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Apologetics in the Early Church

As the early Christians interacted with faiths differing from their own they began to develop apologies to explain their religious convictions and to persuade their readers of the validity of their newfound faith. Rather than beginning from a totally alien proposition, the two apologists that we have read, Mathetes, or the “disciple” ("mathetes"), and Justin Martyr, attempted to identify points of contact between their own faith and those of their readers. Among their claims are an assurance that Christians are much like their non-Christian neighbors in matters of culture and custom, appeals to reason, and acknowledgement of the accomplishments of the Greek philosophers and historians.

In The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, the anonymous "disciple" asserts that, "the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe… [T]hey neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity" (chap. v). The author goes on to reinforce the idea of fitting in with the average person by pointing out that Christians dress in the styles of the culture and eat the same foods as their neighbors (chap. v). All of these points are intended to ease suspicions and suggest that Christians are no different from their neighbors.

In keeping with this we’re-just-like-everybody-else argument, the "disciple" also seeks to distance the Christian faith from the Jews and the Jewish culture where it had originated. He flatly refutes the need for sacrifices and burnt offerings, for circumcision and for festivals characteristic of Jewish custom. In these ways, the apologist hopes to avoid the suspicions that fall upon the Jews as a result of their ardent insistence on cultural separation, purity laws and alien traditions that visibly separate them from the surrounding Gentile community.

Both the "disciple" and Justin Martyr make appeals to reason as a point of commonality between the Christian religion and the philosophies and culture of their audience. The former asserts that God sent Jesus "as a Savior… seeking to persuade, not to compel us" (chap. vii). In his Second Apology Justin Martyr follows a similar tactic by invoking Socrates, the great Greek philosopher and respected man of reason. Justin claims that Christians are following Socrates’ own example by speaking the truth of their convictions even in the face of persecution: "… a man must in no wise be honored before the truth" (39). Justin asserts that, Christians, like Socrates before them, are persecuted because of their unwavering devotion to their ideals and their insistence that "by means of the investigation of reason" all people should seek to know God who had hitherto been unknown (41).

Justin goes a step further, acknowledging the contributions of Stoics, poets and historians to the development of culture (42). However, he maintains that rather than independently producing their insights, all of these have been recipients of seeds of the divine logos which in turn produced these fruits: "For each person spoke well, according to the part present in him of the divine logos, the Sower, whenever he saw what was related to him [as a person]" (42). In the end, Justin maintains that while these writers had valuable insights, they were limited in their understanding of reality. None of them is equal to the fullness of knowledge manifested in Christ (Justin 43).

A couple of questions that arose particularly while reading the "disciple" text center around a particular passage: "He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us…" (chapter ix). This quotation lends itself to a particular reading of atonement that is popular in many Christian circles today. While the symbol of Christ as ransom or Christ as the bearer of our burdens is obviously very old, it would be interesting to study how far back this symbol first appears in Christian writings. Further, we cannot assume that the writers of this period understood these symbols within the same atonement models that we are familiar with today. How might we be able to lay aside our own interpretative frameworks of substitutionary atonement in order to listen for the author’s original sense?

Much like these early apologists, the contemporary Church once again finds itself in a religiously pluralistic culture. A few short generations ago Christianity was the de facto religion of most of our ancestors in the Western world. But with the rise of the Age of Enlightenment and ever accelerating pace of globalization that exposes us to new and different cultures and belief systems, Christianity must once again provide persuasive arguments in order to establish its place among the multitude of religions and philosophies within the public discourse. Modernity has left an indelible imprint on humanity: our search for answers to life’s questions often demands solutions that make logical sense and appeal to rational thought. In order to remain relevant in our swiftly changing world, Christianity must once again formulate apologetics which engage the issues of our world and offer satisfying responses to our queries.

Works Cited

Justin Martyr. "Second Apology." Readings in World Christian History. Eds. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2006.

Kirby, Peter. "Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus." Early Christian Writings. 2007. 24 Sep. 2007 <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/diognetus.html>.

"mathetes." Def. 2. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Ed. Frederick William Danker. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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