A Non-Scholarly Survey of the Sts. Ignatius and Clement for Hints on Evangelization
Whenever we are faced with a puzzling question, we can do no better than to consult the Fathers. The Apostolic Fathers are generally the best place to start, since they are among the Fathers the most accessible, needing little background in church history, intellectual history or theological technical terms.
What can the Apostolic Fathers tell us about evangelization?
The Epistles of St. Ignatius and I Clement seem to offer nothing directly relevant to the question. The fact that these authors painted across so broad a canvass without even mentioning evangelization may be a clue, though drawn a silentio.
II Clement, however, does offer some tantalizing hints. (Since we do not know the name of the author, I refer to the document’s author as II Clement, which leaves the question of authorship open.) Scholars agree on the date of II Clement (second century), but not on anything else about it. His entire purpose in writing this epistle is, after providing a very concise and thoughtful exposition of the faith (cc. 1-2), to discuss in detail how to live our lives in view of all the dangers posed to our salvation by the world and by our own weaknesses.
It is odd to read II Clement. After the fervent authority of St. Ignatius, who is writing frantically as he races towards martyrdom, and the self-assured tone of I Clement, II Clement is jarringly personal. Although he discusses themes common to the Didache and other documents of the early church, he writes like St. James and St. Paul—with conviction. II Clement urges us to reject the world, to live here as mere sojourners. He makes repeated appeals to repentance, accounting himself as a sinner needing repentance (18.2). His concern for salvation is not narcissistic—it is bound up intimately with that of our fellow Christians (9.6, 17.2, 17.3) and our fellow men (13.1, 15.1, 19.3).
II Clement seems to offer two hints on evangelization almost tangentially.
The first hint comes when II Clement warns his readers against blaspheming the Lord’s name among the Gentiles. “For the Gentiles,” he says, “when they hear from our mouths the oracles of God, marvel at them for their beauty and greatness; then, when they discover that our works are not worthy of the words which we speak, forthwith they betake themselves to blasphemy, saying that it is an idle story and a delusion” (13.3).1 From these lines we infer that unbelievers somehow hear “the oracles of God.”2 However, II Clement does not state what would have been common knowledge for his audience—how the Gentiles heard these oracles.
The second hint comes when II Clement says that “we have received commands, that we should make it our business to tear men away from idols and to instruct them” (17.1). The purpose and result are pretty plain, but again he does not say how this is supposed to happen.
That saving men from idolatry matters to II Clement is apparent when he appears to describe his previous life as a pagan: “we . . . were maimed in our understanding, and worshipped stocks and stones and gold and silver and bronze, the works of men; and our whole life was nothing else but death. While then we were thus wrapped in darkness and oppressed with this thick mist in our vision, we recovered our sight, putting off by His will the cloud wherein we were wrapped” (1.6). The poignance of these lines does not make the hint any clearer.
It is possible that II Clement does not envision the conversion of pagans as a matter of inviting people to church or haranguing them on the street, especially in a society hostile to Christians. When he discusses how we confess Christ before men (Mt 10.32 or Lk 12.8), he says that we should “confess Him in our works, by loving one another, by not committing adultery nor speaking evil one against another nor envying, but being temperate, merciful, kindly” (4.3). In a nutshell, II Clement sees our confession of Christ as a matter of keeping the commandments (cf. 3.4).
So may we conclude that we tear men away from their idols merely by our example? How does that work?
A remarkable example of how this could work is found in Christine Benagh’s book, An Englishman in the Court of the Tsar: The Spiritual Journey of Charles Sydney Gibbes.3
On the surface, this book chronicles the adventures of a young Englishman who became the English tutor to the imperial children not long before the Revolution. Gibbes stayed with the family as long as he could, until he was forcibly separated from them by their Bolshevik butchers, after which he worked his way across Asia to Harbin as Russia descended into the Communist furnace.
At a deeper level, Benagh describes Gibbes’ lifelong quest to find a faith that would satisfy his desire for “the transcending reality he longed to know and experience.”4 It was not until he was 58—after dropping out of seminary twice, after spending years studying Oriental religions, and after living in a Shinto shrine for one year—that Gibbes realized that nothing in all his experience was as exalted and significant as the witness of humble faith, devotion and courage provided by the Imperial Family he had loved and served. Quite suddenly, he saw the truth manifested in their lives: their reliance on a foundation of strength, that kept them radiant even as they were buffeted, humiliated, maligned and their bodies destroyed by the powerful enemies arrayed against them—enemies they forgave . . . . He had been in the presence of a great mystery that he was only now able to recognize.5
This is just what II Clement would have expected: that Gibbes would be rescued from the trammels of rationalism and atheism not by long arguments, not by unflinching logic, not by heart-rending sermons, not even by short tracts on the spiritual laws thrust into his hands by total strangers on the street, but by brutal example.
If our reading of II Clement is right, then everything depends heavily on confessing Christ “in our works, by loving one another, by not committing adultery nor speaking evil one against another nor envying, but being temperate, merciful, kindly” (4.3). It is this confession that our families, friends and enemies need so badly—not argument, not proselytization, not cyber-wars.6
Now we can stand back and see what the problem with evangelization really is. The minute we accept the challenge of bringing people in, we take our eyes off the only thing that matters to the salvation of everyone around us: the confession of Christ by keeping his commandments “with our whole heart and with our whole mind” (3.4).
- Throughout this post we use J. B. Lightfoot’s translation of II Clement. See J. B. Lightfoot (ed.), The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, 2nd ed. (Macmillan, 1889, 1890; rep. Hendrickson, 1989).
- Ta logia can mean “sayings” as well. See Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, rev. and ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), q.v. logion. Sayings can be careful or loose references to Scripture but can also refer to non-Biblical sources, such as non-canonical sayings of Christ (e.g., 12.2).
- Christine Benagh, An Englishman in the Court of the Tsar: The Spiritual Journey of Charles Sydney Gibbes (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2000).
- Benagh, p. 250.
- Ibid., pp. 251-252.
- What about apostles and bishops who have openly evangelized entire nations? But II Clement was not writing to them; he was writing to us.