Church History: The Early Apologists

Ecclesiastical history is replete with individuals who explained, guarded and defended the Catholic Faith. Despite laborious study, frequent roadblocks, and occasional martyrdom, this task of "apologetics" is indispensable for Catholicism. After the Apostles, the task of apologetics fell to the Church Fathers. A brief survey of their apologetic literature is illuminating. Practically speaking, the Fathers who engaged in apologetics were following an earlier pattern discovered in the Holy Bible. The Greek word apologia can be rendered as "defense," "reply" or "answer" (cf. Acts 22:1; 1 Cor 9:3; 1 Pt 3:15). The milieu subsequent to the New Testament era dictated this Patristic defense. For starters, false rumors of immorality by Christians were circulated in society. Additionally, the state treated the profession of the Catholic Faith as a capital crime. Further, aggressive polemicists began to produce writings that attacked God’s revealed religion. To counter these problems, the Fathers responded in speech and print. The survey below reveals a wide spectrum of issues addressed in Patristic apologetic literature. Quadratus, a native of Asia Minor, wrote his Apology to Adrian circa A.D. 124. Contained in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 4.3.2, the Apology notes that certain recipients of miracles from the Lord Jesus Christ were still alive in the second century. The testimony afforded by these beneficiaries of the miraculous assisted in spreading the Gospel. The Letter to Diognetus, written by an anonymous author A.D. 125-200, is another interesting apologetics treatise. This defense of the Faith asserts that Christians, far from having no role in "secular" society, were really constituted as the "soul of the world" (Letter 6.2). This fact is just as relevant in A.D. 2002. Circa A.D. 140, Aristides of Athens composed his Apology. This Athenian philosopher explains that Christianity is the true religion; traceable in its origin to the only begotten Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ (Apology 15). In our present age, this truth should not be watered down or ignored by Catholics, but taught with patience and charity. Aristo of Pella (Palestine), perhaps the first apologist to address the relationship between the Old and New Covenants, authored Discussion Between Jason and Papiscus Concerning Christ. Composed circa A.D. 140, the Discussion demonstrates the reasonableness of the allegorical interpretation (i.e. typology) of sacred Scripture. This methodology is essential for Biblical studies. The Apology for Christian Philosophy, composed A.D. 161-180, came from the rhetorician of Asia Minor named Miltiades. Part of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 5.17.5, the Apology is a vindication of Christianity addressed to the temporal rulers of the day (e.g. Marcus Aurelius). Again, further encouragement to interact with "the world." A.D. 165—175, Tatian the Syrian wrote his Address to the Greeks. Tatian upholds the truth that God is without beginning and has always existed (Address 4). It is interesting to see, even in the second century, the Fathers interacting with such a profound concept. St. Melito, the bishop of Sardis in Libya, penned his Apology for Christianity circa A.D. 170. Discovered in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 4.26.14, the work of the bishop mentions the Christian use of the Old Testament. These books are integral to the Catholic Church. Supplication forthe Christians, written circa A.D. 177, comes to us from Athenagoras of Athens, a Christian philosopher. This treatise states that the prophets of the Old Testament, who functioned under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reveal prophecies that testify to the truths of the Catholic Faith (Supplication 7). Fulfilled prophecy is an excellent device for apologetics. Circa A.D. 181, St. Theophilus of Antioch composed Discourse to Autolycus. This treatise contains one of the earliest written expressions of the term "Trinity" in reference to the Triune Godhead (Discourse 2.15). Undoubtedly, Trinitarian theology was aided by the Patristic thinkers. These samples are a small part of the apologetic literature from the Fathers. These early apologists covered a wide range of topics: miracles; Christian social interaction; the Church’s divine origin; Scripture and the function of doctrine. It is an outstanding endeavor to follow the example of the early Fathers and be able to explain, guard and defend the Catholic Faith. Ciresi serves on the faculty of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College.

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