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Church Fathers: The Other Greek Apologists

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 19, 2015

We know the names and some of the works of several other second century Greek Christian writers besides those covered in the preceding two installments. Though all of these explained and defended the Faith as did St. Justin Martyr, either they were writers of lesser power and reliability or their works have not been preserved (in some cases we know them almost entirely through references by later authors). Nonetheless, they demonstrate the rapidly expanding literary task of advancing Christianity in the first full century after Our Lord’s Resurrection. Seven more of these Greek apologists are covered briefly below.

Tatian the Syrian

Born about 120 to pagan Syrian parents, Tatian received a good Greek education and became a Sophist, traveling from town to town and lecturing. He eventually made his way to Rome, where he was a student of St. Justin Martyr and converted to Christianity (c. 165). After attending St. Justin’s school, he founded his own.

About 172, he left the Church and returned to the East, where he founded a Gnostic Christian sect called the Encratites (Abstinents). These forbade marriage as adultery, prohibited eating meat, and were so opposed to wine that they replaced it with water even in the Eucharistic rite; hence they were nicknamed the aquarii. (St. Clement of Alexandria later condemned this heresy in his Stromata.) Nothing is known of Tatian’s death.

Tatian contrasts sharply with St. Justin in his attitude toward pagan philosophy and culture. While Justin is happy to find fragments of truth in some pagan writers, going so far as to say that anything true found in pagan philosophy is Christian, Tatian is extremely harsh and dismissive of everything pagan. Quasten writes, “His character was so inclined to extremes that in his mind Christianity did not go far enough in its rejection of contemporary education and culture” [Patrology Vol. 1, p. 221]. Ultimately his extremist tendency led him to apostatize.

Tatian wrote an Address to the Greeks sometime after Justin’s death (165), though it is not certain whether it was before or after his apostasy. Some scholars believe it to be a justification of his conversion, while others believe it to be an dedicatory speech for the opening of his school.

It is more of an attack on paganism than a defense of Christianity. Where Justin engaged with paganism, Tatian simply blasts and belittles it, going down a long list of pagan philosophers, poets, beliefs, rituals and works of art and deriding each in turn as idiotic, immoral and worthless. Jurgens notes, “In so doing, he unwittingly provides antiquarians with a valuable descriptive list of Greek statuary, matched with the names of the artists who created the works” [Faith of the Early Fathers Vol. 1, p. 66].

More important than the Address is the Diatesseron, Tatian’s harmony of the four canonical Gospels. (A Gospel harmony is an arrangement of parts of all four Gospels into a continuous story.) Probably composed after his apostasy, it is nevertheless a significant witness to the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

For a long time, and throughout the third century, the Diatesseron was the only Gospel text used in the liturgy of the Syrian church, not displaced by the four separate canonical Gospels until the fifth century. The original is lost, and it is not certain whether it was composed in Greek or Syriac—it has been guessed that Tatian originally composed it in Greek and then translated it into Syriac himself.

Aside from fragments in Greek and Syriac, it is extant in Latin, Arabic, and Middle Low Franconian. Indeed, the Latin translation of Tatian’s harmony is the earliest attempt to present the Gospels in Latin. A fourth-century commentary on the Diatesseron by St. Ephrem the Syrian is extant in an Armenian translation. With all this, the Diatesseron is believed to have had significant influence on the Gospel texts for the whole Church.

Tatian wrote other works, some mentioned in his own Address and others by Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius. These works, all lost, include On Animals, On Demons, Against Those Who Have Treated of Divine Things, On Perfection According to the Precepts of the Savior, and On Problems (containing clarifications of difficult Scripture passages).

Miltiades

Miltiades was a rhetorician from Asia Minor, a contemporary of Tatian and probably also a student of St. Justin. He defended the faith against pagans, heretics and Jews, but none of his works is extant.

Eusebius reports that Miltiades wrote an Apology for Christian Philosophy directed to “temporal rulers”—probably the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and his co-regent Commodus (161-169). He wrote two two-volume works, one Against the Greeks and another Against the Jews. His anti-heretical works included a treatise against the Valentinian Gnostics, and a treatise against the Montanist false prophets entitled That a Prophet Should not Speak in Ecstasy.

St. Apollinaris Claudius

Bishop of Hierapolis during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Apollinaris wrote a number of works now lost. Eusebius lists a treatise directed to the emperor, five books Against the Greeks, two books Against the Jews, two books On the Truth, and multiple treatises against the Phrygians (Montanists). From another source we know that he also wrote a work On Easter.

Athenagoras of Athens

Athenagoras, a contemporary of Justin and Tatian, describes himself as a “Christian philosopher of Athens.” We know almost nothing of his life, save that he died soon after 180. Less original than Justin but stylistically superior, he shows himself quite familiar with Platonic philosophy and Greek poetry, which he quotes frequently. He refutes accusations against Christians calmly, without anger and with generosity towards pagan culture. Two of his works are extant: his apology, A Plea for the Christians (c. 177), and a treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead (c. 177-180).

Athenagoras was the first to attempt a rational proof of monotheism:

As regards, then, the doctrine that there was from the beginning one God, the Maker of this universe, consider it in this wise, that you may be acquainted with the argumentative grounds also of our faith. If there were from the beginning two or more gods, they were either in one and the same place, or each of them separately in his own. In one and the same place they could not be. For, if they are gods, they are not alike; but because they are uncreated they are unlike: for created things are like their patterns; but the uncreated are unlike, being neither produced from any one, nor formed after the pattern of any one…. But if, on the contrary, each of them exists separately, since He that made the world is above the things created, and above the things He has made and set in order, where can the other or the rest be? For if the world, being made spherical, is confined within the circles of heaven, and the Creator of the world is above the things created, managing that by His providential care of these, what place is there for the second god, or for the other gods?

In speaking of the Logos, Athenagoras avoids the subordinationist tendency of the other Greek Apologists. Indeed, he has a robust pre-Nicene formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity: “Who, then, would not be astonished to hear men who speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order, called atheists?”

He describes how the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets:

For poets and philosophers, as to other subjects so also to this, have applied themselves in the way of conjecture, moved, by reason of their affinity with the afflatus from God, each one by his own soul, to try whether he could find out and apprehend the truth; but they have not been found competent fully to apprehend it, because they thought fit to learn, not from God concerning God, but each one from himself; hence they came each to his own conclusion respecting God, and matter, and forms, and the world. But we have for witnesses of the things we apprehend and believe, prophets, men who have pronounced concerning God and the things of God, guided by the Spirit of God. And you too will admit, excelling all others as you do in intelligence and in piety towards the true God, that it would be irrational for us to cease to believe in the Spirit from God, who moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments, and to give heed to mere human opinions.

Athenagoras’s teaching on virginity and marriage is very clear and powerful. He expresses beautifully and simply the positive purpose of celibacy: “You would find many among us, both men and women, growing old unmarried, in hope of living in closer communion with God.”

Marriage is “only for the purpose of having children”: “For as the husbandman throwing the seed into the ground awaits the harvest, not sowing more upon it, so to us the procreation of children is the measure of our indulgence in appetite.”

Athenagoras believes that even death cannot dissolve a marriage, so that he describes a second marriage as a “decent adultery.”

Responding to accusations of murder leveled at Christians, he says that they are so far from committing murder that, unlike the Romans for whom a fetus is not a being with a right to life, Christians will not even commit abortion:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God's care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. But we are in all things always alike and the same, submitting ourselves to reason, and not ruling over it.

Athenagoras’s treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead ventures to prove rationally, based on God’s will and justice and on human nature, that universal resurrection is both possible and necessary. Jurgens writes, “Taking the purely philosophical approach, little can be said today for the proof of resurrection that is not already said by Athenagoras” [Faith of the Early Fathers Vol. 1, p. 71].

The arguments based on human nature are particularly impressive—Athenagoras argues that man is made for eternity, man is not just body or soul but a body-soul composite, and therefore it is necessary for both the body and the soul to be given eternal life. In the course of establishing man’s eternal destiny we find this remarkable passage:

[God] did not create man for the sake of any of the other works which He produced; for nothing which uses reason and judgment has been created or is created for the use of another creature, whether greater or less than itself; but such are created for the sake of their own life and existence.

St. Theophilus of Antioch

St. Theophilus was the seventh bishop of Antioch. Born near the Euphrates to pagan parents, he received a Hellenistic education and also knew Hebrew. He converted as an adult after a lengthy study of Scripture, and died sometime between 185 and 191.

Theophilus’s only surviving works are the three books which make up his apology To Autolycus. The third book contains a chronology of the world ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius on March 17, 180; thus it was probably written around 181.

Autolycus is a pagan friend against whose objections Theophilus defends Christianity. In the first book, Theophilus discusses the essence of God, the absurdity of idolatry and the meaning of the name Christian. In the second he contrasts the wisdom of the prophets with the pagan poets, shows the contradictory statements of pagan poets like Hesiod and Homer on the beginning of the world, and explains the Genesis account of creation. He discusses the proper way of living and venerating God; interestingly, in addition to the prophets he quotes the pagan Sibyl at length as an authority teaching the oneness of God. In the third book, he shows the superiority of Christian to pagan morality, and gives a chronology of the world to show that the prophets are older than the philosophers.

While Theophilus claims not to be educated in speech, he is clearly familiar with classical rhetorical devices. His style is lucid and graceful and he uses an abundance of compelling metaphors, as in the following passage: “As a burnished mirror, so ought man to have his soul pure. When there is rust on the mirror, it is not possible that a man’s face be seen in the mirror; so also when there is sin in a man, such a man can not behold God.”

He uses the New Testament far more than the other Greek apologists. In fact, he is the first to teach clearly the inspiration of the New Testament, putting the evangelists on the same level with the prophets: “Confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one spirit of God.” He calls the gospels “holy word” and the Epistles of St. Paul “the divine word.” John is named as one of the “spirit-bearing men.”

Theophilus is the first to use the word Trinity (“trinitas”) for the three persons in one God. He is also the first to distinguish between the Word (Logos) as internal to God and the Word as uttered, emitted, or begotten by God: “God, then, having His own Word internal within His own bowels, begat Him, emitting Him along with His own wisdom before all things. He had this Word as a helper in the things that were created by Him, and by Him He made all things.”

Like Justin, Theophilus thinks the soul is not naturally immortal; rather, it is created with the potential to be either mortal or immortal, and immortality is granted it as a reward for keeping God’s commandments.

Besides To Autolycus, he wrote several works, none of which are extant. These, according to Eusebius and Jerome, include a treatise Against the Heresy of Hermogenes, Against Marcion, catechetical treatises, Commentaries on the Gospel, On the Proverbs of Solomon, and a gospel harmony. In To Autolycus, Theophilus mentions another book he wrote called The History, apparently a history of mankind.

St. Melito of Sardis

We know almost nothing biographical about St. Melito, bishop of Sardis in Lydia, except from a letter from St. Polycrates of Ephesus to Pope St. Victor I, which says that he was one of the “great lights” of Asia, he was a eunuch (that is, celibate for the sake of the Kingdom), he “lived entirely in the Holy Spirit,” and he was already deceased when the letter was written about 190.

Melito was likely one of the greatest of the second-century Fathers and wrote prolifically on a wide range of subjects, yet most of his over twenty works are lost. We are bereft of the following: two books On the Passover, a treatise On Christian Life and the Prophets, On the Church, On the Lord’s Day, On the Faith of Man, On Creation, On the Obedience of Faith, On the Senses, On the Soul and Body, On Hospitality, On Baptism, On Truth, On Faith and Christ’s Birth, On Prophecy, The Key, On the Devil, On the Apocalypse of John, On God Incarnate, On the Incarnation of Christ, and six books of Extracts from the Law and the Prophets concerning our Savior and our entire faith.

From that last work, the Extracts, Eusebius preserved the preface, which “contains the oldest list of the canonical scriptures of the Old Testament” [Quasten, p. 246].

Fragments of an apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius (c. 170) are preserved by Eusebius. According to Quasten, Melito was “the first to advocate solidarity of Christianity with the Empire” [p. 242].

A theologically rich Good Friday sermon by Melito, “On the Pascha,” was discovered in the early twentieth century.

Hermias the Philosopher

From Hermias we have a Mockery of the Heathen Philosophers (not in the CatholicCulture.org library). This apologetic work, held by scholars to be witty but superficial, satirizes the conflicting views of Greek philosophers on the soul and the universe. Nothing is known of the author, and his book is not mentioned by any ancient writers, so that dating it is impossible. Based on the text itself, it is guessed to have been written in the third century.


Previous in series: St. Justin Martyr
Next in series: Background on Heresies

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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