Early Christian Apology


The early Christians were ready to give a reason for their faith and their conduct. Celsus spoke slanderously when he said of them that they reprobated investigation, and cried only, "Believe!" A long list of apologists, held in honor by the Church, refutes the charge. A narrow-minded party may have depreciated any argumentative defence of Christianity; but those who embodied the enlightened sentiment of the Church were willing to take their cause before the bar of reason, and attest its divinity by argument, as well as by holy living and patient suffering. "The representatives of the new religion did not allow a single accusation, a single objection, to fall to the ground: they overcame pagan philosophy with its own weapons." [Pressensé]

Soon after the days of the apostles, apologetic treatises began to appear. Some of the earlier are known only by reputation, or by brief citations. This is true of the apologies of Quadratus, Aristo, Miltiades, and Apollinaris of Hierapolis. The apology of Aristides was recently discovered in Syriac, and a large part of the Greek text identified. Of Melito's numerous writings little remains. The so-called apology which has been found under his name in a Syriac version appears not to have been the apology which is quoted by Eusebius, and indeed, according to the verdict of some of the most competent investigators, is not to be assigned to Melito at all. The anonymous epistle to Diognetus was probably one of the earliest specimens of the extant apologetic literature. Near the same time, appeared the writings of Justin Martyr, defending Christianity before the bar both of heathenism and Judaism. Then followed, in the Greek Church, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. In the Latin Church, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Cyprian, and Arnobius were the most conspicuous in this order of writing. Lactantius was also a noted apologist; but, as a Christian writer, he belonged to the beginning of the next period.

The apologists differed noticeably among themselves as respects their appreciation of heathen culture. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athenagoras, and Minucius Felix are examples of the most favorable estimate. Writers of this class conceived that the divine Word, the universal Reason, which appears full-orbed in the Christian revelation, has shed some rays of light into the souls of all men. Especially in the Greek philosophers they recognized men who had been enriched with genuine glimpses of spiritual truths. They were not unconscious of the mass of errors with which these germs of truth were mingled; still, they took pleasure in pointing out the instances in which philosophy appeared to coincide with Christianity. That the noblest sayings of the philosophers had a certain affinity with the Christian religion, was, in their view, a valuable evidence for the supreme reasonableness of that religion. As examples of a less favorable estimate of heathen culture, we have Tatian among the Greeks, and Tertullian among the Latins. The latter, with his strongly marked characteristics, might be regarded as the founder of a special type of apologetics. He, too, honored the reason in man, but his confidence was more in the unsophisticated reason than in the logic of the philosophers. The so-called philosophers were, in his view, rather patriarchs of heresy and falsehood than of the truth. Such true and valuable sayings as they may have uttered have come not so much from their professional speculation as from the reason native to men, and which even they have not always succeeded in repressing. Tertullian, nevertheless, was not so wholesale in his objections to the philosophers, but that he was ready to quote them when they appeared to be on his side of the question. Amobius, also, was inclined to a very sharp criticism of heathenism, and sought rather to exhibit features calling for scorn and reproach than to find points of affiliation with Christianity. The worth of his apology, moreover, was impaired by an imperfect understanding of the Christian system. In some of its opinions, it is no exponent of the common thought of the early Church.

As might be expected, the apologies of the early Church contain some very palpable defects. Most of them exhibit an excess of allegorical interpretation. Some of the apologists were betrayed into quoting from spurious sources. Thus, we find writers as eminent as Justin Martyr, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, employing the Sibylline prophecies as though the celebrated oracle of the heathen world had voiced all these testimonies in behalf of theistic and Christian faith,

[The writings of Tertullian and Origen contain no instance of an attempt to support the Christian cause by quoting the prophecies of the Sibyl, and Minucius Felix and Cyprian do not so much as mention them. Eusebius indicates that their authority was questioned more or legs, and apparently within Christian circles. (Compare Augustine, De Civ. Dei, xviii. 47; Cont. Faust., xiii. 2, 15; see, on the whole subject, J. H. Friedlieb, Die Sibyllinischen Weissagongen, introduction, followed by Greek text and German translation.) As examples of the Sibylline verses, we quote the following:--

"There is one only uncreated God,
who reigns alone, all-powerful, very great,
From whom is nothing hid. He sees all things,
Himself unseen by mortal eye." (THEOPHILUS, Ad Autol., ii. 36.)

"Blessed shall be those men upon earth
Who shall love the great God before all else, -
Blessing him when they eat and when they drink,
Trusting in this their piety alone;
who shall abjure all shrines which they may see,
All altars and vain figures of dumb stones,
Worthless, and stained with blood of animals,
and sacrifice of the four-footed tribes,
Beholding the great glory of one God." (JUSTIN MARTYR, Cohort. Ad Græc., xvi.)

"Prostrate on the ground Ephesus shall wail, weeping by the shore,
End seeking a temple that has no longer an inhabitant.

Isis, thrice-wretched goddess, thou shalt linger bythe streams of the Nile;
Solitary, frenzied, silent, on the sands of Acheron.

And thou, Serapis, covered with a heap of white stones,
shalt lie a huge ruin in thrice-wretched Egypt." (CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, Cohort., iv.)

Threats of judgment, like those quoted by Clement, are of frequent occurrence in the Sibylline books, the proud Roman capital itself not being spared.]

whereas it is understood that the great body of these writings were from the hands of Jews and Christians. Of course, it is nothing against the honest intent of these apologists that they drew from such a source. Their fault was simply that of a somewhat incautious zeal in employing the materials that came to their hands. But, whatever defects they may have embraced, the early apologies were, on the whole, a noble defence and commendation of Christianity. Much that they contain is by no means obsolete, Clement of Alexandria gives statements on the limits of demonstration, and on the relations of faith and knowledge, and Origen, in his great reply to Celsus, abounds in considerations, which are to be recognized in any standard Christian apology.

In conducting their defence, the Christian apologists vindicated the attitude of Christians toward the State, showed up the weak points of heathenism, and brought forward the positive evidences for the truth and divinity of their own system of faith.

1. THE ANSWER TO THE STATE. -- According to a wide-spread calumny of the times, the Christians were guilty of criminal practices, shameless violations of the common laws of civilization. But in the eyes of the more intelligent, their great offence was undoubtedly that of being un-Roman. They did not appear to be of the State as a Roman State, and were therefore a stone of stumbling. It was just at this point that a justification was most demanded, and was most difficult to render. The position of the Christians compelled them to be in a measure un-Roman. It was impossible for them to be in the fullest sympathy with a heathen, persecuting State. Entire affiliation with the same could not occur without giving countenance to heathenism. Probably in some instances an over-scrupulousness was indulged. Civil and military duties were refused where they might have been accepted. Yet it was not a principle with the Church at large to proscribe this public service; and we know as a matter of fact that there were Christians in the Roman army, and Christians at various times in the employment of the imperial court. Still the position of the Christians was one of comparative isolation, and, in connection with their refusal to sacrifice to the gods, drew upon them the charge of being enemies of the State.

In vindicating their conduct toward the State, the Christians, through their apologists, claimed in the first place a fair hearing. "We have come," writes Justin Martyr to the Emperor, "not to flatter you by this writing, nor to please you by our address, but to beg that you pass judgment after an accurate and searching investigation." [1 Apol., ii.] In a like spirit Tertullian, speaking to the Roman rulers in behalf of Truth, says, "She has no appeals to make to you in regard to her condition, for that does not excite her wonder. She knows that she is but a sojourner on the earth, and that among strangers she naturally finds foes; and, more than that, that her origin, her dwelling-place, her hope, her recompense, her honors, are above. One thing, meanwhile, she anxiously desires of earthly rulers, --not to be condemned unknown. What harm can it do to the laws, supreme in their domain, to give her a hearing? Nay, for that part of it, will not their absolute supremacy be more conspicuous in their condemning her even after she has made her plea? But if, unheard, sentence is pronounced against her, besides the odium of an unjust deed, they will incur the merited suspicion of doing it with some idea that it is unjust, as not wishing to hear what they may not be able to hear and condemn." [Apol., i]

Having thus invited investigation, they boldly challenged the accusers to point to any class of men who paid a more genuine respect to the government than was exhibited by the Christians. None, they affirmed, were in general so careful to obey the laws as this persecuted sect. "Here," says Tertullian to the heathen magistrates, "we call your own acts to witness, you who are daily presiding at the trials of prisoners, and passing sentence upon crimes. Well, in your long lists of those accused of many and various atrocities, has any assassin, any cutpurse, any man guilty of sacrilege or seduction or stealing bathers' clothes, his name entered as being a Christian too? Or, when Christians are brought before you on the mere ground of their name, is there ever found among them an ill-doer of the sort? It is always with your folk the prison is steaming, the mines are sighing, the wild beasts are fed; it is from you the exhibiters of gladiatorial shows always get their herds of criminals to feed up for the occasion. You find no Christian there, except simply as being such; or, if one is there as something else, a Christian he is no longer." [Apol., xliv.] "Your sentences," he urges in another place, "import only that one has confessed himself a Christian. No name of a crime stands against us, but only the crime of a name." [Ad Nationes, i.3. Compare Justin Martyr, 1 Apol., iv.; Athenagoras, Legat., ii] Only where tile requirements of the State were in violation of a higher law, did the Christians, it was claimed, assume the part of disobedience; and in such a case a true man is bound to disobey. So Origen argued in replying to the charge of illegal association. "The laws of the heathens," said he, "which relate to images and an atheistical polytheism, are 'Scythian' laws, or more impious even than these, if there be any such. It is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of the truth." [Cont. Celsum, i. 1.] "It is a fundamental human right," says Tertullian, "a privilege of nature, thnt every man should worship according to his own convictions. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion." [Ad Scapulam, ii.]

Even as regards honoring the person of the emperors, the Christians were able to assert that they in reality were not at all behind their adversaries. They could not, indeed, call him Lord, in the heathenish, idolatrous sense; but they were ready to acknowledge him as their earthly lord, and to pray for his prosperity. "Without ceasing," wrote Tertullian, "for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the Empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, -- whatever, as man or Cæsar, an emperor would wish. We cannot but look up to him as called by our Lord to his office; so that on valid grounds I might say Caesar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him." [Apol., xxx., xxxiii.] Again, he boldly satirizes the pretended superiority of devotion to their rulers on the part of the heathen. "No breath of treason," says he, "is there ever in the senate, in the equestrian order, in the camp, in the palace. Whence, thee, came a Cassius, a Niger, an Albinus? Whence they who beset the Cæsar between the two laurel groves? Whence they who practised wrestling, that they might strangle him? Whence they who in full armor broke into the palace, more audacious than all your Tigerii and Parthenii? If I mistake not, they were Romans; that is, they were not Christians. Yet all of them, on the very eve of their treacherous outbreak, offered sacrifices for the safety of the Emperor, and swore by his genius, one thing in profession and another in the heart; and no doubt they were in the habit of calling Christians enemies of the State." [Apol., xxxv. CompareAd.Scapulam, ii.]

To the objection that the State would be left defencless, as this was urged by Celsus, if all did as the Christians, Origen replied that in that event the State would possess a security never realized before. "If all the Romans embrace the Christian faith, they will, when they pray, overcome their enemies." And as for the barbarians, "when they yield obedience to the word of God, they will become most obedient to the law, and most humane, and every form of worship will be destroyed except the religion of Christ, which will alone prevail. And indeed it will one day triumph, as its principles take possession of the minds of men more and more every day." [Cont. Celsum, viii. 68-70.]

2. ANSWERS TO SPECIAL POINTS OF HEATHEN CRITICISM. -- The popular calumnies against the Christians, charging them with the most abhorrent rites, seem not to have been urged by the more noted of the heathen critics. Christian apologists did not deem it necessary to consider them at much length. They stamped them as idle slanders, and boldly invited to judicial investigation. Tertullian aptly drew from inertness in pressing such investigation an evidence that the rulers did not believe the scandalous charges, and pointed in particular to the rescript of Trajan, forbidding search to be made for Christians, as an open declaration that they were not to be accounted guilty of shameful or criminal practices. [Apol., ii. Compare Ad Nationes, i. 2; Athengoras, Legat., iii.; Justin Martyr, 2 Apol., xii.]

To heathen minds the cross was naturally an offence. To many also the doctrine of the resurrection was a stone of stumbling. In reference to the former, Christian apologists called attention to the fact that the cross is honored in both nature and art as a continually recurring form. The navigator must acknowledge his obligations to it as he sails over the sea; the soldier uplifts it in his standard; it is incorporated into the human body itself. [Justin Martyr, 1 Apol., lv.] Wittingly or unwittingly every one pays tribute to the Christian sign. "As for him," says Tertullian, " who aflirms that we are 'the priesthood of a cross,' we shall claim him as our co-religionist." [Ad Nationes, i. 12. Compare Apol., xvi.] Objections to the resurrection were answered by an appeal to the analogies of nature, the parallel mystery of birth, and the omnipotence of God, as also to the fitness of making the body, which has been a partner with the soul in good and evil, a sharer in its glory and retribution.

The charge, as urged by Celsus, that Christianity showed an inveterate preference for the ignorant and the low, was nobly answered by Origen. He disclaimed utterly the notion that Christianity has any prejudice against knowledge. "Truly it is no evil," he says, "to have been educated, for education is the way to virtue." [Cont. Celsum, iii. 49.] He asserted also that it was a mistake to suppose that among Christians a majority were men of specially bad antecedents, or that such were regarded as the most hopeful candidates for a Christian life. [Cont. Celsum., iii. 65.] At the same time he allowed that the Church bestowed great care upon the ignorant and the vicious, and justified its course in the most emphatic terms. "We acknowledge," he says, "that we do desire to instruct all men in the word of God, so as to give to young men the exhortations which are appropriate to them, and to show to slaves how they may recover freedom of thought, and be ennobled by the word. And those amongst us who are the ambassadors of Christianity sufficiently declare that they are debtors to Greeks and barbarians, to wise men and fools, in order that as far as possible they may lay aside their ignorance. [iii. 54.] ... Not to participation in mysteries, and to a fellowship in the wisdom hidden in a mystery, which God ordained before the world to the glory of his saints, do we invite the wicked man, and the thief, and the housebreaker, and the poisoner, and the committer of sacrilege, and the plunderer of the dead, and all those others whom Celsus may enumerate in his exaggerating style; but such as these we invite to be healed. For there are in the divinity of the word helps toward the cure of those who are siCk." [iii. 61.]

3. CRITICISMS URGED AGAINST HEATHENISM.--It was an easy task for the apologists to point out the corruptions and follies of heathenism, and one which they fulfilled with no little effectiveness. They charged the heathen administration with a criminal indifference toward the abominable practice of exposing infants, and with fostering the trade in unnatural vice. [Justin Martyr, 1 Apol., xxvii.; Tertullian, Ad Nationes, i. 15.] They cited the cruelties which were sometimes practised in the name of religion. Tertullian testifies, for example: "Children were openly sacrificed in Africa as lately as the proconsulship of Tiberius; and even now that sacred crime still continues to be done in secret." [Apol., ix.] The corrupting influence of the heathen mythologies was evident, they affirmed, to enlightened heathen themselves, so that Plato decided that the writings of Homer ought to be banished from the State. [Justin, 2 Apol., x.; Cohort. ad Græc., v.; Minucius Felix, Octavius, xxii.] The lives of their gods, they said, were largely narratives of follies, weaknesses, and vices, making it equally absurd and vitiating to the character to worship them. Their very forms and appearances, says Minucius Felix, argue their contemptible nature. "Vulcan is a lame god, and crippled; Neptune with sea-green eyes; Mercury with winged feet; Pan with hoofed feet; Saturn with feet in fetters; Janus wears two faces." Then think of their deeds and fortunes, the adulterous loves of Jupiter and his lewdness with Ganymede, the adultery of Mars and Venus, Apollo feeding the cattle of Admetus, Neptune hiring out to build walls, Mars wounded in battle, Jupiter needing to be set free by Briareus. [Octavius, xxi., xxii.] Tertullian accuses Homer of having "pitted the gods against each other with varying success like pairs of gladiators." [Ad Nationes, i. 10.] The irreverence of the heathen, in his own day, he pictures in these striking terms: "The family deities you call Lares, you exercise a domestic authority over, pledging them, selling them, changing them, - making sometimes a cooking-pot of a Saturn, a fire-pan of a Minerva, as one or the other happens to be worn or broken in its long sacred use, or as the family head feels the pressure of some more sacred home necessity. In like manner, by public law you disgrace your state gods, putting them in the auction-catalogue, and making them a source of revenue. Men seek to get the Capitol, as they seek to get the herb-market, under the voice of the crier, under the auction-spear, under the registration of the qusstor. Deity is struck off and farmed out to the highest bidder." [Apol., xiii.] He instances also the degradation of the gods implied in the relation of Roman conquest to Roman worship. "The sacrileges of the Romans," he says, "are as numerous as their trophies. They boast as many triumphs over the gods as over the nations; as many spoils of battle they have still, as there remain images of captive deities. And the poor gods submit to be adored by their enemies." [Ibid., xxv. Compare Ad Nationes, ii. 17; Minucius Felix, Octavius, xxv.]

As already intimated, a number of the apologists did not deal with heathenism solely in the spirit of adverse criticism. Acknowledging such scattered truths as were to be found in the heathen world, they turned these into just so much evidence for Christianity, by interpreting them as the voice of the better nature in man, as the teaching of the Logos in His general operation in human souls, or as borrowings from the Old Testament.

4. POSITIVE EVIDENCES FOR THE TRUTH AND DIVINITY OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION. -- The apologists appealed to the moral transformations wrought by Christianity in many cases, and to the pure lives of Christians in general, as a proof of the truth of their religion. The confidence and frequency with which they urged this argument is no mean indication that Christian living at that time was vastly superior to heathen living. "When false witnesses," says Origen, " testified against our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, He remained silent, believing that His whole life and conduct among the Jews were a better refutation than any answer to the false testimony. Jesus is at all times assailed by false witnesses, and, while wickedness remains in the world, is ever exposed to accusation. And yet even now He continues silent before these things, and makes no audible answer, but places His defence in the lives of His genuine disciples, which are a preeminent testimony, and one that rises superior to all false witnesses, and refutes and overthrows all unfounded accusations and charges." [Cont. Celsnm, Intro.] Justin Martyr testifies in this wise to the beneficial change wrought by the gospel: "We who formerly delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone; we who formerly used magical arts dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to every one in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of, a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God, the ruler of all." [Apol., xiv.]

The irresistible advance of Christianity in the face of every species of opposition and persecution was claimed by the apologists as an evidence of its Heaven-born character. "It is evident," said Justin Martyr, "that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that though beheaded and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others and in large numbers become faithful, and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus. For just as if one should cut away the fruit-bearing parts of a vine, it grows up again and yields other branches, flourishing and fruitful; even so the same thing happens with us. For the vine planted by God, and Christ the Saviour, is his people." [Dial. cum Tryph., cx.] "If any one ruler whatever," wrote Clement of Alexandria, "prohibit the Greek philosophy, it vanishes forthwith. But our doctrine, on its very first proclamation, was prohibited by kings and tyrants together, as well as particular rulers and governors, with all their mercenaries, and in addition by innumerable men, warring against us, and endeavoring, as far as they could, to exterminate it. But it flourishes the more. For it dies not as human doctrine dies, nor fades as a fragile gift. For no gift of God is fragile." [Strom., vi. 18.] "The oftener," wrote Tertullian, in words that have become classic, "we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow: the blood of Christians is seed. Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death, as Cicero in the Tusculans, as Seneca in his Chances. And yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, teachers not by words, but by their deeds. That very obstinacy you rail against is the preceptress. For who that contemplates it is not incited to inquire what is at the bottom of it ? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines?" [Apol., 1. Compare Ad Scapulam, v.]

Great stress was laid by the apologists upon the prophecies of the Old Testament, and a large space was devoted to the illustration of their wonderful fulfilment in Christianity. The evidence of miracle was also insisted upon, but received less emphasis than that of prophecy. The current belief in magic impaired the effect of an appeal to supernatural workings, and so lessened the disposition to make the appeal. The apologists, however, knew how to strip the subject of false associations. There are certain marks, Origen argued, which broadly distinguish Jesus and His works from magicians and their lying wonders. "There would, indeed, be a resemblance between them, if Jesus, like the dealers in magical arts, had performed His works only for show; but now there is not a single juggler, who, by means of his proceedings, invites his spectators to reform their manners, or trains those to the fear of God who are amazed at what they see, nor who tries to persuade them so to live as men who are to be justified by God. And jugglers do none of these things, because they have neither the power nor the will, nor any desire to busy themselves about the reformation of men, inasmuch as their own lives are full of the grossest and most notorious sins." Nothing could be greater than the manifest contrast between this sect of impostors and Jesus, who reformed men and instructed them still more fully by "His words and character than by His miracles." [Cont. Celsum, i. 68.]

Finally, the apologists made a strong appeal to the exalted nature of Christian truth, and its adaptation to the human soul. They claimed that it presented the highest ideal of life conceivable, and was in harmony with all the nobler impulses and aspirations of man. Tertullian represents that the soul in its native, unperverted impulses is Christian, and bears witness to the main truths of Christianity. Hence, often, the heathen himself, when startled out of the force of custom, will call out the name of God like a monotheist, and look, not to the Capitol, but to Heaven. [De Testimonio animæ.] Clement of Alexandria describes, in his poetic way, how the riches of God's love are poured upon man in the gospel; how Christ is a Master far excelling all that is fabled of Amphion, Arion, or Orpheus, bringing harmony into a disordered universe, and especially healing the discords in man, "this beautiful breathing instrument of music" from the hands of God. [Cohort., i.] "The name of Jesus," says Origen, "can still remove distractions from the minds of men, and expel demons, and also take away diseases; and produce a marvellous meekness of spirit and complete change of character, and a humanity and goodness and gentleness in those individuals who do not feign themselves to be Christians for the sake of subsistence, or the supply of any mortal wants, but who have honestly accepted the doctrine concerning God and Christ, and the judgment to come." [Cont. Celsum, i. 67.]