As we continue on see how the connection to the last few weeks is clear. The Apostles: ministry of revelation. The Apostolic Fathers: ministry of preservation. And now the Apologists: ministry of protection[1]

-What is an apologist? 

a) Not those who make a living from apologizing

b) Positively put in 1 Peter 3:15

c) Negatively put in Romans 1:20

d) Hence, apologists are those who defend the faith from falsehood of all kinds: misunderstandings, heresies, attacks, etc.

-Two kinds of apologists:

a) First, those who defend the gospel in the world, writing and speaking to those generally outside the church. In this vein you find apologists writing apology’s to emperor’s, rulers, and governors.  

b) Second, those who defended the gospel in the Church, writing and speaking to those generally within the church. In this vein you find apologists writing to heretics within the church who are seeking to lead believers astray and out of the apostolic faith.

While these two categories are certainly related, they’re different enough to need some clarification.

Defense in the World

-Setting the stage: Paulto King Agrippa (Acts 26:25)

-Aristides– a Greek from Athens, a philosopher who converted to Christianity, wrote an apology of the Christian faith to the emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 140.

-Athenagoras– a Greek also from Athens, formerly a Platonic philosopher before converting to Christianity, he wrote Intercession on Behalf of the Christians to emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus in AD 177. This apology largely concerned the accusations of atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Many believe Athenagoras to be one of the most powerful and persuasive apologists of this era.

-Melito of Sardis– bishop of the church in Sardis, and famous author in his day of AD 170-180, also wrote an apology to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. We’re uncertain of the contents of his writings though because almost all of them are now lost. But we do know that he wrote one, and that the early church theologian Tertullian, greatly admired Melito’s works. We also know that Melito was the first known Christian to write a list of all the biblical books contained in the Old Testament, a list that corresponds to our list today.

-Theophilus of Antioch– bishop of Antioch in AD 180, wrote many things, mainly known for his Apology to Autolycus in which he labored to show the false nature of idolatry, the reasons why Christians are in reality the best citizens in the empire, and is the first one (other than the authors of the OT/NT) to describe God in terms of a triad at some length. While Tertullian is usually known for coining the term trinity for the first time in Latin, it was Theophilus who did this first in Greek. He also hated Greek philosophy and believed Plato stole most of his teachings from the OT.

-Tatian – first one to create a harmony of the gospels to show the unity of the life of Christ (becomes a Docetist)

Defense in the Church

-Justin Martyr– or Flavius Justinus is one the most well-known apologists of this age. A second century Christian apologist trained in philosophy and eventually beheaded for his faith, is the second most influential apologist of his day. From Samaria, Justin was converted through the witness of an elderly man as the two of them were walking along the Ephesian coast. Being trained in philosophy to seek beauty, truth, and goodness Justin didn’t find those in philosophy, but found them in Christ. Justin grew to be a strong force against pagan mythology and showed its absurdities, wickedness, and contradictions, teaching the Church that the Christian faith, founded in the OT and fulfilled in Jesus, taught of a spiritual faith that was morally, intellectually, and spiritually superior, and these truths made inroads into the Roman population amid the corrupt paganism that was faltering around them. One day a man named Crescens, whom Justin has defeated in a philosophical debate, plotted his arrest and when Justin was taken he, along with some others, were killed for their faith. He is now known as Justin Martyr.

-Minucius Felix – writing in Latin rather than Greek, Minucius wrote an apology of the Christian faith called Octavius in AD 270, which sought to correct many misunderstandings between the Christian and Pagan traditions. It is written in the form of a dialogue back and forth between a Christian and a Pagan and because of such it was well circulated throughout the Church of this day for it’s readability and usefulness.

Irenaeus of Lyons – when we begin discussing Irenaeus we must first discuss the heresy of Gnosticism, because it was the heresy he stood up against head on.

Gnostics, a heretical group in the early church, largely thought to have begun with Simon the Magician. The word Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. Thus, it claims to possess a special, superior knowledge to the apostolic message. They believed this special knowledge was distinct and superior to the message of the early church. While there were divergent factions within the Gnostic movement, they all promised a special knowledge unique to their sect. 

The secret knowledge every faction of Gnosticism claimed ultimately promised a deeper spirituality to the adherent that denied the importance of history and the physical body. Thus, all Gnostics were also Docetists, or Greek dualists, believing all that is physical to be evil and all that is spiritual to be good. Because of this they did not believe God created the world, but rather, an inferior and lesser god they called the Demiurge created the physical world. This Demiurge they held to be the evil god of the OT and Jesus to be the good god of the NT, who was purely a spiritual being who seemed or merely appeared to be human. (as 1 John and Col. 2 argue against). In order to return home safely to the supreme god one had to know the secret knowledge (mostly thought to be: passwords, spells, enlightenment, inner awakening about Gnostic truth).

It was a serious threat to the early church because they claimed to be the true Christians. The most famous text for them is The Gospel of Thomas(written around AD 140), that claims to have been as inspired as the rest of the NT, records over 100 alleged sayings of Jesus, many of which point to what they taught about secret knowledge. The most famous Gnostic teacher was a man named Marcion. The son of the bishop in Sinope, who lived in Rome, where he broke away from the church and wrote a book called Antitheses that showed the many contradictions between the OT/NT (as he saw them). While those are all interesting reads Marcion’s most well-known for his own version of the New Testament where he removed everything that wasn’t to his liking (Benjamin Franklin did this too). Overall, Marcion is rightly held to be the chief heretic of the early church.

So, the promise of a special knowledge, in this time and culture, carried a strong appeal and allure to it. And sure enough, claiming to be the true Christians who were bringing the true message of Jesus Christ, drew many away. Which prompted, as you can imagine, the church to respond to this heresy. Enter our last person for the evening, Irenaeus of Lyons:

Born around AD 130, in Asia Minor, was discipled as a boy by the great Polycarp (whom we met last week). Moving to Lyons, France as a young man, Irenaeus would grow to become the bishop Lyons after Pothinus (former bishop) was martyred. He would go the same way and die as a martyr around the year AD 200. He is held as the greatest apologist of this era.

His main concern was exposing the falsehood and lies of Gnosticism in order to protect and defend the Church of Christ. In this work titled Against Heresies(which has survived in its totality to us today, and which shows us invaluable information about what early Christians believed) In fact, the only books in Scripture he doesn’t quote from at all are Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Jude. Irenaeus also implored people to seek counsel from local bishops in the church, not from Gnostic teachers.

Personal reason behind his hatred and energy against Gnosticism…his friend Florinus, discipled by Polycarp as well, but turned against them both by becoming Gnostic under the teaching of a man named Valentinus. This Valentinus is the chief person in view all throughout Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies.

Here’s how he’d argue against Gnosticism:

  1. He first argue against their claim of secret knowledge, pointing out that the apostolic faith mentioned nothing of secret knowledge, but a knowledge of God He had revealed in Christ.
  2. He also made mention that most Gnostics themselves couldn’t agree on what this secret knowledge was.
  3. He would show that the God of the OT is and remains to be the same God of the NT, and not some inferior Demiurge as they would call it. (here he would make a case for this by connecting the two Adams of Scripture, falling in the first and being saved in the second, to show the unity of Scripture.
  4. He argued the true eternal God had created the physical world, and created it good. Thus, physicality isn’t something to overcome, but something to enjoy in it’s proper manner. Irenaeus argued against this stating that God had created us to be physical beings living in a history shaped by God for redemptive purposes.

After Irenaeus argued in these ways true churches began confessing what they then called The Rule of Faith, a statement that would eventually grow into what we call today The Apostles Creed. Also, from this attack the true church began calling itself the catholic church, to set itself apart from Gnosticism and to recommit themselves to the apostolic faith. Which is a benefit of heresy: strength!


[1]Nick Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power – Vol. 1, The Age of the Early Church Fathers(London, England: Focus Publishing, 2016) page 90-112 was very helpful for this message, as was Sinclair Ferguson’s In the Year of Our Lord (Orlando, Florida: Reformation Trust, 2018) page 33-34.

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