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.