{3}           Defense & deposit of the faith

ERA 1 << Early Church (1): Persecutions (AD 30–300) >> SESSION 2

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 1, chapters 7-9

3.1  The Apologists

        3.1.1  Rumours & misunderstanding of Christian faith

·         Background: Apologists were the scholars who defended Christianity from enemies outside the church, by refuting the rumours about Christianity and Christians.

·         Apologetic method: Negatively, they sought to refute the false accusations of atheism, immorality, cannibalism, incest, and anti-social behaviour that pagans levelled against them. Positively, they developed a constructive approach by showing that in contrast to Christianity, Judaism, pagan religions, and emperor worship were foolish and sinful.

        3.1.2  Christian faith & pagan culture

·         Attitudes on pagan culture: Different Christians held 2 different types of attitudes toward the pagan culture surrounding them: [1] opposition, or [2] accommodation.

·         Opposition: Most Christians tried to avoid civil ceremonies where there were sacrifice and vows made to the pagan gods. But some even avoided the study of classical literature. Later, some withdrew completely from the society and lived as hermits.

·         Accommodation: They tried to show and explain the connection between Christian faith and pagan culture, or philosophies, and pointed out their agreements.

        3.1.3  Leading apologists

·         East vs West: Eastern apologists (using Greek)—Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus. Western apologists (using Latin)—Tertullian, Minucius Felix.

·         Justin Martyr (100–165)—He was a teacher in Rome. He showed that Christians were not atheists or idolaters and were blameless and should not be persecuted. Justin’s Apology was a masterly presentation of the Christian faith. He opposed to paganism and syncretism.

·         Tertullian (160–225)—He was an elder in Carthage. He argued that Christians were loyal citizens of the empire, and that the state was persecuting the church on dubious legal grounds.

3.2  Gnosticism & Other Heresies

        3.2.1  Major heresies during 2nd-c

·         Reasons for heresies: Different interpretations of Christianity arose as Christianity was spread to various regions. Before there was a NT canon (Scripture), people chose the documents as they pleased to support their own interpretation of the religion. Some people also mixed other religions and philosophy with Christian teachings together (syncretism) and built up new heretical teachings.

        3.2.2  EbionitesThe Son is not God

·         Beliefs: They believed that Jesus was Joseph’s son who attained a measure of divinity at baptism.

        3.2.3  Gnosticismsecret knowledge to salvation

·         Origin: They believed that a lesser god, identified as Jehovah in OT, created the evil material world.

·         On knowledge: They claimed that only those with secret and mystic knowledge would get to heaven.

·         Dualism: They claimed that only spiritual things are good. The final goal is to escape from the body and this material world in which we are exiled. This leads to a few conclusions:

o        [1] Docetism [c.110]: They believed that the body of Jesus was a phantom which only appeared to be fully human.

o        [2] Asceticism: One must control the body and its passions and thus weaken its power over the spirit.

o        [3] Libertinism: Flesh is bad but spirit is good, so let the flesh enjoy its evil desire, while the spirit remains good.

·         Problems: It denied many important Christian doctrines, including creation, incarnation, sacrificial death, and resurrection. It pandered to spiritual pride as only an aristocratic elite would go to heaven. Its libertinism encouraged Christians to live in sin.

        3.2.4  Manicheanismdualism: god of darkness

·         Dualism: They believed in dualism, two opposing and eternal principles—the king of light and the king of darkness. Man was created by the king of light but he was tricked by the king of darkness. Salvation was the liberation of the light in his soul, brought about by exposure to the Light, Christ.

        3.2.5  MarcionismOT inspired by an inferior god

·         Beliefs: They chose the Gospel Luke and Paul’s Epistles as the basis of faith, and discarded the OT.

        3.2.6  Neoplatonismabsorption into the Absolute Being

·         Beliefs: They believed an Absolute Being as the transcendent source of all that exists. The goal was re-absorption into the divine essence. Joy can be achieved with rational contemplation, and by mystical intuition seeking to know God. This movement contributed to later Christian mysticism.

        3.2.7  Montanismnew age revealed

·         Reaction to formalism: They claimed that their movement was the beginning of a new age with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to them. It was an age characterized by a more rigorous moral life.

        3.2.8  Monarchianismone Father God

·         Dynamic Monarchianism: It taught that Christ was not divine but was merely a good man who, by righteousness and possession by the divine Logos at baptism, achieved divinity and saviourhood. This emphasis of the unity of God and the denial of the deity of Christ was an ancient form of unitarianism.

·         Sabellianism: It taught that Trinity is a manifestation of forms—as Father in OT, as the Son to redeem man, and as the Holy Spirit after the resurrection of Christ.

        3.2.9  Finding the common ground against heresies

·         Responses: The church responded by: [1] setting the Canon of NT, [2] establishing the Creed, and [3] pointing out the source of authority—the apostles, leading to the emphasis of apostolic succession.

3.3  The Polemicists

        3.3.1  Defense against heresies

·         Background: Polemicists defended the Christianity faith by pointing out the errors of heresies which grew out from inside the church. Eastern polemicists (using Greek) were concerned with metaphysical problems, using allegorical interpretation of the Bible. Western polemicists (using Latin) were more concerned with practical problems, using a grammatico-historical interpretation of the Bible.

        3.3.2  Leading polemicists

·         Irenaeus of Lyons (130–200): He refuted Gnosticism and emphasized the organic unity of the church through apostolic succession of leaders.

·         Clement of Alexandria (150–216): He emphasized a close relationship between faith and reason.

·         Origen of Alexandria (185–254): He wrote the first systematic theology, and did more exegetical work than anyone did before the Reformation. He maintained that the Son is eternally generated or begotten by the Father. However, because of some of his heretical speculations, he was condemned after death [553].

·         Tertullian of Carthage (160–225)—father of Latin theology: He was the first to state the theological doctrine of the Trinity—the formula “one substance and three persons” and the “two natures” of Christ.

·         Cyprian of Carthage (200–258): He emphasized the bishop as the centre of unity in the church. He asserted the primacy of Peter in tracing the line of apostolic succession but he rejected the claim of primacy by Rome.


[1] treasure our heritage

The orthodox doctrine of Trinity was developed from struggles.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

God raised outstanding apologists and polemicists at the right time.

[3] avoid past errors

Many heresies came from groundless speculations.

[4] apply our knowledge

Methods used by the apologists are useful for today.

[5] follow past saints

Polemicists recognized and encountered the threat of heresies.