The good work of defending the Christian faith is nothing new. The Apostle Paul inaugurated the tradition of Christian apologetics when he ascended Mars Hill and engaged the Athenians. In the ensuing years, many other early Christians, especially in the second century, received and applied Paul’s apologetic methods. In fact, many of the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament are apologetic works aimed at a Greco-Roman audience that was less than tolerant of Christianity. Some of these early Christian apologists include: Quadratus, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Athenagoras of Athens, and Theophilus of Antioch. Their stories and writings are handed down in a variety of ancient sources.
For example, in his apology addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the passionate apologist Justin Martyr defends the moral and theological superiority of the Christian faith. He readily admits that Christians who commit crimes against the state ought to be punished, but he goes on to say that injustice reigns when Christians are wrongly persecuted for their faith. In one of his writings, entitled First Apology, Justin advises the emperor on the basics of Christianity and dispels myths and rumors about Christian belief. He also warns the emperor that unrighteous persecution of Christians simply will not stop the proclamation of the Gospel. In Justin’s words, “You are able to kill us, but not to hurt us.”
Like Paul, these Christians lived on the fringes of society with minimal influence in the public square and little respect from the cultural elites. They spoke as outsiders and aliens, all the while holding fast to their citizenship in a kingdom not of this world. In this way, apologetics in the early church was a marginal apologetic: a defense of the faith from the borderlands of the culture.
This semester at Southwestern, I taught a graduate elective course on apologetics in the early church. Throughout the semester, the students and I surveyed all of the apologetic writings of the second century. As we engaged these texts, we regularly observed features and experiences that mirror the world in which we find ourselves, a place where the Christian voice is increasingly relegated to the sidelines.
In one sense, this is encouraging, because it reminds Christians today that the church has been here before. Christianity has lived and even thrived on the margins of society. These early Christians embraced their humble position in the culture and defended the faith. It light of this, it is worth considering what the church today might learn from their apologetic witness and the ways they navigated the cultural waters of the ancient world.
So, below I outline four aspects of an early Christian apologetic and consider how it might inspire the church to defend the faith today.
- Dispel misconceptions about Christianity
First, gross misconceptions about Christianity pervaded the ancient world. The average Roman citizen simply did not know what Christians were doing when they gathered for worship, and they always imagined the worst. Rumors about the Lord’s Supper inspired accusations that Christians were cannibals who ate flesh and drank blood. Others thought they were incestuous, since they affectionately referred to each other as brother and sister. Some feared they were dangerously subservice because they refused to participate in the immoral aspects of the culture, such as the gladiatorial games. Some even went so far as to call Christians atheists because they refused to worship the pagan gods. While these charges might sound ridiculous today, there are plenty of misconceptions about Christianity in our culture. Just like the ancient world, these views are often uninformed perspectives of Christianity not rooted in the Scriptures. This is why we should pay attention to the prevailing cultural perspectives or rumors about Christianity and, when we are wrongly criticized for our moral or theological views, take the time to rightly dispel these myths.
- Explain Christian faith and practice
Second, above and beyond any misconceptions about Christianity, the early apologists of the church took advantage of every opportunity to explain Christian faith and practice with great patience and clarity. They often used terms and concepts that were culturally relevant. They understood that some doctrines, such as resurrection and the deity and humanity of Christ, sounded bizarre to those unacquainted with the faith. But they shrugged off any ridicule and embraced the chance to defend the faith. Christians today would do well to follow this example and be prepared to explain the basic doctrines of the faith from the Scriptures in a clear and relevant way (i.e. Jude 3).
- Model Christian virtue
Third, Christians in the early church understood that hypocrisy undermined their message. This is why the early Christian writings are replete with exhortations for Christians to be holy. While the rational defense of the faith was important, molding Christian virtue was equally important, especially for a community living on the margins. Like the early Christians, the holiness of our spiritual lives should reinforce the theological convictions we defend (i.e. 1 Pet 3:15-16).
- Embrace the Christian prophetic voice
Finally, the lives of the early apologists were marked out by prophetic witness. They embraced this role in the culture and responded to sin and injustice wherever it was found. The early Christian apologists also understood that prophetic voices are rarely celebrated. Instead, those who call out immorality and injustice in the culture are all too often marginalized and silenced. Following the example of the early church, Christians today would do well to embrace their role as a prophetic voice within the culture. It is the church that possesses God’s revelation in the Scriptures and bears the responsibility of proclaiming this message to the world (i.e. 1 Pet 2:13-17)
There is much the modern church can learn from early Christian apologetics. Their faithful witness inspires the church today to address misconceptions, explain the faith clearly, model Christian virtue, and speak with a prophetic voice into the culture. These Christians looked beyond their humble place in the culture and accepted the challenge of defending the faith from the margins.