The Greek Apologists Of The Second Century

Early Church History ­ C. Volz

With the Greek apologists the literature of the church addresses itself for the first time to the outside world and enters the domain of culture and science. The "apologies" (i.e. defenses) were designed to answer the questions and criticisms of the more educated and sophisticated pagans, such as Lucian of Sarnosata (On the Death of Peregrini) 170 AD, Pronto (Oration), teacher of Marcus Aurelius; Celsus (True Discourse) 176 AD.

In passing from the Apostolic Fathers to the Greek apologists of the second century, one enters a totally different atmosphere. We now witness the early encounters of Christianity with classical culture, and the various efforts of Christian thinkers to interpret the relationship between them. Some are willing to grant validity to the spark of truth that they believe can be found in papan philosophy, whereas others see no relationship between Christianity and Hellenism than a war to the bitter end. In their effort to present the Christian faith in such a manner that it may be understood by pagans, Christians find themselves forced to systematize their thought, so it can be said that the Apologists are the first systematic theologians of Christianity. Their main contribution is in their doctrine of the Logos, which opened the way to dialogue between Christian faith and classical culture. In general they look upon Christianity as a philosophy (or a doctrine). Christ is above all the teacher of a new morality or true philosophy.

The concept of God which the Apologists took from Hellenistic philosophy, and which emphasized the divine immutability, would long be a burden on Christian theology and would be a factor making more difficult the trinitarian and christological controversies of later centuries.

  1. The Apologists challenged the common perceptions of Christians as being a threat to society/ Instead of being a peril to the state, they were its strongest supporters. They were chaste and honorable.
  2. They exposed the absurdities and immoralities of the pagan gods and myths.
  3. Christianity possessed absolute truth, whereas paganism and philosophy had only partial truth. The best in pagan antiquity was due to the Logos and to Moses. Pagan philosophy prepared the way for Christ among the Greeks just as the Jews were prepared by the Old Testament prophets.
  4. A recurring theme in the Apologists is human free­will and the ability humans have to make free choices regarding good and evil. (Later Latin theology would emphasize that "we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.")
  5. The Apologists were strong on the resurrection of the body.
  6. They also left room for subordinationism, that is, understanding the Trinity as hierarchical, with the Son in second place after the Father.

The Greek Apologists

1. ARISTIDES OF ATHENS (before 138 AD)
Wrote to emperor Hadrian(in Eus. 4:3:2). Divided humanity into four races according to religion: barbarians, Greeks, Jews, Christians. The first worship the four elements, Greeks believe in myths, Jews stress externals, and only the Christians possess truth. One text of Aristides insists that children are sinless.

2. JUSTIN MARTYR (died about 165 AD)
The most important of the Greek Apologists of the second century. He came to Christianity via Stoicism, Peripatetics, Pythagoreans, and Platonists. After his conversion he retained his philosopher's cloak and became an itinerant teacher. He founded a school in Rome and flourished during the reign of Antoninus Pious (138­161). Tatian, his pupil, was also an Apologist. Justin was strongly opposed by Crescens, the Cynic. In 165 he was beheaded. His martyrology is extant and genuine.

Three of his works have come down to us: "Dialogue With Trypho," the Jews, and two "Apologies", of which the first is the longest and most important. There are seven lost writings. God is transcendent and immutable, therefore a bridge is necessary. The Logos is the bridge, through whom God is revealed. God was revealed to the ancients and the pagans through the Logos. Plato et al possessed the Logos, but only partially. The Logos is not only the rational principle of the universe but it also is the pre­existent Christ. Those who lived according to this rational principle before Christ, "even though they have been thought to be atheists, were Christians."

Justin discusses the problem of the relationship between the Old Testament and Christianity in his Dialogue with Trypho. The OT relates to the NT in two ways: by means of events that point to events in the NT, and by means of prophecies that speak of NT realities. The first of these are "types" or "figures", the second are called "sayings." We see here the development of an exegetical tradition significant for patristic theology. Justin emphasizes Free­will, the role of Demons, and offers an extended description of a second century Eucharistic Service and Baptism. It is the earliest and fullest account we have of a Christian Liturgy.

3. TATIAN THE SYRIAN (fl. c. 170 AD)
A student of Justin, but radically different from his teacher in that he finds no good whatever in philosophy or in pagan antiquity. He founded a Gnostic sect called Encratites. His 'discourse to the Greeks' is a polemic against Greek culture. His "Diatessaroon" (To die tessaroon euaggelion) is the FIRST HARMONY OF THE GOSPELS, used in Syria until the 5th C. Teaches creation from nothing (ex nihilo), Moses is older than Homer, evil came when humans misused their freedom, souls by nature are not immortal but only by grace, which implies the destruction of non­believers at death, only Christian souls continue after the destruction of the body.

Refutes three main charges against the Christians: atheism, incest, and cannibalism. "A Plea for Christians" and "On the Resurrection of the Dead." He proves the resurrection from reason - it agrees with God's nature and with human nature. Both body and soul participate in sin/goodness, therefore should also participate in rewards/punishment. Emphasis is on the unity of the Word with the Father. Marriage is solely for the purpose of pro-creation and abortion is sinful. Strong on biblical inspiration.

Bishop of Antioch, who wrote "To Autolychus" in which he points to the absurdity of idolatry. He contrasts the wisdom of the prophets with the foolishness of pagans. He is the first to use the term trias (threeness) for God. The human soul is neither mortal or immortal but capable of either. He distinguishes between the immanent Word and the expressed Word ­ the latter is the firstborn of all creation.

6. MELITO OF SARDIS (ca. 170 AD)
Bishop of Sardis. Advocate of solidarity between the Church and the State. World empires and the Christian religion are foster sisters and form a pair. The Christian religion means blessing and welfare to the empire. Christ was pre­existent and divine, but the distinction between the Father and Son is almost erased.

Christians are like everyone else except morally superior. The soul is in the body as Christians are in the world. Just as there is sometimes body/soul tension, so also Christian/World, but the world needs the Church. This anonymous author is a master of rhetoric, and this is one of the most beautiful and noble defenses of the new faith.


The Greek Apologists aim at nothing less than presenting Christianity as the authentic heir of Graeco­Roman civilization. Their emphasis is chiefly on monotheism and the resurrection. They proclaim the alliance of Christianity with philosophy, of the Church and Empire. They accept the world in which they live, i.e. they are optimists.

The Hellenistic world of the second century was the arena of rhetoric. Christian writers of this period were trained in Greek and Roman schools. They all quote from Homer, the tragic authors, or from each other. Their literary forms ­ alliteration and rhythm ­ are steeped in Hellenism. So also their thoughts. Justin said the Logos spoke through Socrates and Plato. Tatian and Athenagoras are influenced by Aristotle, especially in logic and psychology. Justin has several Stoic ideas (destruction of world by fire, logos spermotikos and endiathetos). The most pronounced influence on them was Middle Platonism. Here we find a new type emerging, the Christian intellectual, who had no equivalent in Judeo Christianity. The Apologists represent the dynamic element in the Church at that time in contrast to the great bishops, who were primarily upholders of the received tradition.