The Apologists of the 2nd Century & Greek philosophy

Posted Dec 09, 2011 by kym Jones in General Hits: 5,394

The Apologists of the second century were known by this name because they utilized the reasoning processes of Greek logic in an attempt to defend Christianity against paganism. In essence, they sought to defend the early Church by utilizing philosophy to combat philosophy, which might today seem to be a novel appoach to combatting heresy. While some, such as Justin Martyr (c. 100 - 165 A.D.) had formerly been philosophers themselves before their conversion to Christianity, others were irresistibly drawn to the philosophies of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle:
`How could any human being put his trust in philosophy when its light was so flickering, and the paths it pointed out led in so many different directions? This is the great argument of the Apologists against confidence in philsophy as a director of man towards salvation. The position of the Apologists was therefore not that of direct opposition to all the claims of philosophy, but to that special claim which set it up as a rival to Christianity in its power of re-modelling a man's life. With some of the philosophic schools the Christians had strong sympathies, and even when they found themselves compelled to maintain a decided warfare against the chief doctrine of others, they were ready to bring forward any doctrines with which they agreed. The philosophic teaching with which they felt the most sympathy was that of Socrates and Plato. It was not because Plato's metaphysical system pleased them, on the contrary, they did not as a rule believe in the natural immortality of the soul, and they say little or nothing of his doctrine of ideas, Athenagoras excepted. But the morality of Socrates was healthy and sound. The earnestness with which he turned man's attention to himself and his own state was in harmony with the Christian feeling; and his noble, unselfish conduct excited their warmest admiration. Plato's doctine of God as the good was felt to be an approach to Christianity. His frequent affirmation that the soul could be injured only by its own evil-doing harmonized with the Christian teaching in regard to life. Many of his statements in regard to the creation of the world struck them as similar to the accounts of Moses; and his doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments differed from the Christian mainly in that he did not set down Christ as judge. It was, however, especially in the peculiar way in which he defined the aim of philosophy that Platonism resembled Christianity. With him the business of philosophy was to make man like God, to bring him into greater resemblance to God. Besides these express doctrines there were many beautiful passages in his writings which gave utterance to longings and desires akin to those awakened by Christianity, and in some instances his descriptions seemed almost prophetic, as when he pictures the just man impaled and dying a death of ignominy, yet blessed by his lonely holiness.' (`A Critical History of Christian Literature and Doctrine', J. Donaldson, 1866, pp. 26, 27.)

Tatian (c. 120 - 180) was a pupil of Justin, and debated the Greeks of their belief in the immortality of the soul:

`The soul is not in itself immortal, O Greeks, but mortal. Yet it is possible for it not to die. If indeed, it knows not the truth, it dies, and is dissolved with the body, but rises again at last at the end of the world with the body, receiving death by punishment in immortality. But again, if it acquires the knowledge of God, it dies not, although for a time it be dissolved.' (ANF, Tatian, `Address of Tatian to the Greeks', `On the Soul's Immortality', ch. XIII.) However, in the following passage it can be seen that Tatian utilized Greek concepts in his argument for the mortality of the soul, by making the analogy that as matter is evil, then so also must be the flesh; for Greek logic teaches that the material plane of existence in which we dwell is so far removed from the One-in-all pantheistic god, that it has forgetten all knowledge (gnosis) of the One, which therefore determines that matter is inherently evil:
`The Logos, in truth, is the light of God, but the ignorant soul is darkness. On this account, if it continues solitary, it tends downward toward matter, and dies with the flesh; but, if it enters into union with the Divine Spirit, it is no longer helpless, but ascends to the regions whither the Spirit guides it: for the dwelling-placed of the Spirit is above, bu the origin of the soul is from beneath.' (ibid.)

Writing of the mortality of the soul in language such as this demonstrates that by the second century, Apologists such as Tatian no longer had a clear conception of the chasm of belief which separated apostolic Christianity from Greek philosophy as they attempted to reconcile the two systems of belief. Indeed, this was one step of many that ended up so firmly planting the Apologists feet upon the slippery slope of Greek philosophy, for by the time that the Council of Nicea was convened nearly one hundred and fifty years after the death of Tatian, not only had the doctrine of the immortality of the soul had become an `a priori' belief, but Docetist sentiments of the humanity of Christ were also making inroads into the Church. No doubt Tatian's imbibing of Greek philosophy was influenced by Justin, his teacher, who not only believed that Socrates was a Christian, but proudly wore the philopher's cloak until he was martyred for his faith:
`Justin claims that he is a Gentile convert to Christianity, and is thus uncircumcised. Dial. 2 indicates that he received a Greek education while the entire prologue to the Dialogue [with Trypho](chaps. 1-90 shows that he lived the life of an educated pagan. Also, in his prologue we see that he showed intellectual vigor in his investigation and succesive rejection of most of the established schools of philosophy. Justin certainly considered himself a philosopher. The prologue clearly indicates that he was a follower of Plato, and that after his conversion he still considered himself a philosopher. In fact, Justin, even after his conversion, wore the philsopher's cloak.' (`Revelation, Truth, Canon, and Interpretation: studies in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho', C. Allert, pp. 28, 29.)

While men such as Justin and Tatian utilized Greek logic to defend what the early Church from the more obvious errors which were professed by the gnostics of the day, they did not perceive that within these same philosophies which they utilized to defend the Church lay the seeds of abject heresy which later served to destroy it:
`The true fountain of theological apostasy was not found in the wild theories of the Christian Gnostics and other heretics whose notions were so obviously non-biblical that even the unlearned could see their errors. Rather, it was found in the background of Hellenism that pervaded the Gentile world at the time of Christ. Christ and His apostles had warned the early Church against false prophets and false teachers (Matt. 7: 15, 24: 11, 24. Mark 13: 22, 2 Pet. 2: 1; 1 John 4: 1). Their warning did not relate to some distant future threat. They were immediate and urgent. The Saviour's warning in Matthew 7: 15 was in the present tense. The warning in 2 Peter 2: 1, written in about 66 A.D., was in the future tense, but the similar warning issued by John in 1 John 4: 1, written more than 25 years later, indicates that Peter's prophecy was already being fulfilled. The Apologists were aware of these warnings and believed they were aimed at the heretics, especially the Jewish and Christian Gnostics and other groups that ignored the Bible to import an almost paganistic theology into Christianity. Thanks to the Apologists, these hereticial groups were ultimately put down by the end of the second century, but their own errors have proved far more difficult to excise.' (`How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God', R. Hopkins, 2009, pp. 19, 20.) One of the subtle errors which began to infiltrate the early Church from the time of its inception, with the Apologists being the chief conduit through which this error entered the Church, was the nature of the flesh which Christ manifested Himself in, for John, `the beloved disciple' of Christ warned of teachings which portrayed Christ as manifesting Himself in `flesh' which is unlike ours, for according to John, `this is the spirit of antichrist':

`Hereby know all of you the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof all of you have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.' (1 John 4: 2 - 3.)
The reason why John believed this, is that in order for Christ to save fallen man, Christ must closely identify with us:

`For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin'. (Hebrews 9: 28)
The apostle Paul believed that in order to be subject to the same temptations that we are tempted with, it was absolutely essential that He must assume `flesh' which is like ours, so that He is able closely identify with us so that He can save us from our sins. Therefore:

` . . . . in all things it was essential for him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.' (Hebrews 2: 17)

Why did Paul agree with John, in the sense that he viewed it as essential that Christ be `made like unto His brethren'? The answer is that there is no other way by which Christ could save us, for in order to save the entire man, He must assume that which is to be saved, which is to say that the divine Son of God must also become the Son of Man:
`For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.' (Matthew 18: 11)
So we find that in the original Greek, the word which John used to describe the flesh is the Greek word `sarx'. He used this word when He wrote `the word was made flesh (sarx) and dwelt among us' (John 1: 14), and again when he wrote that `every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (sarx) is of God'. It is also precisely the same word which the apostle Paul used when he wrote `Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh (sarx) and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage' (Hebrews 2: 14). Therefore the `sarx', or flesh which Paul spoke of is the same `flesh' which John spoke of, for if it were not so, he would have told us so by using an entirely different word! But he does not - he employs the word `sarx', and it was in the `sarx' that Christ was `made like unto His brethren', and it was in the `sarx', that He crucified sin! John is absolutely emphatic when he stresses that anyone who teaches that Christ did not come in the `sarx' is not of God, and this is the spirit of antichrist. The Chalcedonian Creed infers that Christ did not truly come in the `sarx', and is one such doctrine which John, with prophetic foresight, warned about. Yet millions believe it, and do not realize that it limits Christ from reaching all the way down from heaven to give `help' where we need it most, which is `in the likeness of sinful flesh' (Romans 8: 3).

One of the earliest teachers of this heresy, were the monophysites (Greek: mono - `one'; physis - `nature') who held that Christ had only one `nature', which was divine, and that his material body was a `mist' which surrounded His divine body, thus giving the corporeal body an appearance of substance. They were Gnostics who believed that as the material plane of existence is hopelessly corrupted and therefore evil, then the souls of men have also been corrupted to the point that they have lost almost all knowledge (gnosis) of the one-in-all pantheistic God from which they believed that the souls of men are derived from. As far as the monophysites were concerned, it was unthinkable that God would leave the lofty heights of heaven, and assume a body which `was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin' (Hebrews 4: 15), for if God became a man, then He could no longer be God! Therefore, as far as the monophysites were concerned, Christ was merely a phantom with a divine nature Who never manifested Himself `in the flesh'.
Although this was one of the more obvious errors which Apologists such as Justin Martyr were able to excise from the Church, the actual formula which Athanasius utilized, who is the founder of the Creed which bears his name, and which describes the `flesh' which Christ did ultimately manifest Himself in, is actually not far removed from what the Docetism of Valentinus, which is itself not far removed from the more obvious heresy of monophysitism - for in essence the neo-Platonism which Athanasius imbibed compelled him to do the very same thing by which the docetists and monophysites were guilty of - which was to quarantine the divinity of Christ from the corruption of the material plane of existence in which we live! This directly contradicts Scripture, which states why Christ was `made in the flesh':

`Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.' (Hebrews 4: 14 - 16.)
Quite plainly, if Christ were not tempted `on all points, yet without sin', then we could not come `boldly unto the throne of grace, that we might obtain mercy, and find grace in time of need'. This also begs the question - why do we need a Priest to mediate for our sins, when there is `one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ' (1 Titus 2: 5). The priesthood of the Roman Church reflects that of ancient Babylon from whence it originated, and further obscures the agape of Christ, by positing Christ as so far away from us that He is playing Hide and Seek from us, so that we need to enlist in the aid of a Priest, so that we might find Him! Thus the early Church Fathers substituted the more obvious errors of the gnostic sects, with more subtle errors of their own, which they held in commonality the same wellspring of error from which the gnostics derived their beliefs - which was Greek philosophy! Did Athanasius believe that Christ was manifest `in the flesh'? He most certainly did, as did all of the Church Fathers! But it was the nature of the flesh which Christ manifested Himself in with which we are concerned, and proved to be the stumbling stone upon which the Church began its fall from grace. Athanasius believed that Christ avoided corruption by taking upon Himself what is known in theological circles as the pre-lapsarian nature of Adam; which is to say that Christ took upon Himself the nature of Adam before He sinned - although He was tempted by `innocent infirmities' such as thirst and hunger, He was not tempted by the same `flesh' which you and I share, for if He were to share in your flesh and my flesh, this would constitute sin itself. So for Athanasius and his followers, Christ was effectively quarantined from the trials of `everyman', by not being `tempted as we are, in the likeness of sinfull flesh' (Romans 8: 3) - when in fact Scripture states the opposite! This teaching is alive and well in the majority of Churches, Protestant and Catholic, and is known as the doctrine of vicarious substitution. More will be spoken of this later.
Athanasius's neo-Platonism compelled him to believe that by taking upon Himself `flesh' which could be tempted to sin, this would essentially corrupt the divinity of Christ, for Greek logic demanded that God cannot take upon Himself a `body of flesh' and remain uncorrupted, which was a concept which was (to use a pun) further `fleshed out' by Augustine in the fifth century. Instead of assuming flesh which was like us, He instead assumed flesh which is unlike us, and is one of the subtle errors of which John warned, when he wrote that `every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof all of you have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world'. For if the flesh which Christ assumed at the incarnation is unlike ours, then it wasn't really human flesh at all which He assumed at the incarnation, but it is instead superhuman flesh which cannot be tempted to sin. In this way, the teaching that Christ assumed the flesh of Adam before he fell at His incarnation makes Christ completely impervious to the temptation to sin, and places Him at a distinct advantage to the hapless sinner. It emulates the eros of the Greeks, and in fact derived from it, as it places Christ as so far removed from the trials and tribulations of `everyman', that He cannot possilbly save us.
Can it really be considered to be `gospel truth' that the celebrated Church Father by the name of Athansius, who is held in awe by Catholic and Protestant alike, imbibed of gnostic heresies himself, which were really not far removed from the more obvious errors of the Monophysites, and that this muddied water so polluted the pure stream of Christianity, that it is still believed by nearly all Churches, both Catholic and Protesant, as an orthodox expression of faith in the twenty first century today? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, for although he had a zeal for Christ, he also had a zeal for Plato, and advocated what has come to be known as the `world soul' view; which is not far removed from the New Age conception of `Gaia', and betrays the influences which neo-Platonism had on the formulation of his theology: `Consistently, therefore, the Word of God took a body and has made use of a human intrument, in order to quicken the body also, and as He is known in creation by His works so to work in man as well, and to shew Himself everywhere, leaving nothing void of His own divinity and knowledge of Him. For I resume and repeat what I said before, the Saviour did this in order that, as He fills all things by His presence, so also might He fill all things with the knowledge of Him . . . .For He was made man that we might be made God.'(Athanasius, `On the Incarnation', 1. 46. 54)

This is of course pantheism; the writings of this `Father of the Church' are the foundation upon which all so-called `orthodox' Christian doctrines are built upon. The doctrine of `vicarious substitution', which is believed to be orthodox theology by Catholic and Protestant alike, takes the position which Athanasius first posited - i.e, that Christ took upon Himself the `sinless flesh' of Adam before he fell into sin, so that He might be quarantined from sin. But as it is a manifest fact that only that which is assumed can be saved, then this doctrine presents us with a `Christ' which is not unlike the deistic Prime Mover of the Greeks; who is so far removed from the affairs of mortal men, that `He' cannot possibly save us, and we must go in search of him so that we may find him. It maligns the character of God, and does injustice to John 3: 16, which states that: `For God so loved the world, that He gave us His only-begotten Son . . . . '
For if the Son is so far removed from our ordinary affairs and was not tempted as we are, yet without sin - then how do doctrines such as this affect the quality of love which the Father and Son have for us? For if Christ has not descended all the way from heaven to give `help' to us where we need it most, then the `love' which They have for us is a hollow promise and the God of the Bible is a straw man - a divine farce. John quite rightly believed doctrines such as these to be antichrist, simply because they deny the saving power of Christ, as they posit Him as so unlike us, that the flesh which He assumed cannot be considered to be human flesh. It is instead `divine flesh', or `Holy Flesh' which cannot be tempted to sin! Such were the errors which the Apologists themselves fell into, while at the same time fighting the more obvious errors of gnostic sects such as the Monophysites.
If one carefully studies the historical record of the development of the Church, it becomes apparent that notwithstanding his good intentions, Justin Martyr is one of the first men who formulated philosophies of which the Christian world are still ensnared in today, for his Platonism necessitated that he could not grasp the difference between the agape of Christ, and the eros of the Greeks, for the donning of the philosopher's robe while he attempted to defend Christianity testifies to this, and it is from Justin where we first find the pure stream of apostolic Christianity being muddied by the speculative elements of Greek philosophy. The apostle Paul predicted that this would happen, and warned of following of philosophies which are found 'after the tradition of men':

`Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the traditions of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." (Colossians 2: 8.) Consequently, the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul became absorbed into Christianity shortly after the deaths of Justin and Tatian; which thus opened the door for error being multiplied upon error - and much of that error still remains in various degrees in the Protestant and Catholic Churches today - for none have a clear conception of the agape of God. Or if they do, they refuse to preach it, out of fear of offending their ecumenical brethren in the name of so-called `unity of fellowship'. For although the majority of theologians are in agreement as to the origins of what is today passed off as Christian doctrine, few pastors are aware of it, and the vast majority of Christians would in fact be shocked to learn that Christianity has been adulterated by Greek philosophy, just as the apostle Paul feared it would be:
`The story of Christian theology is deeply influenced by philosophy - especially Greek (Hellenistic) philosophy. That comes as a surprise and often a shock to Christians who assume that Christianity and philosophy are opposed to one another . . . One rift running right down the middle of Christian theology from very early on has been that between Christian thinkers who wish to meet critics on their own ground and argue the faith reasonably and even philosophically, and Christian thinkers who see that endeavour as a dangerous accommodation to enemies of the faith . . . The apologists were Christian writers of the second century who attempted to defend Christianity against pagan opponents such as Celsus. While a few of them like Tertullian rejected the philosophical approach, most of the apologists attempted to demonstrate similarities between the Christian message and worldview and the best of Greek philosophy. A few even considered Christianity "true philosophy" and attempted to show its superiority as philosophy to Hellenistic thought. In the process, of course, they had to compare and contrast the two in a way that implied their commensurability.' (`The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform', R. Olsen, 1999, pp. 54, 55.)

This explains why Justin donned the philosophers garb after his conversion to Christianity - while the Apologists of the second century endeavoured to meet the pagan philosophers on their own ground in a misguided attempt to defend the Church against the heresies which were flooding it, in doing so they imbibed of subtle heresies which they themselves failed to discern:
`The apologists' enterprise of examining and defending Christianity in light of Greek philosophy was not entirely new. A century or more earlier the Jewish scholar Philo had attempted to wed Judaism and Greek philosophy in Egypt. His great influence there among both Jews and Gentile God-fearers probably helps to explain why Alexandrian Christians in the second and third centuries were most open to this project of explaining the Bible and Christian beliefs philosophically. Some of the apologists emulated Philo's positive evaluation of Greek philosopers. Philo, for instance, had taught that Plato's philosophy and Moses' teachings were both based upon divine revelation and at heart were similar if not identical. In order to make this work he had to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures allegorically. By using that method, he was able to blend Greek and Hebrew ways of thinking about God, creation and humanity. Philo's approach to Jewish thought was already widely accepted (though not without controversy) among Jews of the diaspora, and Christian apologists of the second century built on that foundation in order to show a similar consistency between the best of Hellenistic thought and their own fairly sophisticated versions of the Christian message.' (Olsen, p. 55.) While the Apologists used Paul's discourse in Athens which he directed to the Stoics and Epicureans in Athens about the "unknown god" (Acts ch. 17) to justify their reasons for meeting pagan Platonism with so-called Christianised neo-Platonism; for reason that he quoted from their own poets so he could meet them on common ground which they understood (Olsen, p. 55), this in fact provided the apologists with only the slimmest of excuses, as Paul didn't imbibe of these same philosophies which he took great pains to warn the churches about! Saul, or Paul, as he came to be known after he was literally blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, was well aware of the Platonic influences which were beginning to flood the early Church while he was alive, and strenuously labored with the Corinthian Church which (to a large degree) consisted of Greek converts who still retained pagan conceptions of God which were marred by Greek philosophy. This led him to warn the Greek converts that Christians should beware of the foolishness of the wisdom of men, which was at that time was epitomised by the Platonic philosophies which many of these Greek converts retained after they were baptized into the Church; for Paul drove home the point that he did not come among amongst them to baptize them, but instead `to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ be made of no effect':

`For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For all of you see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.' (1 Corinthians 1: 17 - 27.)
As noted previously, when Paul warned the Corinthians of `the wisdom of the wise' and `the disputer of this world', he was specifically warning them of the different sub-sets of Platonic philosophy, such as the Stoics and Epicureans, who discussed and disputed the various philosophies which abounded about God. And as we have also already noted, any philosophy which taught that God has left the lofty heights of heaven to risk having His divinity corrupted by assuming a body which was considered to be evil because it had been corrupted by the material plane of existence in which we dwell, was considered by them to be foolishness! And as the Corinthian Church was rather affluent and did have some rich converts as brethren, he then informed that Church that `not many wise man after the flesh [philosophers], not many mighty, not many noble are called: but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise'. Confound the wise Platonic philosophers God most certainly did; for reason that they considered the philsophies which taught of Christ to be complete foolishness! The following statement relates the views of Plotinus, and gives insight to what the Greeks believed about what they believed to be a bifurcation of the body and soul: `In the Platonic tradition there was a tenacious belief that the body is a drag and a hindrance . . . the body's unremitting need for food, the diseases which beset it, passions, desires and fears, the body's love of money, "which causes all wars," all add up to a major distraction from philosophical thinking . . . . Plotinus had no hesitation in labelling the body as an evil on the ground of its materiality, whereas the incorporeal soul is free of evil.' (`Late Antiquity: a Guide to the Postclassical world', Bowersock, Lamont Brown & Grabar, 1991, p. 62.)

Paul also warned the Colossian Church of the dangers of Greek philosophy, and in the following passage described Platonism as `philosophy and vain deceit', and then informed the Colossians of a concept which was absolutely impossible for the Greek philosophers to believe, namely that `in Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily':

`Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.' (Colossians 2: 8-9)

The Platonists were simply unable to grasp the concept that the Divine Son of God Himself could descend into this material plane of existence and take upon Himself a body which was `tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin' (Hebrews 4: 15), yet have His divinity remain uncorrupted. When we view this in the context of agape and eros, the earliest extant records we have which confuse these two diametrically opposed systems of salvation, are to be found in the early third century, when Origen Adamantius (c. 185 - 254 A.D), one of the early Fathers of the Church first confused `eros' with `agape'.