The Virgin Birth as Refutation of Plato’s Parable of the Cave

Plato’s parable of the cave depicts the opposite movement to that which is occurring in the Virgin Birth. If one thinks of the cave as a womb, the entire struggle is to escape the cave/womb or set aside the material world and to achieve the singular source of light, the sun. Those imprisoned in the cave live in a world of shadows in which the only light is from a fire behind them, but the prisoner turned philosopher journeys toward the sun, representative of transcendent philosophical truth. As he journeys away from the cave/womb, or away from material reality, the philosopher draws closer to transcendent truth. With the birth of Christ, the equivalent of the singular light or the sole source of truth comes to inhabit the womb.

This not only challenges Greek thought, but as Mircea Eliade points out, since Plato sums up the pervasive religious and philosophical worldview, it challenges a predominant form of thought. There is an obvious impossibility posed in a virgin giving birth but this impossibility is a sign of the even more profound impossibility of God becoming human. This is on the order of the cave housing the sun, or the motherly and earthly encompassing and housing ultimate reality; an impossibility for the Greeks. Jesus born of a virgin is the bringing together of the human and divine in a way that was/is inconceivable for most of humanity.

Plato’s parable of the cave captures the fact that for most people in most of history ascent to the absolute (whether absolute truth, the place of God, etc.) is to shed the finite, material and relative. In the incarnation, signaled by the Virgin Birth all horizontal and vertical wires are crossed. It is more supernatural than the pagan portrayal of the coupling of the gods, as it is by sheer power and does not call upon the natural sex act. Justin Martyr (165 CE), refuting comparisons between the virgin birth and mythological couplings of the gods, writes of the Spirit which “when it came upon the virgin and overshadowed her, caused her to conceive, not by intercourse, but by power.”[1] Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-97 CE) writes, “That a virgin should give birth is sign of no human, but of divine mystery.”[2] Pagans could easily conceive of sex among the gods, but the virgin birth by-passes the sex act. However, it is also more natural and integrated with the human condition, in that Jesus will suffer, die, and experience the human predicament in its fullness, which is even more scandalous to the pagan mind. The Greek and pagan, but maybe just the human idea of God is inverted in the Virgin Birth, as the fully human and the fully divine are intermixed in the motherhood of Mary, her conception through God, and she gives birth to one who is fully God and fully human.

The point of Christianity, beginning with the Virgin Birth, is subversion of the pagan world, but by the same token Greek and pagan thought would continue to attack and attempt to subvert this basic Christian conception of the world. The Gnostics, Marcion (c. 85-c. 160 CE) and Valentinus (c. 100-c. 175 CE), argued that the created order was evil and that the soul had to escape the body in order to achieve enlightenment, so Christ could not have become a human body without loss of divinity. Likewise, Docetists, who shared a Gnostic world view claimed, “If he suffered he was not God; if he was God he did not suffer.”[3]

Christian apologists of the second century, such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, appeal to the Virgin Birth to defend the incarnation against Gnostic and Docetic opponents, appealing primarily to Mary’s human motherhood as evidence of Christ’s humanity. In the words of Ignatius; “Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died.” Tertullian goes to great lengths to emphasize the fleshiness of the birth of Christ, precisely to combat the heresy of Marcion:

Come now, beginning from the nativity itself, declaim against the uncleanness of the generative elements within the womb, the filthy concretion of fluid and blood, of the growth of the flesh for nine months long out of that very mire. Describe the womb as it enlarges from day to day, -heavy, troublesome, restless even in sleep, changeful in its feelings of dislike and desire. Inveigh now likewise against the shame itself of a woman in travail, which, however, ought rather to be honoured in consideration of that peril, or to be held sacred in respect of [the mystery of] nature. Of course you are horrified also at the infant, which is shed into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb. … This reverend course of nature, you, O Marcion, [are pleased to] spit upon; and yet, in what way were you born? You detest a human being at his birth; then after what fashion do you love anybody? … Well, then, loving man [Christ] loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well…. Our birth He reforms from death by a second birth from heaven.[4]

For Tertullian, as Christina Beattie puts it, “The human flesh which unites Christ with Mary is as intrinsic to his identity as the divinity which unites him with God, for without her there can be no true salvation of the flesh.”[5]

In the fifth century the problem is reversed, as Nestorians referred to Mary as Christokos, to emphasize Mary was only the mother of the humanity of Christ and not his divinity. To correct this division between the humanity and deity of Christ, the Council of Ephesus (CE 431), affirmed by Chalcedon (CE 451), dubbed Mary, Theotokos (God-bearer), to affirm the divine and human unity of Christ. The definition of Chalcedon describes Christ as “truly God and truly man … as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer (Theotokos).”[6]

As I have described it here, it may be that the focus on and eventual veneration of Mary, did not translate into a full embrace of the feminine, motherhood, or the earthly. As Luce Irigaray has described it, the veneration of Mary made of her “a likeness” or a simulacrum of the reality so that the feminine was put into the service of making “reproduction-production of doubles, copies, fakes, while any hint of their material elements, of the womb, is turned into scenery to make the show more realistic.”[7]

Though the denigration of womanhood and the earthly can be traced to such early key figures as Augustine, it is precisely in Augustine that the Virgin Birth commanded a startling sort of orthodoxy. In one of Augustine’s Christmas Day Sermons based on Psalm 85:11 he describes the Virgin Birth as a joyous merger of heaven and earth:

Truth, which is in the bosom of the Father (Jn 1: 18), has sprung from the earth, in order also to be in the bosom of his mother. Truth, by which the world is held together, has sprung from the earth, in order to be carried in a woman’s arms. Truth, on which the bliss of the angels is incorruptibly nourished, has sprung from the earth, in order to be suckled at breasts of flesh. Truth, which heaven is not big enough to hold, has sprung from the earth, in order to be placed in a manger.[8]

Augustine imagines Christ saying:

To show you that it’s not any creature of God that is bad, but that it’s crooked pleasures that distort them, in the beginning when I made man, I made them male and female. I don’t reject and condemn any creature that I have made. Here I am, born a man, born of a woman. So I don’t reject any creature I have made, but I reject and condemn sins, which I didn’t make. Let each sex take note of its proper honor, and each confess its iniquity, and each hope for salvation.[9]

Beattie concludes that, despite his patriarchal tendencies and the tendency to denigrate the body, “Augustine thus affirms the goodness of the body, including the female body.”

So Mary’s motherhood of Christ repudiates both those who would denigrate the body or those who would question the deity of the human Jesus. It demands a recognition of the goodness of creation, even the messy side of creation in childbirth. Any fear of contamination is not due to the flesh but due to sin. As Augustine says in another work attributed to him, Christ defends Mary’s motherhood against a Manichaean by saying “She whom you despise, 0 Manichaean, is My Mother; but she was formed by My hand. If I could have been defiled in making her, I could have been defiled in being born of her.”[10]

In Plato’s cave we encounter the symptomatic problem in human religion, philosophy, and thought, in that it would fly toward the sun to gain access to God but in Christ this world is turned upside down as the son has come to earth. In the human economy there is a forgetting of life and a death-dealing grab for truth beyond the stars, but the guiding star of Christmas night points us to a humble manger, most likely located in a cave outside of Bethlehem, where God is With Us.


[1] Justin Martyr, “First Apology” n. 33 in The First and Second Apologies, trans. with notes Leslie William Barnard in ACW 56 (1997), 46. I am following Christina Jane Beattie, God’s mother, Eve’s advocate: a gynocentric refiguration of Marian symbolism in engagement with Luce Irigaray (PhD University of Bristol, 1998). Quotes are from her dissertation at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode

[2] Ambrose, Expos. Ev sec. Luc., Lib. ii. 2,3 in Livius, The Blessed Virgin, 131.

[3] Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979 [1963]), 35.

[4] Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ” in The Writings of Tertullian, Vol. 2, trans. Peter Holmes, in ANCL 15 (1870), 170-71.

[5] Beattie, 102.

[6] In Bettenson, Documents, 51.

[7] Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (SP), trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985 (1974) 340.

[8] Augustine, “Sermon 185” n. I in Sermons 111/6 (184-229Z) on the Liturgical Seasons, trans. and notes Edmund Hill OP, ed. John E. Rotelle OSA, WSA III, 5 (1993), 21.

[9] Quoted from Beattie, 102.

[10] Tract. contr. quinque haeres., cap. v., Int. Opp. Augustini. Append., Tom. 8 in Livius, The Blessed Virgin, 70 (translation modified).

Is Nonviolence Essential to the Gospel?

Justin Martyr assured Emperor Titus that he need not fear that Christians were insurrectionists as they have, by definition, forsworn all violence. They have, he explains, turned from violence to “cultivating piety, justice, and love” and “they have turned their swords into ploughshares and their spears into farm tools.” In a recent video, the Capitol insurrectionists pause on the senate floor, led by the horned man (Jacob Chansley), to pray and dedicate their invasion to Jesus. Frank Schaeffer also released a video explaining that he and his father, the famous missionary Francis Schaeffer, were to blame for the events that unfolded in Washington. He explained that his father had declared a kind of holy war and that in his last book, A Christian Manifesto, he had called for a potential revolution against the government if Roe V. Wade was not overturned. Schaeffer blames himself, his father, C. Everett Coop (Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General), Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Ralph Reed, as leaders and creators of the religious right. He claims, “America does not have a political problem but a religious fanaticism problem.” Certainly, the Christianity which Justin defended to Emperor Titus is not that which Schaeffer describes or that of the insurrectionists dedicating their invasion of the Capitol to Jesus. Which raises the question, is there a violent form of the Christian faith, a violently insurrectionist Christianity?

Since we have just recently celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is fitting that he serve as a counter-example, as one who has enacted a revolutionary-peaceful gospel, but also as someone who gives testimony to profound personal courage provided by the gospel of peace. His life is a portrayal of the nonviolent revolution at the heart of the gospel but what may be less well understood was the depth of his personal dependence upon the peaceful gospel and the peaceable vision he gained from the Hebrew Bible.

King’s epiphany at his kitchen table, perhaps the central spiritual experience of his life, is on the order of the epiphany of Isaiah during a time when Judah faced the possibility of obliteration at the hands of Assyria. Isaiah calls for Judah to trust in God and not in weapons of war. King, like Isaiah, would realize God’s power and presence in his life, and both would recognize God’s power to determine the course of history, in spite of the terrible events of the present moment.

King’s encounter came during the Montgomery bus boycott. It had become a months long affair and he had expected it would be over in a few days. As the economic threat of the boycott began to hit home, he was receiving up to 40 phone calls and threats on his life daily. After being pulled over for speeding and taken to jail, he feared he would be lynched. In his description, he was overcome with fear. He had reached the breaking point on Friday night, January 27, 1956. Then, he once again received a death threat: “N, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”  

With the Assyrian army bearing down on the tiny Kingdom of Judah, Isaiah called on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord and not in horses and chariots. The basis of this trust is spelled out in Isaiah’s vision of a future which, to paraphrase King, Egyptian children, Assyrian children, and Jewish children would hold hands in one accord. It is a trust which came to King that night, Shaken by the continual threat, he buried his face in his hands and began to pray aloud:

I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”

The great sense of comfort and courage that came to him at that moment is what strengthened him a few days later when his house was bombed. “Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.” As he writes years later, “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”[1]

Isaiah’s understanding of God’s peace came from an encounter while he was officiating in the temple. Just as King’s “kitchen table epiphany” revealed God’s comforting presence and power to determine the course of history, Isaiah had a temple epiphany (in the temple and concerning Zion, the temple Mount).

And in the last days the mountain of the Lord shall be manifest, and the house of the Lord on the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall come unto it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, unto the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us his way, and we will walk in it.’ For out of Zion shall go forth a law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

(Is. 2:2-3)

Isaiah 2 reflects a central theme in the Hebrew Bible, in which Zion is the center of the world and as it is lifted up this center of new creation heals the nations by removing what wounds and divides. As the nations of the earth “stream” to Zion (v. 2) they come together in a unified worship. As the “mountain of the house of the Lord” is “established as the chief of the mountains” (Is. 2:2) there is deconstruction of the counter religions – the “oaks of Bashan,” the “lofty mountains,” along with all the instruments of war – “every high tower,” “every fortified wall,” “all the ships of Tarshish,” or in summary, all “the pride of man will be humbled, and the loftiness of men will be abased” (Is. 2:13-17). The instruments of war and worship or all that goes into nation building and violence are undone. With the participation of all nations in Israel’s worship, there is a simultaneous movement “up to the mountain of the Lord,” an enabling to “walk in His paths,” and a movement outward as this teaching of Zion “will go forth” downward and outward (v. 3). As a result, “the court of YHWH will replace the battlefield of the world” as “people will use the scarce and valuable materials of earth to cultivate life instead of crafting death.”[2]

God’s reign, in Isaiah’s vision, culminates in a series of reversals: where the Edenic garden-world was turned into a blood-soaked burial plot (Abel’s blood cries out and, with the generation of Noah, the earth is filled with violence), now warriors are turned into gardeners as swords are beaten into ploughshares; the worlds languages had been confused and this confusion (the etymological and literal root of war) is synonymous with the scattering and enmity of violence, but as all gather in the singular place of worship on Zion they are instructed in the singular word of the Lord.

This Temple restoration sets the cosmos revolving around a new order of peace (shalom among men and even within nature), brought about by the branch of Jesse. This messianic figure will establish righteousness upon the earth and nature herself will be relieved of all violence. It is Isaiah 40, the culmination of the prophet’s kingdom vision, which King will quote in his most famous sermon:  “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight, and the glory of Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Is. 40:4-5). From verse 1 we understand that this straightening of the rough places and the lowering of the high places is synonymous with the fact that earth’s “warfare has ended.” 

In Isaiah’s depiction, peace is the purpose of the religion of Israel, and this purpose is fulfilled in the branch of Jesse: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse” and “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him” (Is. 11:2-3). As a result, righteousness will be established in all the earth (vv. 4-5) and “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them” (v. 6).

The lesson of Isaiah brought to culmination by Christ (the true cosmic Temple), is that the children of God need to put their confidence and trust in the Lord and not in violence (chariots, horses, or swords). Jesus taught that peacemakers are the children of God and he demonstrated in his wilderness temptation the refusal of violent power or the temptation to become a violent messiah; he demonstrated the peaceful healing of the nations in his healing ministry; in his casting out of the violent demons, and in feeding and liberating the hungry and oppressed he embodied the cosmic vision of peace in which each will sit under his own vine and fig tree. He called for love of neighbor and of enemies and he called for his followers to offer no violent resistance. He sent his followers “as lambs sent among wolves” to carry out a mission of peace in a violent culture. He would enter Jerusalem as a nonviolent king, “a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass…He shall banish the war chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem…and he shall proclaim peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:9-10). He commands Peter to put his sword away and the command stands. He nonviolently challenged the Temple system and then submitted, without resistance, to those who put him to death precisely due to this challenge to the Temple and religion of Israel.[3]

The understanding of the early church consistently placed the nonviolence of Jesus at the center of their life and discipleship. The Christian community refused to participate in the insurrection against Rome (66-70 CE), it resisted most any form of military service. Christians refused to kill on behalf of Caesar, and discipleship was aimed at preparing followers of the Way for martyrdom or witness. The practice of forgiveness, the application of the works of mercy, the cultivation of patience, all had as their center the nonviolent, nonretaliatory, gospel of Jesus.  Prior to the conversion of Constantine there is no Christian writing supporting “Christian warfare” as such a concept would have been oxymoronic. There were a few Christian soldiers, those who converted while in the service of the emperor (as testified by discovery of eight epitaphs to Christian soldiers). Tertullian (in 197) informs us that there were soldiers who converted, but the implication is that following Jesus meant they would quit the army. Nearly a century after Tertullian, St. Maximilian refused conscription into the Roman army and he was beheaded. His testimony during his trial would become, for centuries, a standard part of the mass: “I cannot serve. I cannot do evil. I will not be a soldier of this world. I am a soldier of Christ.”

St. Maximilian is a saint because the early church sought out those modeling the nonviolent Jesus. It was understood that Jesus broken body was celebrated not simply as another religious sacrifice, but as a model that accepts brokenness rather than to break the bodies of others. Christ submitted to torture and execution so as to overcome the violence and death which has the violent kingdoms of this world in its grip. [4] Christ rose from the dead and sends his disciples into the world so as to defeat death and the violent way that deploys death.

The early Christians understood the Church as the place where Isaiah’s vision is to be enacted. According to Gerhard Lohfink, the swords into ploughshares vision (of 2:3) is the most quoted text from the Hebrew Scripture in the early church. Origen (writing in the 240’s), presumed that every catechist would be familiar with it as the text was, apparently, a part of the catechism of every candidate for baptism. Justin employs the text in his explanation to Emperor Titus that Christians could not possibly be insurrectionists: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and all wickedness have each and all throughout the earth changed our instruments of war, our swords into plowshares and our spears into farm tools, and cultivate piety, justice, love of humankind, faith and the hope, which we have from the Father through the Crucified One.” The testimony against violence and for peace is the consensus, as demonstrated by Christian writers such as Tatian, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Minucius, Felix, and Lactantius.[5] The peaceful kingdom of Isaiah, inaugurated by Christ, deployed by the early church, and taken up by modern disciples like Martin Luther King, breaks the chains of violence and death, the very point of being a follower of Christ.

Where this peace is not the means and end, can this be said to be the faith of Christ or the Christian religion? Rene Coste summarizes the broad consensus of church history and gospel criticism in affirming, “It is an incontestable fact that Christ did preach nonviolence, both as a condition and a consequence of the universal love that he taught us. To pretend, as is sometimes done, that his directives are only meant to be applied to individual relationships is a supposition nowhere to be found in the New Testament.”[6] Peace is the primary marker of the faith of Christ and it is unclear what remains of the religion of the New Testament in the absence of this understanding.


[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, recounted in his Stride Toward Freedom, quoted from https://lisasingh.com/southeast-travel/martin-luther-kings-defining-moment-a-kitchen-in-montgomery-alabama-past-midnight/

[2]Ralph P. Smith, Micah–Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary 32. (Waco, TX: Word, 1984)

[3] Fr. John Dear and Ken Butigan, “An overview of Gospel nonviolence in the Christian tradition,” in Nonviolence and Just Peace 11-13 April 2016 Rome, Italy at https://nonviolencejustpeacedotnet.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/nvjp-conference-background-papers.pdf The understanding of Lohfink is found in •Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (p. 92). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

The Options of Non-Violence or Gnosticism

Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1] Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2] Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it to be such. He was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself.

The confusion is not in regard to the Church’s stance toward violence. There is a unified voice in the first three centuries of Christianity ruling out this possibility. “Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength” (Origen Contra Celsius Book VII). “Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence” (Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV). “Christians are not allowed to correct with violence” (Clement of Alexandria).  As Justin Martyr (110-165) explained to Emperor Antonius Pius, Christians cannot be guilty of sedition as the Christian notion is a kingdom of peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, in which people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Citizenship in God’s Kingdom, Justin informed the Emperor, is a present tense reality which renders Christians nonviolent: “That it is so coming to pass, let me convince you. We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ” (The First Apology of Justin Martyr). There is an unequivocal stand against violence in the early Church.

The problem is not in determining whether violence was acceptable (it was not), the problem was in determining what constitutes violence. For example, is it acceptable for a Christian to accept a laurel crown as part of a military ceremony (the problem Tertullian deals with in On the Military Crown)?  A soldier, perhaps recently converted, refuses the honor and accepts martyrdom rather than to wear the crown. Tertullian argues that martyrdom is the correct choice, rather than to be associated, even by implication, in violence. He asks, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” His answer is a resounding “no.” To be associated with such things, even through a laurel crown, is not an option. One could argue the point – as some did. It could even be pointed out that there were Christian soldiers (occupied nonviolently or recently converted, as is clear in the example). What cannot be argued is whether Christians rejected violence, as they clearly did. The problem they were negotiating is determining what constitutes violence.

The conflict is not between pro and anti-violence but with how to follow Jesus, how to recognize violence and evil. Tertullian’s opponents are arguing that “a peace so good and long is endangered for them.” Their fear is that obstinance, an unwillingness to recognize nuance, is being confused with nonviolence. Tertullian argues, “they have rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit” and “are already turning their back on the Scriptures.” He suggests a certain cowardice is at work: “in peace, lions; in the fight, deer.” One might argue either side of the equation, but the lack of clarity is not in regard to whether one should be violent but how to best avoid violence.

The first Christians had recognized that shedding blood, no matter the circumstance, is sin. Even vague association with violence, or the improper curbing of anger which leads to violence, they considered sin. What they had not recognized is that oppressive treatment (including physical punishment) of social inferiors, of women, of slaves, was violence as well. Origen, in making the case that God employs discipline, uses an unfortunate example: “And just as when you, punishing a slave or a son, you do not want simply to torment him, rather your goal is to convert him by pains.”[3] That beating one’s slave might count as violence seems to escape this one who railed against every form of violence. The point is not that the early Church accepted forms of violence, but the sense of what counted as violence had yet to be fully and clearly articulated. This is the proper task Christians are to continue to engage.

 We, I would hope, have no problem in recognizing the incongruity of Christians advocating beating slaves. That incongruence or blindness points to the need in the Patristic period to continue to develop a nonviolent sensibility. It also suggests the possibility of a similar blindness among contemporary followers of Jesus. The incomplete non-violence of the Fathers is not an excuse for violence. It should not serve to convince us that we can indulge in violence but indicates that the work of the Gospel continues, through the ages, to penetrate notions of authority, relationships with others and even within ourselves.

There is the need, as John Howard Yoder recognized, to overcome the Constantinian error of fusing state violence with the Church. Certainly “the entire Christian gospel” cannot be restored without recognizing this error. But this overcoming – this recognition that violence is evil – is not itself the restoration of the entire Christian gospel. Prior to the failure of Constantinian Christianity we do not, as Jennifer Otto points out, encounter a golden age of a perfect worked out pacifism.[4] This, however, is not a license to read Constantinian violence into the first centuries, it is simply the recognition that naming and overcoming violence is not easy but is the primary Christian task, and failure in this task is the greatest of temptations.

The hard stance against violence in the early Church explains the looming gnostic temptation in Patristic Christianity. The temptation is to concede the physical realm to the logic of this world’s kingdoms, an unnecessary concession where a clear delineation is not drawn between the two kingdoms (that of Christ and the world). The threat of martyrdom, of not striking back, of not offering resistance, is a temptation to concede to the logic of violence. As Tatian recognized, following his master Justin Martyr, a stark choice is posed: “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command.” I must “die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”[5] Tatian recognized the “death to the world” Christ requires, but he could not endure it. With the death of his teacher, he takes up the gnostic religion of Valentinian.

Dying to the world, it turns out, is a continual process of repudiation. It is the process of the ages of cultivating peace, of continually recognizing and overcoming violence.  A Christianity that has relinquished this task of extending peaceful non-violence has already conceded to gnostic madness.


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[3] Origen, Homily on Jeremiah, 12

[4] Jennifer Otto, “Were the Early Christians Pacifists? Does It Matter?” https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[5]Tatian (120-180) Address to the Greeks.