"Apologists" is the term used historically in reference to Christian teachers from the second century to the fourth who wrote treatises defending their religion against charges of godlessness and immorality and usually ascribing these traits to their opponents. The way had been prepared for such writings in Hellenistic Judaism when Philo of Alexandria wrote an apologetic Hypothetica (now lost). All his extant writings can be regarded as attempts to set forth the nature of Judaism in a way comprehensible to a Greek audience. Josephus had explained away the revolt against Rome (History of the Jewish War ), had rewritten the history of Israel (Antiquities of the Jews ), and had provided an explicitly apologetic defense of Judaism (Against Apion ). In addition, fragments of apologetic sermons are preserved in the New Testament book of Acts (14.15–17; 17.22–31), and perhaps may be reflected in I Thessalonians 1.9, I Corinthians 12.2, and Romans 1.18–32. The earliest known Christian apologists, however, wrote early in the second century.
Quadratus apparently wrote at Athens in the reign of Hadrian (117–138), and the one extant fragment of his work contrasts "our Savior" with some other savior. He argues that Jesus' healings and revivifications were authentic because some of the beneficiaries survived until Quadratus' own time. The Apology of Aristides (second century) begins with a semi-Stoic definition of God and goes on to show that all the gods of popular cult and legend cannot be gods because their deeds or sufferings are not in harmony with the definition. Finally, Aristides provides rather faint praise of Jews and high commendation for Christians. These writings cannot have won much, if any, favor with the pagans who read them.
The principal Christian apologist of the second century was Justin (c. 100–c. 165), born in Samaria of Greek parents and converted to Christianity (c. 130) after a fruitless quest for truth that had led him to religious-minded Middle Platonism. His education, he says, had not included many of the liberal arts; and from his account of his conversion, it is evident that he knew little about philosophy. A Christian whom he met by chance used Peripatetic arguments to indicate inconsistencies in Platonism. Justin, seeking new authority, was given the Old Testament prophecies. He had already admired the constancy of Christian martyrs; he soon became a Christian himself and instructed others, first in Asia Minor, later at Rome. He was martyred there between 163 and 167. Three of his works have survived: his Apology, written about 150 to show that Christians are not immoral and that Christ's life was foretold in the Old Testament; the Dialogue with Trypho, written about 160, developing this argument from the Old Testament; and an appendix to the Apology, also written about 160. His writings reflect a combination of Middle Platonism with Stoic terminology; he speaks of the divine Logos ("Word" for earlier Christians, "Reason" for Philo and the apologists), which was seminally present in some Greek philosophers but was incarnate in Christ. By working out some of the implications of this identification, Justin produced the first semiphilosophical Christian theology. It is possible that he knew something about Philo, but he cannot have understood his writings.
Justin's disciple Tatian (born c. 120), who later left the church, knew little about philosophy except for odd details from philosophers' biographies, although like Justin he discussed the Logos as God's agent in creation and criticized the Stoic doctrine of fate. From Alexandria, perhaps, came the Plea for the Christians by Athenagoras (second century). He is the first Christian writer to reflect knowledge of the compendium of philosophical opinions apparently used in school teaching, especially by Skeptics. On the basis of earlier arguments in the schools, Athenagoras constructed a defense of the unity of God; and his later work On Resurrection contains a similar rearrangement of arguments from the schools to prove that God is able and willing to raise corpses, and will do so because man is a unity of soul and body. The last Greek apologist of the second century was Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, whose work in three books, To Antolycus, is concerned with the works of the invisible God (Philonic-Platonic arguments), God's revelation to the prophets and his six-day work of creation, and Christian ethics and the antiquity of the Jewish-Christian revelation. Theophilus used handbooks for much of his information about philosophy, but he may have read some works by Plato.
Generally speaking, the second-century apologists knew something about Platonism (that is, Middle Platonism) and Stoicism (largely the older Stoics) and made use of philosophy at points where it supported—or could be made to support—their own ideas of revelation, creation, providence, free will, divine punishment, and resurrection. They reinterpreted the Johannine "Word" as the divine Reason, instrumental in creation and revelation alike; Justin, unlike the others, used this Reason to explain how it was that some Greeks possessed inklings of the truth. The apologists also stressed the disputes among various schools in order to show how wrong the Greek philosophers usually were and how subjective their knowledge was.
At the very end of the second century an ex-lawyer named Tertullian produced two apologies in Latin. The first, Ad Nationes, is not very original, since much of it is derived from Varro's critique of Roman religion; the second, the Apologeticum, is a completely rewritten, and much more brilliant, revision of the first. Either before or after these works were published, another Latin apology, the Octavius of Minucius Felix, appropriated much of Cicero's treatise De Natura Deorum to Christian use. Both Tertullian and Minucius also made use of their Greek predecessors' writings.
Greek apologetic continued to be produced in the third century; examples include the anonymous booklet To Diognetus, the Protrepticus by Clement of Alexandria, and the highly important work Against Celsus by Origen, in which the author often makes use of philosophical topoi (commonplaces) in his argument (for instance, Platonic discussions of the divine nature; Stoic arguments in favor of providence) and reveals that he shares many presuppositions with Celsus himself. Apparently some of the writings later ascribed to Justin, such as the Cohortatio and the Oration, also come from the third century. In them we find extensive use of handbooks and a little firsthand knowledge of philosophical writings.
Stimulus for the production of further apologies was provided about 260, when the Neoplatonist Porphyry produced a work in fifteen books, Against the Christians. Now lost because it was later proscribed, this work criticized the Old and New Testament, the apostles, and the life and thought of the church. The Praeparatio Evangelica of Eusebius is primarily a reply to it and to the similar work by Hierocles. In the fourth century the emperor Julian composed a work in three books, Against the Galileans ; this was answered by Theodoret and Cyril of Alexandria, among others. Among the later Latin apologists we should mention Arnobius (d. c. 330, vaguely acquainted with Neoplatonism), Lactantius (c. 240–c. 320, who relied extensively on Cicero), and—above all—Augustine, whose City of God contains much from Varro and sets forth a Christian philosophy of history in response to Porphyry and other critics.
The significance of the apologists lies not so much in what they actually wrote (their works seem to have been read chiefly within the church) but in the influence their effort had on one another's thought and on the thought of later theologians. Their criticisms of Greco-Roman philosophy compelled them not only to learn something about it but also to employ its modes of discourse and some of its axioms in expounding the nature of Christianity. It was through the apologists that philosophical theology entered, and to some measure shaped, Christian thought. To be sure, later theologians could not accept the apologists' rather naive theologies (Irenaeus, for example, learned from the apologists but also corrected some of their statements); but impetus for philosophical study was given in the apologists' works and by the school of Alexandria, whose members were more at home in philosophy, especially Platonism.
All the early apologists, and most of the later ones, admired Plato and were influenced by Middle Platonism; the work they valued most highly was the Timaeus, in which they found intimations of Christianity (sometimes explained as derived from the Old Testament). They usually employed traditional Stoic arguments in defense of providence and anti-Stoic arguments in opposition to fate. When they dealt with pagan mythology, they often employed the arguments of Skeptics. Their approach, then, was eclectic; and the famous statement of Justin, "Whatever has been well spoken by anyone belongs to us," had been made by eclectic philosophers. At the same time, the apologists were aware of the difference between all philosophies and their own cardinal doctrines of God (Creator ex ouk ontōn, "wrathful against sin"), the Incarnation, and the future corporeal resurrection. Even those apologists who were most eager to express their doctrines in philosophical modes of discourse were usually aware that the basic beliefs could not be so expressed. Theophilus, for example, defines pistis (faith) in a manner strongly reminiscent of the probabilism of Carneades and then provides analogies to the resurrection of the body that are based on Stoic arguments for the cosmic cycle. He admits, however, that only faith is ultimately convincing.
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Robert M. Grant (1967)