Church Education Trust



The Apologists

From the time of Hadrian to the end of the second century a number of treatises were written in defence of Christianity. The earliest of these apologies was written by Quadratus and addressed to the Emperor Hadrian about 126 A.D. Another, by Aristides, is also quoted by Eusebius.

About the middle of the century, an anonymous writer, in a short work called the "Epistle to Diognetus" explains the position of Christians in the world "in the world, but not of it". The most important apology of this period was that of Justin Martyr.


Justin Martyr was born about 100 and martyred in 163, was a philosopher; having tried various systems of philosophy, he was finally directed to the study of Christianity and found in this the true philosophy. He then travelled about as a Christian teacher and finally settled in Rome.

Here he addressed his apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his family, the Senate and the Roman people. He vindicated the Christians against charges of atheism, disloyalty and immorality, and contrasted the moral fruits of Christianity with the effects of heathen religion.

Justin went further than previous apologists and explained both the beliefs and the worship of the Christians. This apology had no effect and later he addressed a shorter apology to the Roman Senate. Justin also wrote a number of other works, one of particular interest being the "Dialogue with Trypho the Jew".

This work reveals the line of Jewish attack on the Christian faith in this Period and the Christian replies. To the Jewish objection that the doctrine of the Trinity is contrary to the Old Testament doctrine of the unity of God, Justin replied that the theophanies in the Old Testament were really appearances of the Second Person of the Trinity before His incarnation and pointed out suggestions of plurality in the Godhead in passages such as Genesis 1:26.

To the objection that the crucifixion was contrary to the glory of the Messiah, he adduced predictions of a suffering Messiah, e.g. Psalm 22. To the objection that Christians disobeyed the Law of God by not obeying circumcision and other Jewish rites, he replied that the ceremonial law had been rendered obsolete by Christ.


In addition to the attacks by persecution from without, the early Church also had to face dangers from within. These arose in the form of heresies, i.e. attempts to change or reject some part of the deposit of truth received from the Apostles. The beginnings of heresy can be observed in the New Testament writings. In I Cor. 15 reference is made to some who denied the resurrection.


The Ebionites represent the logical development of the Judaisers against whom the Apostle Paul contended. They maintained that circumcision and the observance of the whole Mosaic law were essential to salvation. They rejected the Virgin Birth, teaching that the Lord was the natural son of Joseph and Mary and only became divine at His baptism, when the Spirit descended upon Him.

Rejecting all the writings of Paul they used a Gospel called the Gospel according to Matthew, but in reality a shorter work bearing some resemblance to the canonical Gospel and edited to accord with Ebionite teaching. They continued for some centuries.


The Docetists denied the physical reality of our Lord's flesh and bodily life, and His death and resurrection. They said His body was only apparent and His sufferings were therefore illusory. One Docetic school taught that Christ descended upon the man Jesus at His baptism and left Him at His crucifixion; hence the cry from the Cross, which they translate, "My power, my power, why has thou forsaken me."

The teachings of the Docetists are met in the writings of the Apostle John in his emphatic assertions of the Word becoming flesh and being seen, heard and handled by the Apostles (John 1:14, I John 1:1).


The term 'heresy' was also more loosely applied to systems of belief and attempts at reconstruction of Christianity made by those outside the Church. Such a 'heresy' was Gnosticism, a system of false teaching which confronted the Christian Church with the greatest danger it had yet faced.

Gnostic teachings were already beginning to be propagated in the time of the Apostle Paul, but reached their fullest development toward the middle of the second century. The term Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word 'gnosis' meaning 'knowledge'. The name implied a claim to superior knowledge, only attainable by people who are spiritual and superior.

Gnosticism embraced a wide variety of different systems and schools of thought and developed complex and wildly imaginative and speculative theories. But the various schools shared some basic ideas common to Gnostic speculation.

  1. God is infinitely remote and out of direct contact with the earth.
  2. Matter is inherently and essentially evil.
  3. God Himself could not therefore have created the earth.
  4. The Doctrine of the Incarnation is rejected.
  5. Gnostics deny any real redemption or resurrection of the human body.

The Gnostics resolved their difficulty as to how the world was created by developing a theory of aeons or emanations from God; they spoke of thirty emanations, each one originating the next in order. Finally, when one of these was sufficiently far away from God, he created the world. This aeon which created the world was called the Demiurge and identified with the God of the Old Testament worshipped by the Jews.

The Gnostics taught that, as matter is evil, salvation consisted in overcoming it by the practice of asceticism or abstinence from material enjoyments; only those who had "gnosis" and practised asceticism could be saved. Some Gnostics however took another view and argued that, as matter was hopelessly evil in any case, one might as well enjoy oneself and let the bodily appetites have their way.

Tradition regards Simon Magus (Acts 8) as the founder of Gnosticism, but more recent opinion attributes its beginnings to Cerinthus, the opponent of the Apostle John at Ephesus. But it was toward the middle of the second century that Gnosticism was most fully developed by Basilides and Valentinus.


Marcion was brought up as a Christian and started from the basis of the Scriptures. But under the influence of Docetic and Gnostic ideas he began to reconstruct the Scriptures to fit in with his own theories, and when he came to Rome about 140 A.D. he was excommunicated and formed a heretical sect of his own.

Marcion took over the Gnostic idea that matter is evil, refused marriage for himself and his followers and practised asceticism. He developed the doctrine of a Demiurge who created the world, a God of justice rather than goodness, the God of the Old Testament. He taught that Christ was sent by the God of goodness to deliver men from the Demiurge; He suddenly appeared from heaven in the synagogue at Capernaum.

Marcion rejected the Old Testament altogether, admitted only the Gospel of Luke, with inconvenient portions cut out, and the first ten Pauline Epistles with some parts omitted. These Scriptures formed the Marcionite canon, Marcion died at Rome in 170, but his sect continued to flourish for a long time.

Apart from the Marcionites, Gnosticism had passed away by the fourth century, but its characteristic attitude has reappeared from time to time, e.g. in the modernist tendency to regard miracles, especially the Resurrection and the Ascension, in a way which is fundamentally Docetic.


Montanism was not a heresy; it was a movement which broke away from the Catholic Church and arose as a protest against the slackness and easy-going formalism in many Churches of the time. The movement was started about 156 A.D. by Montanus in Phrygia, assisted by two prophetesses named Prisca and Maximilla.

Montanus claimed to be the mouthpiece of the Paraclete, he announced the immediate advent of Christ and declared that the new Jerusalem would descend to a town in Phrygia. The movement stressed the activity of the Spirit, particularly through the agency of prophets; they regarded prophets as superior to bishops. They imposed a strict discipline on their followers, encouraged celibacy and fasting and forbade second marriages.


Irenaeus was one of the first and greatest opponents of Gnosticism, Born about 130 A.D. he was a disciple of Polycarp, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John. Hence he was well able to appeal to and defend the tradition received from the Apostles. He was appointed Bishop of Lyons in 177 after the death of Pothinus.

Irenaeus made a detailed study of Gnosticism and in reply to its teachings laid emphasis on the unity of God and His revelation in both Testaments, on the unity of Christ's Person, His eternal pre-existence and deity and the reality of the Incarnation and the Atonement. He declared that the true faith was the same all over the world and was attested by the four Gospels and the apostolic tradition. His great work "Against Heresies" in five volumes is still extant.

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