Reading through Augustine’s The Confessions, I encountered in Book VIII this interesting example of fourth century argument from one who wished to remain spiritual but not religious.
Victorinus was in the habit of reading holy scriptures and intensively studying all the Christian writings, which he subjected to close scrutiny; and he would say to Simplicianus, not openly but in private, intimate conversation, “I am already a Christian, you know.” But the other always replied, “I will not believe that nor count you among Christians, until I see you in Christ’s Church.” Victorinus would chaff him: “It’s the walls that make Christians, then?” He would often talk like this, claiming that he was a Christian. Simplicianus often responded the same way, and Victorinus would frequently repeat his joke about walls.
Augustine goes one to recount that Victornius was afraid of upsetting his pagan friends who would be outraged if Victornius were to make public profession of his faith.
It is a reminder to me that leaving our homes and gathering in a public place to worship is not an inconsequential act. In our more and more secular culture, it might even be approaching the level of witness.
I hear people make the joke of Victorinus even today, often thinking they have discovered a clever new insight. I know men — more often men than women — who argue that they do not need to go to church to have a relationship with Jesus. I hear folks scoff at the notion of church walls being somehow important to being a Christian. And, of course, even in Victorinus’ case it was not really the walls. It was the community.
Augustine recounts the day Victorinus turned to his friend and asked him to go with him to church, because Victorinus wanted to be a Christian. Victorinus was enrolled in the catechumenate and eventually was ready for baptism. He climbed a platform in the presence of the entire church and professed his faith by reciting from memory the creed that had been given to him by the church.
In the fourth century they knew the objections and jokes that so any of us make today. They understood the public and communal nature of our faith. And when one pagan sinner stood up among them and said “Credo” they embraced him with joy.