Apologetics in the Second Century

by Thomas B. Falls


This article by Thomas B. Falls from 1944 examines some of the early threats to the Church and how they were overcome by the apologists of the second century.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review


363 – 367

Publisher & Date

American Ecclesiastical Review, Washington, D.C., May 1944

The second century was one of the most critical periods in the Church's history. During this period she was not only forced to check the onslaughts of formidable and relentless enemies from without; she was beset by persistent enemies from within the fold. These internal enemies were the Judeo-Christians, the Gnostics, and the Montanists, all of whom professed to be Christians yet attempted to force upon the Church unchristian teachings and practices.

The Judeo-Christians, who are also known as Judaizers, tried to make Christian practices adhere to the prescriptions of Mosaic Law and to continue the Levitical worship in the Temple at Jerusalem, which they wanted to be the moral center of the Church. This group, made up chiefly of converts from the Pharisees, occasioned the First General Council at Jerusalem. Undaunted by the adverse decision of that council, the Judeo-Christians stubbornly held their ground and gradually developed into various heretical sects, such as, for instance, the Ebionites.

A far greater danger to the young Church was the intellectual movement known as Gnosticism. This movement developed from a tendency of religious-minded Christians to give a philosophical explanation of the mysteries of the Christian religion. The tendency would have been orthodox had faith been given its proper place; but when the Gnostics substituted reason for faith and supplanted faith by "Gnosis" (knowledge) they fell into the pitfall of heresy. It took the genius of St. Irenaeus to sound the death-knell of Gnosticism.

In the third quarter of the second century the Church was disturbed by a self-styled prophet, Montanus, who pretended to restore the charismatic gifts which had been so abundant in the first century. Montanus, who called himself the mouthpiece of the Holy Ghost, claimed to voice the third and last Revelation, which was to complete the Revelation of Jesus Christ. He instilled into the minds of his ardent followers the imminence of the Second Coming of Christ, and exhorted them to practice many austerities. Although Montanism split into several varying rigoristic sects, it did not entirely disappear until the sixth century.

These so-called internal enemies of the Church, viz., the Judeo-Christians, the Gnostics, and the Montanists, threatened the unity of the Christian Church in the second century. However, the Church's very existence was threatened in this same period by its external enemies who used every known human means to bring about the extermination of Christianity. The external enemies of the Church at this time were the Jews and the pagans. The Jews, who opposed the Church from its very beginning, accused the Christians principally on three counts: first, of believing that a crucified criminal was the Messias prophesied in the Jewish sacred scriptures, (whereas, the Jews claimed, the true Messias has not yet made Himself manifest to the world);1 second, that, since Christianity stemmed from Judaism, Christians, faithful to their origin, should have observed the precepts of the Jewish Law, such as circumcision, sanctification of the Sabbath, etc.;2 third, that the Christians professed a false doctrine by denying the God of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.3

This Jewish hostility was reflected in and, in a way, was the cause of the hostile attitude of the pagans towards the Christians — a hostility that led to the bloody persecutions of the second century.

The pagan accusations against the Christians were of a three-fold character, religious, political, and moral. From a religious viewpoint the pagans, especially the Romans, considered the Christians impious and atheistic because they would not frequent the pagan temples, give honor to the state gods, or attend pagan religious festivities (to which were often attached acts of immorality). The political accusation was that of failure in good citizenship, because Christians were said to be subjects of "another kingdom." The moral incriminations against the Christians especially showed the ingenuity of the Romans in reconstructing in their minds scenes of which they knew little more than nothing. These were the charges of infanticide, cannibalism, and incest. The Christian tendency to conceal the mysteries, especially that of the Eucharistic celebration, from the uninitiated — the "Disciplina Arcani" — probably encouraged these charges. The pagans had heard vague rumors of what happened at the Eucharistic assemblies, rumors of Christians eating bread that was someone's flesh and drinking his blood, and they reconstructed the spectacle in this fashion: a live infant was carried into the meeting place and then was concealed in flour. A neophyte, furnished with a club, was ordered to beat the lump of flour. Thus the infant was beaten to death and its blood was tasted by the initiated and its flesh eaten.4 In this way the Christians, said the pagans, were guilty of infanticide and anthropophagy. This is the celebrated accusation of the "Coenae Thyesteae." The charge of incest (Concubitus Oedipodeus) may also be traced to the Discipline of the Secret. The pagans had heard that the Christians were known by their love for one another, that they called one another 'brother' and 'sister,' and that at the Eucharistic banquet a 'kiss of peace' was given. Consequently, these infidels, with such thoughts in mind, and conscious of what took place at their own religious celebrations, accused the Christians of all sorts of immorality, chiefly that of incest.5

To defend the Church and to answer the above-described accusations of the Jews and pagans Divine Providence raised up a group of men known now as the Apologists of the Second Century. These Apologists were Quadratus, Aristides, Aristo of Pella, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Miltiades, Apollinaris of Hierapolis, Melito of Sardis, Hermias, Apollonius, Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and the unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetus.

Unfortunately we do not possess all the writings of these early champions of the Catholic faith. In fact, none of the works of almost half the Apologists are extant; while of the rest of the Apologists we have not even half the works.6 However, from their extant works we can form a clear idea of the method the Apologists followed in answering the incriminations of both Jew and pagan. Special emphasis was placed on the replies to the pagans because, due to their number and influence, they constituted the bulk of the opposition to the Christian Church.

Most of the writings against the Jews were composed in the form of dialogues7 in which the Apologists answered the Jewish objections by insisting that the Old Testament has been superseded by the New; that the prescriptions of the Old Law were but figures or types of the New Law; and that Jesus of Nazareth is the true Messias because in Him were verified all the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.8

The apologies against the pagans were often written in the form of open letters or exhortations, addressed sometimes to the Emperor or Senate, sometimes to the people in general or to one person in particular.9 The general theme of these apologies was an invitation to the pagan world to consider the genuine teachings and practices of the Christians before condemning them, "ne ignorata damnetur."10 The Apologists replied to the pagan charges by denying them emphatically and by showing how the crimes of which they were accused were in direct opposition to Christian principles. The Christians, they pointed out, believed in One God, and therefore were not atheists; they observed such a rigorous code of morality that they abhorred the very mention of sins like infanticide or incest.11 But the pagans, continued the Apologists, were guilty of the self-same crimes of which they accused the Christians, and of many others, such as idolatry.12

The work of the Apologists was not only defensive, as the name Apologist might imply; but it was also expository, for they were not satisfied with merely answering the false charges of their opponents in order to win toleration for the Christian Church, but they had taken on the added task of proving the truth of Christianity and thus aiding in its diffusion throughout the world. Many of the Apologists had been philosophers before their conversion;13 they continued to wear the philosopher's robe when they became Christians and to employ philosophy to prove the divine origin of Christianity. To accomplish this they emphasized in their writings those points where Christianity and pagan wisdom coincided.

The Apologists, therefore, were the first to attempt to effect harmony between revelation and reason. In other words, they were the pioneers in the field that was later to develop into the science of Apologetics. The principles of Apologetics laid down by these early defenders of the Catholic faith can still be used today with great profit. So close were these Fathers to the origins of Christianity and so faithfully do they re-echo the Apostolic teaching that today their words are of extraordinary value in the eyes of inquiring non-Catholics. Consequently their writings should hold a high place in the field of Apologetics. Although their work was primarily apologetical in character, yet, despite their own faulty theological terminology, the Apologists did lay the ground work for much of the later theological speculation. In a positive way the Apologists' principal task was to show that, whereas paganism failed to do so, Christianity did give the true answers to the ultimate problems of man's origin and destiny. History has shown how well the Apologists performed their task.

End Notes

  1. Cf. St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, cap. 10.
  2. Cf. Acts, chap. 15; St. Justin Martyr, loc. cit.
  3. Cf. St. Justin Martyr, op. cit., cap. 11.
  4. Cf. Minucius Felix, Octavius, cap. 9.
  5. Cf. ibid.
  6. It is encouraging to know that discoveries of the Apologists' writings are still being made. Thus the Apology of Aristides was discovered in 1889 at St. Catherine's on Mt. Sinai by the American scholar J. Rendel Harris. A work by Melito of Sardis entitled On the Passion came to light in 1940 among the papyri obtained from Egypt by A. C. Beatty and the University of Michigan. (Cf. Edgar J. Goodspeed, A History of Early Christian Literature, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1942, p. 184.)
  7. Thus St. Justin's Dialogue with Trypho and Aristo of Pella's Disputation between Jason and Papiscus concerning Christ.
  8. Cf. St. Justin Martyr, op. cit., cap. 11.
  9. St. Justin's First Apology begins with the words: "To the Emperor Titus Aelius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, the natural son of Caesar and the adopted son of Pius, a lover of learning, and to the Sacred Senate with the whole people of the Romans; I, Justin, the son of Priscus and the grandson of Bacchius, natives of Flavia Neapolis in Palestine, present this address and petition in behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them." St. Theophilus of Antioch addressed his apology to Autolycus, a pagan who scorned the Christians.
  10. Cf. Tertullian, Apologeticus, cap. 1.
  11. Cf. Aristides, Apology, cap. 15-16; also Tertullian, op. cit., cap. 39.
  12. Cf. Athenagoras, Legatio, cap. 34; also Minucius Felix, op. cit., cap. 30.
  13. Among the Apologists who had been philosophers were Quadratus, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras and Hermias.

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