What is apologetics for 2nd century Christians and how does it differ from the contemporary kind?

I think I might start posting some of the papers I am required to write in pursuit of a masters degree in theology.  Some of them, like this one, may not make sense  (like listening to one side of a phone conversationkeep that in mind) because they are a response to assigned reading material.  However, someone who happens along may discover something of value, or something to add, or something to disagree with.  All are welcome.  In any event, this paper comes from a course called Historical Theology I.  The text book is first in a series by J. Pelikan concerning the history of church tradition.  May I say, he is/was one of the worst communicators of information I have ever had the displeasure of encountering.  Anyway… things to know- “catholic” as used here does not mean the Catholic church, but the universal, or one true church.  I am using Pelikan’s language.

Broadly, apologetics for 2nd century Christians is their defense of  Christian faith and doctrine against both non-believers and heretics (Pelikan, I/121).  In light of the assigned reading, this paper accordingly answers the question in its heretical dimension.  In that regard, 2nd century apologists argue that authentic continuity inhabits the catholic church and no other (Pelikan, I/109).   This paper then defines their apologetics as a reaction to competing claims of continuity, as their distillation of orthodoxy, and as a reflection of themselves.  After expanding my definition I will conclude by comparing 2nd century apologetics to the contemporary kind.

Apologetics as Reaction.  Heresy denotes a divergence from an orthodox doctrine (Pelikan, I/69).  Much divergence takes place in the 2nd century church.  Pelikan identifies three such occurrences.   First, Marcion disrupts the continuity and unity of God, and that between the Testaments, by discovering a multiplicity of Gods (Pelikan, I/73, 75). Secondly, Gnostics, by broadcasting their sole-possession of true knowledge steal from the catholic church their claim that they themselves guard the repository of divine knowledge (Pelikan, I/92,108).  Thirdly, Montanists seize control of apostolic succession by declaring the catholic church dead from worldliness and retrieving the Holy Spirit from its carcass (Pelikan, I/102,109).

Naturally, the catholic church took issue.  It seems safe to say that when we define 2nd century apologetics we are defining to some degree their reaction to these counter claims of continuity.  However, in some ways, the conflict betwixt the combatants strikes me as something more.  Not only did each group seek recognition as the one true church, but their leaders also sought to be recognized as the authoritative spokespersons of God.  In that light, 2nd century apologia can be seen as the apologist’s defense of their unique right to speak for God.  Therefore, it makes perfect sense, for example, that a criterion for apostolic succession was crafted in reaction to competing claims (Pelikan, I/109).  At issue:  Who speaks for God?

Apologetics as Distillation.  In addition to resolving questions of apostolic succession, the impurities of heresy mandated a theological distillation whereby church doctrine was separated, refined, formalized and declaimed (Pelikan, I/121).  Pelikan delineates four areas of doctrine that were so distilled. They are: 1) Eschatology and the return of Christ.  2) The workings of the supernatural order in the human dimension.  3) The meaning of salvation.  4) The vehicle by which that salvation is effected (Pelikan, I/123, 132, 152, 155).

Although the preceding enumeration touches the bare edges of these matters, in light of the question, it suffices to say that apologetics for 2nd century Christians presents them with an opportunity to formalize their theology.  Ultimately, the distillations of doctrine conceived by their reactions mature into long-term implications for Christendom.  At issue:  What did God say?

Apologetics as Reflection.  While it is fair to ask what apologetics meant to 2nd century Christians in a general sense, the written record suggests a narrower demographic within the church.  For example, the men (thus far, no women in either text book) who undertake the task of apologetics evince a high degree of skill in reading comprehension, writing and rhetoric.  Their biographies are peppered with phrases like, “attached himself to various philosophical schools,”  “sought the true philosophy,”  “in rhetorical ability he far exceeds…,” and “his expert knowledge in the field of law” (Jurgens, I/50, 65, 69, 111).  Additionally, many of them hold official positions or titles.  In fact, one cannot help but notice that much of the apologia-of- record directs itself towards the personal refutation or defense of other leaders (Jurgens, I/69, 73, 77, 81, 84).  This information indicates to me that 2nd century apologetics is a discussion among highly intelligent and formally educated men of means and position.   Do these men represent the general demography of the 2nd century church?  Does their discussion reflect that of the entire church?  I do believe their apologia reflects their convictions, but not necessarily those of the church, or more importantly, God.

Even today we are aware that the leadership of a particular church may be completely out-of-sync with those in their pews. Their new doctrine so differs from the old that they soon discover their own pews have been reoriented to face Africa, as an example. *   Was not the same possible in the 2nd century?  That is:  In addition to heretics and apologists, is it not possible that a third group exists, who sustain another tradition?  Although we may not have a written record stating so, I think the unrecorded events of history are no less visible (or valid) in the reality of  now. For example, the historical record that documents the birth of Jesus Christ can also shed light on the undocumented activity of God during the intertestamental period.  According to the extant record, we may rightly characterize this period of time as one of theological, political and social upheaval.  Nonetheless, though God’s silence veiled His activity in the “then” of that era, the birth of Christ “now” unveils His steady hand.  Thus, when the baby Jesus cries, men and women of faith hear an audible and valid exception to the generalities we affix to the historical gap between the testaments. Jesus was born.  What does that say about God in the intertestamental period?

My point is: We can account for the heretics of the 2nd century and trace the implications of their heresy throughout history. We can account for the apologists of the 2nd century and then see their reflection in the traditional dogmas and politicalization of church leadership that follows.  Yet, how do we account for current churches of different denominations whose theology and character have more in common with the 1st century church than they do with either the heretics or apologists of the 2nd?  Did the apologia that nurtures these churches suddenly pop out of thin air into their heads?  Did they invent it?  If we are to say these churches exist in reaction to the traditions Pelikan so values, then, in my estimation, we also say it is entirely possible to bypass those traditions in favor of the New Testament tradition. If not, then on whose traditions do these churches model themselves?  They simply could not exist.  Is it possible that they reflect an apologia that has never ceased to shine?  At issue: Who speaks for me?

Apologetics: Then and Now.  I offer the following observations in contrasting the apologetics of the 2nd century with that of today.  Their apologia was expressed in the language of the rhetorician and philosopher, whereas ours finds expression in science and technology.  Our baselines differ in that they did not doubt the historicity of Jesus, nor did they have the Bible in its present form.  We have the Bible, but with the result that much of our apologia is devoted to defending its authenticity and arguing for the historicity of Jesus.

Their apologia is also personal. They name names and use all of the rhetorical weapons at their disposal to either endorse or assail the other man’s position.   By comparison, the historical/technical form of apologetics that I am familiar with seems less personal and more clinical, less intellectual and more accessible.

Finally, and candidly, to me their theological efforts to ensure continuity ultimately mask an anthropological contest to fill the void of authoritative leadership they believe the death of the apostles opens.  That was the real issue. Obviously, there are exceptions; my impression in this regard is merely general, like those who believe the musings of some 2nd century apologists reflect the general reality and orthodoxy of the entire 2nd century “church” and God Himself.

What do you think?



* There are some congregations of a particular denomination that have dissolved their ties with their American bishops  because they no longer believe the doctrines those bishops espouse. Their loyalties (and money) now belong to African bishops of the same denomination, but whose doctrine mirrors their own.)




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