UNLIKE THE APOSTOLIC FATHERS whose works addressed pastoral issues and concerns in the various churches, the Apologists were early Christian writers who wrote treatises in response to pagan criticisms. Steeped in the philosophical thinking of their day, the Apologists were robust defenders of Christianity. Their works oﬀer invaluable insight into the early Church and its engagement with pagan culture.
The writings of these theologians are also the Church’s first attempts to systematically articulate its faith, often by using the conceptual tools provided by the philosophies of the time. The Apologists were the first writers to oﬀer a rational defence of the truth-claims of the Christian faith. The historical theologian Robert Grant is right to assert that the Apologists “created the basic method of traditional Christian theology”.
The pagan philosophers of the second century attacked the Church by making a number of outrageous allegations against its practices. One of the most common allegations was that the followers of Christ were in fact atheists. is allegation came about because Christians refused to worship the gods of the Roman pantheon. Another common allegation was that Christians committed ritualistic homicide and participated in cannibalism required by their strange rites. These charges were made against Christians because in their celebration of the Eucharist they claimed to eat human flesh and drink human blood.
Finally, some pagans accused the Christians of sexual immorality, especially incest. is was because members of the Church called each other “brother” and “sister” and yet professed love for each other. The early Christian Apologists – Aristides, Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Athenogoras of Athens, Tatian and Theophilus of Antioch – defended the Church against these unfounded accusations and slander.
Among these early writers, Justin Martyr deserves his reputation as “the most important second-century apologist”. Among his many contributions to Christian thought was his understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Justin, who was born into a Greek family in second-century Palestine, was a philosopher in the Platonic tradition before his conversion to Christianity. After coming to faith in Christ, Justin continued to think very highly of philosophy. He believed that philosophy enabled genuine inquiry into the meaning of human existence and reality. As a Christian, however, he believed that while philosophy may ask these questions, it was unable to provide the answers. The answers to man’s deepest questions could only be found in the Christian faith.
This was in fact Justin’s own experience in his quest for truth. As a young man, he dabbled in a number of philosophical systems – Stoicism, Peripateticism and Phythagoreanism – before settling down with Platonism. But although these philosophical systems provided fascinating theories about the meaning of human existence, they failed to satisfy the young Justin.
One day, Justin met an old man who directed his attention to the Old Testament Prophets, insisting that “they only taught that which they have heard and seen with the help of the Holy Spirit”. As he listened to this old man, he became convinced that Christianity was true. He described his experience years later:
“My soul began to immediately burn, and I longed for the love of the prophets and the friends of Christ. I reflected upon their teachings, and found therein the only dependable and useful philosophy. It was in this way, and on this basis, that I became a philosopher.”
Justin described himself as a philosopher in this passage because he believed he has found in Christianity the true philosophy.
ON THE BASIS of his newfound faith, he was able to crystallise in his mind the relationship between philosophy and theology, reason and faith. As we have seen, for him, Christianity was the true philosophy because it alone provided the right answers to man’s deepest philosophical and existential questions. The Christian faith is able to do this because it is based on God’s revelation, while philosophy is basically dependent on human speculation.
As the true philosophy, Christianity is therefore far superior to all the philosophies of men, including that of Plato. But Christianity is not only able to provide answers to all the questions posed by philosophy; it is also able to bring to fulfilment the deepest of human aspirations expressed in the various philosophical systems.
On the basis of this concept of the relationship between reason and faith, Justin taught that human philosophies are able to catch glimpses of the truth. But their apprehension of the truth is fragmentary and often distorted by error. Philosophy is therefore unable to lead human beings fully into the knowledge of God, which is made available only in the Gospel. But this does not imply that there is no place for philosophy. Justin believed that philosophy plays an important role in that it prepares human beings for the Gospel of Christ (praeparatio evangelica). Philosophical inquiry therefore engenders true receptivity to the full revelation of the truth of God found in Jesus Christ.
One of Justin’s most important works is his Second Apology. is work, which was completed soon after Marcus Aurelius became emperor in 161, argued that the Christian faith alone was truly rational. Four years later, Justin and his disciples were arrested for their faith in Christ and for defending “atheism” (i.e., Christianity).
In response to the prefect’s threat to execute them, Justin said: “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.” Justin and his companions were consequently taken out and beheaded. e Church gave Justin the surname Martyr because he gave his life for Jesus Christ who in the incarnation has made possible the true knowledge of God and His will.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.