In the second century, pagans in the Greco-Roman world accused Christians of atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Christians were accused of atheism partly because they refused to worship the Roman gods, and partly because they had no shrines or temples, and no altars or images. Christians were accused of cannibalism because the pagans thought that they ate human flesh and drank human blood in secret rituals. And they were accused of incest because they appeared to marry their own siblings, since they called one another brothers and sisters.
During this period, a group of early Christian theologians and writers whose work was mainly directed at addressing these accusations and defending the Christian faith, came onto the scene. These authors were called apologists, a term that is derived from the Greek word apologia, which means ‘speaking in defence’.
Aristides was one of these apologists. He, in several works, defended the Christian faith against the baseless accusations of the pagan philosophers. For example, in response to the accusation that Christians are atheists, Aristides argued that the God that Christians worship is the sovereign Creator of the heavens and the earth. Unlike the gods of the Greeks, who commit adultery and are perpetrators of all sorts of evil, the Christian God is holy and just, Aristides added.
As the rational defence of the Christian faith against its cultural and intellectual despisers, apologetics is as much needed today as it was in the early history of the Church. Like the early Christians, believers today are confronted with numerous challenges posed by secularists in our society.
Recent decades have witnessed the appearance of a number of atheist writers whose mission is to attack and discredit religion, especially that of Christianity. Examples include Richard Dawkins (who insisted that the God of the Bible is a monster) and Bart Ehrman (who challenged the reliability of the Scriptures).
The Bible exhorts believers to be ready to offer an explanation of their faith to those who enquire. Writing to Christians scattered across Asia Minor, Peter exhorted them to be always “prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
And in Jude, we read this admonishment: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
The early Christian apologists were learned men steeped in the most influential philosophical systems of their day, such as Platonism and Stoicism. Some of them – most eminently, Justin Martyr – were philosophers in their own right before their conversion to the Christian faith.
In presenting an apology for Christianity, these early writers displayed remarkable erudition. For example, in his treatise, Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras quoted a long list of Greek poets and philosophers.
The modern Christian apologist must similarly not only be steeped in the Bible and the tradition of the Church. He or she must also have a penetrating knowledge of the prevailing cultural sensibilities and worldview(s). But most significantly, the Christian apologist must be well versed in philosophy and adept in philosophical reasoning.
As Douglas Groothius explains in his fine book Christian Apologetics: “A Christian-qua-apologist… must be a good philosopher (even if he is not a professional philosopher). This is non-negotiable and indispensable. As a logical and persuasive discipline, the connection of apologetics to philosophy is vital.”
Apologetics must also be seen as an integral part of evangelism. Apologetics has a critical role to play in evangelism because, as J. Gresham Machen has perceptively pointed out, false ideas can be impediments to the reception of the gospel.
“We may preach with all the fervour of the Reformer,” Machen writes, “and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the restless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”
The early apologists of the Church understood this very well. For them, apologetics can remove the fog of confusion and misinformation regarding Christianity so that the compelling beauty of the Gospel may shine forth.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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