One of a group of Christian writers who presented an apologia, or defense of the Christian faith, to the non-Christian world. In the New Testament, Luke through Acts provides such an apologia. However, in the second century, Christians were accused of various kinds of calumnies, and the Apologists attempted to vindicate Christians of false accusations and to show that the Christian way of life was the highest ethical ideal the world had yet seen. In this they were following the example of JOSEPHUS and PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA, who had already undertaken the same task in defense of Judaism.
In addition to refuting calumnies and presenting Christianity as a rational faith, the Apologists were concerned with the questions of thoughtful men about the nature of the God in whom Christians believed. Using the prevailing Middle Platonist philosophy, some of the Apologists attempted to prove that Christianity was the true philosophy and the fulfillment not only of Judaism and the Old Testament but also of Greek thought. Moreover, their use of the Logos doctrine (i.e., that the Logos or Word was generated by God’s will with a view to bringing about creation, and that the Word assuming flesh and being [cf. John 1:14] was incarnate as Jesus Christ) won that doctrine a permanent place in Christian theology.
The Apologists include Aristides, the writer of the Epistle to Diognetus; Justin Martyr; Tatian; Athenagoras; Theophilus of Antioch; Minucius Felix; and Tertullian. Of these, Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) and Tertullian (c. 160-230) are the most important, representing the Greek and Latin worlds, respectively. Justin held that the Logos summed up the whole history of Christian and non- Christian thought in the coming of Christ. He was not conscious that he was grafting onto the biblical basis of Christianity a philosophical interpretation that was bound to modify it. However, although his writings reflect the eclectic Middle Platonism of his day, the heart of Christianity is for him God’s care and love for men shown in the Bible and in Jesus Christ.
Tertullian, on the other hand, sought in his Apology to develop a Christian philosophy on a classical basis, although it is doubtful that he intended to synthesize pagan and Christian thought. His skepticism about secular culture is, in fact, expressed in unyielding and sarcastic terms. The Apology is, however, a successful defense of the Christian faith, perhaps intended as an open letter to a wider public, as well as to the magistrates to whom it is addressed.
Later Christian writers are not usually included among the Apologists, although many uses apologetic methods (they defend the faith by rational means). CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 150-c. 215) claims that all learning, whatever its source, is sacred, and he has much to say about the Logos as the divine enlightener of humanity. Although his vast biblical and classical learning was somewhat undisciplined, he set the tone of the Alexandrian school of Christian thought, which it retained throughout its history. His successor in the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA, ORIGEN (c. 185-c. 254), was an outstanding systematic Christian thinker, the first to produce a full, logical interpretation of the faith (On First Principles) set within the widest intellectual framework. Origen had an enormous influence both as a writer and as a teacher.
He wrote an important reply to a literary attack on Christianity made by the pagan philosopher CELSUS about 178. Origen’s Contra Celsum enables us to discover the main points of Celsus’s attack. While praising the Logos doctrine, Celsus objected to the exclusiveness of Christian claims and criticized the Bible, often with considerable acuteness. Celsus appealed to Christians to abandon their alleged religious and political intolerance. Origen, however, succeeded in countering Celsus’s attack.
A further onslaught on Christianity was made by the apostate emperor Julian (332-363) in his Against the Galileans, written during the Persian campaign. No manuscript of this work survives, but almost the whole text can be recovered from CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA’S refutation, Contra Julianum.
Later apologetic, such as is found in the works of Augustine (354-430), had to cope with the new philosophical challenge of Neoplatonism. Augustine’s work reached a climax in his celebrated City of God, which N. H. Baynes called “the last and greatest of the Apologies for Christianity produced by the early Church” (1955, p. 288).
- Augustine. City of God, trans. M. Dods. New York, 1950.
- Barnard, L. W. Justin Martyr, His Life and Thought. New York and Cambridge, 1967.
- . Athenagoras: A Study in Second Century Christian Apologetic. Paris, 1972.
- Baynes, N. J. “The Political Ideas of St. Augustine’s De Civitate Dei.” In Byzantine Studies and Other Essays, pp. 288-306. London, 1955.
- Chadwick, H. Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition. Oxford, 1966.
- Cyril of Alexandria. Contra Julianum. In PG 76, cols. 489-1058. Paris, 1863.
- Daniélou, J. The Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture; trans. J. A. Baker. London, 1973.
- Grant, R. M., ed. “Studies in the Apologists.” Harvard Theological Review 5 (1958):123-34.
- , ed. and trans. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum. Oxford, 1970.
- Malley, W. J. Hellenism and Christianity. Analecta Gregoriana 210. Rome, 1978. A discussion of Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Julianum.
- Meecham, H. G., ed. The Letter to Diognetus. Manchester, 1949.
LESLIE W. BARNARD