Reading the writings of 1st and 2nd century Church apologists helps modern Christians in many ways –
- Helps us understand how Christians who knew the apostles or disciples of the apostles dealt with theological concerns in the Church as well as heresies and challenges from local and national governments
- Helps us understand what early Christian leaders believed was important to members of their churches
- Helps us understand how similar early heresies were to the heresies we face today
- Helps us understand how to respond to challenges from local and national governments
- Helps us dispel misconceptions about Christianity
- Helps us develop strategies for responding to modern heresies
- Helps us explain and demonstrate Christian faith and practice
- Helps us support other Christians in their lives and ministries
- Helps us understand how early Christians lived, worshipped, evangelized and discipled
- Helps us understand how important the Bible and prayer were to the early Christians and how important they are to us today
We are currently reading the writings of 2nd century Christian apologists, including –
- Clement of Rome (1st century)
- Ignatius of Antioch
- Polycarp of Smyrna
- Justin Martyr
- Irenaeus of Lyons
- Quadratus and Aristides of Athens
- Tertullian of Carthage
- Clement of Alexandria, Melito of Sardis and Athenagoras of Athens
We now look at several more apologists from that era. As you read about them and their writings, look for insights to defending the Christian worldview and reaching people for Christ today.
Theophilus of Antioch
Theophilus is believed to have pastored the church in Antioch during the latter half of the 2nd century AD. Jerome, Eusebius and other apologists and historians wrote about Theophilus as authoring several works against the heresies of his day. What we have available to read from Theophilus is three books to a man named Autolycus that he described as “an idolater and scorner of Christians.”
“A FLUENT tongue and an elegant style afford pleasure and such praise as vainglory delights in, to wretched men who have been corrupted in mind; the lover of truth does not give heed to ornamented speeches, but examines the real matter of the speech, what it is, and what kind it is. Since, then, my friend, you have assailed me with empty words, boasting of your gods of wood and stone, hammered and cast, carved and graven, which neither see nor hear, for they are idols, and the works of men’s hands; and since, besides, you call me a Christian, as if this were a damning name to bear, I, for my part, avow that I am a Christian, and bear this name beloved of God, hoping to be serviceable to God. For it is not the case, as you suppose, that the name of God is hard to bear; but possibly you entertain this opinion of God, because you are yourself yet unserviceable to Him.” Theophilus to Autolycus, Book I, Chapter I
“WHEN we had formerly some conversation, my very good friend Autolycus, and when you inquired who was my God, and for a little paid attention to my discourse, I made some explanations to you concerning my religion; and then having bid one another adieu, we went with much mutual friendliness each to his own house although at first you had home somewhat hard upon me. For you know and remember that you supposed our doctrine was foolishness. As you then afterwards urged me to do, I am desirous, though not educated to the art of speaking, of more accurately demonstrating, by means of this tractate, the vain labour and empty worship in which you are held; and I wish also, from a few of your own histories which you read, and perhaps do not yet quite understand, to make the truth plain to you.” Book II, Chapter I
Now we also confess that God exists, but that He is one, the creator, and maker, and fashioner of this universe; and we know that all things are arranged by His providence, but by Him alone. And we have learned a holy law; but we have as lawgiver Him who is really God, who teaches us to act righteously, and to be pious, and to do good. And concerning piety He says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I am the LORD thy God.” And of doing good He said: “Honour thy father and thy mother; that it may be well with thee, and that thy days may be long in the land which I the LORD God give thee.” Again, concerning righteousness: “Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, nor his land, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his beast of burden, nor any of his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s. Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of the poor in his cause. From every unjust matter keep thee far. The innocent and righteous thou shalt not slay; thou shalt not justify the wicked; and thou shalt not take a gift, for gifts blind the eyes of them that see and pervert righteous words.” Of this divine law, then, Moses, who also was God’s servant, was made the minister both to all the world, and chiefly to the Hebrews, who were also called Jews, whom an Egyptian king had in ancient days enslaved, and who were the righteous seed of godly and holy men–Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. God, being mindful of them, and doing marvellous and strange miracles by the hand of Moses, delivered them, and led them out of Egypt, leading them through what is called the desert; whom He also settled again in the land of Canaan, which afterwards was called Judaea, and gave them a law, and taught them these things. Of this great and wonderful law, which tends to all righteousness, the ten heads are such as we have already rehearsed.” Book III, Chapter IX
You can read the entire document by Theophilus here.
Polycrates of Ephesus
Historians believe that Polycrates was a 2nd century bishop of Ephesus and most likely knew Polycarp and Irenaeus. Polycrates may have presided over an important meeting of Asiatic bishops in 196 AD discussing the Paschal feast.
“As for us, then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest, who shall rise again in the day of the coming of the Lord, when He cometh with glory from heaven and shall raise again all the saints. I speak of Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who is laid to rest at Hierapolis; and his two daughters, who arrived at old age unmarried; his other daughter also, who passed her life under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and reposes at Ephesus; John, moreover, who reclined on the Lord’s bosom, and who became a priest wearing the mitre, and a witness and a teacher-he rests at Ephesus. Then there is Polycarp, both bishop and martyr at Smyrna; and Thraseas from Eumenia, both bishop and martyr, who rests at Smyrna. Why should I speak of Sagaris, bishop and martyr, who rests at Laodicea? of the blessed Papirius, moreover? and of Melito the eunuch, who performed all his actions under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and lies at Sardis, awaiting the visitation from heaven, when he shall rise again from the dead? These all kept the passover on the fourteenth. day of the month, in accordance with the Gospel, without ever deviating from it, but keeping to the rule of faith.
Moreover I also, Polycrates, who am the least of you all, in accordance with the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have succeeded-seven of my relatives were bishops, and I am the eighth, and my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven-I myself, brethren, I say, who am sixty-five years old in the Lord, and have fallen in with the brethren in all parts of the world, and have read through all Holy Scripture, am not frightened at the things which are said to terrify us. For those who are greater than I have said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” …
I might also have made mention of the bishops associated with me, whom it was your own desire to have called together by me, and I called them together: whose names, if I were to write them down, would amount to a great number. These bishops, on coming to see me, unworthy as I am, signified their united approval of the letter, knowing that I wore these grey hairs not in vain, but have always regulated my conduct in obedience to the Lord Jesus.” Epistle to Victor and the Roman Church, Fragment
Read about Polycrates of Ephesus here.
Dionysius of Corinth
Dionysius was bishop of Corinth during the latter part of the 2nd century. We know about him through the writings of Eusebius, who knew of a collection of several “Letters to the Churches,” along with letter to another bishop and a private letter of spiritual advice to a woman who had written him.
“For this has been your custom from the beginning, to do good to all the brethren in many ways, and to send alms to many Churches in different cities, now relieving the poverty of those who asked aid, now assisting the brethren in the mines by the alms you send, Romans keeping up the traditional custom of Romans, which your blessed bishop, Soter, has not only maintained, but has even increased, by affording to the brethren the abundance which he has supplied, and by comforting with blessed words the brethren who came to him, as a father his children.”
“You also by this instruction have mingled together the Romans and Corinthians who are the planting of Peter and Paul. For they both came to our Corinth and planted us, and taught alike; and alike going to Italy and teaching there, were martyred at the same time.”
“Today we have kept the holy Lord’s day, on which we have read your letter, which we shall ever possess to read and to be admonished, even as the former one written to us through Clement.”
Read about Dionysius of Corinth here.
Marcus Minucius Felix
Little is known about the personal history of Marcus Minucius Felix, but is believed to have lived during the latter half of the 2nd century and early part of the 3rd century AD. He, like Tertullian, was an early Latin apologist for Christianity. Jerome wrote of Felix as being a notable solicitor of Rome.
The writing we have from Felix is known as Octavius. It is a dialog about Christianity between a pagan and a Christian (Octavius).
“WHEN I consider and mentally review my remembrance of Octavius, my excellent and most faithful companion, the sweetness and charm of the man so clings to me, that I appear to myself in some sort as if I were returning to past times, and not merely recalling in my recollection things which have long since happened and gone by. Thus, in the degree in which the actual contemplation of him is withdrawn from my eyes, it is bound up in my heart and in my most intimate feelings. And it was not without reason that that remarkable and holy man, when he departed this life, left to me an unbounded regret for him, especially since he himself also glowed with such a love for me at all times, that, whether in matters of amusement or of business, he agreed with me in similarity of will, in either liking or disliking the same things. You would think that one mind had been shared between us two. Thus he alone was my confidant in my loves, my companion in my mistakes; and when, after the gloom had been dispersed, I emerged from the abyss of darkness into the light of wisdom and truth, he did not cast off his associate, but–what is more glorious still–he outstripped him. And thus, when my thoughts were traversing the entire period of our intimacy and friendship, the direction of my mind fixed itself chiefly on that discourse of his, wherein by very weighty arguments he converted Caecilius, who was still cleaving to superstitious vanities, to the true religion.” Octavius, Chapter I
“And thus Octavius began: “I will indeed speak as I shall be able to the best of my powers, and you must endeavour with me to dilute the very offensive strain of recriminations in the river of veracious words. Nor will I disguise in the outset, that the opinion of my friend Natalis has swayed to and fro in such an erratic, vague, and slippery manner, that we are compelled to doubt whether your information was confused, or whether it wavered backwards and forwards by mere mistake. For he varied at one time from believing the gods, at another time to being in a state of hesitation on the subject; so that the direct purpose of my reply was established with the greater uncertainty, by reason of the uncertainty of his proposition. But in my friend Natalis–I will not allow, I do not believe in, any chicanery–far from his simplicity is crafty trickery. What then? As he who knows not the right way, when as it happens one road is separated into many, because he knows not the way, remains in anxiety, and dares neither make choice of particular roads, nor try them all; so, if a man has no stedfast judgment of truth, even as his unbelieving suspicion is scattered, so his doubting opinion is unsettled. It is therefore no wonder if Caecilius in the same way is cast about by the tide, and tossed hither and thither among things contrary and repugnant to one another; but that this may no longer be the case, I will convict and refute all that has been said, however diverse, confirming and approving the truth alone; and for the future he must neither doubt nor waver. And since my brother broke out in such expressions as these, that he was grieved, that he was vexed, that he was indignant, that he regretted that illiterate, poor, unskilled people should dispute about heavenly things; let him know that all men are begotten alike, with a capacity and ability of reasoning and feeling, without preference of age, sex, or dignity. Nor do they obtain wisdom by fortune, but have it implanted by nature; moreover, the very philosophers themselves, or any others who have gone forth unto celebrity as discoverers of arts, before they attained an illustrious name by their mental skill, were esteemed plebeian, untaught, half-naked. Thus it is, that rich men, attached to their means, have been accustomed to gaze more upon their gold than upon heaven, while our sort of people, though poor, have both discovered wisdom, and have delivered their teaching to others; whence it appears that intelligence is not given to wealth, nor is gotten by study, but is begotten with the very formation of the mind. Therefore it is nothing to be angry or to be grieved about, though any one should inquire, should think, should utter his thoughts about divine things; since what is wanted is not the authority of the arguer, but the truth of the argument itself: and even the more unskilled the discourse, the more evident the reasoning, since it is not coloured by the pomp of eloquence and grace; but as it is, it is sustained by the rule of right.” Octavius, Chapter XVI
You can read the entire document of Octavius here.
Tatian the Syrian
I add Tatian to our list of 2nd century apologists with some caution. He was a student of Justin Martyr and wrote some apologetics that we will look at it in a moment. However, Irenaeus mentioned some problems with Tatian’s theology that we should note –
“Many offshoots of numerous heresies have already been formed from those heretics we have described. This arises from the fact that numbers of them-indeed, we may say all-desire themselves to be teachers, and to break off from the particular heresy in which they have been involved. Forming one set of doctrines out of a totally different system of opinions, and then again others from others, they insist upon teaching something new, declaring themselves the inventors of any sort of opinion which they may have been able to call into existence. To give an example: Springing from Saturninus and Marcion, those who are called Encratites (self-controlled) preached against marriage, thus setting aside the original creation of God, and indirectly blaming Him who made the male and female for the propagation of the human race. Some of those reckoned among them have also introduced abstinence from animal food, thus proving themselves ungrateful to God, who formed all things. They deny, too, the salvation of him who was first created. It is but lately, however, that this opinion has been invented among them. A certain man named Tatian first introduced the blasphemy. He was a hearer of Justin’s, and as long as he continued with him he expressed no such views; but after his martyrdom he separated from the Church, and, excited and puffed up by the thought of being a teacher, as if he were superior to others, he composed his own peculiar type of doctrine. He invented a system of certain invisible Aeons, like the followers of Valentinus; while, like Marcion and Saturninus, he declared that marriage was nothing else than corruption and fornication. But his denial of Adam’s salvation was an opinion due entirely to himself.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.28.1.
These problems Irenaeus mentioned apparently didn’t arise until after Justin was martyred (approx. 165AD). Tatian reportedly broke with the Roman church and returned to Syria where he became involved with the Encratites. The name came from the Greek word ἐγκράτεια (enkrateia), which means “self-mastery, self-control.” The Encratites were known for not marrying, not eating flesh, and not drinking alcohol. That included substituting milk or water for wine in the Eucharist.
What remains of Tatian’s works includes his Address To The Greeks and what Eusebius called the Diatessaron (Harmony of Four). Tatian combined the four Gospels of the New Testament into a single narrative. We have fragments of the document available to read today. Some early church leaders were opposed to Tatian’s Diatessaron because he added material not found in the original four gospels.
In his Address To The Greeks, Tatian attempted to prove that paganism was worthless and Christianity was reasonable to believe.
“For what reason, men of Greece, do you wish to bring the civil powers, as in a pugilistic encounter, into collision with us? And, if I am not disposed to comply with the usages of some of them, why am I to be abhorred as a vile miscreant? Does the sovereign order the payment of tribute, I am ready to render it. Does my master command me to act as a bondsman and to serve, I acknowledge the serfdom. Man is to be honoured as a fellow-man; God alone is to be feared,–He who is not visible to human eyes, nor comes within the compass of human art. Only when I am commanded to deny Him, will I not obey, but will rather die than show myself false and ungrateful. Our God did not begin to be in time: He alone is without beginning, and He Himself is the beginning of all things. God is a Spirit, not pervading matter, but the Maker of material spirits, and of the forms that are in matter; He is invisible, impalpable, being Himself the Father of both sensible and invisible things. Him we know from His creation, and apprehend His invisible power by His works. I refuse to adore that workman ship which He has made for our sakes. The sun and moon were made for us: how, then, can I adore my own servants? How can I speak of stocks and stones as gods? For the Spirit that pervades matter is inferior to the more divine spirit; and this, even when assimilated to the soul, is not to be honoured equally with the perfect God. Nor even ought the ineffable God to be presented with gifts; for He who is in want of nothing is not to be misrepresented by us as though He were indigent.But I will set forth our views more distinctly.” Address to the Greeks, Chapter IV
You can read the entire document, Address To The Greeks, here.
Please join us next time as we continue looking at A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists.