Introduction to the 
Apologists of the Patristic Christian Era

 

Saint Lawrence of Rome 
before the 
Emperor Valerianus

"What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic? Our principles come from the Porch of Solomon, who had himself taught the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart. I have no use for a Stoic or a Platonic or a dialectic Christianity. After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research."
--Tertullian, Prescription of Heretics

"I boast and strive with all my strength to be found a Christian. Not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not totally identical. The same applies to the Stoics, poets and historians. For each man spoke well, in proportion to the share that he has of the seminal Word, seeing what was related to it. Whatever things were rightly said by any man, belong to us Christians. For those writers were able to see reality darkly, though the seed of the Word implanted within them."
--Justin Martyr, Apology II

In the Patristic period of Christianity (2nd century to 5th century), apologetics in defense of the Christian faith took on different forms. Late first-century and early second-century apologetics were more concerned with church discipline than learned defenses of the faith. Apologetics proper became more common as

  1. New converts entered the Church who were trained in the educational systems of the day.
  2. More sophisticated critiques came from the philosophical schools
  3. Learned Christians were called on to offer defenses of Christians before the imperial courts.
  4. Christians felt the need to answer the charges of their Jewish counterparts.

Apologetic works can be divided up into three types: 

  1. Public Defenses: Works designed to clear Christians from charges of wrong-doing, such as cannibalism, incest, atheism, disturbing the peace, rebellion, and secret plots on officials lives.
  2. Pagan Evangelisms: Works designed to win the pagan over to the Christian faith.
  3. Jewish Evangelisms: Works designed to win the Jew over to the Christian faith.

Second-Century Apologists

Quadratus addressed Emperor Hadrian (AD125); fragment remaining mentions Jesus' resurrection and appearance to many disciples, including some still alive.

Aristides, Apology addressed to Emperor Hadrian (AD125) examines humanity as barbarians, Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, and Christians. Christian lives outshine their opponents'.

Justin Martyr, Apology I (AD 150), addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius, and Apology II (AD 155-160). Each addresses the civil loyalty of Christians who keep the peace and pray for the emperor. .Christianity is a philosophy that outstrips other philosophies. Justin's Dialogue with Trypho the Jew is an imaginary dialogue between the narrator and a Jew named Trypho over various issues that divide Jews and Christians including the nature of scripture and Jesus.

Tatian: (post-AD 170) publishes a bitter attack on the pagan gods, while praising Christian food and modesty.

Athenagoras of Athens, Embassy for the Christians (ca. last half 2nd century), addressed to both Emperors Lucius Aurelius Commodus and Marcus Aurelius. Athenagoas asks them to show toleration for other religions than the state one, and he denies the charges of atheism often brought against Christians.

Third-Century Apologists

Marcus Minucius Felix, Octavius (ca. end of 2nd century) . Felix creates a dialogue between a pagan, a Christian, and the author in which he answers the charges that Christianity is a secret society, that it undercuts the imperial faith, and that it is morally degenerate.

Tertullian, Apology (ca. AD 197). Tertullian uses Roman juridical insights to defend Christianity against the typical charges of infanticide, promiscuity, and atheism. He attacks the worship of pagan gods as idolatrous and shows that Christian prayers for the emperor are good for the state as a whole.

Clement of Alexandria, Converter, Tutor, & Carpets, his three volume work that defends Christianity as true philosophy, Christ as a new Orpheus, and the faith as the fulfillment of longings in pagan teaching and myth. Christ the Incarnate Word is the answer to pagan wisdom.

Origen, Against Celsus (ca. AD 203-250) is Origen's reply to Celsus' AD 187 work, True Doctrine, written against Christianity. Origen defends the scriptures as full of great wisdom, presents Christ as the fulfiller of prophecies, and argues that the Old Testament is older than the Greek writings.

Cyprian of Carthage, On the Vanity of Idols (AD 247) argues that idols are not divine and that there is only one true God. 

Fourth-Century Apologists

In the 4th century, with the conversion of Constantine and the eventual state-sponsorship of the faith, Christian apologetics took on a more assured tone--both in the sense that paganism was now waning in its power and force and in that the line of debate had changed. The Christian faith was now accused by the remaining pagans of causing the recent wars, famines, plagues, and general imperial weakening of power. 

Arnobius of Sicca, The Case Against the Pagans (AD 297-303) argues against Plato's doctrine of the eternal soul, insisting that eternal life is not a natural quality but one given by God. He also tries to show that the real concerns of paganism are answered in Christianity. 

Lactantius, The Divine Institutes (AD 304-314) dedicated to Emperor Constantine. Lactantius argues from reason that God exists and that ethics are theological in nature.

Eusebius of Caesarea, better known for his ecclesial history, was first an apologist. The Preparation of the Gospel (AD 314) and The Proof of the Gospel (ca. AD 320) a two-part work that addressed well-known pagan objections in a thorough fashion, as well as set forth a systematic understanding of the Old and New Testaments.

Julius Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Religions, addressed to the Emperors Constantius and Constans (AD 346-350). This work argues for why pagan idolatry should be legislated against.

John Chrysostom, Demonstration to Jews and Greeks That Christ Is God (ca. AD 381-387). He argued that Jesus had done what a human alone could not do and that this mission was that of Jesus fulfilling the Messianic prophecies.

Prudentius, Contra Symmachum (AD 401-403) a polemical poem against polytheism.

Cyril of Alexandria, For the Holy Religion of the Christians Against the Impious Julian (AD 435-440) seeks to answer Julian the Apostate's claims but often distorts Julian in the process. 

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, The Cure of Pagan Maladies refutes three important objections put forth by Hellenists of the day. he stresses that 1) the Christian faith employs reason as well as faith, not just the later; that 2) an elegant style does not always contain truth; even a simple style can speak great wisdom; and that 3) the relics of the martyrs are used by God to work miracles.

 

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding