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.

Virginia Corwin on Ignatius

A great summary of Ignatius by Virginia Corwin in St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960):

The suffering on the cross was real and the final proof that the grace and love of God are one. History and the world are thus not surrendered to Satan but remain the areas in which God works. Nor is redemption an isolated, profoundly individual moment all but out of time, as the modern existentialists would have it, but a stumbling and wholly human journey in a real world, to find grace in company with others in the church, and in the end to attain unto God (271).

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Michael A. G. Haykin: “Reading the Church Fathers” at the Center for Ancient Christian Studies

This spring I have been immersed in reading the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (flourished early 2nd century), an early church father who penned seven letters as he was led in chains to Rome where he would be martyred as a Christian. Little is known of Ignatius as no work exists that provides his biography, his ministry, or his theology. Instead, Ignatius’ seven epistles emphasize unity within the church and ecclesiology, avoiding heretical teaching, and imitating Christ through suffering. Woven throughout Ignatius’ main emphases, the reader sees traces of Ignatius’ Christology, his understanding of the Trinity, and the sanctification of the believer.

Unfortunately, many in evangelical circles are unfamiliar with the ancient Christian writers. Too often evangelicals view the early church fathers as Roman Catholic (particularly Ignatius of Antioch, depending on how one reads his ecclesiology). For others, the trials and issues of the early Christians have little connection to the 21st century context. Lastly, if one reads current works on the church fathers, it quickly becomes apparent that there are a number of conflicting interpretations, leaving one to choose (if able) the best approach to read and apply the fathers.

IgnatiusIn regard to the latter point, Ignatius of Antioch is a great example of conflicting interpretations. As mentioned earlier, one key theme that runs throughout Ignatius’ epistles is his impending martyrdom. Chained to his “ten leopards” (that is, the ten soldiers guarding him), Ignatius was led from Antioch to Rome to be martyred for his Christian faith (Romans 5). At times, Ignatius discusses his ultimate fate—facing the wild beasts in the coliseum—with boldness and expectation. In his epistle to the church in Rome, Ignatius pleads with them to not interfere with his ultimate fate:

I am voluntarily dying for God – if, that is, you do not interfere. I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts – that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ (Romans 4).

At other times, though, Ignatius speaks as if he may not remain faithful until the end, denying his faith instead of dying for Christ.

Moreover, pray for me. By God’s mercy I need your love if I am going to deserve the fate I long for, and not prove a ‘castaway’  (Trallians 12).

At times Ignatius seemingly assumes authority over the recipients of his epistles, while other times he speaks of himself in self-deprecatory language. As such, many modern scholars read Ignatius in a variety of ways, ranging from schizophrenic, to neurotic, to power hungry just to name a few. With almost every Ignatian scholar, an interpretive “key” is found within the epistles themselves or the culture within which he lived by which one can understand Ignatius. The reader, then, is left with a buffet of Ignatian interpretations from which to choose.[1]

Despite the hermeneutical problems one can encounter when reading the church fathers, the value of such an endeavor far outweighs any potential interpretive problem. Over at the website for the Center for Ancient Christian Studies, Garrick Bailey writes a post highlighting a lecture given by Michael A. G. Haykin[2] titled “Why Read the Church Fathers?” along with a list of resources that serves as a solid starting point for those seeking to begin reading the fathers. Bailey provides a podcast of an interview with Haykin in which he traces the events that led him to study the church fathers and discusses why Christians (particularly evangelicals) ought to study the church fathers. Included in the list of church father resources are links to sites selling the books suggested by Haykin. Bailey’s post in an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to delve deeper into the riches of ancient Christianity.

As a shameless plug, CACS is doing a summer Greek reading group at Southern Seminary. The focus for this summer’s reading group is Ignatius of Antioch and his epistles. What follows is the remaining schedule for the reading group:

June 2 — Coleman Ford: “Attuned to the Bishop as Strings to a Lyre”: Imitation and Virtue Formation in the Letters of Ignatius

June 9 — Dr. Michael Haykin: An Introduction to Ignatius and the Letters of Ignatius

June 16 — Dr. Danny McDonald: Ignatius and Ομονοια: Unity As a Means to Attain God

(If you’re in Louisville or the surrounding area and are interested in attending, visit the site (here) or leave a comment to this post and I’ll get in touch with you.)

In short, regardless of your field of study—whether it be philosophy, sociology, OT or NT studies, etc.—the ancient Christian writers are a treasure trove of biblical and philosophical insight that spans the vast expanse of time, reaching the “not-so-new” issues of the 21st century.

[Web-based resources of Ignatius’ epistles: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ignatius.html].


 

[1] It goes beyond the scope of this post to discuss an approach to reading ancient texts. It is my opinion that some modern attempts to the interpretation of Ignatius are influenced too much by modern presuppositions that are read into Ignatius’ epistles. Though difficult, I believe the best approach is to give Ignatius (and any other ancient writer) the “benefit of the doubt” by seeking to understand them on their own terms first before seeking to embark on connecting the writer to 21st century issues. This is vague, I am sure, it is sufficient enough (due to time and space) to illustrate an approach that is fair to the ancient Christian writers.

[2] Haykin, according to sbts.edu, “serves as Professor of Church History & Biblical Spirituality. Dr. Haykin has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto (1974), a Master of Religion from Wycliffe College, the University of Toronto (1977), and a Th.D. in Church History from Wycliffe College and the University of Toronto (1982).” He is also over the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.

Gavin Ortlund on Pre-Reformation Theology

Gavin Ortlund pens an excellent article at thegospelcoalition.org on the resurgence of interest among Protestants and Evangelicals in pre-Reformation theology. The context behind this article is a “marked movement” of Evangelicals and Protestants to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This movement is not limited to the layperson in the pew, but includes such figures as Francis Beckwith (former ETS president). Such conversions have also garnered attention from secular media such as The Washington Post and their story on two former Southern Baptist twins – one who converted to Catholicism and the other to Anglicanism (see a summary here and the link to the article).

Ortlund notes one reason for this movement, particularly among younger generations:

I think one significant factor is the sense of rootlessness and restlessness many younger postmoderns feel today. At the heart of my generation is a profound emptiness—a sense of isolation and disconnectedness and consequent malaise. We’re aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance. And it’s driving many of us out of evangelicalism.

The thrust of Ortlund’s article is that Protestant Christians can find much value in the study of ancient Christianity. One can be Protestant and still read medieval theologians and the church fathers.  Even John Calvin appealed to Augustine in his works. While one must be careful not to lose the distinctions between Protestantism and Catholicism,

it’s also possible to so bask in our particular denominational enclave that we lose touch with the entire Christian tradition. We contemporary Protestants need a balanced historical identity. We need to engage with both the last 500 years and also the previous 1,500, recognizing areas of discontinuity as well as encouraging points of overlap. As an African Christian in the patristic era remarked, “I am a Christian, and nothing which concerns Christianity do I consider foreign to myself.”

Ortlund’s article is a timely encouragement to those in Protestant and Evangelical circles rediscovering pre-Reformation theology. It mirrors a growing interest in ancient Christianity at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as a result Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin‘s influence. One way in which Southern Baptists have joined in the growing interest in early Christianity is the formation of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies by Shawn Wilhite and Coleman Ford. According to its website,

The Center exists to provide an evangelical voice to the academic fields engaging ancient Christian literature. We aim to provide material, coalesce sources, and encourage the scholarly enterprise of ancient Christian studies (2nd Temple Literature, New Testament, and Patristic).

May the Lord bless this movement of rediscovering early Christian theology, and may it strengthen our roots to historical Christianity in the ever-shifting sands of our culture.

A New Resource: Center for Ancient Christian Studies

A new center for the study of ancient Christianity was launched yesterday – The Center of Ancient Christian Studies. Independent from the North American Patristic Society, the Center serves as an opportunity for Evangelical scholars to present current work on issues dealing with the 2nd Temple, New Testament, and Patristics. The Center’s website (www.ancientchristianstudies.com) houses the Center’s blog, book reviews of books related to the Center’s focus, interviews, and the Center’s journal – Fides et Humilitas.

In an article titled “What is Ancient Christianity?”, Coleman Ford, Shawn Wilhite, and Michael A. G. Haykin explain why the Center’s focus is on ancient Christianity as opposed to Patristic studies. The term “Patristics” was first used in the nineteenth century to reference the study of early Christian fathers. However, as times have changed institutionally and socially, the term “Patristics” has changed as well, for it does not adequately reflect scholarly work that engages “Jewish literature, female contributors, and broader heterodox literature” (Ford, Wilhite, and Haykin, “What is Ancient Christianity?”,  accessed December 3, 2014, http://www.ancientchristianstudies.com/what-is-ancient-christianity). To include the wide range of scholarly work in the area of ancient Christianity, the Center focuses on Christianity from AD 80-700.

The existence of this Center illustrates the burgeoning interest among Evangelicals in the study of Christianity in its formative years. It’s exciting to see what this Center has in store. Feel free to take a look at the site, and if you have an article, book review, or other work related to the Center’s focus, then visit the “Contribute” page here.

Philosophy and Patristics

I want to point you to another blog that basically has the same purpose as my blog: Philosophy and Patristics.  While the blog’s “About” page does not contain any information, the subheading speaks volumes about the purpose of the blog: “Explorations in the Convergence between Christianity and Philosophy in Late Antiquity.”

Because Philosophy and Patristics has been around longer than this blog, much has been written that I had planned on writing about.  So, instead of re-inventing the wheel, I will point you to some posts that I find useful.  Today, I want to point you to a post titled “Principles for Patristics” in which the author provides a list of links to various posts within the blog that provide a guide on how to read the patristic fathers.  To pique your interest, here is the list of topics “Principles for Patristics” covers:

  1. Primary Sources
  2. Original Languages
  3. Lost in Translation
  4. Lather, Rinse, and Repeat
  5. Asking the Right Question
  6. Confirmation Bias
  7. Guilt by Association
  8. Rhetoric and the Difficulty of Interpretation

 

The Church Fathers on the Web: “Read the Fathers”

ReadtheFathers.org blog: http://readthefathers.org

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted on this site!  Such is the life of a seminary student.  Nevertheless, I would like to share a great blog that I stumbled upon: “Read the Fathers“, a blog devoted to the reading and discussion of the church fathers.

Church history is, in my opinion, a vital study for every believer to understand the history of our faith – the struggles over the development of doctrine and against heresy, the testimony of believers in the face of persecution, and the narrative of God’s redemption of His creation unto Himself.  In today’s rather pragmatic culture, the discipline of history has been relegated to the ivory tower or personal interests, and this is no less true for the church in America.  While I agree that not everyone has a bent to the study of history, history – specifically church history – is something that no Christian should relegate to seminarians.  Believers in the 21st century stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before us.

While all of church history is of value to study, I have recently found the early church fathers a fascinating study, for their work laid the foundation for generations to come.  The professor who has had the biggest impact on my love for church history – particularly the early church fathers – is Dr. Michael Haykin, whose stress  on reading the original sources over secondary sources helps to bring alive Christian church in its infancy.  (You can read Dr. Haykin’s blog here: http://www.andrewfullercenter.org/)

With all this said, take a look at ReadtheFathers.org and follow their blog, their reading plan, and even their recommended reading.