Early on in my reading and study of early Christianity, I was struck by an assertion from an unnamed author writing to a man named Diognetus in the second century. This author, in his Epistle to Diognetus, declared that “what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.”

The author was getting at a paradox resting at the heart of our faith: Christians dwell in the world, yet in the beliefs they confess and the virtues they seek to model, they also transcend the things of this world. While Christ and the apostles taught this same principle, the Epistle’s analogy of the soul to the body is compelling. Though existing in a mortal body, Christians are bound for immortality. As the soul holds the body together, they are meant to hold the world together. Their task is to live in a way that makes the world better because of their presence.

Stephen O. Presley, a scholar of early Christianity, articulates this vision wonderfully in Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church. The book unpacks how early Christians viewed their place in a world that increasingly looks and feels like our own.

In a secular age, the postures and wisdom of early Christian voices can help us reclaim a vision for how to dwell within a society that has no room for religious exclusivity and little desire for transcendent moral reasoning. By exploring and connecting prominent themes of early Christian public witness, Presley channels the analogy presented to Diognetus and amplifies it through the voices of early Christian thinkers.

Active dualism

Presley begins by reminding us that our world is not just suspicious of the church; Christianity is seen as the antagonist. “Christianity,” he writes, “is not sidelined anymore because it is religious but because its moral claims frequently run contrary to new expressions of social progress and moral diversity.”

Our age of “expressive individualism,” as author Carl R. Trueman argues in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, has no need for transcendent theological claims and classic ethical foundations. Thus, Christian witness in the 21st century must increasingly answer the question, Is this good and beautiful? Without convincing today’s world that Christianity is appealing and desirable, we’ll struggle to convince it that Christianity is true.

To illustrate this, Presley assesses the nature of early Christian identity. Conversion, as the early church understood it, was no mere mental assent to propositional truth claims. Through catechesis and participation in the liturgical life of the church, new believers had their identities cleansed and remade.

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Catechesis, or intentional instruction in doctrine, identified false beliefs and sought to replace those with biblical concepts. But this was a deeply spiritual experience. It served as a form of exorcism, cleansing one’s heart and mind from satanic presuppositions and leaving room for life-giving nourishment. The liturgical life of the church, which included baptism and the Lord’s Supper, ordered one’s entire life around the work of Christ and the redemptive story of God. As Presley notes, “This liturgical formation reminds us that the early church was not interested just in evangelizing and preaching but in forming a community.”

While always implicit in Christian faith and practice, this idea of “liturgical formation” must be recovered in our day. This is not an argument for high church worship alone, but a plea for intentional worship and formation practices within one’s church body. Christian community must extend past a causal relationship with a church down the street and instead be viewed as a vital collective of unified and committed men and women.

Beyond this, Presley highlights the cultivation of intellectual life among early Christian thinkers. We are privileged to see a recovery of this impulse within much of contemporary evangelicalism. But early Christian thinkers can help us carry it further.

By putting their thought lives into conversation with literature and philosophy, these thinkers brought all learning under the yoke of Christ. Scripture was the guiding compass, indeed the very fabric of knowledge, for early Christian thinkers. While evangelicals have (mostly) retained a high attention to Scripture, we have often lost the notion of how God’s Word ought to shape the way we engage all other forms of knowledge.

As Presley observes, “The church recognized the importance of intellectual engagement and interaction with the philosophical climate of the world around them.” Early Christians, even under persecution, did not consider retreat an option. Christian leaders today, in an age of moral and epistemological confusion, need to reinvigorate the church for winsome and irenic intellectual engagement in the public square.

Central to Presley’s argument, then, is a portrait of how early Christians understood their role in public life. While he separates his formal discussion of this subject into two separate chapters, one on citizenship and another on public life, the underlying ideas are similar across both. At one level, Christians understood their allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. They also sought to demonstrate their service and commitment to temporal authorities as those who had been ordained by God to serve. Christians were not “anti-imperial,” as Presley observes; they affirmed the established order and sought to live faithfully within its bounds.

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Presley identifies this way of public life as an “active political dualism.” It involved prayer for governing authorities, commitment to pay taxes, and efforts to promote virtuous living for the common good. This, of course, did not guarantee acceptance by pagan neighbors. But the consistent witness was compelling enough to win some to the community of faith. If nothing else, it demonstrated the otherworldly nature of the Christian community.

Though Christian worship was much less public than Roman polytheism, it does not follow that Christians resided in the shadows. Their life and witness were attuned to what was taking place around them. Early Christian faith always impacted public life, whether it inspired a faithful presence caring for the community, a public witness against violence and atrocity, or a prayerful demeanor toward civic authority. A posture of active dualism tempered expectations while reminding believers that, ultimately, they were sojourners bound for a heavenly country.

Faithful presence

Presley’s core claim, simply put, is that Christians today need to relearn and apply the lessons of this active dualism. He is aware, of course, that retrieving voices from early Christianity is not an exercise in cherry-picking idealism. We must not assume, in other words, that every Christian in the church’s first three centuries carried out the work of cultural sanctification perfectly. (Here, it helps to remember Nadya Williams’s recent work on the presence of cultural Christians within the early church.)

Nevertheless, the framework of faithful presence espoused by early Christian thinkers and attested by non-Christian observers remains compelling. Today’s church shouldn’t operate with a triumphalist mentality, but that doesn’t mean shrinking in fear of the surrounding culture. As Presley asserts, “The Christian call to cultural sanctification is a call to pursue holiness and conformity to the likeness of Christ within any and every cultural context.”

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The overall template provided by the early church and transmitted to us by Cultural Sanctification is sound. It may require some of us, however, to deal with cancers that threaten to infect our view of the church, the world, and our place in it. Cultural rejection isn’t the solution. Nor is replacing our current culture with some thoroughly Christianized alternative. The only answer to a world that rejects the church is a church that loves the world with faithful discernment and patient engagement, even as it longs for the world to come.

Coleman M. Ford is assistant professor of humanities at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of Formed in His Image: A Guide to Christian Formation, as well as a forthcoming book, Ancient Wisdom for the Care of Souls: Learning the Art of Pastoral Ministry from the Church Fathers. He is cofounder of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies and serves as a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians.

Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church
Release Date
March 26, 2024
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