The Apologists—Christian Defenders or Would-Be Philosophers?
INCEST, child murder, cannibalism—these were some of the absurd charges leveled against Christians in the second century C.E. This led to such a wave of persecution that professed Christian writers felt obliged to defend their faith. Later known as the apologists, or defenders of their beliefs, these writers set out to prove that their religion was harmless so as to win over the Roman authorities and public opinion.
It was a risky undertaking, for the empire and public opinion were usually appeased only by giving in to them. There was also a real danger of stirring up more persecution or of watering down the Christian faith by unwarranted compromises. Just how did the apologists defend their faith? What arguments did they use? And what were the results of their efforts?
The Apologists and the Roman Empire
The apologists were educated men from the second and early third centuries. The most famous among them were Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian.* Their writings were principally addressed to pagans and the Roman authorities, with the intention of explaining the Christian faith, and included frequent references to the Bible. Above all, the apologists stood up against the persecutors, denied their accusations, and presented the Christians in a favorable light.
One of the apologists’ major concerns was to convince the political authorities that Christians were not enemies of the emperor or the empire. Tertullian said of the emperor that “our God has appointed him,” and Athenagoras defended the hereditary nature of the imperial throne, thus getting involved in the politics of the time. In so doing, they ignored the words of Jesus Christ, who said: “My kingdom is no part of this world.”—John 18:36.
The apologists also suggested links between Rome and the Christian religion. According to Melito, the two entities formed a pair and contributed to the welfare of the empire. The anonymous writer of The Epistle to Diognetus likened Christians to the soul that was ‘holding the world together.’ And Tertullian wrote that Christians prayed for the prosperity of the empire and for the end of the system of things to be put off until later. As a result, the coming of God’s Kingdom somehow seemed less necessary.—Matthew 6:9, 10.
“Christianity” Becomes a Philosophy
The philosopher Celsus mockingly described Christians as “labourers, shoemakers, farmers, the most uninformed and clownish of men.” This mockery was too much for the apologists to bear. They determined to win over public opinion by resorting to a new tactic. Once rejected, worldly wisdom was now used in the service of the “Christian” cause. Clement of Alexandria, for example, saw philosophy as “true theology.” Justin, though claiming to reject pagan philosophy, was the first to use philosophical language and concepts to express “Christian” ideas, considering this type of philosophy “to be safe and profitable.”
From this point on, the strategy was, not to oppose philosophy, but to make supposed Christian thought a philosophy higher than that of the pagans. “On some points we teach the same things as the poets and philosophers whom you honour, and on other points are fuller and more divine in our teaching,” wrote Justin. Adorned with its new philosophical finery, “Christian” thought now claimed the dignity of old age. The apologists pointed out that Christian books were far older than those of the Greeks and that the prophets of the Bible lived earlier than Greek philosophers. Certain apologists even concluded that the philosophers copied from the prophets. Plato was made out to be a disciple of Moses!
This new strategy led to a mixture of Christianity and pagan philosophy. Comparisons were made between Greek gods and Bible characters. Jesus was compared to Perseus; and Mary’s conception to that of Perseus’ mother, Danaë, who was said to be also a virgin.
Certain teachings were greatly modified. For example, in the Bible, Jesus is called “the Logos,” meaning God’s “Word,” or Spokesman. (John 1:1-3, 14-18; Revelation 19:11-13) Very early on, this teaching was distorted by Justin, who like a philosopher played on the two possible meanings of the Greek word logos: “word” and “reason.” Christians, he said, received the word in the person of Christ himself. However, logos in the sense of reason is found in every man, including pagans. Thus, he concluded, those who live in harmony with reason are Christians, even those who claimed or were thought to be atheists, like Socrates and others.
Moreover, by forcing the tie between Jesus and the logos of Greek philosophy, which was closely linked with the person of God, the apologists, including Tertullian, embarked on a course that eventually led Christianity to the Trinity dogma.*
The word “soul” appears over 850 times in the Bible, including more than 100 times in its Greek form. It basically refers to mortal, living creatures, either human or animal. (1 Corinthians 15:45; James 5:20; Revelation 16:3) The apologists, however, twisted this Bible teaching by linking it with Plato’s philosophy that the soul is separate from the body, invisible and immortal. Minucius Felix even asserted that belief in the resurrection had its early beginnings in Pythagoras’ teaching of the transmigration of the soul. How far Greek influence had led them from the teachings of the Bible!
The Wrong Choice
Some apologists sensed the danger that philosophy could pose to the Christian faith. Yet, even though they criticized the philosophers, they still loved the intellectual approach of philosophy. Tatian, for example, denounced the philosophers for accomplishing nothing good but, at the same time, called the Christian religion “our philosophy” and indulged in philosophical speculations. Tertullian on the one hand decried the influence of pagan philosophy on Christian thinking. On the other hand, he stated that he wanted to follow in the steps of “Justin, philosopher and martyr; Miltiades, the sophist of the churches,” and others. Athenagoras called himself “a Christian philosopher of Athens.” As for Clement, it is said that he felt that “philosophy can be judiciously used by the Christian as an aid to wisdom and the defense of the faith.”
Whatever success these apologists might have had in defending their faith, they had nonetheless committed a serious error in their defense. How so? The apostle Paul reminded Christians that among the spiritual weapons at their disposal, none is more potent than “the word of God,” which “is alive and exerts power.” With it, Paul said, “we are overturning reasonings and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.”—Hebrews 4:12; 2 Corinthians 10:4, 5; Ephesians 6:17.
On the night before he was killed, Jesus told his disciples: “Take courage! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) The trials and tribulations that he experienced in the world had not overcome his faith and his loyalty to his Father. Similarly, the last surviving apostle, John, wrote: “This is the conquest that has conquered the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:4) Although the apologists wanted to defend the Christian faith, they made the wrong choice in adopting the ideas and the approach of worldly philosophy. In so doing, the apologists allowed themselves to be seduced by such philosophies and, in effect, allowed the world to conquer them and their brand of Christianity. So rather than being champions and defenders of true Christian faith, the apologists of the early church, perhaps unwittingly, fell into the trap set by Satan, who “keeps transforming himself into an angel of light.”—2 Corinthians 11:14.
The clergy and theologians of the churches today have largely followed in the same path. Instead of defending true Christianity by using God’s Word, they often downgrade the Bible and resort to worldly philosophy in their teaching in an effort to win over public opinion and the establishment. Rather than sounding a warning against the dangers of following the unscriptural trends of the world, they have become teachers who do their best to ‘tickle the ears’ of their listeners in order to win adherents. (2 Timothy 4:3) Sadly, as did the early apologists, these teachers have ignored the apostolic warning: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.” And we are reminded that “their end shall be according to their works.”—Colossians 2:8; 2 Corinthians 11:15.
There were also Quadratus, Aristides, Tatian, Apollinaris, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Melito, Minucius Felix, and other lesser-known writers. See The Watchtower of May 15, 2003, pages 27-29, and March 15, 1996, pages 28-30.
For further information on Tertullian’s beliefs, see The Watchtower of May 15, 2002, pages 29-31.
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“We are overturning reasonings and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.”—2 CORINTHIANS 10:5
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To Justin, imitating philosophy was “safe and profitable”
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Clement saw philosophy as “true theology”
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Tertullian’s philosophizing helped to pave the way for the Trinity doctrine
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Tatian called Christianity “our philosophy”
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Modern-day clergy and theologians have followed the path of the apologists
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The apostle Paul warned against the philosophies and deception of men
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Clement: Historical Pictures Service; Tertullian: © Bibliothèque nationale de France