Mostly last year, as I was getting this blog started, I profiled several key figures in the development of the Early Church. I hope to do more of these, as it is always helpful to look at some examples of faithful believers who have gone before us. Below are the links to these blogs, do go and check out one or two of these Early Christian characters.
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.
“If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.”
Justin lived and died in the second century, and was a hugely influential figure in the history of the church in Rome, just a generation or two after the teachings and imprisonment of Paul in the city.
Manuscripts that either describe Justin or record his writings, always give him the epithets ‘martyr’ or ‘philosopher’. This sums up what the man is best known for; as leader of a ‘school-church’ in Rome he was a philosopher, theologian and thinker, but in his death under the emperor Marcus Aurelius, we see the martyr.
Justin was born in AD 100, to a pagan family in the city of Flavia Neapolis. He was well educated, but describes in his own writings how he found the philosophies of the world to be hollow, unsatisfying, and inconclusive.
He tells readers in his Dialogue that he tried first the Stoic school of philosophy, then the Peripatetic, the Pythagorean and finally the Platonic. Having settled on Platonic thought, he waited for the revelation of God that was sure to come.
“I supposed that I had become wise…I expected soon to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.”
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.
Having chased down all these philosophers, Justin settled on the one that made the most sense, gave him the best answers. And he waited for this school of thought to make everything add up.
Whilst he waited, Justin came upon an old man, possibly a Christian from ancient Syria, who began to talk to him about God. Quite literally, this man shared the Gospel with Justin. He soon saw that the only philosophy or school of thought that contained any truth was the truth that pointed to Christ. Justin tells us that as he looked at the prophets and preachers of the Christian faith, he saw real life in their words.
“A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable.”
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.
After travelling around telling people about this truth he had learnt, he came to Rome, where he settled in the city, and begun to teach Christian doctrine. He continued a life of academic debate, philosophical conversations and scholarly discussion. It was this that got him killed. Having engaged in a dispute with the cynic philosopher Crescens, his opponent denounced him to the authorities and Justin, alongside six companions, faced the Roman courts. The Urban Prefect, a high ranking Roman official in the city, heard the case, and sentenced them to death.
It was in this trial, facing death, that Justin gave the answer quoted at the top of this post. As Justin faced his accusers and the charges were read out, he replied “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.”
Justin knew the truth that Paul teached in Philippians 1.
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better indeed.”
Philippians 1:21, 23b.
Life was good, academic debate and philosophical musings were all well and good, but far better is to be with Christ. There is nothing that can be done to a Christian, good or bad, that can separate the Christian from the love of God, and from our promised eternity with Him.
Justin was beheaded in the 160s and although the exact date is unknown, what is sure is that his confidence was in Christ, his heart and mind won to the Gospel, and his life and death a testament to the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Justin Martyr has a lot to teach us. A man who sacrificed his life for the Gospel. A man who gave up his background, his worldview, his sinful identity to assume the identity of Christ. And someone who shared that with those he met. Justin presents us with a challenge, a life of sharing the Gospel, whether that is in academic debate or the chat in the pub, or the work break catch up. The Gospel is convincing, the Gospel is true, and the Gospel is there to be shared by the Christian. Even to the end.