THE APOLOGISTS: Were They Christian Defenders of the Faith?

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Marcion of Sinope
Apostle John (left) and Marcion of Sinope (right), from Morgan Library MS 748, 11th century

Marcion of Sinope: He was a rich young man who was also a significant leader in early Christianity (c. 85 – c. 160 C.E.). He publicly stated that Christians should reject the Old Testament. The other Church leaders would eventually reject him, and he chose to set himself apart from the orthodox Christianity of the day. According to English historian Robin Lane Fox, “The creator, [Marcion] argued, was an incompetent being: why else had he afflicted women with the agonies of childbirth? ‘God’ in the Old Testament was a ‘committed barbarian’ who favoured bandits and such terrorists as Israel’s King David. Christ, by contrast, was the new and separate revelation of an altogether higher God, a God of love revealed in the New Testament; or, rather, in the parts that Marcion accepted (some of Paul’s writings and an edited Luke).

It was not until Marcion that there became a need to create an official canon of Scripture. Marcion built his canon around his doctrinal positions, from a select few of Paul’s writings and an abridged form of the Gospel of Luke. This, combined with the ever-growing list of apocryphal literature, moved other church leaders to make a distinction between what was Scripture and what was not.

Justin Martyr
Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr: The Christian apologetic writer Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 C.E.) was a philosopher and theologian who wanted to resolve Christian doctrine and pagan culture. He was born in Flavia Neapolis, a Roman city built on the site of the ancient Shechem, in Samaria. His parents were pagans. In his youth, Justin was zealous in his studies of Greek philosophy, particularly the writings of Plato and the Stoic philosophers. It was in Ephesus that he first encountered Christianity. Justin happened upon an old man, an unnamed Christian, who entered into a dialogue about God and spoke of the witness of the prophets as being more trustworthy than the reasoning of philosophers.

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“‘There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom.’”[125]

As the kindhearted man admonished, Justin thoroughly and carefully examined the Scriptures and seemed to have gained a degree of appreciation for them as well as Bible prophecy, as seen in his writings. The books that are credited to Justin are

  • The First Apology of Justin addressed to Antoninus Pius, his sons, and the Roman Senate
  • The Second Apology of Justin addressed to the Roman Senate
  • Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew
  • Justin’s Hortatory Address to the Greeks
  • Justin on the Sole Government of God
  • Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection
  • Other Fragments from the Lost Writings of Justin
  • The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs

Justin was fascinated and awestruck with the courage and fearlessness of Christians in the face of death. He also valued and respected the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures. In making his arguments in his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin quoted from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi, as well as the Gospels. His gratefulness for these Bible books is demonstrated in the dialogue with Trypho, as Justin dealt with Messianic Judaism.

Second-century Christians refused to worship pagan gods, so they were labeled atheists. Justin argued, “What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe …. Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ … He is the Son of the true God.”[126] In dealing with the folly of idol worship, Justin wrote, “And often out of vessels of dishonour, by merely changing the form, and making an image of the requisite shape, they make what they call a god; which we consider not only senseless, but to be even insulting to God, who, having ineffable glory and form, thus gets His name attached to things that are corruptible, and require constant service …. What infatuation! that dissolute men should be said to fashion and make gods for your worship, and that you should appoint such men the guardians of the temples where they are enshrined; not recognizing that it is unlawful even to think or say that men are the guardians of gods.”[127]

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Justin offers numerous references to the Greek New Testament as he states his belief in the resurrection of Christ, Christian morals, baptism, Bible prophecy (particularly regarding Christ), as well as Jesus’ teachings. On the subject of Jesus, Justin quotes Isaiah 9:6, stating, “Unto us a child is born, and unto us a young man is given, and the government shall be upon His [Christ’s] shoulders.”[128] Justin also says, “For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ.”[129] He goes on to discuss the trials of Christians as well as their obligations, stating numerous times that true worship belongs to those doing the will of God; all others “are sons and angels of the devil, because they do the works of the devil.”[130] As for evangelism, Justin writes, “In these books, then, of the prophets we found Jesus our Christ foretold as coming, born of a virgin, growing up to man’s estate, and healing every disease and every sickness, and raising the dead, and being hated, and unrecognised, and crucified, and dying, and rising again, and ascending into heaven, and being, and being called, the Son of God. We find it also predicted that certain persons should be sent by Him into every nation to publish these things.”[131]

The Second Apology of Justin is directed at the Roman Senate. Justin takes his case before the Romans, sharing how Christians were being persecuted after they had become followers of Christ. Their Christlike moral values set these Christians apart within the Roman Empire, where even acknowledging that one was a Christian could have meant certain death. Urbicus, the prefect, began to persecute Christians severely. Justin quotes Lucius, a former Christian teacher, who upon “seeing the unreasonable judgment that had thus been given, said to Urbicus: ‘What is the ground of this judgment? Why have you punished this man, not as an adulterer, nor fornicator, nor murderer, nor thief, nor robber, nor convicted of any crime at all, but who has only confessed that he is called by the name of Christian?’”[132]

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The magnitude of hostility against anyone claiming to be a Christian at that time is supported by Justin’s statement, “I too, therefore, expect to be plotted against and fixed to the stake, by some of those I have named, or perhaps by Crescens, that lover of bravado and boasting; for the man is not worthy of the name of philosopher who publicly bears witness against us in matters which he does not understand, saying that the Christians are atheists and impious, and doing so to win favour with the deluded mob, and to please them. For if he assails us without having read the teachings of Christ, he is thoroughly depraved and far worse than the illiterate, who often refrain from discussing or bearing false witness about matters they do not understand.”[133]

Justin was condemned by the Roman prefecture as one who undermined the Roman government and was sentenced to die. In about 165 C.E. he was beheaded in Rome. His zeal for truth and righteousness was clearly sincere. The writings of Justin are valuable for their historical content, as well as his many references to Scripture. Moreover, they offer the reader insight into the life experiences of Christians of the second century. Justin rejected pagan religion and any hollow, empty, and deceptive philosophy in favor of God’s Word. As an apologist, Justin defended the Christian faith and the Word of God, and as a Christian, he suffered martyrdom. He is known for his love for the truth and his courageous witnessing in the face of persecution.

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Tatian the Assyrian
Tatian the Assyrian

Tatian the Assyrian: An apologetic writer and theologian, who was a native of Syria and traveled extensively. He read prolifically, which made him well-informed in the Greco-Roman culture of the second century (c. 120 – c. 180 C.E.). In the first century, about 56 C.E., the apostle Paul was at the end of his third missionary journey, warning the older men in Ephesus. He cautioned, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” – Ac 20:29-30.

This dire warning proved true soon after the death of the apostle John in 100 C.E. The second century proved to be a time filled with apostates and apostasy. Gnosticism became a major threat to the church, an early pseudo-Christian religious movement teaching that salvation comes by learning esoteric spiritual truths that free humanity from the material world. This movement caused much spiritual shipwreck among the believers, as it appeared to offer explanations for the suffering of the righteous and the problem of sin.

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While Tatian was in Rome, he was introduced to Christianity. He began to associate with Justin Martyr, perhaps becoming his student. In an enlightening account of his conversion to Christianity, Tatian asserts: “I sought how I might be able to discover the truth. And, while I was giving my most earnest attention to the matter, I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings, too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors; and I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centred in one Being.”[134] Tatian was eager to invite his contemporaries to investigate Christianity and to witness its simplicity and clearness as opposed to the darkness of heathenism.

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The writings of Tatian reveal him as an apologist, one who defended the truth. He had a harsh and aggressive attitude toward pagan philosophy. In his work Address of Tatian to the Greeks, he emphasizes the insignificance and irrelevance of paganism and the reasonableness of Christianity. In reference to the philosopher Heraclitus, he states, “Death, however, demonstrated the stupidity of this man; for, being attacked by dropsy, as he had studied the art of medicine as well as philosophy, he plastered himself with cow-dung, which, as it hardened, contracted the flesh of his whole body, so that he was pulled in pieces, and thus died.[135]

Tatian held it in high regard that there was but one God to whom Christians owe their worship, “the builder [Creator] of all things” (Heb. 3:4). In his Address of Tatian to the Greeks, he refers to God as “a Spirit” and says, “He alone is without beginning, and He Himself is the beginning of all things. God is a Spirit”[136] (John 4:24). He rejected the use of images in worship, writing, “How can I speak of stocks and stones as gods?”[137] (1 Cor. 10:14). On the resurrection, he writes, “we believe that there will be a resurrection of bodies after the consummation of all things.”[138] As to why we grow old and die, he says, “We were not created to die, but we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us; we who were free have become slaves; we have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God; we ourselves have manifested wickedness; but we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it.”[139]

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As we examine the writings of Tatian, it becomes clear how familiar he was with the Scriptures, using them in his apologetic work. On the impact they had on him, he writes, “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command; I detest fornication; I am not impelled by an insatiable love of gain to go to sea … I am free from a mad thirst for fame … I see that the same sun is for all, and one death for all, whether they live in pleasure or destitution.” Tatian reproves, “Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it. Live to God, and by apprehending Him lay aside your old nature”[140] – Matthew 5:45; 1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Timothy 6:10.

Tatian’s other major work was the Diatessaron, a harmony of the four New Testament Gospels in a combined narrative of the life of Jesus. I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that Tatian was biblically correct on every count, however. In a lost writing entitled On Perfection according to the Doctrine of the Savior, for example, Tatian attributes matrimony to the Devil. He states that those who marry would be tying the flesh to the perishable world through marriage, which he strongly condemned.

It appears that there are mixed views as to what happened to Tatian after the death of Justin Martyr. Irenaeus says he was expelled from the church for his ascetic views. Eusebius says that Tatian founded or associated with an ascetic sect called the Encratites, who emphasized the importance of strict self-control over one’s body. They were required to abstain from wine, marriage, and possessions.

Athenagoras of Athens
Athenagoras of Athens

Athenagoras of Athens: He was the most accomplished philosopher and Christian apologist of the second century, having come from Platonism (c. 133 – c. 190 C.E.). Norman L. Geisler writes, “His famous Apology (ca. 177), which he called ‘Embassy,’ petitioned Marcus Aurelius on behalf of Christians. He later wrote a strong defense of the physical resurrection … On the Resurrection of the Dead. Two later writers mention Athenagoras. Methodius of Olympus (d. 311) was influenced by him in his On the Resurrection of the Body. Philip Sidetes (early sixth century) stated that Athenagoras had been won to Christianity while reading the Scriptures ‘in order to controvert them’ (Pratten, 127). His English translator noted, ‘Both his Apology and his treatise on the Resurrection display a practiced pen and a richly cultured mind. He is by far the most elegant, and certainly at the same time one of the ablest, of the early Christian Apologists’ (ibid.). The silence about Athenagoras by the fourth-century Church historian Eusebius is strange in view of his work.”[141]

Gerald Bray comments, “The only way that we can date his works is by internal evidence. The first of his two extant treatises is called An Embassy on Behalf of the Christians. It was addressed to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius (161 – 80 C.E.) and his son Commodus (176–92C.E.) so that it has to be placed at some point during the four-year period when they were co-emperors. In this work, Athenagoras presents a calm and elegant refutation of the standard charges made against Christians—that they were atheists, cannibals and incestuous. Like other Christian writers of his time, Athenagoras asks the pagan rulers to judge Christians on their merits and not according to the rumours which circulated about them. He was sure that, if they did so, the Christians would be exonerated and allowed to practise their religion freely.”[142]

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Theophilus of Antioch
Theophilus of Antioch

Theophilus of Antioch: He was a late second-century bishop of Antioch and an apologist (d. c. 182 C.E.). As was true of many early Christian writers, he was born a pagan and was led to accept Christianity as the truth by studying the Scriptures, especially the prophetical books. Theophilus writes, “…you call me a Christian, as if this were a damning name to bear, I, for my part, avow that I am a Christian,[143] and bear this name beloved of God, hoping to be serviceable[144] to God.”[145] Hans Svebakken tells us that Theophilus

…intends to discredit the myths and philosophical claims of the Greeks and demonstrate the truth of his religion through various ‘proofs’ from Nature, the consistent, inspired witness of the Hebrew prophets and the antiquity of his tradition. Theophilus seems to have a special affinity for Jewish modes of thought. His most succinct confession is limited to a single, providential Creator, who has revealed his Law for the moral betterment of humanity (3.9). The righteous, through obedience to that Law, will be rewarded with immortality, while the wicked will be punished (2.27). He defines a Christian as one who is anointed with the oil of God (1.12), but he makes no explicit reference to Jesus Christ either in this definition or elsewhere. Such an omission, however, is not unique among second-century apologists. Theophilus is the first Christian to produce an extant commentary on the so-called Hexaemeron, or the first ‘six days’ of the creation account (2.12–19). Here his reliance on the exegetical methods of Hellenistic Judaism is clear; some have suggested that he also makes use of rabbinical interpretations. His continuity, though, with the theological vision of a variety of New Testament texts is indicated by his many clear allusions to them … Perhaps Theophilus’s most formative contribution is to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. All things were created out of what did not exist (1.4; 2:10, 13), thus matter itself had a definitive point of origin. For Theophilus, the sovereignty and transcendence of God are here at stake. If matter is uncreated, it is immutable and thus equal to God. God demonstrates his omnipotence and superiority to mortal craftsmen by not being limited merely to the formation of available, pre-existent material (2.4). Irenaeus, writing at roughly the same time, expresses the same thought (Heresies, 2.10.4).[146]

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Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria:[147] Titus Flavius Clemens (c. 150 – 215 C.E.) was born to non-Christian parents. Clement was highly educated and cultured before his conversion to Christianity. Like Just Martyr, he traveled, seeking the truth wherever it might be found. He happened upon a Christian teacher, who was able to defend and share the Christian message from a philosopher’s mindset. The teacher was Pantaenus, referred to as “the Sicilian bee” by Clement. After studying under the Christian philosopher Pantaenus, Clement became head of the catechetical school in Alexandria in about 190 C.E., which became famous under his leadership. Thereafter Clement penned three great works: the Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Greeks) – written c. 195, the Paedagogus (Instructor, on ethics) – written c. 198, and the Stromata (Miscellanies) – written c. 198 – c. 203. In 203, Clement left Alexandria during the persecution of the Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and went to Caesarea (Mazaca) in Cappadocia. He died about 215 C.E. Origen, who later attained distinction as a prolific writer, teacher, and theologian, was one of Clement’s pupils, and it was he who replaced him in Alexandria. Clement wrote, “But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves” (Miscellanies 7.16).

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Tertullian
Tertullian

Tertullian: Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 240 C.E.), was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. Tertullian was a notable early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy, who produced an extensive amount of Christian literature in Latin. His work is noteworthy for its blunt sarcasm, and concise, witty, and often paradoxical statements. Almost no facet of religious life escaped his pen. Tertullian asked, “So, then, where is there any likeness between the Christian and the philosopher? Between the disciple of Greece and of heaven? Between the man whose object is fame, and whose object is life? Between the talker and the doer? Between the man who builds up and the man who pulls down? Between the friend and the foe of error? Between one who corrupts the truth, and one who restores and teaches it? Between its chief and its custodier?”[148]

Tertullian was best known for witty, and often paradoxical statements, such as, “God is then especially great when He is small.”[149] “The Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.”[150] It would seem that it was the faith of those who suffered horrible martyrdom for Christ, that drew him to Christianity. With reference to Christian martyrdom, he asked, “For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines?”[151]

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[125] Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 198.

[126] Ibid., 166-7.

[127] Ibid., 165.

[128] Ibid., 174.

[129] Ibid., 166.

[130] Ibid., 525.

[131] Ibid., 173

[132] Ibid., 188.

[133] Ibid., 189

[134] Tatian, “Address of Tatian to the Greeks,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. J. E. Ryland, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 77.

[135] Ibid., 66.

[136] Ibid., 66.

[137] Ibid., 66. [Over again Tatian asserts spirits to be material, though not fleshly; and I think with reference to 1 Cor. 15:44.] – Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885).

[138] Ibid., 67.

[139] Ibid., 69-70.

[140] Ibid., 69.

[141] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 59.

[142] Gerald Bray, “Athenagoras of Athens (c. 177–80),” ed. Trevor A. Hart, The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000), 42.

[143] [Acts 11:26. Note this as from an Antiochian, glorying in the name of Christian.]

[144] Εὔχρηστος, punning on the name Christian. [Comp cap xii., infra. So Justin, p. 164, vol. i., this series. But he also puns on his own name, “beloved of God,” in the text φορῶ τὸ Θεοφιλὲς ὄνομα τοῦτο, κ.τ.λ.]

[145] Theophilus of Antioch, “Theophilus to Autolycus,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 89.

[146] Hans Svebakken, “Theophilus of Antioch,” ed. Trevor A. Hart, The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000), 542–543.

[147] IMAGE: By André Thévet – Internet Archive scan of Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6885509

[148] Tertullian, “The Apology,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 51.

[149] Ibid., Tert., Adv. Marc. 2.2

[150] Ibid., Tert., De carn. Chr. 5

[151] Ibid., Tert., Apol. 50

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