Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Early Apologists: Aristides, Tatian, Athenagoras and Theophilus

Reading N°50 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

During the second half of the second century, the Christians did more than simply die with courage. The mere reading of their judicial examinations shows them exercising a confident and spirited effort to convert others. Among them, and besides them, were the apologists -theologians, catechists, not only striving to free Christianity from the charges made against it, but also spreading a knowledge of its harmony, beauty, and moral excellence, showing that it was dissociated from the heretical sects that were compromising it by their evil repute, and promoting its beneficent and sanctifying action. This was the work of a group of educated Christians. The most illustrious were Justin Martyr, the philosophers Aristides, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, and Athenagoras, Irenaeus, the renowned bishop of Lyons, the author of the Shepherd, the unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetus, and that great polemic whose valiant defense of the faith was known to the second century, but who, in the next century, fell into the snares of error - Tertullian.

These defenders of the Christian faith differed in style, temperament, education, and point of view. But they were all moved by the same inspiration. They felt that the struggle taking place between the pagan and the Christian world was not merely a struggle between two contending powers, but a struggle between two contrary systems of thought, two opposing moral attitudes. It was to justify the Christians' thought and moral attitude, to bring them a victory among their contemporaries, that these men wrote and spoke.

St. Aristides of Athens
Aristides was an Athenian philosopher. His plan is simple, but bold. The populace insulted the followers of Christ by calling them atheists; the charge made against them by the courts was that of atheism and impiety. Aristides wishes to prove, as against these charges, that the Christians alone have a correct idea of the Divinity and pay it worthy homage. In the matter of religion, he says, men are divided into four clases: the barbarians, the Greeks, the Jews, and the Christians. The barbarians adore the powers of nature, the sun and the winds. The Greeks have deified the powers and passions of man. The Jews have the worship of higher spirits, angels, but they make the mistake of honoring these more than they do God Himself and of confining themselves too much to wholly external ceremonies. The Christians alone adore God in spirit and in truth by the purity of their faith, but even more by the purity of their lives. The apology of Aristides, like the Didache, ends with a charming picture of the life of the early Christians.

Aristides' apology, which appeared in the reign of Antoninus Pius,[1] must have made a deep impression on upright souls.[2] Notwithstanding the gravity of the charges against the false religions, the tone of the work is calm and dignified, respectful toward the philosophers and poets of Greece.

Tatian the Assyrian
Quite otherwise was the apology which the Assyrian philosopher Tatian published soon after. It has been said that Tatian inaugurated the school of virulent apologists.[3] Bardenhewer says that Tatian everywhere displays a passionate harshness and partiality. He is unwilling to see any good in Hellenic culture. He repeats, without investigation, all the calumnies that were current against the Greek philosophers. What attraction there was in the warmth of his discourse and the strength of his conviction was offset by the repulsion which the bitterness of his attack aroused.[4] The fiery apologist, precursor of Tertullian, ended, like the latter, by suddenly separating from the Church. About AD 172, he returned to the East and founded the Gnostic sect of the Encratites, who forbade marriage, as also the use of wine and meat, and who, in celebrating the Eucharist, used water in place of wine - whence the name Aquarians which was given to them.

Athenagoras was a Christian philosopher of Athens. He frankly rejected the apologetics of invective and returned to that of simple exposition. He says that "what those need who have a care for truth and their own salvation is the direct exposition of truth."[5] And he admits that this exposition is able to convert only well-disposed souls.[6] The apologist enters upon a large number of proofs: the innocence of the Christians, the perfection of their doctrines and moral teaching, the dogmatic and moral inferiority of paganism. He holds that every mind can find in itself traces of knowledge that will make it docile to Christian teaching. Athenagoras is familiar with the Greek poets and frequently quotes them. He is far above Aristides and Tatian in the purity and beauty of his language; but he lacks that powerful originality which assembles arguments into a well-ordered whole and gives them vitality.

Theophilus had been a pagan; he was converted in manhood through the reading of the prophets,[7] and became bishop of Antioch. He also contrasts the doctrinal perfection and holiness of Christianity with the ignorance, contradictions, and moral inferiority of paganism. But he particularly insists on the dispositions of soul of his opponents. His method is psychological. He writes:
You say to me: 'Show me your God.' I reply: 'Show me what sort of men you are, and I will show you my God. Show me the eyes of your soul, that they are clear-sighted; show me the ears of your heart, that they are able to hear.'[8]
He says in another place:
No doubt the reason you have such a false notion of God is because you do not practice His service.[9]
And again:
Formerly I, too, refused to believe. But now, upon better reflection, I believe. [...] In God is my guarantee. If you, too, wish this, submit to God also.[10]
Theophilus is the first to express by the word Trinity, Trias, the personal distinction of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in God.[11]

Toward the end of the second century appeared a sharp but very superficial little work of the Christian philosopher Hermias, the Irrisio gentilium philosophorum. We know also the names of three other apologists: Melito, Apollinaris, and Miltiades. Of Melito of Sardis only a few fragments are extant. Of Apollinaris and Miltiades we have nothing. We may well suppose that, like those we have just mentioned, their apologetics consisted of occasional writings, composed hurriedly, as it were in the midst of the strife. With Hermas, St. Justin, St. Irenaeus, and Tertullian, we come to works that are more mature.


[1] Eusebius places this Apology in the time of Hadrian. Until 1889, only an Aramaic fragment of it was known. In that year, Rendel Harris discovered, at the Convent of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, a Syriac translation of it, which has led scholars to assign its composition to the period of Antoninus.
[2] The Apology of Aristides has left traces in the ancient Aramaic literature. In a somewhat abridged form, it was contained in the famous Life of Barlaam and Joasaph. (See Bardenhewer, Patrology, p. 46.)
[3] Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, I, 156.
[4] Bardenhewer, op. cit., p. 58.
[5] Athenagoras, De resurrectione, II.
[6] Ibidem, II, i.
[7] Theophilus, Ad Autolycum, I, iv.
[8] Ibidem, II, i.
[9] Ibidem, I, i.
[10] Ibidem, I, xiv.
[11] Ibidem, II, xv. Theophilus calls the three persons: God, the Word, and Wisdom.


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