The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

As before, I will offer a brief introduction, sources for further study, and highlights from the document itself.

The author is unknown. We know him as “Mathetes,” but that is merely the Greek word for “student” or “disciple.” He calls himself a “mathetes” of the apostles. Some have come to the conclusion, based on that assertion, that the author knew the apostles personally. Other scholars have denied that this is a necessary inference. Surely yours truly could presently call himself a “mathetes” of the apostles! Estimates of the date of this epistle vary widely. Those who assume it was written by a personal disciple of the apostles date it to the early second century. Those who do not make that assumption date it sometimes at the end of the third century. We know nothing, either, of who Diognetus is, except that he was probably asking questions about Christianity. That is not much to go on, especially since a person could be asking questions from the standpoint of unbelief (even scorn!), or from the standpoint of a new believer. We can probably infer, however, that whoever he was, he was not a mature Christian. That is about all we can say. The nature of the document itself is thoroughly apologetic. In twelve chapters, the epistle starts with the folly of idolatry (chapter 2), moves to an answer of Judaism (chapters 3-4), and ends with a panegyric of the Christian faith (chapters 5-12). Some scholars believe the last two chapters to be spurious, but there is no real way to substantiate such a claim.

To read the document online is easy, as we have both Lightfoot’s translation, and the Roberts-Donaldson translation available. For the original Greek, go here for the text only, and go here for the Patrologia Graeca volume 2 (the epistle itself starts on page 1168). A number of introductions are available on this page.

There are two passages I wish to highlight in this letter. The first is chapter 5, a gorgeous description of Christianity in relation to the world. The writing (which most scholars admit is some of the most polished and beautiful writing of antiquity) is exquisite:

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified.

The whole of that chapter is wonderfully written. I would also like to point out his beautiful words describing justification in chapter 9:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it has been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of god, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous one, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

I would ask this question of Romanists: what does “exchange” mean here? Does not his description imply that the two-way exchange works in the same way? If so, then is our wickedness infused into Christ?

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22 Comments

  1. Bryan Cross said,

    April 30, 2012 at 11:19 am

    Lane,

    Regarding your question: “what does ‘exchange’ mean here?”, I addressed that in “Ligon Duncan’s “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?”.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  2. greenbaggins said,

    April 30, 2012 at 11:26 am

    You answer the question, Bryan, in that post by defining it as something which is not, in fact, an exchange. So, I will ask again, is our wickedness infused into Christ? On the understanding of imputation, the exchange becomes perfectly understandable. On the understanding of infusion, the word “exchange” becomes gobbledygook.

  3. Bryan Cross said,

    April 30, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Lane, (re: #2)

    So, I will ask again, is our wickedness infused into Christ?

    No.

    Bryan, in that post by defining it as something which is not, in fact, an exchange.

    That claim simply begs the question regarding what is or isn’t an exchange. To be an exchange, Christ does not need to receive our sin in the same mode in which we receive grace. You seem to be assuming that the only two theoretical options (as ways our iniquity was laid on Christ) are infusion and imputation, and therefore, in your reasoning, if it wasn’t infusion, it must have been imputation. But those are not the only two ways. A third way (and the Catholic understanding) is that Christ bore our iniquities as priest and mediator to the Father, enduring in His body the suffering and death that were brought into the world by Adam’s sin. (Suffering and death were not merely imputed to Him.) I explained this in “Catholic and Reformed Conceptions of the Atonement.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. greenbaggins said,

    April 30, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Bryan, lots of confusion in your comment. Firstly, you use the term “bore” to describe how Christ relates to our iniquities. Unless I am much mistaken, this is the Protestant understanding of imputation. For God to reckon our sin as belonging to Christ means that Christ bears our sin. But the term “bore” is also not as precise as either infusion or imputation. “Bore” can mean either. I do not know what sense you are attributing to it such that it is a tertium quid. Secondly, Protestants do not claim that our suffering and death are imputed to Christ. We believe that the guilt of our sin is imputed to Him. He experienced suffering and death because our guilt was imputed to Him. He bore our guilt (to use your term). So, your comment is just confused. Thirdly, you use the term “beg the question” so often that I am tempted to quote Inigo Montoya (slightly paraphrased): “You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  5. April 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Lane,

    A few side notes. Chuck Hill has argued that this is more a discourse than an epistle and has made a strong circumstantial case that “Mathetes” is Polycarp. This collection of studies on Polycarp is first rate.

    Michael Holmes has produced an excellent edition of the Apostolic Fathers. We use it in our Patristics Seminar. Highly recommended.

  6. Bryan Cross said,

    April 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Lane, (re: #4)

    Firstly, you use the term “bore” to describe how Christ relates to our iniquities. Unless I am much mistaken, this is the Protestant understanding of imputation.

    The term is from Isaiah 53. He has borne our griefs, carried our sorrows, the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Just because you use the term ‘bore’ to mean imputation, doesn’t entail that the term can only mean what your tradition means by the term. In the Catholic tradition, Christ truly grieved and sorrowed over our sin; His bearing of our griefs wasn’t merely by God putting them in Christ’s ‘account;’ He grieved over them, seeing each sin in His human nature, and the full magnitude of the offense of that sin against God.

    I do not know what sense you are attributing to it such that it is a tertium quid.

    Right. The Catholic paradigm wasn’t even within my conceptual horizon as a Protestant, and then upon first encountering the Catholic understanding of the atonement, it wasn’t even conceivable to me, because it didn’t fit into my existing categories.

    In logic the phrase ‘begging the question’ has two meanings, one of which is to defend your position to your interlocutor by way of arguments that use premises that your interlocutor does not accept, because those premises are part of or presuppose precisely what is in dispute between you and your interlocutor. In this sense of the term it means using what is in dispute between the two of you, to support or defend your position against that of your interlocutor.

    Lane, I don’t have the time right now to keep up the conversation. I wish I did, but I don’t. May God lead us to unity in the truth.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  7. greenbaggins said,

    April 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Bryan, my father taught logic at Covenant College, and l learned logic from him. I have taught logic myself. I think I know what begging the question is. What I have done isn’t it. It feels more than a bit patronizing for you to define begging the question for me. You use it when it doesn’t apply. You use it as an excuse to avoid dealing with my actual arguments.

  8. Bryan Cross said,

    May 1, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Lane, (re: #7)

    Most introductory logic courses teach only the internal form of begging the question, where the conclusion of an argument is included in the premises. But there is dialectical form of begging the question, which is what I’m referring to in comment #6. See the second chapter of Doug Walton’s Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argumentation (Cambridge University Press, 1989), and his book devoted to this particular fallacy: Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation (Greenwood Press, 1991).

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  9. Jeff Cagle said,

    May 1, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Lane: “You answer the question, Bryan, in that post by defining it as something which is not, in fact, an exchange.”

    Bryan: “That claim simply begs the question regarding what is or isn’t an exchange. ”

    Dictionary definition: “Begging the question (Latin petitio principii, “assuming the initial point”) is a type of logical fallacy in which a proposition is made that uses its own premise as proof of the proposition. In other words, it is a statement that refers to its own assertion to prove the assertion. Such arguments are essentially of the form “a is true because a is true””

    Lane’s argument takes the form,

    (1) Exchange means something,
    (2) Your article uses the word ‘exchange’ in a way contrary to that meaning,
    (3) Therefore, you have failed to satisfactorily explain in what way Christ’s death was an exchange.

    There’s no circular reasoning here. Lane is in fact raising the question as to what an exchange means, but he’s not begging the question.

    Again from the wiki: Many English speakers use “begs the question” to mean “raises the question,” or “impels the question,” and follow that phrase with the question raised, for example, “this year’s deficit is half a trillion dollars, which begs the question: how are we ever going to balance the budget?” Philosophers and many grammarians deem such usage incorrect

  10. Bryan Cross said,

    May 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Jeff,

    As I explained in #8, there is another sense of the term ‘begging the question’ besides the popular sense of ‘provokes the question’, and besides the internal form of begging the question generally taught in intro logic, where the conclusion of an argument is included in the premises. That third sense is the dialectical sense, and that is the sense I was describing in #6, and in which I used the term ‘begging the question’ in comment #3. For more on that third sense, see the texts I referred to in #8.

    Your argument (in #9) begs the question in that very sense, in that it presupposes that the exhaustive meaning of terms (e.g. ‘exchange’) in sacred theology is determined by consulting secular dictionaries. That’s a presupposition not shared by Catholic theological methodology, as I explained in “The Tradition and the Lexicon.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  11. Joshua WD Smith said,

    May 1, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Actually, Cross may have a point. Here’s how the dialogue (I almost said “exchange,” but would that ever be confusing in this context!) went from his point of view:

    Lane: “Exchange” must mean either imputation or infusion.
    Cross: No, “exchange” can also mean XYZ.
    Lane: XYZ cannot be an exchange, since it isn’t imputation or infusion.

    Now, I’m not saying that this is actually how Lane was arguing, just pointing out how Cross sees it.

  12. Joshua WD Smith said,

    May 1, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Now, as regards the text, I’m not sure how much weight we can put on a specific expression in a more rhetorical text. But I do wonder how the Catholic view fits in the language of concealment (καλυψαι and κρυβη). Using the language of “a gift whose worth is far greater than the offense necessarily hides that offense” seems strained.

    But the whole problem of this debate is that the Fathers are ambiguous–there is no single “doctrine of atonement” found in the Fathers. Augustine, for example, is explicitly in favor of the “ransom to the devil” explanation, which doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in Thomas or Trent (and Anselm expressly rejects this theory). So, Thomas and Trent can’t be defended by Augustine.

  13. Jeff Cagle said,

    May 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    In which case, it would make a lot more sense to simply say, “Here’s what I mean (or the Church means) by the word ‘exchange: …’ ”

    Less antagonistic, moves the conversation forward.

  14. Joshua WD Smith said,

    May 1, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Finally, I’m not sure how the Catholic doctrine doesn’t fall prey to the same “making God the Father cruel” calumny that is heaped upon the “Reformed” doctrine (although, as pointed out in the comments on Cross’ blog, current popular expressions of this doctrine are not the same as the historical ones). That is, if satisfaction can only be achieved by offering something that the one offended loves more than the offense (see Thomas), then it follows that in fact God the Father loved the agonizing death of His Son more than He hated sin.

  15. Joshua WD Smith said,

    May 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Jeff, I think he thought he did, in the linked article.

    “That is the nature of the “sweet exchange” to which he refers: Christ freely gave Himself up to the Father, suffering in His body and soul for our sins (see here), and we in return receive the infused grace and agape by which we are justified.”

    The Protestant problem with this is that “suffering in His body and soul for our sins” is still ambiguous–that’s exactly what we’re arguing about. So using that ambiguous language to clarify the Catholic position simply doesn’t.

  16. Chad A. Steiner said,

    May 1, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Jeff (#11),

    In case you missed it.

    In the grace of Christ,

    Chad

  17. Chad A. Steiner said,

    May 1, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Correction: Jeff (#13).

  18. Jeff Cagle said,

    May 2, 2012 at 9:35 am

    JWDS and Chad: Fair enough. But here’s the problem: On Lane’s account (and mine), this “exchange” is not an exchange, but a pair of not-obviously-related givings: Christ gives himself to the Father, so God gives us infused grace. Lane is asking, How is this an ‘exchange’?

    It would be far more profitable for Bryan to say, “This is in fact a legitimate exchange, and here’s why…” than to go down the rabbit hole of “you committed a fallacy” “Did not!” “Did too!”

  19. rcjr said,

    May 2, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Brought your question on infusion of our wickedness to Christ to my Reformation Bible College students this morning. What a deeply helpful thought. Gave you complete credit

  20. Jeff Cagle said,

    May 2, 2012 at 9:35 am

    JWDS (#14): You’re moving in the direction I hope we can go with this.

  21. Bryan Cross said,

    May 2, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Joshua (re: #14),

    That is, if satisfaction can only be achieved by offering something that the one offended loves more than the offense (see Thomas), then it follows that in fact God the Father loved the agonizing death of His Son more than He hated sin.

    No, that doesn’t follow. There is a difference between (a) suffering and death in themselves, and (b) freely suffering and dying for the sake of someone else. Jesus explained, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) Freely suffering and dying for the sake of another is an act of love, which is the essence of the sacrificial gift Christ offers to the Father on our behalf. What was pleasing to the Father in Christ’s sacrifice was not the suffering and death in themselves, but the love for the Father demonstrated in His willingness to suffer even unto death, in obedience to the Father, for our salvation.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  22. Jeff Cagle said,

    May 2, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Nevertheless, there has to be some connection between the suffering and dying on the one hand, and our sins on the other.

    So far, all that you’ve argued is that (a) Jesus willingly gave Himself to the Father and suffered for our sakes, and (b) the Father viewed this act as meritorious enough to make satisfaction for our sins.

    Both of these are true. But, there’s a disconnect between (a) and (b). Why is the Father willing to visit punishment on Jesus? Isn’t that unjust, whether He is willing or no? Likewise, why does suffering make satisfaction for sins?

    Without those dots connected, there’s no meaningful sense to the word “exchange.”


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