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Advanced Historical Theology - The Greek Apologists - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 3 – Advanced Historical Theology – The Greek Apologists

Toward the middle of the second century a group known as apologists came to light. These were men who defended the Christian faith against error. They wrote against heresies that would be considered outside the church, rather than inside the church. They often refuted paganism and theological attacks against Christians. Many times these apologists (who were not “apologizing” for Christians but rather defending them) had to take up their pens against rumors circulating throughout the regions.

Aristides was an apologist whose work is the oldest copy we have today. It was written about the year 138 A.D. and comprises a discourse on the nature of God and the world. He classifies humankind into four groups (barbarians, Greeks, Jews and Christians) where only the Christians have the “truth.” The world will ultimately come into a terrible judgment when Jesus Christ returns.

Justin Martyr is the most important apologist of the second century for two reasons: breadth of material written, and depth of thought in that material. Justin affirms that all knowledge is the product of the Logos. He is not only the rational principle of the universe, but the Logos of the fourth Gospel narrative. This Word was made flesh and dwelt among the people of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Christians now behold what the ancients saw in parts. This is the difference between the seminal logos of the Old Testament and the seeds of the logos now revealed in their fullness in the New Testament. In his Dialogue with Trypho, he explains the relation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament refers to the New Testament in two ways: 1) by means of events that point to other events in the New Testament, and 2) by means of prophecies which speak of New Testament realities that ultimately came true in the New Testament. Here is where Justin affirms the idea of “types” regarded in the Old Testament as fulfilled in the New Testament. His apology attempts to use Hellenistic philosophy in order to present the Christian faith, but understands and acknowledges the distance between philosophy and faith.

Tatian was converted to Christianity in Rome through the efforts of Justin. After Justin’s martyr in 165 A.D., Tatian founded his own teaching center. After this he left for Syria, and legend has it, that he founded a sect of heretics called the Encratites, about which little is known. After 180 A.D. he simply disappears from history. His most important work is the Address to the Greeks where he demonstrates that even the barbarians are more religiously intelligent than the Greek pantheon of gods.

Athenagoras was a contemporary of Tatian and wrote two important works that have survived: A Plea for the Christians and On the Resurrection of the Dead. He expounds on the doctrine of the Logos, and the Son’s relationship to the Father. He also provided a summary of the doctrine of Christian resurrection, in that the resurrection agrees with the nature of God, as well as with the nature of the human nature. The resurrection of the dead requires a formers “self” or “body” that had lived and so there is no contradiction between being immortal and having a true body.

Theophilus of Antioch (bishop of that city) wrote the Three Books to Autolycus. Although many believe that Tertullian coined the term “trinity”, in this work Theophilus uses the term and seems to have been the first to utilize it in Christian theology (cf. Ad Autol. 15).

Among lesser known works is Hermias, the Epistle to Diognetus and Melito of Sardis. Hermias wrote the Mockery of the Pagan Philosopher which often regarded as part of the Greek Apologists, but its date has been contested to be of later origin. It says little about Christian theology and is taken up more with the basics of philosophy. The Epistle of Diognetus refutes both pagan and Jewish customs, and it expounds the Christian faith in a very simple light. Truth comes from God, not from human wisdom. Melito of Sardis is a vague figure in history and only some of his sermons have survived. They cover the history of Israel, lay special emphasis on the Exodus and the Passover, and looks at all of redemptive history as pointing to Jesus Christ.

The development of the Logos doctrine for Christianity is an important feature of theological reflection, but comprises a number of difficulties that will arise later on in history. Some of the later heresies will arise as a result of misunderstanding the role of the Logos and His relationship to the humanity of Jesus Christ.

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