Today we are going to learn about those in the early church who dedicated their minds to Christ. We call them apologists, from the Greek word for “speaking in defense.” The apologists first arose out of necessity: Christians were very literally under attack. Somebody needed to explain Christianity to a world that knew nothing about it, and hopefully convince the emperors that it was not a threat. As time went on, the Church faced the additional threat of heresies. Thinkers were needed to combat this bad theology with good theology.
This was very important to the development of the church. After all, if you really want to become an expert in a subject, the best way is to debate over it with somebody who disagrees with you. They will not be shy about pointing out the holes in your understanding, and will force you to delve deeper and refine your ideas.
Thus, it was out of apologetics that theology was born. In the process of defending Christianity, our early thinkers also engaged in the process of figuring out just what Christianity is. It is from them that we gained our understanding of scripture and even the methods we use to interpret it, and it is thanks to their efforts that we can hope to grasp doctrines like the Trinity.
Justin Martyr (100-165)
Justin was the most famous of the early early apologists. He was not born into a Christian family, but rather spent his early years jumping from philosophy to philosophy looking for the Truth.
Philosophy is, in fact, the greatest possession, and most honorable before God, to whom it leads us and alone commends us; and these are truly holy men who have bestowed attention on philosophy.
Being at first desirous of personally conversing with one of these men, I surrendered myself to a certain Stoic; and having spent a considerable time with him, when I had not acquired any further knowledge of God (for he did not know himself, and said such instruction was unnecessary), I left him and betook myself to another, who was called a Peripatetic, and as he fancied, shrewd. And this man, after having entertained me for the first few days, requested me to settle the fee, in order that our intercourse might not be unprofitable. Him, too, for this reason I abandoned, believing him to be no philosopher at all. But when my soul was eagerly desirous to hear the peculiar and choice philosophy, I came to a Pythagorean, very celebrated—a man who thought much of his own wisdom. He said, “Are you acquainted with music, astronomy, and geometry?” He dismissed me when I confessed to him my ignorance.
In my helpless condition it occurred to me to have a meeting with the Platonists, for their fame was great. I thereupon spent as much of my time as possible with one who had lately settled in our city,—a sagacious man, holding a high position among the Platonists,—and I progressed, and made the greatest improvements daily. And the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings, so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.
In the next few paragraphs, Justin, who is very deep in Platonism at this point, is walking on the beach alone with his thoughts when he meets an old man. This man explains how the philosophers still cannot tell him the whole truth, and directs him to the Jewish prophets.
But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Savior. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.
Born in a Christian family, he became a priest, and was sent to Rome in 177 with a letter regarding the Montanists. While he was away, a massacre took place in Lyon, and when he returned he succeeded the now-deceased Bishop. Fittingly, he devoted most of his writings to combating heresies, especially the Gnostics.
Error is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as to make it appear to the inexperienced more true than the truth itself. One far superior to me has well said, in reference to this point, “A clever imitation in glass casts contempt, on the emerald (which is most highly esteemed by some), unless it come under the eye of one able to test and expose the counterfeit.”
We do not want people snatched away by our fault like sheep by wolves in sheep’s clothing, wolves from whom the Lord warned us to keep away, those who speak like us but think otherwise. Therefore, after reading the commentaries of those who call themselves disciples of Valentinus, and meeting some of them and having fully understood their teaching, I considered it necessary to show you, beloved, their portentous and profound mysteries, which “not all understand” because not all have sufficiently purged their brains. Thus you will know the doctrines and make them manifest to all who are with you and instruct them to avoid the “abyss” of unreason and blasphemy against God.
Born to Christian parents, his father was martyred in 202. Origen wished to follow him, but was prevented from doing so when his mother hid his clothes. The death of his father and subsequent confiscation of their property left his family impoverished, but a wealthy Christian woman took him under her wing and helped finish his education.
He revived the school at Alexandria, which was essentially the first Christian seminary. So he could be completely independent, he sold his library, netting enough for him to live an extremely frugal and ascetic lifestyle on. He devoted himself to the study of scripture, and wrote an absurd amount, including commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible.
On First Principles (De Principiis):
We have found in Proverbs some such instruction for the examination of divine Scripture given by Solomon. He says, “For your part describe them to yourself threefold in admonition and knowledge, that you may answer words of truth to those who question you. ” Therefore, a person ought to describe threefold in his soul the meaning of divine letters, that is, so that the simple may be edified by, so to speak, the body of the Scriptures; for that is what we call the ordinary and narrative meaning. But if any have begun to make some progress and can contemplate something more fully, they should be edified by the soul of Scripture. And those who are perfect are those concerning whom the Apostle says, “Yet among the perfect we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this world or of the rulers of this world, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification.” Such people should be edified by that spiritual Law which has a shadow of the good things to come, edified as by the spirit of Scripture. Thus, just as a human being is said to be made up of body, soul, and spirit, so also is sacred Scripture, which has been granted by God’s gracious dispensation for man’s salvation.
Tertullian lived for much of his life as a fairly hedonistic Pagan. He converted at the age of 40 and gave up his former practices. Professionally, he was a lawyer, and his writings, as well as his views toward penance, reflect that. Later on in life, he became a Montanist, though he did not leave the church to do so.
Where other apologists sought to reconcile Greek philosophy and Christianity, Tertullian famously rejected Greek philosophy altogether. The following is perhaps his most famous passage.
The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come? Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions–embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer?” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.”
Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our preeminent faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.