The Christian writers of the first and second centuries paint a picture of the Early Church’s encounters with a hostile culture. The issues were pressing: outright persecution, instructing catechumens, protecting the newly-baptized, celebrating the liturgy, organizing and expanding missionary activity.
Approach of the Apologists
The writers, mostly apologists, had experienced Christianity in different ways, but they were united in only one vision of Christ and the Christian life. They proclaimed and expanded on the gospel message with no speculation and no inner doubt or defensiveness. Transformed by the message they proclaimed, they were willing to die for it.
Through the apologists, the Church provided its members with a sharpened sense of identity and purpose. The uppermost question in their minds was: Who of us will be martyred next for belief in Jesus Christ?
St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 107)
On his way to be martyred in Rome, this impassioned convert from paganism and Antioch’s martyr-bishop wrote seven letters to his local churches warning them not to get in the way of his martyrdom. Ignatius wrote against Docetism which held that Jesus Christ only seemed to be human. His personal witness to Christ was ultimately fulfilled when he was brought to the colosseum and thrown to the lions. He is the first to use the phrase “Catholic Church” to describe its universal character. On October 17th, the Church celebrates the feast of this great second-century martyr.
Of activism and silence, Ignatius writes: “It is better to keep silence and to be, than to talk and not to be. It is a fine thing to teach, if the speaker practices what he preaches. Talking too much is like eating too much” (Asking the Fathers, 132ff).
St. Polycarp of Smyrna (d. ca 155-6)
Polycarp accompanied Ignatius to Rome. Years later at age 86, he was burned at the stake in the amphitheater at Smyrna, today a city in Turkey. In an excerpt on his martyrdom, his disciples wrote: “When he had said ‘Amen’ and finished the prayer, the officials at the pyre lit it. But when a great flame burst out, those of privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. . . . The flame became a dome encircling the martyr’s body” (Liturgy of the Hours III, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,”1397). His feast day is celebrated on February 23rd.
St. Justin Martyr (d. 165)
The Christian philosopher and apologist Justin was well educated and immersed in Greek philosophy, especially in Platonism. Moved by the courage of the martyrs, he embraced Christianity and opened a school in Rome where he taught that Christianity fulfills the highest aspiration of Plato because it is a preparation for the gospel parallel to the Old Testament.
His Apologies I and II describe the details of the weekly celebration of the Eucharist as thanksgiving for creation and redemption. In his writings, he speaks at length on the necessity of thanking God for creation and for the gift of life. In 165, for refusing to sacrifice to gods, he was denounced, beaten and beheaded. Justin is considered one of the Church’s greatest apologists. His feast day is celebrated on June 1 (Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 728).
Letter to Diognetus, (ca. 190)
One of the most-frequently quoted documents from Early Christianity is an elegant Greek apology written by a Methetes to one Diognetus. Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor by language, nor by the customs they observe. They do not lead a life marked out by singularity. As yeast permeates the flour, so Christians permeate the culture.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 202)
If St. Paul is the first Christian theologian, Irenaeus is considered the founder of Christian theology. He eventually found his way to Lyons, France where there is a large church center. This gifted apologist and disciple of St. Polycarp, radiated Christ from every pore in his body. Irenaeus proclaimed the goodness of creation. For him, the reality of man and woman as God’s image is all important. Jesus Christ is the new Adam who renews all creation and leads it back to its author through the Incarnation and Redemption. Mary is the new Eve. The Church celebrates his feast day on June 28th.
Irenaeus refuted the error of Gnosticism. Its underlying tenets are found today in some New Age movements. Gnosticism dilutes the meaning of the Incarnation because it spiritualizes the body, intellectualizes holiness, and denigrates materiality. Having originated in the pagan world, Gnosticism insists that the human body is evil and the material world is irredeemable.
Therefore, it has to be re-engineered. Salvation, it asserts, comes only through knowledge (gnosis), and it is Jesus who brought this gnosis into the world. Accordingly, for Gnosticism, only the purely spiritual person, only the initiated will be saved. Contrary to this belief, God is a God of Agape and not of Gnosis. Irenaeus is one of the most important writers of the early Church because he remains in close touch with the apostolic age. A few of his popular aphorisms are quoted below:
“I have to become me, and that me has to become God. When I am not like God, I am not me.”
“The glory of God is man and woman fully alive, and the glory of man and woman is the vision (contemplation) of God.”
“The Eucharist makes (constitutes) the Church; the Church makes (constitutes) the Eucharist.”
“Jesus Christ on account of his measureless love became what we are that he might make us in the end what he is.” (Asking the Fathers, 22-23)
“Man is the receptacle of God’s goodness. If man and woman make themselves supple and malleable in the hands of the Divine Artist, God can make of them works of art.”
The Church celebrates the feast day of St. Irenaeus on June 28.
Apologetics through Beauty
The notion of apologetics does not ring favorably with most Catholics. For one thing, standing up to anti-Catholicism in social, political, and cultural spheres can be intimidating. Even Catholic officials publicly contradict the Church’s teaching. Second, there is the fear element, fear of being ridiculed, fear of having one’s family publicly embarrassed. The weekly television program, “Blue Bloods” is one exception to this.
Third, because the Church is highly dogmatic, sacramental, and hierarchical in character, most Catholics do not feel adequately prepared to answer questions about their faith. Many fail to grasp the universal validity of the Church’s message. Consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church is probably the best catechetical aid in this regard.
Fourth, while many know about Christ, they lack close, direct, and personal familiarity with him in personal or liturgical prayer. Before Catholics can defend their faith to others, it must have permeated their lives.
Finally, the faith must be communicated as a message of beauty. Even before revealing himself as truth to man and woman, God revealed himself through the universal beauty of creation. Beauty is a power that can attract and overwhelm both child and scientist. All men and women aspire to transcendent beauty, which brings joy. Such an approach leaves a profound imprint on others.
Despite difficulties to a rebirth of apologetics—and there are many, as in the Early Church—St. Peter’s words are as relevant today as they were centuries ago: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you the reason for the hope you all have; but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1Pet 3:15). St. John of the Cross expresses only exuberance in this poetic proclamation addressed to the Father:
“I will go and tell the world,
spreading the word of your beauty and sweetness
and of your sovereignty.
I will go and seek my bride,
and take upon myself her weariness and labors
in which she suffers so; and that she may have life.
I will die for her,
and lifting her out of that deep,
I will restore her to you” (St. John of the Cross, “Romanza,” #7).
The time is ripe. The time is urgent. The time is now.