Origen and Doing Apologetics: Origen’s Reluctance to Write a Defense of Christianity

One of the most important apologetic works of Christianity is Origen’s Contra Celsum. Written around 245 AD, Origen’s work addresses challenges to Christianity brought about by Celsus in his True Doctrine. Celsus provided one of the first systematic, philosophical challenges to early Christianity; in response, Origen’s work is a line-by-line address of Celsus’ charges and arguments. So thorough is Origen’s answer to Celsus that we only know of Celsus’ True Doctrine by virtue of the extensive quotes Origen provides. Though we do not have an extant copy of True Doctrine, we can piece together the numerous quotes such that we have a good idea of what made up Celsus’ work. The point is that in Origen we have Christian apologetic’s first extensive, systematic answer to Christianity’s challenges.

Interestingly, though, Origen was reluctant to write an apologetic work. In the preface to Contra Celsum, Origen states:

I know not, my pious Ambrosius, why you wished me to write a reply to the false charges brought by Celsus against the Christians, and to his accusations directed against the faith of the Churches in his treatise; as if the facts themselves did not furnish a manifest refutation, and the doctrine a better answer than any writing, seeing it both disposes  of the false statements, and does not leave to the accusations any credibility or validity (Contra Celsum, I. Preface, emphasis mine).

Read that again – Origen, author of one of Christianity’s most significant apologetic works, questions the need for such a work.

Origen appeals to Jesus Christ’s silence “when false witness was borne against him.” For instance, when Jesus was brought before the high priest and the council the night of his arrest, two false witnesses trumped up claims against Jesus. Yet, according to Mark (see Mark 14:53-65), Jesus remained silent before his accusers. Origen goes on to claim that “Jesus…is at all times assailed by false witnesses, and, while wickedness remains in the world, is ever exposed to accusation. And yet even now He continues silent before these things.” Instead, Jesus “places his defense” in the lives of his disciples. How the Christian lives in a lost world is the “preeminent testimony, and one that rises superior to all false witness, and refutes and overthrows all unfounded accusations and charges” (Preface).

For Origen, to write an apology (i.e. a defense) of Christianity weakens the defense of Christianity, for the power of Jesus is manifested in the lives of believers and evident to those who “are not altogether devoid of perception.” That is, unbelievers who “perceive” the truthfulness and power of Christianity will be able to see the “facts” of Christianity through God’s Word and the lives of believers. Nevertheless, to avoid the appearance of being reluctant to write a defense of Christianity, Origen agrees to do so.

What are we to make of Origen’s claims here? Is apologetics – as we know it – unnecessary? Even more, does apologetics weaken our defense of Christianity to a lost world? Origen’s claims here raise questions for us regarding the nature and purpose of apologetics – questions that concern not only theologians and philosophers, but also the Christian layperson. Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 3:15 is not limited to the seminary-trained, but is a call for all Christians to be ready to give an answer for their faith. We also see Paul giving a defense of Christianity before the Athenians (Acts 17). It’s in light of these two passages (and others) that I offer some thoughts on Origen’s claims.

First, Origen is correct in that we are to model our lives after Jesus Christ. But are we to see Jesus’ silence before his accusers as a model for how we are to be before Christianity’s opponents? I think not. In fact, what Jesus encounters is unique to him and him only. Prior to his arrest and trials, we see in the Gospels that Jesus knew that his purpose was to die on behalf of humanity for our sin. We also see that Jesus knew that he would be betrayed by Judas, and that he would be arrested. In short, Jesus Christ was fulfilling what had been prophesied of him – that he would suffer and die for our sins. Further, he was obeying the will of God the Father (Luke 22:42).

Further, what more did Jesus have to say to his accusers? For three years, Jesus had taught and performed miracles in the presence of the Jews, including the religious leaders. Jesus had answered the accusations of the religious leaders and even brought true accusations against them. By the time of Jesus’ arrest and trial, the religious leaders had watched and listened to Jesus for three years – they had already determined in their heart that they rejected him as Lord and Son of God.

Thus, Origen’s appeal to Jesus’ silence is misguided and wrong. As I said earlier, Origen is right in appealing to Jesus as our model and example, but to use Jesus’ silence (before his accusers) as a model for us in regard to apologetics fails to take in what the rest of Scripture says about how we are to answer our own accusers. Which leads me to my second point…

Origen seemingly ignores or neglects to factor other teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament. For instance, in Luke 12:11-12, Jesus foreshadows what the apostles will eventually face – standing before the synagogues, rulers, and authorities. Does Jesus tell the disciples to remain silent? No. Jesus encourages the disciples with the following: “do not become anxious about how or what you should speak in your defense, or what you should say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (NASB). Note, the disciples are to “speak in [their] defense.” This is a far cry from remaining silent.

Elsewhere, we see Paul standing before he elite philosophers of his day, giving an answer for Christianity. In Acts 17, Paul stands before the Epicureans and Stoics, proclaiming the truth of the one, true God and for the salvation found in Jesus Christ. Granted, Paul initiated this discussion, but nevertheless he spoke in defense of Christianity. Elsewhere we see Paul facing mobs, religious leaders, etc. who beat, stone, or arrest him. In all of these situations, Paul speaks boldly for the Gospel. (See, for example, Acts 21-22, where Paul leverages his Roman citizenship to gain a hearing before the mob of Jews.)

Finally, if Origen’s claims in his preface toContra Celsum are correct, then how are we to make sense of 1 Peter 3:15, where we are commanded to be ready to give an answer for our faith. Yes, our lives – how we live – are to be a witness of the power of the Gospel to a lost world. But, Peter’s exhortation in his first epistle is in reference to a spoken defense of the Gospel. Note, Peter states, “being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account (1 Peter 3:15, NASB, emphasis mine). It’d be odd to read this passage as referring to something Origen has in mind. It’s more natural to read Peter as referring to our giving an oral or written defense of our faith in Christ Jesus. You’d have to do quite a hermeneutical dance to say otherwise.

Origen’s Contra Celsum rightly stands as one of the greatest Christian apologetic works. Much of the work still bears relevance to the challenges we face today. However, I believe Origen’s understanding of apologetics – particularly its purpose – is lacking. Further, his view of apologetics fails to hold water in light of the entirety of Scripture.

Is Christianity Rational? A Look at Athenagoras of Athens

Greek for “[those who are] without God.

One worldview that challenges Christianity in the West is that of metaphysical naturalism. According to this worldview, there is only the material world. There is no creator God – the world came about by chance. There is no God sovereign over the past, present, and future – the universe is but a cause and effect system. Beauty and morality are not rooted in the nature of God – they are rooted in physical causes and explainable only through physical means. Christians follow an ancient, outdated religion that presents a faulty view of the world. For some, Christians are unreasonable for not only believing that God exists, but also for believing that the Bible is God’s word that informs their knowing.

While this challenge speaks to the time in which we live, it is not unique to 21st century Christians. Even as early as the second century Christians faced challenges from the Romans for irrationality. In his Embassy for the Christians, Athenagoras addresses this charges in his answer to the Roman claim that Christians are atheists.

If the fifth-century historian Philip of Side is correct, Athenagoras was a Platonist philosopher who headed the Academic School in Alexandria. Then around 176 AD, Athenagoras became a Christian through reading Scripture (which he initially sought to refute). After his salvation, he wrote two works (that we know of) in defense of Christianity (Embassy for the Christians) and on the nature of man (On the Resurrection of the Dead). Unfortunately, little is known of Athenagoras, yet he stands among the great early Christian apologists.

In Embassy, Athenagoras writes to Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius on behalf of Christianity calling for a fair hearing. Appealing to their status as philosophers of high standing, Athenagoras argues that Christians should – at the very least – be placed on equal footing with the philosophers. That is, he does not seek to equate Christianity with pagan philosophy; rather, by pointing out the beliefs espoused by the Romans’ revered philosophers, it should be clear that Christianity is more reasonable and good in its doctrine. Thus, Christians should not be persecuted for such charges as atheism.

Religion in ancient Rome was not a private or personal matter – a matter of choice or merely personal piety. Rather, religion was intricately and intimately intertwined in the political and societal life of the Roman Empire. Though even a summary discussion of Roman religion is beyond the scope of this post (see John Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985]), let it suffice here that the worship of Roman gods lent to (in part) the protection of and blessing of the State. Thus, the Christians’ refusal to worship the pagan gods was seen as a seditious act. Further, the Romans were skeptical toward anything that was new. By worshipping one God (monotheism), the Christians were considered atheists in the Romans’ eyes. Christians, then, essentially denied the divine, hence their atheism. Seditious and atheistic, the Christians were a threat to the very stability of the Roman Empire. What person in their right mind would walk in such a manner?

The primary mode of attack in Athenagoras’ Embassyis to address the charge of atheism. If he could eliminate the charge of atheism, then the validity of the other charges would dissipate. Athenagoras’ takes a two-pronged approach by addressing the philosophers’ own monotheism and ‘irrationality.’ 

In Chapter 5, Athenagoras quotes two well-known playwrights – Euripides and Sophocles – who posit that there can only be one true God and that the so-called gods of Rome have no real existence. Though these playwrights (and other philosophers) affirmed monotheism, they did not believe in God as revealed in Christ. Nevertheless, by quoting from the Romans’ own revered poets, he sheds light on their inconsistencies. If Roman poets and philosophers reject polytheism yet are lauded, why are Christians – who likewise reject polytheism – persecuted?

In Chapters 15 and 16 of The Embassy, argues that it is the Romans, not the Christians, who are irrational in their beliefs. Following Isaiah (see Isaiah 44:9-20), Athenagoras exposes the folly of idol worship. Christians worship the one true God, who is not of this world. The one true God is not of, nor is like, his creation; he is the cause of all things and sits in majesty over creation. The Roman gods, however, are like humans in that they are made of material things. The so-called gods of Rome are but created things – they are blind and impotent. Though Athenagoras’ point was the impiety of the Romans (and not the Christians), we see implied as well the irrationality of worshipping Roman gods. For, according to Plato (whom the Romans claimed), “that which is called heaven and earth has received many blessing from the Father, but yet partakes of the body; hence it cannot possibly be free from change” (quoted by Athenagoras). Romans, then, worshipped imperfect, creature-like gods, unworthy of one’s worship. Christians, on the other hand, worship the one true God who made all things and is above all things. Perfect and holy, God alone is worthy of one’s worship. Who, then, is lacking reason? The Romans for their worship of corruptible things.

Though Athenagoras’ apologetic may sound foreign to modern ears, the heart of his message rings true in the 21st century. Christians may no longer be labelled atheists, and modern atheists may claim the crown of rationality, but his appeal to what is rational speaks to our challenges today. How is it that Christians are irrational for their worship of the Creator God? The appeal to science for truth – ultimate truth – is a leap of faith. Metaphysical naturalists essentially have faith that science and reason will always lead us to untarnished truth. But an appeal to finite and contingent human reason as the arbiter of truth is a recipe for uncertainty and confusion. Creatures relying upon creation alone for universal truth is akin to the Romans praying to material idols for protection and blessings. Christianity, on the other hand, accords with reason for all of creation points to the reality of and existence of God (Romans 1:20).

Athenagoras provides other helpful arguments in the defense of the Christian faith. To read more, see: Athenagoras, Embassy for the Christians: The Resurrection of the Dead, trans. Joseph Hugh Crehan, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 23. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1956).

Why Even Do Apologetics? A Helpful Word From Chris Bolt, PhD

If we cannot change the heart of the unbeliever through arguments, then why even do apologetics? Packed in this question is the correct presumption that it is the Holy Spirit alone, through the proclamation of God’s Word, that changes the heart of the unbeliever. However, as Chris Bolt tells us, it is a question based upon a faulty view of what “argument” means. Check out his helpful podcast.

Lightening Apologetics, by Chris Bolt (Twitter: @cbolt)

Chris is a friend from my PhD days in Louisville. He is a pastor and bright philosopher. This podcast is his first of what I’m sure is going to be an excellent resource.

Connecting Today’s Apologetics to the Past

The discipline of apologetics continues to be a popular area of study among Christians, particularly as Christians face increasing challenges to beliefs once widely accepted. Modern believers have an embarrassment of riches in regard to apologetic resources, such as print and electronic books, websites, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Geared to the specialist as well as to the layperson, Christians are not at a loss for resources on how to defend the faith.

Despite Christian apologetics’ rich history and today’splethora of resources, it seems to me that current works (particularly popular works) tend to emphasize the present to the neglect of the past. That is, books, articles, and other resources on apologetics tend to focus primarily on current topics, questions, and challenges to Christianity with little attention to how apologists in ancient and medieval Christianity addressed similar matters. Granted, Christians are generally concerned about immediate challenges to our faith. Yet, with this emphasis on currentarguments and answers, there’s little attention as to how the past informs today’s challenges.

Now, current works don’t completely ignore apologetics of the past, but by and large, any mention of the past is made in the context of the present. That is, Christianity’s past consists of historical facts – the way Christians of old answered their own challenges. Or, apologetics of yesterday are a link in a long chain of development to the present – a necessary link, but now outdated or irrelevant in light of today’s challenges.

Further, popular apologetic works tend to emphasize method over context. Take a look at the various titles of current books in apologetics: Conversational Apologetics; Covenantal Apologetics; Expository Apologetics; The Apologetics of Jesus; Cold Case Christianity; Apologetics by the Book; Relational Apologetics…and the list goes on. Implied in the titles provided is that methodology is the key to effective apologetics. By “methodology”, I mean howone does apologetics. For instance: What is the starting point with an unbeliever? Does one first begin by demonstrating God’s existence? Ought one to use natural theology (i.e. argument from design, etc.) in their apologetics, and if so, at what point? The idea seems to be that there is a “better way” or “right way” to do apologetics compared to recent attempts.

While there may be indeed more effective means of doing apologetics, the emphasis on method is a recent development. Since the Enlightenment – when scientific thinking and methodology became the bar of truth – Christians were faced with challenges not encountered before. As Christian apologists answered these new affronts to the faith, the matter of methodology came to the forefront – an issue somewhat foreign to pre-Enlightenment apologetics (especially from ancient Christianity).

Allow me to clearly state that I am not against the current apologetic works available today. They are a valuable source for Christians and the church today. Nor am I against the ongoing dialogue on apologetic method; we need to ensure that we effectively communicate and defend the Gospel. What I am saying is that we need to revisit the apologetics of the past to see how they can inform today’s challenges. That is, we need to study Origen’s Contra Celsum, Anthenagoras’ Plea for the Christians, and John Damascene’s apologetics against Islam (among others), for they’re not merely of historical interest. Rather, ancient Christian apologists can (and do) speak to the very challenges Christians face today.

This semester I am teaching Apologetics II where we study the various apologetic methods (such as presuppositionalism, classical apologetics, evidential apologetics, etc.). In the first two week of class, we spent time going through four chapters of Five Views on Apologetics (ed. Stanley Gundry, Zondervan, 2000). The remainder of the semester, however, is devoted to studying the works of apologists from ancient Christianity up to the eighteenth century. Each week a student is responsible for taking a small passage from that week’s assigned text where they are to provide:

  1. The place of that passage within the work as a whole.
  2. Identify relevant points, such as tone, word usage, characterizations, etc.
  3. Identify proper names and places, dates, etc.

The purpose of this assignment is to get students to understand (to the best of their ability) the context in which the apologist operated. What questions did Christians face? What challenges did unbelievers bring before Christians, and what informed these challenges? Why did the apologist argue as they did? Such questions do bring up matters of method, but what I want my students to see is that the apologists were less concerned (relative to some today) about method, and more about addressing the questions and challenges against Christianity. Likewise, as we seek to give an answer for our faith, we too ought to consider the questions and context that inform the unbeliever’s beliefs. Our response, shaped by and informed by the Gospel, begins with these questions.

More so, we have much to learn from apologetics from the past. While the details may differ, the questions and challenges Christians face do not. There are only a finite number of ways one can oppose Christianity. (I believe Solomon’s “there is nothing new under the sun” applies here.) We can benefit from the energy and thought other Christians have invested in their defense of the Gospel.

Christianity today faces challenges that deserve our attention and careful study. Christianity has always, though, faced challenges. fWe stand on the shoulders of Christians who have gone before us. Let us enrich our apologetic work by reading and studying our brothers and sisters of past who have been faithful to give an answer for the Gospel.

‘Place’ and Apologetics: Christopher Brooks and “Urban Apologetics”

Recently I wrote on the fundamental role “being known” plays in one’s act of knowing. That is, my coming to know something is not reduced to the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am.” Just as important is the reality that each individual is confronted by reality – by others, by the physical world, etc. We are not able to completely abstract ourselves out of culture and tradition (as Descartes tried to do). Rather, we are shaped by the culture and tradition in which we live.

This culture and tradition makes up what I’m calling place, which also includes one’s geographic location and social setting. Where one is and was (i.e. if one lives in a different location from where they were born) plays a significant role in what issues they face on a regular basis. Place also determines what worldviews and religions one encounters through their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens. These issues and questions force the individual (either reactively or through reflection) to come to terms (at some level) with what they believe or know about them.

Apologetics is not immune to the impact place has on the act of knowing and what one believes. Continue reading

Quote: David Brooks on the Need for the Philosophy of Personalism

[O]ur culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person. Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme, evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one. Consumerism treats people as mere selves — as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff…

[T]oday’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change

David Brooks

The quote above is from David Brooks’ article (see here) where he suggests a return to the philosophy of Personalism – a philosophy that had a brief life in the late 19th century and early 20th century. I’d initially dismissed this philosophy as “too subjective”, but as I read more about it, the more I come to see the potential value this philosophy has, particularly when one does not divorce it from God’s revealed Word.

I plan on reading more on Personalism, but some initial thoughts come to mind:

  1. Personalism is not saying that the individual is the ground of reality. The essence of humanity (at least in part) is that we are personal beings. And, as created in God’s image, our personhood reflects the nature of the Triune God. [Obviously, more needs to be said about what is meant by “personal”, but that’ll come later.]
  2. Personalism does not have to reject universal truth; in fact, I believe that one can consistently hold to a form of Personalism and universal truth.
  3. In a day where we experience the Cartesian divorce of humanity from “culture and tradition” on one end of the spectrum, and the Postmodern complete encapsulation of humanity within culture and tradition on the other – Personalism may be a helpful way to bridge the gap.

So, it seems that my personal (no pun intended) research is beginning to take shape once again as I near the end of my one-year hiatus from writing. With my previous post on “knowing and being known” and now this renewed interest in Personalism, I believe I have my work cut out for me.

Knowing and Being Known: Introductory Thoughts

I did not begin studying philosophy until I was 4 years into my Masters degree (which took me 8 years and 11 months to complete). For the longest time I viewed philosophy as a discipline for really smart people. However, as I look back on my life, I believe I didn’t give philosophy the time of day because I thought it was boring — a musty relic of academic disciplines. I was spontaneous (or so I thought)—I didn’t want to be “stuck” in one place; rather, I wanted to travel, to see the world, and to be invested in something bigger than myself. Philosophy did not fit the bill.

Little did I know at this time, though, that the questions and longings I had were (in part) philosophical in nature. The last two years of my college career was a period of deep anxiety and, at times, depression.[1] I recall a prayer that I repeated rather often during this time of my life—that I would know God. I longed to know God beyond the mere intellect; however, I didn’t know how else to say what I longed for other than stressing the word ‘know’ to entail a fuller, substantive, and deeper sense of knowing God. Continue reading

Straw Man Introductions

How often do we as academic writers set up straw men scenarios in our introductions in order to establish the relevance of our thesis? The introduction is just as important as the body of the work; set your opening scenario in its proper context. The more you force the relevance of your thesis, the less likely it connects with reality.

Does God Exist? Some Thoughts on an Important Question

I recently had the opportunity to be a part of my church’s (Ninth and O Baptist Church) Sunday night series titled “Can I Ask That?” where we address tough questions about Christianity. For example, past sermons include “Can I Trust the Bible?”, “Why is Hell Forever?”, and “Did God Call the Israelites to Commit Genocide with the Invasion of the Land?” I addressed the question “Does God Exist?”.

This question is quite complex, such that a 40-minute Q&A session only touches the tip of the iceberg. However, the way the moderator (Drew Smith) structured the forum, I believe we were able to touch on some important issues that many face when addressing the question of God’s existence. Continue reading

Is Philosophy Work? Josef Piper vs. Donald Trump on Education and Work

Amidst the fury over the US government’s handling of immigrant families, news came out of Washington this week that President Trump is considering merging the Department of Education with the Department of Labor. Erin Dooley with ABC News quotes Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney:

They’re doing the same thing…Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?

While there are many kicking back at Trump’s suggestion, if educators were honest with themselves, there has been a growing trend in higher education to tie higher education to the nation’s workforce – analogous to the way the minor leagues feed into MLB teams. In short, education has been relegated to preparing citizens entering, or those seeking to enhance or relocate, in the workforce.

Continue reading