Spring 2014

The Witness of the Martyrs in the Early Church

Paolo Prosperi

“[T]he martyr becomes truly a living image of the trinitarian truth revealed in and through the love of the Cross.”

It has been almost sixty years since the publication of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book Cordula oder der Ernstfall, translated into English under the title The Moment of Christian Witness.1 The main argument of the book could be synthesized in the following way: martyrdom, as a loving response of faith to Christ’s love unto death “for me” (Gal 2:20), is the decisive moment and measuring “canon” of Christian witness, more than (although inseparable from) “love of neighbor” simply.2 Independent from the occasional casus belli of the work—providing a response to Rahner’s theory of “anonymous Christianity”—the central question on which Balthasar reflects in Cordula is no less pertinent today than fifty years ago. If we ask, “What is Christian witness?” we could say something like, “The main object of Christian witness is the revelation of God’s love in Christ. Therefore the two privileged ways of bearing witness to Christ in the world are the preaching of the good news, and active love (agape) of neighbor, with all it includes.” This answer, which says of course nothing substantially new, finds further magisterial support today3 in the emphasis of the strong inherent connection between revealed truth and the mystery of the divine tri-personal communion of Love, in which through Christ the believer comes to share. This does not entail in principle any denial of the importance of dogmatic “truths.” And yet it does entail the affirmation that love, or agape, is what stands at the beginning (Jesus Christ) and at the end (the trinitarian Mystery) of the Christian understanding of truth. If it is true that Deus caritas est,4 then to bear witness to God’s truth should mean ultimately nothing else than this: to love our fellow man as (kathos: cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12) God loved us in and through Christ.5 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35, emphasis mine).

The identification of the fundamental witness of the Christian with active agape for one’s brother could not be better captured than in these last words of Jesus. It remains however open to the question: To what does the Johannine “as” (kathos) exactly point? How does Jesus love us? A second related question: If it is true that the disciple’s love for his brother coincides with the expression of his love for his Master (Jn 14:15, 21, 23), is it not also true that the two things are explicitly put by Jesus in a precise hierarchy? Christ says to Peter: “Peter, Son of John, do you love me? . . . Tend my sheep” (cf. also Jn 21:17–18). We return in this way to the central question of Cordula: How are we to conceive the relation between the believer’s zeal for Christ and the love for his neighbor?

In the context of today’s increasingly liberal and pluralistic culture, and also in light of the dramatic increase of the persecution of Christians in the world, this question could be perhaps re-framed in the following terms: How are the love of the truth (love for Christ) and the truth of love (kata Christon, according to Christ) related to each other?

In the following pages, we will try to address this question in light of the witness of the early (pre-Constantinian) Church.


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1. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Moment of Christian Witness (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1994); original edition in German: Cordula oder der Ernstfall (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1966).

2. “[P]ersecution constitutes the normal condition of the Church in her relation to the world, and martyrdom is the normal condition of the professed Christian. . . . [M]artyrdom reveals that such a faith, founded on the Crucifixion of Christ and imparted by grace to his followers, is already real and existent. . . . The death of Christ is for us the opening up of the glory of divine love, and to understand our position as believers [re: the ‘cross’] in the light of this death means to interpret our position as arising not from a marginal or borderline situation, but from the absolute center of reality” (ibid., 21, 23, 27–28, emphasis added).

3. Emblematic in this respect is the encyclical Lumen fidei (cf. especially 8–22, 47–49). Cf. also Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est.

4. “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. . . . No man has ever seen God: if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn 4:7–16). With his typical circular way of reasoning, John puts here in evidence the reciprocal causality between one’s knowledge of God’s love and one’s assimilation to/participation in this love (cf. also Jn 17:20–26): only those who love as Christ did can say they “know God” (1 Jn 2:3–6; 1 Jn 4:7–8, etc.) and are “in the light” (1 Jn 2:10), because agape and the glory of God revealed through Christ (Jn 1:18) are ultimately the same thing (Jn 17:21–23, 26). Agape is in this way the “ultimate truth” in a double sense: First, because it says what Christ manifests about God: the mystery of his love for us and the even deeper mystery of the life of trinitarian love that God is in himself and in which the first is rooted. Second, agape is ultimate also and consequently as the very content of the divine life that through the grace of adoption believers are given to share. On the Johannine theology of agape, cf. André Feuillet, Le mystère de l’amour divin dans la théologie johannique (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1972).

5. Cf. Gal 5:14; Rm 13:8–10; 1 Jn 4:20.

6. Interestingly, in the Johannine writings the commanded love seems to be addressed exclusively to those who share in the same faith (cf. Jn 13:13–17, 34–35; 15:9–17; 1 Jn 4:7–16, 19–21). The reason for this does not lie in a supposed Johannine “sectarianism,” as evident in the above quoted passage, but rather in the Johannine conception of the inner “trinitarian” structure of the diffusion of agape itself: only through abiding in a dynamic unity of radical love for each other do the disciples bear witness to the world (cf. Jn 15:12–16) in a participatory analogy with the fruitful display of Jesus’ and the Father’s reciprocal glorification in the Paschal Mystery (Jn 17:1–3, 21–23).