Timothy Keller: The Early Christian ‘Social Project’

In November we looked at two new books by scholar Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) and Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016). These volumes explain that the early Christians were persecuted more than any other religious group in the first three centuries because they refused to honor other gods or worship the emperor and therefore they were seen as too exclusive, too narrow, and a threat to the social order.

Hurtado asks the obvious question that a historian should ask. Why, if Christians were seen as so narrow and offensive and were excluded from circles of influence and business and often put to death — why did anyone become a Christian? One of the main reasons was that the Christian church was what Hurtado calls a unique “social project.”

They were a contrast community, a counter-culture that was both offensive and yet attractive to many. We mentioned this briefly in November, but here we will spell out what made the Christian community so different.

Hurtado points out that the basis for this unusual social project was the unique, new religious identity that Christians had. Before Christianity, there was no distinct “religious identity” because one’s religion was simply an aspect of one’s ethnic or national identity. If you were from this city, or from this tribe, or from this nation, you worshipped the gods of that city, tribe, or people. Your religion was basically assigned to you.

Christianity brought into human thought for the first time the concept that you chose your religion regardless of your race and class. Also, Christian-ity radically asserted that your faith in Christ became your new, deepest identity, while at the same time not effacing or wiping out your race, class, and gender. Instead, your relationship to Christ demoted them to second place. That meant that, to the shock of Roman society, all Christians, whether slave, free, or high born, or whatever their race and nationality, were now equal in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29). This was a radical challenge to the entrenched social structure and divisions of Roman society, and from it flowed several unique features….

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