What Is So Important about the Second Century? A Preview of My New Book

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

May 16, 2017

Due out this Summer (hopefully by July) is my latest book: Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (London: SPCK/IVP Academic, 2017).

For some, the rationale for a book on the second century is quite obvious.  But others may wonder, “What is so important about the second century anyway?”

So, just a few quick thoughts on why I wrote this book:

1. It fits with my prior research.  For those who are familiar with my earlier books and articles, it is evident that my primary areas of research – NT canon, apocryphal gospels, transmission of the NT text, the battles over heresy and orthodoxy – all seem to play out largely (or perhaps most critically) in the second century. So, this current volume is an extension of what I have already been doing.

2. There’s a gap in scholarship on the second century.  Despite the importance of the second century for the development of early Christianity (more on this below), it has arguably received the least attention from modern scholars. Christianity in the first century, of course, has been extensively studied, primarily through the lens of the New Testament writings themselves, our earliest Christian texts. And the third and fourth centuries (and beyond) have generated quite a bit of scholarly attention because, by that time, Christianity’s presence and influence was on the rise.

But the second century, bracketed by these two well-known periods of Church history, has been all too easily overlooked. As Everett Ferguson observed, ‘In spite of its importance, the second century is a period inadequately understood in its own right. It might even be said to have been a neglected period.’

3. The church was at a serious crossroads in the second century.   This time period marks the first time that early Christianity found itself without the guidance of the apostles and facing a number of serious challenges:

  • Second-century Christians were enduring a significant sociological transition (or a transition in their identity) as Judaism and Christianity were beginning to be viewed as largely distinct.
  • Second-century Christians were facing a cultural-political transition as they encountered an ever-more-hostile Roman government who viewed their movement as a serious threat to the social and political stability of the empire.
  • Second-century Christians were facing an ecclesiological transition as the church moved towards a more formal episcopal-style leadership structure.
  • Second-century Christians were facing a serious doctrinal-theological transition as the debates over “heresy” and “orthodoxy” reached a fever pitch.
  • Second-century Christians were facing a canonical-textual transition as they wrote books in great numbers and also began to recognize those books they regarded as Scripture.

4.  The second century has much to teach the modern churchMy research about what second-century Christians were like, and the opposition they received, made me see that there is much more in common between the second-century Church and the twenty-first century Church (at least in the Western world) than I originally thought.

It is hard to miss the fact that Christianity in the modern Western world has lost considerable cultural influence over the last generation and is now facing ever-increasing social and legal pressures.While certainly not comparable to the pressures faced by second-century Christians, the modern Church is being seen more and more as a threat to the social stability of modern society – similar to the way the second-century Church was viewed by the Roman elites.

And, at least in this way, there is much that the modern Church can learn from our second-century counterparts. If nothing else, we need to learn (again) what it means to be the Church when we lack social or political standing. And that is something that, sadly, has been largely forgotten.

So, there is a quick overview of why I wrote the book and what I hope it accomplishes.  I hope you will check it out when it is released this Summer!

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