Defending The Faith Like The Early Church
by Stephen Presley
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…