By B. Dwain Waldrep

From its earliest stages of development, Christianity suffered internal attacks from false teachers and external attacks from Jewish nonbelievers, pagans, and the Roman government.  The Apostles set precedents in defending the faith and warned Christian leaders about future threats that would require diligent responses from them to maintain the purity of the gospel message, to sustain their congregations, and to successfully fulfill the Lord’s Great Commission to make disciples throughout the earth.  Christians in the modern western world face an array of threats from our post-Christian society that is shaped by both modernism, still alive and well, and postmodernism.  These threats demand from us the same vigilant defense of the faith that the Apostles required of early Christian leaders.  Since ancient Christianity existed within a culture that bears striking similarities to our own society, we can find encouragement and instruction for our apologetic responsibilities by observing several leaders within the ancient Church who took up the challenge of guarding the Gospel’s integrity and protecting the saints.

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr was the leading figure among those who took up this challenge in the second century.  Justin was born to pagan Greek parents around A.D. 100 in the Roman colony of Flavia Neapolis in Palestine.  Attracted to philosophy, he traveled to Ephesus and eventually settled upon a Platonist teacher whose philosophy seemed best suited to help him discover ultimate truth.  Justin’s search for a source that would lead him to knowledge of ultimate truth reached its conclusion after a chance meeting with an old man who informed him that Israel’s prophets knew more about the truth than the philosophers.  Intrigued by the old man’s words, Justin read the prophets, came to love them, and converted to Christianity.[i]  He did not abandon philosophy but rather saw Christianity as a type of philosophy, and he considered himself a Christian philosopher.  Following the tradition of philosophical teachers, Justin established a school in Rome around A.D. 150 to teach Christianity.

Justin’s education and chosen vocation uniquely prepared him to refute the moral and intellectual charges being made against Christianity.  Intellectuals, whose ideas were shaped by Platonic views about God and the immortality of the soul and by Roman policies on religion, rejected Christian belief in the incarnation, physical resurrection, and the afterlife.  They viewed Christians as atheists because of their refusal to honor Rome’s gods and because they followed a religion rejected by the state.  Less thoughtful citizens, misled by Christian’s calling one another “brother” and “sister” and by phrases related to gatherings where the Lord’s Supper was observed, “love feast” and “eating and drinking the blood of Christ,” believed Christians were involved in incestuous orgies, murder, and cannibalism.

In his defense of the faith, Justin initiated the tradition of Christian dialogue with rival worldviews.  He challenged the prevailing Platonic Stoicism that made so many intellectuals disdainful of Christianity with an intriguing apologetic shaped by Christ’s identification as the Logos, the Word of God.  Educated pagans believed that the Logos or “divine reason” served as an impersonal, instrumental intermediary between God and the world and was responsible for its rational order.  Justin identified the Logos as Christ, a person who created and providentially rules over creation.  Justin built a bridge between Christianity and human philosophy and culture by arguing that all truth and genuine wisdom are rooted in the creating and ruling activity of the Logos, the Christ, who recently assumed manhood in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Creation exhibits rationality and humans are rational because both share in the divine Logos.  Thus, pagan philosophers are capable of discovering and developing some insight into God’s truth, but their knowledge must be supplemented by Scripture for full truth to be known.

Justin identified a point of contact with the worldview of his day, acknowledged the truth imbedded within it, and sought to draw educated Roman citizens beyond it toward Christianity by presenting Christian truth as the completion or fulfillment of pagan philosophical thought.  In apologies written to the emperor Antoninus Pius and to the Roman Senate, and in other works, he refuted moral charges against Christians and defended Christianity’s rationality.  He also engaged in oral debates with philosophical opponents, including the Cynic Crescens, who, after losing a debate with Justin, brought charges against him that led to Justin’s execution around A.D. 167.

Irenaeus

Irenaeus of Lyon also took up the challenge to defend Christianity and the saints, but did so more from a pastoral than an intellectual milieu.  Irenaeus was born around A.D. 120 to Christian parents living in Asia Minor.  He was tutored in the faith by Bishop Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John.  Irenaeus later went to Lyons on the Rhone River in Gaul (France) to serve as a presbyter among Christian immigrants from his homeland.  He traveled to Italy in A.D. 177 to protest the heretical teaching being brought into Gaul from Rome.  In his absence, Bishop Pothinus was killed in a persecution unleashed by Marcus Aurelius against Christians in the Rhone Valley.  Irenaeus, now the new bishop, devoted himself to combating Gnosticism, a heresy he had discovered in Rome and, upon his return to Lyon, found among Christians in the Rhone Valley.

Irenaeus was the first significant Christian leader to analyze and refute Gnosticism, a diverse movement adhering to a mixture of Platonism, Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern religious influences.  It posed a major threat to orthodoxy in the second and third centuries, and has reemerged with a vengeance in our own day.  Gnosticism holds that matter is evil.  Thus, a lower god created the material realm, the incarnation is unthinkable, and the idea of bodily resurrection is blasphemous.  “Salvation” comes through shedding the flesh and returning to the spiritual realm of the High God using secret knowledge passed by Jesus to certain apostles.  In his five-volume work Against Heresies, Irenaeus used logic, Scriptural exegesis, and his connection with the Apostle John through Polycarp to refute Gnosticism.  He argued for the existence of one God, one plan of salvation, and one Church, and established apostolic succession for bishops as a test of authenticity for their ministry and doctrine.  His labors contributed significantly to Gnosticism’s decline among Christians.  After serving as a faithful shepherd of the sheep for a quarter of a century, Irenaeus died in A.D. 202 in another wave of persecution against Christians in Lyons.

Tertullian

In general, Eastern apologists followed Justin Martyr in integrating Christian theology with perceived truths in pagan philosophies.  Tertullian, the first Latin theologian, established an opposing Christian tradition that saw little value and much danger in utilizing pagan philosophy to explain and defend Christian truth.  Tertullian was born around A.D. 150 in Carthage in North Africa, where he obtained an excellent education and became a lawyer.  He converted to Christianity about A.D. 190, diligently studied Scripture, and soon began using his legal training and theological knowledge to defend Christianity.

Tertullian believed that all truth, regardless of source, is God’s truth, but he thought humans were too easily seduced and led astray by philosophical subtleties.  “What indeed,” he asked, “has Athens to do with Jerusalem.”[i]  He saw philosophy as Christianity’s competitor and the ultimate source of all heresy.  Protection against its influence, according to Tertullian, lay in adherence to the “rule of faith,” the teachings Christ entrusted to the apostles and that was passed on to leaders in apostolically-founded churches.  Essential doctrines are imbedded in that oral tradition, which should be used in interpreting Scripture to unmask false interpretations.

In addition to prescribing the “rule of faith” as an immunization against heresies, Tertullian wrote numerous works opposing heresies taught by Christian teachers in Rome.  Against Praxeas, the most important of his treatises, made a significant contribution to Christian concepts of God, including introducing the words “Trinity” and “persons” in relation to God.  Praxeas argued that God is one person who manifests Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Tertullian labeled this doctrine Patripassianism, the “suffering of the Father.”  It would later be called Modalism, expressing the idea of three modes of existence for one person.  In response, Tertullian formulated the view that the Godhead is “one substance consisting in three persons.”[ii]  He also applied this insight to Christ and stated that He is one Person with two substances or natures, deity and humanity.  Thus, heresy, as in this case, can be responsible for a fuller understanding of divine revelation.  Tradition teaches that Tertullian lived into old age and nothing is known about the nature of his death.

Origen

North Africa was also home to Christianity’s first systematic theologian and the most brilliant scholar of his day, Origen of Alexandria.  Origen was born around A.D. 185.  He received a first-rate education, part of it in the Alexandria’s catechetical school operated by Clement of Alexandria, who strove to demonstrate the intellectual credibility of Christianity in opposition to Gnosticism, which flourished in the city.  At the age of eighteen, Origen’s intellectual abilities earned him an invitation from Bishop Demetrius to become head of the catechetical school after Clement abandoned it to escape a wave of persecution in A.D. 202-203 that took Origen’s father’s life.

 First Principles, one of Origen’s earlier works and the first systematic presentation of Christian doctrine, was produced as a bulwark against heresy in general but particularly against Gnosticism.  Using the “rule of faith” as a foundation, he attempted to demonstrate that the Christian worldview encompassed, corrected, and completed human religious and philosophical beliefs.  This work far surpassed previous attempts to forge a synthesis of Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy.  But, as Tertullian feared, such attempts at speculative thought could lead one astray into false beliefs such as Origen’s doctrine of the preexistence of human souls, their fall into sin prior to entrance into the material world, and the possibility of universal salvation.

Origen’s rising fame as a Christian teacher and author generated invitations to assist churches in their struggles with Gnostic teachers.  Due to disagreements with Bishop Demetrius, Origen moved to Caesarea in Palestine in A.D. 232, where he was ordained by Bishop Theoctistus.  With the full support of local bishops, he opened a catechetical school in Caesarea and offered an advanced course in Christian philosophy.  Origen’s fame was significantly enhanced in the mid-third century when he replied to a far ranging attack against Christianity by Celsus, a second-century, learned Platonist.  Origen used Scripture, historical fulfillment of prophecy, and philosophical arguments in his point-by-point response to Celsus’ case, successfully defending such doctrines as Christ’s deity, His incarnation and resurrection, and the future resurrection of the saints.  Against Celsus was his last major work.  Origen was arrested and tortured during the Decian persecution but refused to recant his faith.  He was released in A.D. 253 and died the following year.

Conclusion

A brief excursion into the lives of the key apologists of the Ante-Nicene Church reveals that frontline apologetics was undertaken by both pastors and professional scholars.  That each of them possessed an excellent education explains the quality and long-lasting value of their work.  Their ability to recognize, critically analyze, and effectively respond to legal, religious, and philosophical threats to Christianity stemmed from their knowledge of both their surrounding cultures and Christian truth.  The Church will always need such intellectual leadership, but never more than today, when Christians face subtle and not-so-subtle hazards from the same religious and philosophical pluralism faced by leaders like Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origin.

 

B. Dwain Waldrep is Professor of History at Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham, Alabama.

 

NOTES

[1] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 4.

[2] Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 7.

[3] Against Praxeas 2.