Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Though known for his Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras is one of the least well known Ante-Nicene apologists.


Athenagoras was born in c.133 AD. Known as Athenagoras of Athens, his birthplace may well not have been in the city, but he certainly lived and flourished there. Like other Early Church figures such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras came from an educated background. Coming from Athens, with its rich history in philosophy and education, he’d had plenty of opportunity to engage with the Stoics, Platonists and every other school of thought on offer.

So much like Justin, Athenagoras looked into them all, and as a young man he converted to Christianity. He styles himself an “Athenian, Philosopher and a Christian” in his Plea, and this sense is certainly carried through his writings.

Though he was believed to be a prolific and well known writer, with a long list of works likely circulating round the Western Mediterranean, only a few have survived antiquity. He is known as an apologist, and his career fell shortly after the first generation of Christian apologists. He was also a scholar. His treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead is notable for being the first complete exposition of this doctrine in Christian literature. But his most famous work was his apologetic Plea for the Christians. This work was written as an ‘embassy’ on behalf of the Christians, made by a philosopher to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Lucius, his son and co-ruler. The speaker presents his case in the philosophical style, addressing the emperors eloquently and logically. The work claims the treatment of the Christians to be unjust, and by a careful setting out of the beliefs and doctrines to which these Christ-followers ascribe, he presents his case.

The work is rich in ancient literature, quoting pagan poets and philosophers as well as Christian texts and Scripture. The work states three common accusations the Christians face: atheism, cannabalism and incest. It then answers each charge, pointing to the God they believe in in answer to this opposition. Athenagoras’ Plea answers the charges by pointing to the truths that drive the Christian faith. Amongst other things, he elaborates on monotheism, on the Gospel and on love as a key motivation for the Christian believer.

His Plea also provides a wonderful quote on the character of the Early Christians he is defending and it makes for wonderful reading.

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds they exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, 11.

Athenagoras is describing the church. In this mix of people, there are some unskilled, some uneducated and some old women, cast offs from society. But, he says, though they may not possess the education or the eloquence to defend the doctrines of the faith rhetorically, they live out the Gospel in their deeds. By sharing their God in the way they act, they are persuading their neighbours, friends and family of the truth. It is a wonderful snapshot of Early Church life, and a wonderful side note to the main thrust of his work: on the value each member of God’s family had. Some of the church, says Athenagoras, were not valuable to the world, and may not have been all too clever with words or rich with possessions. But they had incredible value in living Christ centered lives, loving others and living out the Gospel day in day out. The Church had educated figures such as Athenagoras, who could (and did!) write long defences of the faith. But Athenagoras reminds both his critics then and his readers now that living out a life faithful to the Gospel offers genuine witness to the transformative power of the cross.

The Gospel was good news for everyone in Roman society. And every member of the local church had the wonderful responsibility of sharing that Gospel in their words and deeds. And they didn’t need the philosophical education of the Athenian elite to do it.

Athenagoras died in around 190 AD. His exact date of death is unknown, as are the circumstances in which he died. But what is known is that he was a brilliant and in many ways respected scholar. He engaged with emperors, governors, philosophers and peasants, and he saw the hope of every man as lying in the acceptance of the Gospel of Christ.

Clement of Alexandria: Evangelist and Intellectual

Clement of Alexandria was a Christian apologist, polymath and biblical exegete. He was a key figure in the Early Church at the turn of the second and third centuries, and his extant works are some of the most detailed to have survived from the first few centuries of the global church.

Clement was born around AD 160, most likely to pagan parents. Though the location of his birth is not known exactly, the church historian Epiphanius writes in the fourth century that some say Alexandria, some Athens. What is known is that he was richly educated, and moved to Alexandria in search of continued learning.

There he met a Christian teacher named Pantaenus, who led a Catechetical school in the city. Clement studied under this man, eventually converting to Christianity and later leading the school himself. He stayed in Alexandria until a flare up of persecution led him to flee the city just after the turn of the century. He fled to Antioch and then to Jerusalem, before dying in that city in around AD 215.

Not much can be securely pieced together about his life, but his writings are a different matter. His most famous works form a trilogy. His Protrepticus (Exhortation), Paedagogus (Teacher) and Stromateis (Miscellanies, literally: patchwork quilt) form a corpus of texts that guides the reader from pagan unbelief (Protrepticus) through to enlightened and considered faith in Christ (Stromateis). These works show the ethos of Clement’s writings. Through his work he wants to challenge unbelievers to faith, and new believers to a considered faith, where their mind is as engaged as their heart.

One of his other surviving works is a short fragment from a document Clement wrote To the Newly Baptised. In this short work Clement encouraged new Christians, fresh from believers baptism, to live lives worthy of the God they had publicly professed to trust in.

Let everything you do be done for God, both deeds and words; and refer all that is yours to Christ.”

Clement of Alexandria, To The Newly Baptised.

Clement writes to encourage the new Christian to live a life worthy of their calling (Eph 4:1). He wants the newly baptised to hold fast to Christ, to die to sin and to live for Him.

The fragment ends with the encouragement:

For God will grant grace to His friend when he asks, and will provide assistance for those in distress, wishing to make His power known to men, in the hope that, when they have come to full knowledge, they may return to God and may enjoy eternal blessedness when the Son of God shall appear and restore all good things to His own.”

Clement of Alexandria, To the Newly Baptised.

Clement’s style of writing and appeal was intellectual. He used poetry, drama, philosophy and history to challenge his readers. But as these closing words remind us, he did so with the Gospel in mind. At the end of it all, says Clement, I write so that you may hold fast to Christ until the day He returns in glory.

Here is the message of this short work, and all of Clement’s writings. Engage with your faith, work through it, wrestle with it, but in all that, grow in it as you cling to Christ until the day He returns. Christ is coming back: live for His glory today, looking to His glory in eternity.

The Birth of Apologetics

Christian Apologetics are big business. Books, conferences, televised debates: speakers and evangelists can live their whole lives devoted to a career of apologetics in defence of the Christian faith.

But when did all that start? It wasn’t in the twentieth century with the careers of C S Lewis or John Lennox. Nor did it come from the great revival preachers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Apologetics was born in the Early Church. The genre of Apologetic writing, literal defences of the faith, was born in the second century as the fledgling Christian faith stood up to the might of the Roman world. Because the Church was facing a hostile world where the powers of Rome; political, religious and social, all hated what these new Christians stood for. Justin Martyr, introduced in my last blog (see it here), wrote one of the first Apologies. His work is addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, “on behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them.”

Justin was addressing the Emperor because this abuse was found throughout the nations, and the faith needed to be defended, because the accusations that these Christians faced were simply unfounded.

Tertullian wrote his famous Apology about fifty years after Justin. It too, was addressed to political rulers, to “The Rulers of the Roman Empire,” and it was a work that sought to force these rulers to “openly inquire into and sift before the world the real truth in regard to the charges made against the Christians”

Both these works, some of the earliest examples of apologetics to survive to us address the culture of the day and provide a defence of the faith in light of the challenge of the zeitgeist of the day.

The amazing thing about these apologies is that they were written with two real goals in mind. To defend the faith against the attacks of the day, and to defend the faith with the truths of the Gospel. Tertullian’s Apology includes a brilliant explanation of the Gospel. He grounds it in the history of the empire, freely admitting Christ lived recently “no further back indeed than the reign of Tiberius,” before turning to discuss Christ’s divinity.

He appeared among us, whose coming to renovate and illuminate man’s nature was pre-announced by God— I mean Christ, that Son of God. And so the supreme Head and Master of this grace and discipline, the Enlightener and Trainer of the human race, God’s own Son, was announced among us, born…

Tertullian, Apology, 21.

Tertullian addresses the accusations of the Roman government of the day by pointing it back to the Jesus these Christians believed in. By showing His divinity, lordship and salvation work on the cross, Tertullian answers the accusations of these enemies of the Gospel, by pointing them to the Gospel.

These days, rightly, apologetics often manifests itself in answering questions about science, ethics and historical authenticity. But a brief glance back to the writings of the Early Church reminds us that at the heart of good apologetics lies a radical call to faith in Christ, and an emphasis on the Gospel that drives all the defences we make.