the starting point for Aristides’ positive argument for Christianity. It is the question of what “manner of life” Christianity produces that remains most relevant for the purposes of this research. It is at this point that Aristides begins to develop a clear ecclesial apologetic that defends the truthfulness and genuineness of Christianity on the basis of the church’s way of life.
After articulating the church’s ethics of sexual continence, kindness, honesty, and rejection of idolatry, Aristides turns his focus toward the care of Christians for the vulnerable and the poor:
They do not turn away their respect from widows, and they redeem the orphan from the one who abuses him. Those who have, give without boasting to the one who has not. When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him like a brother; for they call each other brothers, not after the flesh but after the spirit, in God. Whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one according to his ability pays attention and carefully sees to his burial. If they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them eagerly minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem the imprisoned one, they set him free. If there is anyone among them who is poor and needy and they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply the needy in their lack of food. … They do not proclaim the kind deeds that they do in the ears of the crowd, but they are careful that no one should notice them; they conceal their giving like one who finds a treasure and conceals it. (Apology 15)
These habits of life are an integral part of the argument that drives Aristides to deliver some of the most memorable lines in his Apology. “Truly,” Aristides declares, “this is a new people, and there is something divine mingled among them” (Apology 16). The life of the church is, for Aristides, a confirmation of the truth of the faith.
The moral habits of the church do not stand alone as evidence. After presenting these evidences, Aristides points to Scripture as a true and authoritative source that sustains his claim: “Take their writings and read them!” Aristides implores his readers. “You will find that I have not presented these things on my own authority” (Apology 16). Nevertheless, the moral habit of valuing the vulnerable remains crucial in his argument. According to the Apology, the presence of the divine was demonstrated as Christians cared for widows, redeemed orphans, gave to those in need, and buried deceased believers whose families could not afford a funeral. All of this was done without public fanfare.
The practice of burying the poor is particularly noteworthy. In much of the Roman Empire, if a deceased individual could not afford burial, his or her body was tossed into a mass burial pit. To avoid this fate, those with the capacity to do so joined funerary societies. The bylaws of one such society were inscribed on a marble slab in Lanuvium in the year 136, during the lifetime of Aristides of Athens. Joining this funerary society required applicants to donate 100 sestertii and one amphora of “good wine” (“vini boni”) upfront, followed by an ongoing monthly payment. The inscription on which these bylaws survive today was crafted, in part, for the purpose of publicizing the good deeds of the society’s patron.
The church provided a funerary society for those who could not join such societies, whether because they could not afford to do so or because these societies required acknowledgment of pagan deities. Among Christians, the human body was sacred even in death, and the bodies of the poor were no less sacred than the flesh of the wealthy. Unlike the patrons of Roman funerary societies, Christians cared for the bodies of the deceased without publicizing their deeds. Christians were, in the words of Aristides, “careful that no one should notice” their charity.
Today, it is easy to read the words of Aristides and to assume that his intent was to demonstrate the value of Christianity by pointing to deeds that even non-Christians would have seen as good. After all, generosity to the poor and care for vulnerable are likely to strike even the most hardened secularists as desirable traits today. Yet such habits were not necessarily perceived as positive traits in the larger context in which Aristides penned his Apology.
The Greek historian Polybius was probably exaggerating when he claimed, “No one ever thinks of giving any of his private property to anyone if he can help it.” Nevertheless, the writings of Lucian of Samosata reveal that generosity of the type that Aristides described was more likely to be seen as laughable than admirable in the second century.
Long after the time of Aristides, a resistance to incongruous generosity was so ingrained in Roman thinking that these customs still limited people’s giving. The fourth-century Christian writer Lactantius criticized those in the church who refused to give to the needy unless there was some opportunity for honor to be bestowed or the favor to be returned. Such people, according to Lactantius,
measure all things not by truth itself, but by present utility. For they hope that those whom they rescue from peril will make a return of the favor to them. But because they cannot hope for this in the case of the poor, they think that whatever they bestow on persons of this kind is thrown away. … Throw aside those shades and images of justice; and hold on to the real, that which is fashioned by itself. Give to the blind the weak, the lame, the destitute. These must die unless you help them. They are useless to men, but useful to God.
Care that is incongruous with the recipients’ capacity to return the favor is perceived as admirable today only because people are still mining their values from the rich moral motherlode that centuries of Christian tradition have embedded in the soil of Western civilization. Whenever secularity affirms care for the vulnerable, a system that claims to be godless is applying for a loan from the bank of the Christian tradition.
When Aristides claimed “something divine is mingled among” the people of the church after describing the church’s care for the vulnerable, Aristides was not declaring that the goodness of these deeds demonstrated the presence of the divine among the people of the church. What he was pointing out was the impossibility of such counterintuitive habits of life apart from the presence of some power that transcends every human capacity.
The ecclesial apologetic of Aristides is a defense that asks, “What else must be the case if we see an entire community of people pursuing counterintuitive and countercultural patterns of generosity?” For Aristides, the only possible response is that—if a community practices generosity to the vulnerable alongside commitments such as continence, kindness, truthfulness, justice, humility, and honor for parents—there must be “something divine mingled among them” because no community is capable of sustaining such a life without the presence and power of the divine.
Read part 3 of this paper.