Drawing Indoors the Line of Division

by Doru Costache

Second century Christians faced external pressures that largely related to their self-representation. They defined themselves as bearers of divine wisdom and citizens of God’s kingdom, refusing assimilation with other religious groups. According to Diog. 1, being a “new race,” Christians followed a different way of life, not defined by blood, ethnicity, language, and culture. They were consequently perceived by all as foreigners, a challenge to the imperial establishment and to everyone. Conflict seemed unavoidable. However, the anonymous letter presents a complex understanding of the “new race,” as different from yet immanent to any given context. Its fifth chapter is of particular relevance here, which depicts the trials of Christians living in a hostile world. It is on this chapter and its context that I focus in what follows. In short, the chapter sketches the contours of an outdoors tension between Christians and non-Christians, which it undertakes to dismantle by persuading the opponents that difference should not be construed as antagonism.

Scholars believe that later Christians totally ignored Diog. Echoing this view, Ehrman affirms that it was “never mentioned, let alone cited, by any of the church Fathers.” True, explicit references to this writing are missing. That said, I contest the established opinion on grounds of the striking similarities between the fifth chapter of Diog. and a fourth century anonymous work attributed to Macarius the Great, Spiritual Homilies, particularly the fifth one in this collection. Either through direct or indirect borrowing, the fifth Macarian homily rehearses Diognetian images and vocabulary, but with a twist: it renders the external tension of the letter as occurring within the Christian household—indoors, as it were. In addition, it presents the two concerned parties in a seemingly sharper contrast than Diog. did.

My aim is to bring to the fore how the outdoors second century line of division has become an indoors matter in the fourth century. In so doing, I bring a corrective to the established view by proving that Diog. was not altogether forgotten within tradition.

An Outdoors Conflict

Diog. formulates the Christian condition paradoxically: “Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world.” This line summarises the message of the entire letter, suggesting that Christians are not easy to define. Since they “dwell in the world,” Christians are not unlocalised and antisocial. However, since they “are not of the world,” theirs differ from the beliefs and customs of the opponents. In what follows I consider both aspects of this paradoxical situation.

Diog. undertakes to ease the tension, maintaining that Christians are not against the world, society, and culture; not by default anyway. They do not cultivate the fact of being different, at least regarding the external aspects of life. As we read,

Christians do not differ from the rest of people by land, or language, or their habits. For nowhere do they dwell in cities of their own, nor do they employ some unusual language, nor do they practice a strange lifestyle.

To affirm Christian identity is not a matter of abandoning culture and society in order to build an ideal world. The above excerpt shows that Christians participate in all the outward aspects of everyday life together with their compatriots. And so, as “followers of the local customs,” they are immanent to their context, sharing in its language and culture. According to Judith Lieu, for Diog. “social separation is not a Christian characteristic.” And in fact the letter emphasises that Christians’ lifestyle remains unseen to the outsiders, hidden like the soul within a body. This means that Christianity is first and foremost an interiorised commitment to Christ, not an antagonising display of differences. That said, their immanence to the world does not mean complete homogenisation:

Whereas they [i.e. Christians] live in either Greek or barbarian cities, depending on their lot, and follow the local customs in regards to clothing, food, and the other aspects of life, they display, however, an astonishing and admittedly paradoxical condition of their way of life.

Alongside the reassuring reference to Christians’ neighbourly adjustment, Diog. points out that Christian identity remains irreducible to the broader context. What differentiates Christians are, indeed, not external features such as food, clothing, and customs, but the motivations behind Christian polity are nevertheless strange and unique. The outlines of a tension emerge. The “mystery” of Christian reverence differs from the “idle pursuit and arrogance of the Jews.” Similarly, Diog. contrasts the pagan lifestyle, “the thought and teaching of people burdened by many worries,” and the Christian ethos which draws on a divine source, Christ the Logos, not “human opinion.”

Corresponding to its divine source, Christian polity is theologically conditioned and as such transcends any given framework. Thence the paradox: Christians are geographically, historically, and culturally localised, but their mindset and lifestyle are not bound by the categories of space, time, ethnicity, culture, and language. According to Henri-Irénée Marrou, “the status of Christians in the world entails a synthesis of immanence and transcendence.” Christians are, like God, above any narrow frame of reference—there and nowhere, unlocalised and cosmopolitan. This strange condition has to do with their mode of being. As Ioan Ică Jr summarises the message of Diog.,

The difference between them [i.e. Christians] and the world rests on modality and not on spatiality or temporality; therefore it depends on the tropos not on the topos or the chronos. Christians are [located] neither elsewhere nor in another time. They actualise their status of God’s children through grace neither beyond here nor in the future, but in the here and now, albeit behaving in a different way from all others.

According to Ică, Diog. proposes a balance between localisation and difference, detachment from and involvement with the context—a situation which can be properly understood only in existential and/or behavioural terms. Christians “reside on earth but live [as though] in heaven.” On this note, I turn to the aspect of difference. The existential strangeness of Christians transpires through a cluster of paradoxes. Diog. offers several such examples:

Although living in their countries, they are like foreigners. They participate in everything as citizens but endure all things as strangers. Any foreign country is theirs and any homeland foreign.

Paraphrasing Lieu’s words, Christians appeared as crucified between their “internal self-identity” and the “external, observed identity.” This status of being-there-but-not-belonging-anywhere, observes Georges Florovsky, echoes the words of the Lord in John 8:23 and 17:14-6, and other scriptural passages, such as 2 Corinthians 6:9-10. According to R. G. Tanner, there are obvious here, likewise, reverberations of the Stoic “universal world society” and the Epicurean need to “live in hiding”—two classical standpoints situated at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Whether scriptural or philosophical, or rather both, this depiction points to a dramatic tension which originates in Christians’ sense of difference from their context.

Diog. reasserts the difference in ethical terms that evoke the common charges of licentiousness levelled at Christians by their opponents. “Dwelling in the flesh but not living according to the flesh,” Christians marry and have children like all do, yet they neither destroy their offspring nor share their spouses. Their participation in the natural rhythms of life does not preclude Christians from fully affirming their identity—despite they being misunderstood, marginalised, and even persecuted and put to death because of their strangeness. Throughout Diog., the paradoxical status of Christian identity is inextricably linked to martyrdom. The conflict is obviously present, but according to the letter it is only inadvertently and indirectly triggered by Christians, given their faithfulness to a different ethos. As they do not seek to affirm their difference, they never retaliate either. Instead, they “love everybody although they are persecuted by all,” and “do good whilst they are punished as evildoers.” The author reflects further on this positive attitude in ch. 6, where s/he develops the celebrated analogy of Christians as the soul of the world.

Before moving to Ps.-Macarius’ Fifth Spiritual Homily, I must briefly consider Lieu’s understanding of the paradoxical condition of Christians in Diog.

Lieu discerns two nuances entailed in the Diognetian representation of Christian identity. There is the “internal self-identity, clearly defined and separate” and the “external, observed identity,” denoting “a lack of visible differentiation.” Both aspects pertain to a “highly articulated meta-identity,” which incorporates Jewish and Gentile elements. Christian identity builds by inclusion, amounting to a cultural syncretism that does not leave much room for originality or, as the author of Diog. prefers, newness.

Lieu’s interpretation is partly acceptable, in that the Jewish and Gentile origin of certain Christian traits is unmistakeable. But her interpretation cannot account for the attacks of both Jews and Gentiles on Christians. Neither does it provide an explanation for Diognetus’ contrast between Christians and other traditions. Lieu’s reduction of “meta-identity” to inclusivity does not truthfully represent the concerns of the author. Labouring to affirm Christian distinctiveness and superiority to preexistent lifestyles, Diog. does not favour inclusivity. Ultimately, Diognetian “meta-identity” amounts to affirming Christianity’s newness and freedom from the cultural features presupposed by its localisation. Yes, Christian identity includes, but it likewise surpasses neighbourly parameters, for instance in the clear affirmation of loving the oppressors. For Diog., Christians shared in the space, language, and culture of their compatriots, but their ultimate point of reference was not of this world. The parties being incommensurable, there was no cause for conflict.

An Indoors Conflict

The fifth homily in the collection of Macarian spiritual writings rehearses the topic and phraseology of Diog. in a very original way, interiorising the conflict.

Following Diog., the homily contrasts the vain thoughts of worldly people and the ethos of Christians who, guided by their “fellowship and participation in the Holy Spirit,” “abide in a heavenly mindset” and “gaze upon eternal goods.” The reference to Christians “abiding in a heavenly mindset” echoes the Diognetian theme of “living [as though] in heaven.” The Diognatian phrase, which rehashes Philippians 3:20, is in fact quoted by the homily of interest, little before the above lines, thus confirming its relation with Diog. This relation is not broken by the reference, within the homily, to the Spirit as the source of Christianity’s ethos, instead of the Diognetian Logos. The idea remains the same: Christians draw on divine, not human wisdom. Like in the letter, this difference has an impact on lifestyle. As we read,

The world of Christians is different, [which means that] their behaviour, mindset, manner of speech, and activity happen to be different. Likewise, the behaviour, the mindset, the manner of speech, and activity of the people of this world are different.

It appears that Christians and “the people of this world” live in parallel universes, perhaps the former in an ivory tower of sorts. By referring to a “different world of Christians,” the homily diverges from the Diognetian standpoint that “Christians do not differ from the rest of people by land.” However, the “different world” of Christians, the passage shows further, refers to their worldview and ethos; it is a matter of existential variance, not separate topography. Another divergence from the Diognetian discourse is the reference to the Christians’ different “manner of speech,” whereas Diog. points out that “Christians do not differ from the rest of people by … language.” The “manner of speech” in the homily refers however to a distinguished use of language, not the adoption of an incomprehensible idiom. It goes the same for their dissimilar activities. Apart from these differences, overall the homily follows Diog. in depicting the paradox of Christians being indigenised without loss of their ethos. But the divide between Christians and the world is more emphatic here than in Diog., whose author wrote about a Christian minority, marginalised and persecuted.

Given the supposed timeframe of the homily’s redaction, namely, the Constantinian era when Christians gained political freedom, the above passage exhibits a surprising sharpness. Against what one may have expected within that political context, it draws an emphatic line between Christians and the world. In so doing, the homily echoes another manifestation of discontent during that age, the rise of monasticism as a mass phenomenon. The early monastic literature, with which I cannot concern myself here, indeed affirms a similar difference between ascetics and the world. The agreement of these sources is telling. For both, however, the world is no longer the pagan society. The world is the Christians who fuse with that society and its standards. Given this understanding of the world, it is obvious that the homily addresses a problem within Christianity itself. In a masterful turn and supposedly on behalf of a Christian, possibly ascetic, elite, the homily converts the manifesto of Diog. into a diatribe against fellow Christians. Several paragraphs later, we read:

Although, like those of the world, the crowds [believe that] the difference and distinction refers to forms and signs, the strangeness of Christians does not consist in outward forms and signs.

The internal polarisation is obvious. Christian “crowds” adopt a worldly cast of mind. In the light of this understanding, the passage, which echoes Diog. even more than the previous one, clarifies the statement concerning the “different world of Christians.” For a Macarian believer, since Christian strangeness “does not consist in outward forms and signs,” the “different world of Christians” refers to an interiorised reality, not a geographical location. To paraphrase Lieu once more, for a Macarian believer the “different world of Christians” refers to their “internal self-identity.” In turn, the “crowds” take it to signify a different space and its corresponding attributes—an “external, observed identity.” This is definitely no longer the Diognetian universe where Lieu’s categories represent the two sides of a coin. Here, they designate two different Christian groups, nurturing different understandings of the Christian ethos.

What we read within the above passage and its context is that, like the “people of this world” and not unlike the Jews of Diog., the Christian “crowds” are interested in “outward forms and signs.” Their identity, transferred from within into the open, amounts to religious formalism. For them, to be a Christian is about external distinctiveness. This being the case, then the diatribe against worldly Christians could be likewise aimed at the idiosyncratic monks of the second generation. If that were so, the homily adds to a chorus of accusations. The shallow adherence of later monks to the initial monastic manifesto is explicitly deplored by the alphabetic collection of Apophthegmata Patrum and Neilus’ Ascetic Discourse. By contrast, the interiorised ethos of Macarian believers embodies “their thinking and mindset of the soul, which abides in the peace of Christ and the love of the Spirit,” together with a state of “serenity, stability, and calm.” As they do not require an external distinctiveness from the world, to achieve holiness Macarian believers do not need to adopt the monastic habit either. Their spiritual identity is established through commitment to an internalised Gospel.

In short, the homily transfers intra muros the Diognetian polarity between Christians and non- Christians by drawing a line between true and false Christians—or true and false monks for that matter. The Macarian true Christian inherits the traits of Diognetus’ unqualified Christian, whereas the Diognetian non-Christian becomes the Macarian representation of the false Christian and pseudomorphic monk. The outdoors line of division in Diog. becomes in the homily an indoors partition—a move which very likely reflects the reaction of certain elitist milieus to the degradation recorded during the Constantinian age of Christian and monastic massification.

Apart from this variance of focus, the commonality of concerns and phraseology proves indisputably that the Macarian Fifth Spiritual Homily draws on Diog., directly or indirectly. In so doing, it proves that Diognetus as either text or message did not pass into oblivion, and that, on the contrary, its message continued to be the favourite way of expressing Christian identity, albeit not without a reinterpretation of its meaning. The complex approaches evidenced by this comparison anticipate the equally complex Augustinian articulation of similar concerns in the depiction of the two cities, which echoes these earlier sources, but with which I could not deal here.

Sources utilised

(All translations from French, Greek, and Romanian sources belong to me.)

Diognetus: The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2. Ed. and trans. Bart D. Ehrman. Loeb Classical Library 25. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2003: 130-58.

The Fifth Macarian Homily: Die 50 geistlichen Homilien des Makarios. Ed. Hermann Dörries, Erich Klostermann, and Matthias Krüger. Patristische Texte und Studien 4. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1964: 45-50.

Costache, Doru. ’Christianity and the World in the Letter to Diognetus: Inferences for Contemporary Ecclesial Experience.’ Phronema 27:1 (2012) 29-50.

Ică Jr., Ioan I. ‘Biserică, societate şi gândire în Răsărit, în Occident şi în Europa de azi’ in Gândirea Socială a Bisericii: Fundamente, Documente, Analize, Perspective. Ed. I. I. Ică Jr. and Germano Marani. Sibiu: Deisis, 2002: 17-54.

Lieu, Judith M. Neither Jew nor Greek? Constructing Early Christianity. London: T&T Clark, 2002: chapter eleven, 171-89.

Marrou, Henri-Irénée. ‘Commentaire’ in À Diognète, intro., éd. critique, trad. et comment. de H.-I. Marrou. Sources Chrétiennes 33. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1951: 87-268.


This is a shortened version, without references, of the paper presented for the APECSS 2017 Conference: Early Christian Responses to Conflict. Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, 22-24 September 2017. Paper’s original title was ‘Drawing Indoors the Line of Division: Letter to Diognetus and the Fifth Spiritual Homily.’

8 December 2017 © AIOCS