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.

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

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

The Gospel and How We Do Apologetics

One class that I’ve had the opportunity to teach at Boyce College often is Christian apologetics. Interwoven with philosophy and theology, apologetics utilizes the tools provided by philosophers and theologians to provide a defense of the Christian faith. Further, apologists over the centuries have also provided believers reassurance for the beliefs of Christianity. Christians over the ages have rightly taken up Peter’s call in 1 Peter 3:15 to be ready to give an answer for our hope that is in Christ.

While I enjoy going over the various apologetical arguments with my students, I’ve become increasingly aware of the reality that knowing the various arguments is not enough when addressing an unbeliever. Nor is nailing down one apologetical method over another the answer to doing effective apologetics. It seems that lost in the wealth of apologetical resources at our fingertips is the heart of apologetics. That is, the manner in which we are to do apologetics.

Thankfully, Peter helps us here. 1 Peter 3:15 is commonly known as the clarion call to be ready to give an answer for the faith. Yet, Peter does so much more in this passage. Peter’s call to action in verse 15 is couched between three important characteristics that ought to define the Christian when doing apologetics. When we see Peter’s call in light of verses 15 and 16, and in the wider context of the epistle, we see that how we do apologetics matters just as much as the content of our apologetics.

To see how Peter instructs us in the manner of our apologetics, check out my recent article at Southern Equip: “3 Ways the Gospel Changes Apologetics.”

Jazz and Apologetics: Doug Groothuis on How Jazz Can Inform Apologetics

Portrait of John Coltrane; by Paolo Steffan

In a recent post, I suggested that literature has significant value for Christian apologetics. When I taught an apologetics course this past spring, I sought to demonstrate to students that sharing the Gospel and answering challenges to Christianity does not always take the form of an argument – defending a thesis and rebutting an opponent’s counter-argument. Rather, apologetics can – and should – occur through means more natural to our way of daily interaction. So, for my class, I emphasized the role of literature in communicating the truths of Christianity. Continue reading

On the Nature of Philosophy: An Interview with Dr. Cabal: Part I

This an interview I did with Dr. Ted Cabal, Professor of Christian Apologetics at SBTS, back in 2007 on the the place of philosophy in the life of the believer. Because the question of philosophy’s value is still asked today, this 10-year old interview still has value today.  I believe the study of philosophy coincides with the study of theology as the two disciplines have spilled over into each other (intentionally or not) throughout history, thus to understand philosophy can help the believer to understand certain aspects of theology, why certain theologians avoided or reworked particular doctrines, etc.  Continue reading

Literature and Apologetics

This past semester I had the opportunity to teach Apologetics. For the last two weeks of class, I focused on using literature for apologetic means. The motivating idea (influenced by C. S. Lewis, James Sire, and Holly Ordway) behind the lesson is that often times, objections to Christianity are not just intellectual, but emotional, experiential, etc. However, the wealth of apologetic resources that we have available today primarily deal with the rational aspect of humanity–intellectual objections to Christianity. Modern apologetics, though valuable and needed, only deals with one aspect of the human condition. When we seek to reach unbelievers, we need to have at our fingertips a more holistic approach.

Though literature alone is insufficient as an apologetic method, it can be a valuable tool to help make important apologetical issues reach the heart of the unbeliever–the unbeliever’s emotions, feelings, desires, etc. In doing so, literature helps to drive home the truths of Christianity.  To help illustrate what I’m referring to, my student, Paige Murrell made the following video for a class project:

If we seek to take seriously apologetics, then we need to address all objections brought by the unbeliever, whether they be intellectual, emotional, or experiential. As such, strive to broaden your apologetic repertoire–sometimes, a novel, a song, or other artwork may help to address an objection the unbeliever has to Christianity.

This post is intended to be an introduction of sorts to the idea of broadening your apologetic approach. I plan to write more on this later. In the meantime, check out the following resources that call for a more robust apologetical approach:

I encourage you to check out Paige’s work at http://thestorysketcher.com/. She is a talented artist; you will not be disappointed!