Athenagoras of Athens (ca. 133–190) was among the first apologists of the Christian faith. He was roughly a contemporary of Justin Martyr who was probably the first Christian apologist after the generation of the apostles had died.
One of the really interesting things about Athenagoras is that tradition holds he began his intellectual life as a pagan and endeavored to demonstrate Christianity to be false using the Scriptures themselves. Upon his reading of the Scriptures, he converted and became a Christian. Christianity was still not legal during his lifetime, and would not become legal until the year 313. So taking a public stand for Christianity was a risky venture indeed. Justin himself paid for his witness to the truth with his life.
Athenagoras wrote An Embassy for the Christians around the year 177, and he addressed it to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius as well as his son Commodus, who succeeded him in 180. Marcus Aurelius is well known as a philosopher in his own right, having authored a work of Stoicism entitled Meditations. Athenagoras’ purpose was to appeal for just treatment for the Christians by the Greco-Roman culture. He lays out accusations commonly leveled at Christians and disputes them by explaining Christian doctrines and practices. His audience is, of course, the pagan world and he appeals to the teachings of pagan philosophers that are consistent with Christian teachings. He does this in order to build common ground between the two worldviews. One of the fascinating issues he discusses is the nature of Christian theism, and the difference between it and pagan polytheism. He states that in polytheism, there is no real distinction between the deities and the creatures they are supposed to rule. The true God worshiped by Christians, by contrast, is distinct from what He created. Athenagoras calls Him “the Artificer of the universe” and makes use of the biblical metaphor of the potter and the clay. In this discussion, Athenagoras offers up a prototype argument defining the distinctions made between ontological necessity and contingency. This argument was developed particularly by Thomas Aquinas over a thousand years after Athenagoras died.
Christian apologists have a lot to learn from Athenagoras’ methods. We who today stand for the Christian faith often do so before audiences of evangelicals more so than audiences of non-Christians. Too often, we are merely talking to ourselves. We also sometimes shrink from seeking common ground between our own worldview and others. It is rare for Christian apologists to appeal directly to non-Christian authorities which are asserting some of the same truths that Christian authorities. Furthermore, Athenagoras answers charges made by those hostile to Christianity and refutes them point by point, offering philosophical arguments as well as evidences from everyday experience. Athenagoras’ second century culture has a lot of similarities with our own “post-Christian” culture, and we can follow his lead in many ways.
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