The Early Apologists
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
From the dawn of Christianity, the apostles and first
leaders of the Church were at pains to verify the origins of their faith and
how radically, therefore, the Christian religion differs from the mythology
of pagan Greece and Rome. They were conscious of the strength of their position
in having a historic center. "We do not utter idle tales," they told
their contemporaries, "in declaring that God was born in form of man."
There never was a Mithra,
the Romans were reminded; and he never slew the mystic bull. There never was
a Great Mother of sorrows to wail over Attis and become a true mother to the
suffering daughters of humanity. For all her beauty, Isis was only the idealized
product of Egyptian zoolatry. The Logos of the Stoics was a pure abstraction,
and of their ideal Wise Man, Plutarch wrote, "He nowhere on earth, nor
ever has been"; whereas for Christians the Word was made flesh and dwelt
The apostles staked their
whole mission on this fact. Peter, writing from prison, assured the neophytes
that "we were not following fictitious tales when we made known to you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses
of His grandeur." (1) Reproaching the Corinthians for their factious disputes,
Paul appealed to historical continuity of his teaching with that of the first
followers of Christ. "I delivered to you", he said, "what I also
have received." Indeed the facts of Christ's life, death, and especially
resurrection are so indispensable that without them the whole Christian faith
is vain and "we are of all men the most to be pitied." (2)
Under pressure from their
environment accustomed only to Greek speculation and Roman mythology, the early
Christians were tempted to compromise, as many did in the Gnostic peril that
faced the nascent Church. They were strengthened to resist by the aged apostle
John, whose epistles seem almost strained in their effort to vindicate the
foundations of the faith. "I write of what was from the beginning, what
we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and
our hands have handled: of the Word of Life." (3)
As we approach the testimony
of the Church outside the canonical writings, we discover a quiet faith that
confirms the New Testament at every point and especially on the person of the
Clement, Ignatius, Justin
and Ireneus lived within sub-apostolic times, and were immediate heirs of the
Pauline and Joannine tradition. Cyprian, Origen and Tertullian, Lactantius,
Arnobius and Eusebius read like the roster of the early Church.
Yet they are only peaks in a swelling tide--all before the Council of Nicea,
and all witnesses to what the Gospels had written and what the councils for
three hundred years would defend against those who wished to "dissolve
Christ" into something less than one with the Father.
Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch
The epistle of Clement
I to the Corinthians has been aptly called the Epiphany of the Roman Primacy.
Considered in some quarters as one of the inspired books of the New Testament,
the full text is still extant as a manuscript of the fifth century, bound in
with the famous Codex Alexandrinus of the Bible. Its date and occasion are fixed
by the document itself. As the result of a discord in the church of Corinth,
a number of presbyters were deprived of their office. When the Church of Rome
heard about the schism, it decided to intervene but was forced to delay because
of the persecution then raging. During the first interval of peace, however,
in the last days of Domitian or about the year 95 A.D., Clement I wrote to the
disputing parties in Greece. His letter is almost Pauline in its appeal to the
example and authority of Jesus.
The theme of his epistle is a plea for Christian charity
by pointing out the tragic consequences of envy in the history of the human
race, beginning with Cain who slew his brother Abel and reaching its climax
with the Jews who out of envy condemned Jesus Christ to a shameful death on
the cross. But the letter, which runs to sixty-five chapters in the Greek text,
is more than a panegyric on charity. It is an exposition on the Church's hierarchy
written in apostolic times and therefore a statement of tradition on the institutional
character of Christianity.
he said, "commanded us to perform the offerings and divine service not
haphazardly or without order, but at fixed times and hours. He himself determined
where and by what ministers these ought to be carried out. To the High Priest,
special functions have been entrusted; to priests their own place has been assigned,
the levites have their duty, lay people are bound
by precepts peculiar to the laity." Using biblical terminology, Clement
elaborates on the stratified authority in the Christian Church and then sets
forth the principle which determines whence the authority is derived. "The
apostles were sent to us as messengers of good news by the Lord Jesus Christ,
Jesus Christ was sent by God; Christ, therefore, comes from God, and the Apostles
from Christ. These two missions come harmoniously from God's will." (4)
Finally he comes to the question at issue and in
the light of Christ's teaching decides that the presbyters at Corinth had been
unjustly deposed. "Under instructions from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostles
went forth to announce the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God."
Preaching through country and cities, "they tested the firstfruits by the
Holy Spirit and appointed these as bishops and deacons of the future believers."
But Christ anticipated later difficulties and prepared His Church to meet them.
Our Apostles knew from our Lord Jesus Christ
that there would be strife concerning the episcopal office. For this reason,
in their perfect foreknowledge, they instituted those of whom we have spoken,
and then laid down the rule that after their death other approved men should
succeed in their ministry. Those who have been thus instituted by the Apostles,
or later on by other eminent men, with the approbation of the whole Church,
and who have served blamelessly the flock of Christ with humility, tranquillity
and charity, and who have had good testimony borne to them for a long time--such
men, we judge, cannot justly be deposed from their ministry. (5)
All the evidence indicates
that Clement was religiously obeyed and the men reinstated in their dignities.
But the significance of this first recorded intervention by the Roman Pontiff
transcends its immediate function of pacifying a Christian community. Whether
Corinth appealed to Rome or Clement on his own decided to step in does not matter.
Although John the Apostle was still alive, it was not John but the Bishop of
Rome who intervened. Moreover the distance from Corinth precludes the possibility
that Clement had only local jurisdiction over the Greek city. His intervention
concerned the settlement of a dispute involving bishops who were at least mediately
chosen by the Apostles. Yet he enters the case without apology, in the full
consciousness of a right which the whole argument of his letter declares is
derived from Jesus Christ; and he makes a decision to restore peace in a diocese
that was bound to him only by the ties of a common faith.
Shortly after Clement wrote
his epistle to the Corinthians, the Bishop of Antioch (Ignatius Theophorus)
was taken prisoner during the persecution of Trajan and carried by short stages
to the city of Rome for execution. While stopping at Smyrna in August, 107,
he addressed a memorable letter to the Roman Church in terms that illustrate
the correlative side to the exercise of papal authority, yet only because of
the same inheritance of authority: from Christ to Peter to his successors in
the Roman See. "Ignatius," the martyr introduces himself, "to
the Church beloved and enlightened by the will of Him who has willed all things
which are, according to the love of Jesus Christ, our God, which also has the
presidency in the country of the land of the Romans; you are worthy of God,
worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy
in holiness, and holding the chief place in the brotherhood." This presidency
was more than merely honorary. Since the Church of Rome had been taught by the
very words of Peter and Paul, she had a right to guide others in the ways of
the Lord. "You have never deceived anyone; you have taught others. I desire
that what you prescribe by your teaching may remain incontested." (6)
Ignatius on the way to
martyrdom was nevertheless preoccupied with the same danger from the Docetists
that John feared for the early Christians.
He stressed the need of watchfulness, not to give ear
to those who would make of Christ only one of their aeons and something less
than a real historical person. Christians must beware of those who denied the
reality of Christ's human actions and therefore of His redemptive life and death.
Stop your ears when anyone speaks to you that
stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David to scion and Mary's son, who was
really (alethōs) born and ate and drank, really (alethōs)
persecuted by Pontius Pilate, really (alethōs) crucified and died
while heaven and earth and the underworld looked on; who also really (alethōs)
rose from the dead, since His Father raised Him up--His Father, who will also
raise us who believe in Him through Jesus Christ, apart from whom we have no
real life. (7)
Throughout his seven letters,
written about 107 A.D., Ignatius returns to the same theme. He repeats the term
actually" the birth, life,
death and resurrection of Christ took place, and therefore the faith of Christ
is solidly established.
Ignatian Christology reminds
us his namesake centuries later, for whom the Savior was not the object of speculation
but of veneration, and for whose sake he was happy to die.
He warns the Ephesians
that not everyone who calls himself Christian really is one, and that those
who unworthily bear the holy Name should be avoided like wild beasts.
Some there are, you know, accustomed with vicious
guile to go about with the Name on their lips, while they indulge in certain
practices at variance with it and an insult to God. Those you must shun as you
would wild beasts: they are rabid dogs that bite in secret; you must beware
of them, for they are hard to cure.
There is only one Physician, both carnal and
spiritual, born and unborn, God become man, true life in death; sprung both
from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then incapable of it--Jesus
Christ our Lord. (8)
He asks the Romans to pray
for him, that he may be a man not of words but of resolution. Thus he will not
only be called a Christian but prove to be one, even after he is no longer seen
by the world. "Nothing that is seen is good," he exclaims. "Our
God Jesus Christ certainly is more clearly seen now that He is in the Father."
To the Smyerneans, he vindicates
both natures of Christ. "I extol Jesus Christ," he tells them, "the
God who has granted you such wisdom. For I have observed that you are thoroughly
trained in unshaken faith
and that you are well established in love through
the blood of Jesus Christ and firmly believe in our Lord. He is truly of the
line of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God by the will and power
of God." (10)
Again a warning, this time
against those who blaspheme the name of Christ, and revile those who honor the
Redeemer. Pseudo-Christians some of them, they can be identified by the fact
that they deny the Real Presence. "They hold aloof from the Eucharist and
prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior
Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His loving
kindness raised from the dead." (11) They are unbelievers twice over: because
they deny that Christ as God had the power of changing the Eucharistic elements
into His flesh and blood, and because they deny that as man He died for the
salvation of the world.
A favorite phrase of Ignatius
summarizes his concept of Jesus. Time and again he calls him, "Christ God,"
without qualification and with good reason, for to Ignatius He was also "our
consummate hope" and "our true life" here and hereafter.
Justin the Apologist
The first critics of the miracles of Christ were the
Scribes and Pharisees, who attributed the wonders He worked to the power of
the evil spirit. "This man," they said, "does not cast out devils
except by Beelzebub, the prince of devils." They were told, "Every
kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house
divided against itself will not stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided
against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand?" (12)
Christ appealed to His personal sanctity and the good
effects He produced to prove that He was not in league with the devil. But the
history of those who rejected Him shows they were not convinced. They could
not deny He did some very extraordinary things. According to Flavius Josephus,
a Pharisee of the first century, Jesus was a wise man. "For he was a doer
of marvelous deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with delight.
And he won over to himself many Jews and many also of the Greek nation."
However, they invariably ascribed these marvels to the
power of magic or the influence of the devil. In the scattered references to
Christ in the Jewish Talmud, this is the uniform attitude. The most notorious
statement occurs in the Babylonian Talmud and describes the execution of Jesus
as a sorcerer. "On the eve of the Passover," says the commentary,
"they hanged Yeshu of Nazareth and the herald went before him for forty
days saying: Yeshu of Nazareth is going forth to be stoned in that he has practiced
sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone who knows anything
in his defence come and plead for him. But they found no one in his defence
and hanged him on the eve of the Passover." (14)
It is unfortunate that most of the other Talmudic allusions
to Jesus of Nazareth are quite useless historically. They are either too recent,
or clearly subjective, or at least it is doubtful if they refer to the person
of Christ. But even the passage quoted confirms what we know from other
sources was the typical Jewish estimate of Christ during the early period after
His death. "The Talmud authorities do not deny that Jesus worked signs
and wonders, but they look upon them as sorcery. That it was as a sorcerer and
beguiler that Jesus was put to death was clear to, the Tannaim, for in
their days his disciples had become a separate Jewish sect which denied many
of the religious principles of Judaism; therefore their teacher, Jesus, had
beguiled them (by his magic) and led them astray from the Jewish faith."
Moreover the Talmudic description
of Christ shows that what the Scribes said of Him in the Gospels was not an
isolated incident but had permeated the whole Jewish tradition since the first
century. This scepticism was also the historical basis for all subsequent criticism
of the Savior's claim to speaking with the authority of God. Centuries later
Voltaire made the objection that "although Jesus was a Jew, his own followers
were not Jews." To explain this rejection by His own nation has not been
easy. Yet providentially opposition has helped to lay the ground-work for Christian
apologetics and establish the principles of a rational defence of the Catholic
St. Justin Martyr is the
first Christian apologist to write a detailed refutation of the calumnies against
the miracles of Christ. Born of pagan parents in Samaria at the beginning of
the second century, he was converted to the faith through a study of the Hebrew
prophets and especially the example of heroic courage displayed by the Christian
martyrs. From the time of his baptism (c. 130 A.D.) he dedicated all his efforts
to the propagation and defence of Christianity.
During the Jewish uprisings
against the Roman invaders in 132-135, he encountered Trypho, a Jew in the city
of Ephesus, with whom he held a debate on the relative merits of the Jewish
and Christian Religion. This debate has come down to us under the title, Dialogue
with Trypho the Jew. While the exact date of composition is not known, or
even how much of the Dialogue was originally a public disputation, we
are sure it faithfully represents the prevalent attitude towards Jesus and the
Gospels held by the Jewish leaders in the middle of the second century. (16)
The dialogue centers around the basic charges developed
by the Jews up to that time. Trypho is willing to admit that the prophets foretold
the coming of the Messiah and described his person and achievements, but he
demands, "Prove that Jesus Christ is the one about whom these prophecies
were spoken." Justin takes up the challenge and carefully explains the
spiritual meaning of the Messianic texts in the Old Law. However his
first appeal is not to the signs and wonders recorded in the Gospels but to
the charismatic gifts received by those who worship the name of Jesus
as the Christ of the Lord. When Trypho interposes the objection, "You are
out of your mind to say such things," Justin calmly refers to the Messianic
promise that Christ will ascend on high, lead captivity captive and give gifts
These gifts, he explains,
are the spirit of wisdom and counsel, of fortitude and healing, of foreknowledge
and teaching which the disciples of Christ receive, each according to his merits.
He accuses the Jews of hating the Christians, of honoring God and His Christ
only with their lips, and suggests why "you hesitate to acknowledge that
Jesus is the Christ, which is proved by the Scriptures, the events which you
yourselves witnessed, and the miracles wrought in His name." The reason
is they are afraid of persecution at the hands of the pagan officials who will
persecute and put to death those who acknowledge the name of Christ.
Trypho does not let him
finish, but repeats, "Prove that this man who you claim was crucified and
ascended into heaven is the Christ of God." (17) Justin proceeds to expound
through thirty chapters the fulfillment of various prophecies, especially Isaiah,
in the person of Jesus Christ. He emphasizes that the Messiah was to be a suffering
victim for the sins of his people, and in that sense the savior of the world,
The Jew is still dubious. "You are trying to prove the incredible,"
that God actually took on human flesh and was born into the world as man. (18)
Trypho's persistence forces
Justin to come to his principal argument and invoke the miracles that Christ
performed during His mortal life. But first he disposes of the stock difficulty
about the machinations of the evil spirit. Just as in the Old Testament the
devil worked counterfeit miracles through Egyptian magicians and false prophets
in order to discredit the true messengers of God, so in the time of Christ "the
devil presented Aesculapius as raising the dead to life and curing all diseases,
in order to simulate the prophecies about Christ" that He would perform
miracles in confirmation of His mission.
The prophecy to which he refers is that of Isaiah, in
which the Messiah is described as a fountain of living water whose presence
on earth would be the occasion of all manner of miraculous blessings."
Our Christ healed those who from birth were blind and deaf and lame. He cured
them by His word, causing them to walk, to hear and to see. By restoring the
dead to life, He compelled the men of that day to recognize Him." (19)
Here Justin makes an important
disclosure, the first authentic reference outside the Gospels that the Jews
attributed the miracles of Christ to magic. He adds the distinction that while
the miracles were largely lost on His contemporaries, they have probative value
for the disciples of Christ who come after Him. "He performed these deeds
to convince His future followers, that if anyone, even though his body were
in any way maimed, should be faithful to His teaching, He would raise him up
at His second coming entirely sound, and make him free forever from death, corruption
and pain." (20)
Trypho impatiently answers
that all believing Jews are looking forward to the coming of the Christ. They
are even willing to accept the prophecies quoted by the Christians as referring
to Him, "but we doubt if the Christ should be so shamefully crucified,
for the Law teaches that anyone who is crucified is to be accounted as cursed."
The objection was rooted in the Jewish people, who would not accept a Messiah
that had been disgraced before the Gentiles.
Justin meets the prejudice
on its own level. He knows the general malediction against anyone crucified
does not apply to the Anointed One of God, any more than the general prescription
against making graven images applied to Moses who made a brazen serpent in the
desert at the bidding of God. While the crucifixion was most humiliating to
Christ personally and through Him to the Jewish people, yet it was only the
prelude to a greater exaltation, when the Lord raised Jesus from the dead. But
the Jews see only the shame of Calvary and are blind to the glory of the resurrection.
Consequently they are worse than the Ninevites who listened to Jonah and repented
of their sins--so Justin changes.
They are worse because
they stubbornly refuse to accept their Messiah even after the fall of Jerusalem,
which the Lord had threatened to send them if they would not believe.
You were familiar with
the life of Jonah, and how Christ told you He would give you the sign of Jonah,
while pleading with you to repent at least after His resurrection from the dead,
and to lament before God as did the Ninevites. Otherwise your nation and city
were to be destroyed, as they have been.
When you learned that He
arose from the dead, instead of repenting you chose certain men to travel everywhere
and say that a godless sect has been started by an impostor one Jesus of Nazareth,
whom we nailed to the cross. But after His body was taken from the cross His
disciples stole it from the tomb during the night. Now they are trying to deceive
people by claiming that He arose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
Meantime your city has been taken and your whole
country ravaged. Yet to increase your folly you are not only unwilling to repent
but openly curse Him and His followers. (21)
Justin's Dialogue had earned
him from Jewish writers the charge of bias and distortion. Actually he was only
confirming the Acts of the Apostles, where Luke describes the Israelites as
"filled with jealousy," "blaspheming," "disbelieving"
and "contradicting" at every turn the teaching of the early Church.
It may also neutralize a common difficulty urged against the origins of Christianity:
Who better than the Jews could pass judgment on the claims of Jesus? Yet His
own people disowned Him as a fraud. Therefore any concept of His divinity must
be attributed to the imagination of the myth-loving Hellenists and Romans. (22)
The opposition of the early
pagans to Jesus Christ may be traced to two sources, one purely, circumstantial
and the other more fundamental. We have the warrant of the Scriptures that
"the disbelieving Jews poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brethren"
who preached the Gospel in Iconium in Asia Minor; and the evidence of history
which suggests that the Roman persecution of the Christians was at least partially
instigated by the jealousy of the Jews. More fundamentally, however, the pagans
who rejected Christianity, no less than the Jews, had to rationalize their infidelity.
This meant dismissing Christian miracles either as false, or as evidence of
Magic, or at least as less remarkable than the wonders in their own mythology.
Justin is again the earliest Christian witness to answer
the pagan accusation that the miracles of Christ were done by necromancy. In
his Apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, he quotes the objection of
the Romans that perhaps, "He whom we call Christ was a man born of men,
and has worked what we call miracles through the art of magic, and thus appeared
to be the Son of God." His rebuttal is an elaborate defence of the holiness
of Christ, foretold by the prophets and fulfilled during His mortal life on
earth. The argument is that no one in league with the devil would be the object
of centuries of prophetic prediction, or have lived so closely united with God
and have been so devoted to the welfare of his fellowmen. (23)
Ireneus, Dionysius and Tertullian
In the closing words of
his last epistle, St. Peter had warned the Christians to "be on your guard
lest, carried away by the error of the foolish, you fall away from your own
steadfastness. But grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus
Christ." (24) Faithful to this tradition, the Roman Pontiffs were ever
concerned to protect from heretical dilution the Church's belief in the dual
nature of her Founder, who was equal to the Father as God and like to ourselves
as man. If they had done nothing else for three centuries than stood firm against
those who wished to "separate Christ," this alone would vindicate
their succession to the man who first professed that Jesus of Nazareth was
the "Son of the living God."
As a form of rationalist
speculation, Gnosticism began its attack on Christianity in the apostolic age.
By the end of the second century it had grown into a formidable religious movement,
with clergy, churches and even scriptures of its own. Twelve of the twenty apocryphal
gospels circulating before the year 300 are known to be of Gnostic origin. Its
basic errors were an absolute dualism between body and soul, which meant a contempt
for the body that led either to immorality or to rigid asceticism; and, as
a consequence, a denial of the Incarnation by postulating a temporary union
between the divine being and a human person, or even a phantom. Practically
all the Christian writers before Nicea refuted these aberrations: Ignatius of
Antioch, Justin the Martyr, Hippolytus and Tertullian. But the outstanding because
of his appeal to the Roman tradition was St. Ireneus, Bishop of Lyons and disciple
of Polycarp, the follower of St. John the Apostle.
His work Against the
Heretics, written about 180 A.D., is so strikingly clear that both Vatican
Councils used it as supporting evidence for the Roman primacy. After reviewing
the Gnostic "hallucinations," Ireneus concludes they must be heretical
because they conflict with the Church's teachings as concretized in the See
of Rome. "We will put to confusion," he says, "all persons who,
whether from waywardness or vainglory or blindness or perversity of mind, combine
wrongfully together in any way, by pointing to the tradition, derived from the
Apostles, of that great and illustrious church founded and organized at Rome
by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, and to the faith declared to mankind
and handed down to our own time through its bishops in their succession. With
this church, on account of its preeminent authority, every church must be in
agreement, that is, the faithful everywhere, among whom the tradition of the
Apostles has been continuously preserved by those everywhere." (25) Even
if potentior principalitas is translated "commanding position,"
instead of "preeminent authority," as some prefer, the substance of
this uncompromising testimony is not changed.
Then Ireneus gives the
episcopal list of Rome from Linus (67-76) to Eleutherius (175-189), and concludes:
"By the same order and the same succession the tradition in the Church
from the apostles and the preaching of the truth have reached us." There
can be no doubt, then, what is the true doctrine about Christ. It is the depositum
fidei handed down in succession from the first disciples, through the churches
in communion with Rome, down to the present day.
This ordinance has won the assent of many barbarian
peoples who believe in Christ. They have salvation written on their heart by
the Spirit without paper and ink. They diligently keep the ancient tradition,
believing in one God, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things in them, through
Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who, on account of His surpassing love for His
creation, endured to be born of the Virgin, Himself in Himself uniting man with
God, who suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again, and was received up in
splendor, who will come in glory as the Savior of those who are saved and the
Judge of those who are judged, sending into eternal fire those who distort the
truth and despise His Father and His coming. (26)
Allied to the Gnostic errors
by its denial of the Incarnation, another school of theorists rationalized the
divinity of Christ by explaining the Trinity as only three modes by which God
manifests Himself to the world; by His power as the Father, by His wisdom as
the Son and by His love as the Holy Spirit, Modalism is a generic name for three
heresies that differed in accidentals but advanced the same radical notion about
the Trinity. In the West it was known as Sabellianism, after its chief leader,
Sabellius; in the East its followers were called Patripassionistis because they
believed that the Father suffered on the cross. Tertullian nicknamed them Monarchians,
since they professed only one divine principle and ended by saying that Christ
was a mere man or that He was true God, but became Incarnate along with the
As in the Gnostic peril
so now the orthodox writers stood up in defense of three Persons in one God,
of whom only the Second assumed human nature. Among the apologists was Dionysius,
Bishop of Alexandria who was unjustly accused in Rome of holding that the Son
of God is not of the same substance as the Father but only a creature. Pope
Dionysius (259-268) informed his namesake in Africa of the accusation. The latter
immediately replied with a book of Refutation and Defense, protesting
against the calumny. But along with his letter to Alexandria, Pope Dionysius
published a statement on the Trinity and Incarnation that is of the highest importance
in showing the exercise of sovereign teaching authority by the Bishop of Rome,
almost a century before the first general council at Nicea.
First he condemns those
who in their zeal against Modalism went to the opposite extreme of Tritheism,
postulating a triple deity. "I must address myself to those who divide,
separate and suppress the most sacred dogma of the Church of God, the Monarchy,
teaching three powers, or separate hypotheses, and three divinities. For I
have learnt that some of those who are catechists and masters among you, and
who are, so to speak, diametrically opposed to the opinion of Sabellius, are
introducing this other opinion. His blasphemy consists in saying that the Son
is the Father, and vice versa; but they preach that there are in a manner three
. This is a diabolical doctrine, and not that of those who are true disciples
of Christ." Then he turns to those who would make of Christ a mere creature.
"It is a blasphemy," he declares, "and not an ordinary but a
great one, to say that the Lord is in some way the work of hands; for if He
became Son, there was a time when He was not. But He always was, for He is in
the Father, as He Himself says, and the Son is Logos and Wisdom and Power--for
the divine Scriptures, as you know, say that the Christ is all these--and these
are the powers of God." And he concludes, "It is thus that we safeguard
the divine Trinity, and at the same time the holy preaching of the Monarchy."
Here we see the Bishop
of Rome invoked to settle a major doctrinal crisis, assuming jurisdiction over
the ancient See of Alexandria and demanding an account from one of the most
venerated bishops in the Church. Yet no one thinks of appealing against his
judgment. It was generally recognized that in a matter of such moment as the
Person of Christ, a decision had to be made; and who was better qualified than
the successor of Peter whose faith Jesus said would strengthen the faith of
Tertullian (160-200) belongs
to that period in the history of Christianity when it was no longer sufficient
to confess the faith or pronounce the baptismal belief in the Father, Son and
Holy Spirit. It became increasingly necessary to define what the creed meant.
Of what explanations was it susceptible, and which was the correct one?
Tragically Tertullian embodies the best and the worst
features of that period. For years he was the Church's champion in defending
the ancient faith against those who would water it down; only to become victim
of the very thing he opposed. In both ways, however, he is a powerful witness
to the place that Christ occupied in the hearts of everyone who called himself
Christian. He would break with Rome and call the pope insulting names, but his
devotion to Christ never wavered or, rather, it became colored by his theological
aberrations. The fact of his Montanism did not prevent him from remaining dogmatically
orthodox in most respects, and his elucidation of the Christological doctrines
places him next to Augustine as the greatest theologian of the West in the early
In 197 A.D. he wrote a
celebrated defense of Christianity, the Apology, which he addressed to
the prefects of the Roman Provinces and deals chiefly with the absurdity of
accusing Christians of crimes they never committed.
He maintains that Christians
are good citizens, who refuse to pay divine honors to the Emperor because they
believe in one God, and they worship Jesus Christ as God in human form. There
is no profit to the pagans for persecuting Christians, who increase the more
they are opposed. It is in this context that his famous formula occurs, semen
est sanguis Christianorum, not unlike the blood of Christ which was shed:
indeed, but in dying the Savior attracted a multitude of followers.
Tertullian has been rightly
called the Father of Christian Theology; certainly his insight into the mysteries
of faith is remarkably clear, especially when it is remembered that he wrote
a full century before Nicea. Long before the term consubstantial was
coined at Nicea, Tertullian spoke of the Son as being of one nature with the
We hold that the Word, and Reason, and Power,
by which we have said God made all, have spirit as their proper and essential
substance, in which the Word has in-being (insit) to give forth utterance,
and Reason abides to dispose and arrange, and Power is over all to execute.
We have been taught That He proceeds forth from
God, and in that possession He is generated; so that He is the Son of God, and
is called God from unity of substance with God (Deum dictum ex unitate substantiae).
For God, too, is a spirit. Even when the ray shot from the sun is still part
of the parent mass. The sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of
the sun; there is no division of substance but merely an extension. Thus Christ
is Spirit of Spirit, and God of God, as light of light is kindled. (28)
Tertullian's later defection was all the more pathetic
in that he saw so clearly the role of Christ, dwelling in the soul of man, as
the Divine Teacher who enlightens every man who comes into this world.
His genius was also his
downfall, however, because he failed to see (or admit) that, although Jesus
was God and of one substance with the Father, He was nevertheless also man.
As man He ordained a priesthood and established a hierarchy which, for all its
humanness, is yet gifted with power from the same divine Christ who promised
to be with His Church until the end of time.
Chapter III - References
- II Peter 1:16.
- I Corinthians 15:3, 19.
- I John 1:1.
- St. Clement, "Epistula ad Corinthios," XL-XLIV, MPG I, 288-296.
- St. Clement, "Epistula ad Corinthian" XL-XLIV, MPG I, 288-296.
- St. Ignatius, "Epistula ad Romanos," I-III, MPG V, 685-688.
- "Epistula ad Trallianos," IX-X, MPG V, 685.
- MPG V, 648.
- MPG V, 688.
- MPG V, 708.
- MPG V, 713.
- Matthew 12:24-28.
- Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, 3. The witness of Flavius Josephus (c. 37-105 A.D.) to the person of Christ is fully attested by MS evidence and was accepted as genuine until the 16th century. Since then three schools of critics have arisen: 1) defending integral genuity, 2) allowing for partial interpolation, 3) against genuinity entirely. Conservative opinion holds that although the text is, substantially genuine, it can be considered interpolated by a Christian hand, but with equal and perhaps greater probability that the passages are fully authentic.
- Babylonian Talmud, Tract "Sanhedrin," 43a.
- Jospeh Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, New York, pp. 27-28.
- A. B. Hulen, Journal of Biblical Literature, 1932, pp. 58-70.
- MPG 6, 562.
- Ibid., 631.
- Ibid., 639. In Greek mythology, Aesculapius was the son of Apollo and Coronis, the pupil of the Cnetaur Chiron, from whom he learned the art of healing. He enlarged this branch of knowledge and on that account was reckoned among the gods.
- Ibid., 726-727. Justin expressly states that the Jewish contemporaries of Christ could understand the reference of the prophecy of Jonah as a symbol of the Lord's resurrection. He therefore attributes their failure to accept the messianic predictions to bad will.
- According to Harnack, "The influx of Hellenism and the union of the Gospel with it, form the greatest fact in the history of the Church." He distinguishes three stages in this influence of the Greek spirit on the Christian religion: 1) in the early second century, Platonic and Stoic philosophy enabled the Christian apologists to "draw the equation, the Logos = Jesus Christ," 2) the Greek mysteries gradually developed into the Christian Mass and the Sacraments, 3) Greek polytheism was transformed into the Christian worship of saints. Das Wesen des Christentums, Leipzig, pp. 125-128.
- MPG VI, 374.
- II Peter 3:17-18.
- MPG VII, 848.
- MPG VII, 849.
- MPG XXV, 462-466.
- MPL I, 394.
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
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