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What Does the Early Church Teach Us About Cultural Engagement? Dr. Stephen Presley

Home » What Does the Early Church Teach Us About Cultural Engagement? Dr. Stephen Presley

Guest: Dr. Stephen Presley | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Presley about cultural engagement in the early church.

Topics of conversation include:

  • The early church’s response to living in a secular society and what we can learn from their example
  • The political, cultural, and intellectual challenges experienced by the early church
  • The call for evangelicals today to make an impact on society through the visible testimony of a transformed life
  • The unique challenge of Christians losing previously held cultural and political influence
  • What the goal of cultural engagement should be
  • Resources in the church fathers for learning how to better engage culturally.

Dr. Stephen Presley is associate professor of Church History and Director of Research Doctoral Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews, and is the author of The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Iranaeus of Lyons (Brill Academic, 2015). Dr. Presley is currently working on a book on cultural engagement in the church fathers with Eerdmans.


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:15):

I saw a comic strip about 20 years ago that featured a modern Christian who died and went to heaven and met a martyred saint from the second century. The martyred saint said, “What’s it like down there today?” And the Christian new to heaven said, “It’s so bad. Just the other day, I took my Bible to work and my coworker made fun of me.” To which the martyred saint exclaimed, “You have your own Bible?” “No, you don’t get it,” replied the newcomer, “they really throw you to the lions these days.” And the old saint said, “They still use lions!?” Now this is a silly enough, perhaps, cartoon, but you get the picture. I hear it all the time that things have never been this bad before—as though Christianity was going through its first crisis. Or even seemingly ignorant of the fact that there are severely persecuted Christians today in our world.

Brian Arnold (01:01):

But nevertheless, we all feel the tide turning. For the first time since Constantine, the high tide of Christian favor is ebbing in the West, and we will have to become more used to living in a secular culture. And that’s causing a lot of fear and panic in the church. However, we’ve been here before. The church has known what it’s like to be in the minority. The church has known persecution. The church has known hardship. So we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to recover wisdom from the ancient church and apply it to our modern time. Well, here to help us understand how we can retrieve ancient wisdom for our modern problem, we have with us Dr. Stephen Presley. Dr. Presley is associate professor of Church History and the Director of Research Doctoral Studies at Southern Seminary, and previously taught at Southwestern Seminary. He holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews, and is active in the field of patristic studies, publishing research like his book, The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Iranaeus of Lyons. And he’s also finishing up a book project right now on cultural engagement in the church fathers, which makes him the perfect guest for us today. Dr. Presley, welcome to the podcast.

Stephen Presley (02:05):

Thank you so much. It’s so good to be with you. Really appreciate it.

Brian Arnold (02:09):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today that question is—what does the early church teach us about cultural engagement? So I just kind of want to start by even talking about the idea behind your book. Obviously there’s a lot we can learn that happened 2000 or 1800 years ago or so, on culture engagement, but what led you specifically to write this right now?

Stephen Presley (02:30):

Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think, like you said in your introduction, I’m feeling some of the angst that a lot of people are feeling these days. I have a family, and I attend a church, and I serve pastors, and work with pastors. And, you know, some of those sentiments—as I’m studying and thinking about my area of research—were intersecting. And I began to think about the ways in which naturally the work I was already doing intersected and had wisdom to teach us about the way we respond to the world today. And so when I think about cultural engagement, it really just paints a picture of—how are we conducting our lives in society today? How do we live? What kind of posture should we have? Underlying it is, of course, like—what’s the relationship between the church and the world, or Christ and culture, all of those kinds of big questions. But, you know, the early church I think has a lot to teach us about the wisdom of what it’s like to live and to engage the world around them. A world that is not distinctively Christian.

Brian Arnold (03:36):

And it really is the first time in a very long time—really about 1700 years—that in the West there’s not been a strong Christian identity. Now, there still is, I mean, before we hit the panic button too much, we need to recognize we’re not being persecuted for going to church on Sunday. There are tens of millions of Christians in America, even today. But we do see the trend coming. I mean, I even saw Ryan Burge’s recent studies in his book called The Nones. Which now, people who don’t identify with any kind of religious background—they may not be hostile to Christianity, but they just don’t identify with anything—are at the same level as Evangelicals and Catholics now. So we see them on kind of an exponential increase. Whereas people in Evangelicalism and Catholicism, especially, kind of on a decrease right now. Do you see those same trends?

Stephen Presley (04:23):

Yeah, I do. And actually a point that, at one level of discontinuity, we can make between the early church and today is, you know, the early church in some ways may have had some small advantage, because in a lot of works, we know that they were unknown. They did not have institutional power. They did not necessarily have cultural power. On the other hand, those of us coming out of the West are trying to cope with the struggles of losing institutions, of losing the things we love, parts of this culture that have shaped us and have defined us. And there’s a pastoral role that comes along in shepherding people as we transition. So we’re not there yet, but it definitely—as you mentioned again at the intro—the feelings of anxiety, and kind of the cultural and institutional changes that are happening means that these are tough times ahead. But, as you said, we’ve been there before.

Brian Arnold (05:16):

Yeah. And I think we’re right to feel some early tremors of a bigger earthquake coming, in terms of what it’s going to do to Christian worldview in the West. I think one of the best, if you can say prophets of this day, or commentators of this day, is Carl Trueman. He’s done the church such a…given them such a good resource in a couple of his new books. One of them is called Strange New World, which I’d recommend for our listeners to buy and read. And he said this—if we are to find a precedent for our times, we must go further back in time to the second century and the immediately post-apostolic church. So that’s the area you’re retrieving from. And I do my studies in the second and third century as well. Who have you found particularly helpful as you’re reading that era, that you would say—man, if Christians could really recover this aspect, it would really help for the future?

Stephen Presley (06:13):

Yeah, it’s a great question. And I love Trueman’s work, would, you know, implore everyone to read it. And I definitely pick up kind of where Trueman ends the book. I think he diagnoses the problem. And I’m just trying to offer some wisdom from those who have gone before in how we can move forward. And I see it…the complexity of looking at the ancient world is you can look at both the political response, you can look at the cultural response, you can look at the intellectual response, and you can see how the second century writers, these ancient Christians, are dealing with political figures and political authorities. So Justin is writing to, you know, the emperor, to the senate, or to those in political power. And then you have Origen responding to Celsus, a pagan intellectual, and responding to him.

Stephen Presley (07:03):

And then you have, you know, Tertullian writing an apology, and just trying to deal with the realities that his community is facing. He has one work called On the Crown when he deals with an issue of a soldier who has been ultimately persecuted because he refused to wear a crown in kind of a public ceremony, in a public setting. And so I see it happening. And it’s almost a holistic political, cultural, intellectual, and hitting the church from all sides. And so it’s neat to study the second century, because you get kind of that broad sweep of where all of the challenges are coming from—from a variety of sides. And so the Fathers, I think, especially in the second and third century, provide that kind of vision of responding to each of these fears that we’re facing.

Brian Arnold (07:55):

I was speaking to a group of women last night, it’s something we call the Eunice Initiative, and a lady came up to me afterwards, as I’m kind of talking about some of the current political crises, and how the mission of the church fits into that. And she’s a florist, and was asking me questions about whether or not in good conscience she could give flowers for a so-called gay marriage. And it just reminded me of that, as you were talking about Tertullian—here’s a soldier having to wear a crown to associate patriotically with the empire, and he doesn’t want to do it. And that’s going to cost him. And it’s going to cost people today to stand by their convictions. And I find great inspiration when I read the Fathers and see the courage that they had to stand for Christ at the greatest of costs. And so I, you know, I see the analogy on that piece. I think the political piece is obviously there as well. One of the things that I noticed when I’ve read the Fathers is how often they make the argument that—hey, we’re doing good in this world. We love our neighbors. We are obedient to the empire, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our Christian conviction. Do you see that as a helpful argument for evangelicals today? Or do you see that there’s so much cantankerousness on the evangelical side too, that that argument’s hard to make?

Stephen Presley (09:16):

It is a…I think it’s going to be one of the challenges we face. And, I mean, I know your work is in this area too, especially in your work on justification in the early church, you know—they’re trying to present themselves as—hey, we are good people. You know, Justin writes in his First Apology—we’re your best citizens. You know, if you lose us, you lose a lot. He talks about…early on in Justin’s apologies, he talks about just conversion experience after conversion experience of those who have come out of all kinds of sin, or all kinds of immorality, and their lives have been transformed. You know, they no longer commit adultery. They no longer steal. They no longer do these sorts of things. And Justin says—look at our lives. Look at the way we’ve been transformed by the gospel.

Stephen Presley (10:05):

And so he definitely has that kind of moral apologetic that he puts forward. And I am optimistic about it, because I do think, you know, that is one thing we as Evangelicals need to think about moving forward. On the other hand, I know the challenge that lays before us—the challenge and the call to live virtuously, to live Christianly, to live lives, that, as Alan Kreider uses the image of a patient ferment. He uses the image of the fermentation of the church, in the way that fermentation process could be a good thing. And I have hope that the church can do that. But I do know it is going to be a challenge for many of those—both who are pastoring and those both who are are in the pews and in our churches.

Brian Arnold (10:52):

I really think that’s going to be perhaps the most significant point of application we could make today for people listening—is if we want to see the church make a radical impact in society, it’s not going to be through shouting people down on Twitter or the social media space. And quite frankly, as much as I am in favor of Christians engaging in the political realm and policy making—I think that’s important—it’s really going to be through transformed lives of the gospel, people really living out their Christian worldview in their workplaces. They’ve been transformed by the Spirit. They are exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit, and people are going to recognize how countercultural that is. It really is the transformed life that’s going to make the biggest apologetic impact. Would you agree with that?

Stephen Presley (11:39):

I agree completely. And that brings up, you know, on the other side of that, the challenge that the church had—and I know you know this, because of your work as well—is, you know, the early church is often accused of being moralistic. They’re often accused of being legalistic. And because you read some of the early Christian writings, and they’re just imploring the people of God to live out their faith. And so the flip side, the challenge I do see, on the other side of the emphasis on virtue or the emphasis on sanctification is maybe a danger lurking of legalism. So finding out how to proclaim the gospel and how to live out their faith in ways that we don’t shout, we don’t become legalistic. We don’t advocate for a moralism.

Stephen Presley (12:25):

We stress a justification, we talk about the importance of doctrine, those kinds of things. But it clearly was the way that they believed they could transform the society. They fully believed that the transformed life would be a visible living witness and testimony to the world around them. And you see it in a lot of the early works, like Alan Kreider’s Patient Ferment. By living a life of patience and fermentation within the culture, you transform it. Or Gerald Sittser’s work on early Christian cultural engagement called A Resilient Faith. These Christians that are resilient and faithful in the face of a world around them. Those kinds of works keep pressing us towards the importance of virtue, while warning us, you know, about some potential challenges we may face on the other side.

Brian Arnold (13:17):

And we just need to, quite frankly, put to bed the whole legalism piece. That is such an overplayed card in our contemporary Christian circles. I feel like of anything that says—hey, you need to live like a Christian, there’s a Christian ethic that we are required to live. If you want to be a Jesus follower, this is how you do it. This is how you live. And people not be so afraid of the boogie man of legalism. But really it’s just the life that a Christian who is led by the Spirit is going to exhibit in this world.

Stephen Presley (13:49):

Exactly.

Brian Arnold (13:50):

And that’s one of the things I love about the Fathers is I don’t read them legalistically very often. I see them as people who, especially a lot of times—you mentioned Justin Martyr earlier, coming out of paganism as a pagan philosopher, and now of a sudden Jesus has caught hold of his life. I believe it’s in the Second Apology where he talks about his conversion and like the “fire that lit in his heart.” He is a new man, and the way that that issues forth in his life has changed him. It’s the gospel. We all know this. Those who have come to faith in Christ know the transforming power. Well, I want to come back to kind of where we’re at, but I want to shift the conversation just a little bit for a moment. And I was listening to another podcast in the last year or two, and the guys who were talking said—you know, we’re not really returning to the pre-Constantinian era, so as important as the early church is, that we need to settle up and face up to the reality that the church was relatively obscure, peripheral, unknown in those first couple centuries.

Brian Arnold (14:57):

And then Constantine comes in, there’s an explosion of growth that happens in the church. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve seen the table that Rodney Stark put together on what expansion of Christianity looked like, but there’s like an explosion in the fourth century of people coming into the church. We can talk about that in a minute if you’d like to. But then you have this long era of Christendom in the West, you know, from the fall of the Roman Empire to Charlemagne, and then into the Middle Ages, where obviously people know about that tussle between the church and the state, and then the Reformation. Well, now we’re kind of seeing secularism on the rise, and can we…what is the difference going to be between now and the previous church age? One of the things they brought up, which I think is is helpful, is Flannery O’Connor’s idea of a “Christ hauntedness.” So before, people were dealing with not many people know Christianity, and now people are saying—hey, we tried that. We had 1700 years of trying Christianity, and it just didn’t work for us. And so that’s…they’re knowingly rejecting it. Does that make sense?

Stephen Presley (16:03):

Yeah.

Brian Arnold (16:03):

So how would you respond to something like that?

Stephen Presley (16:05):

Yeah, I talk about…in the book I just finished, I talk about a couple differences, just broadly and culturally. And one is that it fits with what Flannery O’Connor is saying there, and that is, on some level, we need to acknowledge that at times when Christians held political power, we didn’t always wield that power well. And at times we must be honest about that, and we must recognize that, you know, our leaders have not always said and done things that are in keeping with Christian virtue. And so some of the challenge we face is going to be parsing out things that have transpired in the West, in the past of when Christendom has not always produced the kind of virtue and the kind of Christian spirituality and Christian doctrine that is in keeping with what Scripture teaches.

Stephen Presley (16:58):

And, you know, the early church at times may have had occasionally some of these challenges, but not the wholesale Christendom and the loss of Christendom. And the second, I think, is going to be a challenge faced by our pastors. And that is, as we lose institutions, as the church dwindles, our pastors are going to end up facing loss of…a changing nature of the church. Churches not necessarily as big. And pastors having to walk closely with people through this kind of a transition. So it’s going to become even more challenging, I think, for some of our pastors. Pastors feeling difficulty and stress in trying to guide their people and help their people grieve some of these loss of institutions, loss of churches, loss of those attending. I think those are real challenges that seem to be even more complex than what the early church was facing. I don’t think there’s a difference in kind, maybe more of a difference of degree, and then a difference of kind of dealing with some of those things that I mentioned.

Brian Arnold (18:02):

I think that’s a very helpful way to conceptualize that challenge. It’s one thing to never have it—if you’re Tertullian writing at the end of the second, early third century, and Christians have no idea what it’s like to have any political influence. All they’re trying to do is stop dying, right? Through persecution or at least being alienated. But now people are going from a place of—it used to be respectable that I was an elder in a church. Now people in the workplace are looking at me with suspicion. And I don’t see a lot of Christians handling this well. That high level anxiety, the fear and the panic, and then the anger. And one of the things I’ve said to a lot of Christians recently that seems to have impacted them is the reason why there’s so much anger coming out of their hearts.

Brian Arnold (18:47):

And the vitriol—is fear. They’re afraid of what they’re losing. And I don’t think this is always a bad thing. They are concerned about their children and grandchildren. And the world that they’re growing up in is going to be harder for them to be faithful Christians, to have that “patient fermenting” that you mentioned before. So what would you say is even kind of the goal? So what was…what did the early church want as they engaged culture, and what would you say to pastors who might be listening, to say—this is the goal. If we’re going to culturally engage now, here’s what we want.

Stephen Presley (19:21):

I think it begins, first and foremost, inside the church. This is an essential thing I notice, just studying the early church, is catechesis discipleship. Early Christian engagement inside the walls of the church. A longer period of teaching the faith, both doctrine and morality, to new believers. I mean, you know, the work of The Apostolic Tradition, which records three years of catechesis before baptism. And I’m not necessarily advocating for three years, but clearly Irenaeus talks about—several of the Fathers talk about—an extended period of discipleship, prior to baptism.

Brian Arnold (20:02):

I think that would blow people’s mind today. You know—three years. I have to learn the faith for three years before I’m in? Can’t I just do like a three hour class with the pastor?

Stephen Presley (20:11):

 <laugh> Yeah. I mean, it’s funny—oftentimes when I teach in class, or when I read that text with some people in church, they are just completely blown away that there would be such an extensive period. But the church understood, you know, quality of conversion, quality of commitment matters over more than quantity. We want people who believe the faith. I see, you know, some of the movements of theological institutes in churches and in other places popping up. I think that is a natural reaction to the cultural moment, that in some ways mirrors what was happening in the longer developments of catechesis in the early church. We start with discipleship.

Brian Arnold (20:55):

I think that’s really helpful, because I see these popping up as well. And I think they’re a fantastic way to train people. And people are hungry. Especially the less they know coming in, and then they get introduced to Jesus, and the Bible is new to them, and they’re just devouring it. And they want catechesis. They want to be trained in the doctrines of the faith, which I’m going to have to say this obligatorily as a seminary president—it’s a wonderful thing to do, to train your lay people in the church. Pastors still need to be trained at a seminary, where they can go a little bit deeper into the languages and history and theology. So not a replacement. I know you’re not saying that, but I just have to get that word in, I feel like <laugh>.

Stephen Presley (21:34):

Yeah. And so, I mean, I think it starts inside the church, but then the reality we face—and you think about this in the early church—they walk out their doors and they enter the world. And you have several works. Tertullian’s work On Idolatry, or Hippolytus has another work On The Apostolic Tradition that…it just very practically works through what kind of jobs you have now, because your spirituality intersects with everything you do. And so, Tertullian talks about how to be an artist without worshiping idols, and it really gets into both the spiritual life and the intellectual response. I call this a cultural discernment that we help our people cultivate as they slowly and steadily evaluate the culture in which we live, the mores, and the virtues, or the vices that are embedded in them, and then decide how we interact with those kinds of things. And that is the external portion that we need to begin to think about. It’s already happening all around us, almost implicitly, because of where we find ourselves. But it is a process through which we discern how our spiritual lives intersect with our work, our entertainment, our lives, all the things that we do. And I see that going on in the early church.

Brian Arnold (22:59):

Well, I think that’s a…it’s a great place to kind of transition, as we’re landing here, is works that might be helpful. Because I know there’s probably some people listening who think—I’ve heard these names, I can’t pronounce Tertullian, Hippolytus, you know, and it’s going to make these works feel inaccessible to them. And it just reminds me of C.S. Lewis in his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, saying—read these old books. Avoid what he called “chronological snobbery,” just reading modern things. But the reason why the ancients are classics is because they’re so accessible. So can you just give a handful of titles that somebody listening, to wonder how they might culturally engage better today, and they want to read some of the Fathers? What are the 2, 3, 4 places you’d send them to?

Stephen Presley (23:42):

Yeah, I would, I would read, first of all, Irenaeus’s Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching. I’ve got to put a plug for Irenaeus.

Brian Arnold (23:48):

Of course you do. Absolutely. And I would agree—that’s a great book. Yes.

Stephen Presley (23:52):

I mean, it gives you a biblical theology and emphasizes catechesis. Tertullian’s Apology is great. I think it’s one of his best works. And it’s a pretty straightforward read, and gives you kind of a taste of what it means to defend the faith in the ancient world.

Brian Arnold (24:08):

And he’s fun. Just so people know, like—he’s spicy. He’s like the Martin Luther of the ancient church. Yeah, that’s great.

Stephen Presley (24:14):

He is spicy. That’s great. Yes, absolutely. And then Justin—Justin’s First and Second Apology, I think are…and the Epistle of Diognetus. Those maybe four. If you’re really ambitious, if you’re really ambitious, Augustine’s City of God is kind of the full-flowering of the defense of the faith against paganism. The first half is…

Brian Arnold (24:34):

Absolutely

Stephen Presley (24:35):

Good sampling. Yeah.

Brian Arnold (24:36):

Absolutely. I think those are tremendous resources. I would recommend the same. And I hope people will dive into it. And I hope when your book comes out, many people…I know I’ll find it very helpful. I’ll pass it out like candy to as many people as I can, because we need better thinking about cultural engagement. And we have three centuries in the early church of them having to do this in a culture that’s quickly becoming ours. So Dr. Presley, thank you so much for joining us today and giving this tremendous entryway into the Fathers.

Stephen Presley (25:06):

Thank you so much. Really good to be with you. Appreciate it.

Brian Arnold (25:09):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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