The Early Apologists

Taitian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian

As I mentioned in my previous post, early pagan philosophical critics sought to discredit and destroy the “new” Christian religion. However, their ill-fated attempts did not stand a chance against the providential hand of God. In His ordained plan, He placed certain men to write apologetic works refuting those pagan philosophical critics. I mentioned Justin Martyr as the “main” or Father of the Apologists, but I want to give acknowledgment to others. Defending the faith was not a task for one person. God’s plans have rarely been reserved for one person, even Redemption was a Trinitarian Covenant.

Taitian of Assyria was born sometime in the early one hundreds. He was a disciple of Justin Martyr, and later joined his Roman school for training. It was his encounter with the Septuagint while an unregenerate man that he attributed his conversion. His mentor, Justin, went through a similar intellectual conversion that did not accompany a euphoric or mystical experiential change. For both, conversion meant a transformation in intellectual thought.

He wrote Address to the Greeks, a frontal attack on all the Greeks considered valuable. He also used the work to defend Christians, while he attacked the Greek hedonistic approach to life. The hedonistic approach personified the Greek spirit, a pursuit of perpetual happiness and pleasure in the treasures of sensual worldliness.

Taitian used the work as an evangelistic tool. In it, he invited the Romans to come and join the Christian faith. The idea of using apologetic works for evangelistic purposes permeated the early Apologist’s writings. He also wrote Diatessaron, or a rudimentary harmony of the Gospels. The word literally means, “through 4.” His writing was creative, and filled with robust theological statements.

Taitian was not convinced that the Greeks were the inventors of new ideas. He attributed much of Greek learning to former civilizations. He asserted the Greeks learned astronomy from the Babylonians, geometry from the Egyptians, writing from the Phoenicians, and philosophy/religion from Moses and the Israelites. The Greeks emphasized superiority in all facets of life, but Taitian, while defending Christianity, showed the fallacy in that Greek logic.

Irenaeus of Lyons was born in the middle of the second-century. He was a native of Asia Minor, probably around Smyrna. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. (I bet he had some fascinating stories). Around 177 he migrated to Lyons, in Southern France, and later became the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul.

He is considered one of the leading theologians of the second-century because the content of his writings helped in the formation of the canon, describe the authority of the episcopate, and the place of the Eucharist in liturgical practice. Irenaeus, like Taitain produced works rich with theological content. Doctrinal writing was imperative; Grudem and Erickson did not exist. They were influencing the theological landscape of the early church as they wrote against the critics and heresies of the day. He might be considered the strongest theologian before Augustine!

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus denounced Valentinian Gnosticism. In the work, he simultaneously refuted the heresy, and instructed early believers. He wrote concerning questions of authority, revelation beyond Scripture, and the New Testament’s role in fulfilling the Old Testament. He was martyred in 202, with little information surrounding his death.

Origen of Alexandria was born around 185 in Alexandria, Egypt. In 202 he began leading the Alexandrian catechism school for Clement, his mentor. Origen lived a primitive lifestyle, and was known for his allegorical approach to Scripture. As a note of irony, he did adhere to some literalness of the Scripture, particularly as it applied to Matthew 19:12 where Jesus hyperbolically discussed sin prevention. He castrated himself to prevent temptation in counseling women. He wrote two important works, Against Celsus, and De Principiis, and both defended Christianity against Gnosticism.

Origen had an amazing authorial career. He provided the early church with exegetical, critical, apologetic, dogmatic, and practical works. The endless supply of great doctrinal and theological depth helped the early church prevail against the schemes of the enemy. In the 250’s he was imprisoned under the reign of Decius, the Roman Emperor who was seeking to bring glory back to Rome.

Tertullian of Carthage is one of the well-known North-African Church Fathers. He was born around 160, and converted to Christianity around 197. He was educated in law and rhetoric. He wrote works in Greek and Latin. His writing style was militant and argumentative, much like the training he had received.

In Apology, he made a case against the martyrdom of Christians without due process. Tertullian did not agree to the marriage of philosophy and Christianity. He thought the two should not ever meet. He said, “What does Athens to do with Jerusalem? What does the Academy to do with the Church?” This approach was drastically different from Justin, Origen, and the others, who sought to use philosophy to point to the truths of Christianity.

Tertullian’s writings were instrumental in the description of the Trinity, and the vocabulary later adopted by Christians. The Nicene statements that came in 325 used much of Tertullian’s writings.

He was prone to an ascetic lifestyle, and rejected any flight from the Church in the face of persecution. These couple of ideas led him to identify with Montanus, a second-century promoter of confusing doctrine and practices. This was not a highlight of Tertullian’s life, but we must not make rash judgments, as we do not know the totality of the story.

So what are the benefits or the blessings in disguise that we can gather from these early Apologists?

1. They helped bring forth a systematic structure to the Christian faith. In a time when chaos consumed the day due to; heretics, critics, and persecution people needed something stable, accurate, and clear. These early Apologists helped pave the way for further more systematic writings.

2. They brought intellectual respectability to the Christian faith. Until this time, it looked liked a “backwoods” movement from a lower class of persons. When well-educated and intellectual respectable men responded to the Christian message, and then wrote, they improved the status of Christianity.

3. Their writings showed the need for a specific and authoritative canon of Scripture. These men wrote to defend the faith, but there had to be a standard to follow. This was coming, and in the near future a fixed canon would be decided. F. F. Bruce in Canon of Scripture has provided the best work on canonization.

4. I think we can see God’s directive through these men. He raised them up in strategic times and strategic places for His Glory. We can see His hand maneuvering through the individual authors in defending the truths of God’s Word, as He is preserving biblical truth.

We can all say thank you to these men, and others who, faithfully and as best they knew, defended the Christian faith we espouse today. They did not get it all right, nor do we, but what they did do was help provide a living and lasting legacy that we can study and glean from today!

Comments

  1. Jim Lahey says

    Good post, but let’s not forget Athenagoras. Seriously though, nice work.

    Jim Lahey
    FBC Sunnyvale Trailer Park

  2. Christiane says

    before there was a formal ‘canon’ for the New Testament, there existed the first portion of Christian worship called ‘the Service of the Word’ . . .
    at this time, testaments were read aloud before the congregants and also there were readings from the letters from St. Paul, and also the pastoral writings of the other followers of Christ and the Apostles . . . these writings were hand-copied and brought throughout the Christian world so that they could be shared with the whole Church at worship . . .

    were the copies carefully done?
    yes, because it was believed that they were a part of the ‘deposit of faith’ that the Church had been given to guard, to protect, and to pass on from the Apostles time to the future Christians. Yes, the copies were faithfully done.

    when the time came for the Councils to determine the canon of the New Testament, one of the tests for acceptance was whether or not the writing had been read at worship aloud before the congregations throughout the whole of Christianity . . . if the writings had not been universally used in worship throughout Christendom, they were suspect and rejected as validly a part of the ‘sacred deposit of faith’ guarded by the Church.
    . . .

    • andy says

      Christiane,

      Thanks for the comment. The process of canonization you refer to was so multifaceted. Universality was one of a few necessary ideas for the formation of the canon. Very early “canons” existed. Apostolic authenticity was also mandatory. The worship you refer to in the early church is the next topic for my posts.

  3. Greg Buchanan says


    For both, conversion meant a transformation in intellectual thought.

    Andy,

    This sentence got me thinking about the nature of the effect of salvation rather than its affect (verb), that is spiritual rebirth regarding one’s soul and into the family of God.

    As far as the effect of salvation, my question is this: could that be variable by culture?

    To the Greek: logic, thought, philosophy; it seems those were life. As such, an emotional inner feeling conversion (i.e. the American “receive Jesus in your heart”) might not be considered valid. I don’t mean to cast doubts on their salvation, but many today would say that an intellectual conversion was no conversion at all. But for the Greeks, where they were culturally, their understanding of the world and how it worked, it was the assurance of salvation.

    Also, that being the case [unless I'm wrong :) ] it could explain why Tertullian (writing some 100 years after Taitian and Justin Martyr was opposed to Philosophy+Christianity. 100 years of apologetics, doctrine, and theology were to the point that, though trained in the typical fashion, Tertullian began to believe “in the world but not of it” was something more than it was for Taitian. Especially considering Taitian spent so much time tearing down the Greek intellectual constructs.

    What does that say about our view of what makes a salvation? How do we characterize one who is saved and qualify them as such? If it is someone who is more intellectual (Professor Plum) will they have more of an intellectual conversion? If they are more emotional (Oprah) will their conversion match that as well? Given that both are well and truly saved can we really discount one or the other because A) were not comfortable with the type most different from our own or B) because we are culturally different?

    The result should be the same: a life changed, fruit of the Spirit, growing, worshipful, evangelistic (even if in small ways). But the first steps… why do we seem to struggle with that? I wonder about this, in light of these men and their efforts, because you can still hear pastors and people (definitely different species) who will say, “if you can’t remember the day you were saved, then your not saved.” Yet, many of the disciples were works in progress rather than saved in more of a “pentecost” immediate regeneration/decision.

    Just thinking out load; I don’t really have any answers.