July 24, 2018

Athenagoras and Early Christian Apologetics

By Jackson Watts

Early church history shows that believers took seriously the task of apologetics. They knew that their beliefs and practices had profound spiritual consequences, and thus sought to “destroy the lofty arguments raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5-6 [Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)] ). One such Christian was Athenagoras of Athens, a philosopher whose passionate intellect is displayed in A Plea for the Christians.[1]

Written in A.D. 177, Athenagoras penned this letter to Emperors Lucius Aurelius Commodus and Marcus Aurelius. To a large degree, the letter is a “plea for civic toleration”[2] It is as striking in its philosophical and legal argumentation as it is in its theological appeal.

While we may be tempted to analyze Athenagoras through the lens of modern apologetic methodologies, his Plea resists narrow classification. Instead, we’ll consider three instructive elements of his work: (1) inconsistencies in Greco-Roman thought and life; (2) the use of secular sources to support religious arguments; and (3) respectful appeals to the character and intellect of the letter’s recipients.

Moral & Intellectual Inconsistencies

Arguably Athenagoras’ greatest strength resides in his ability to expose intellectual and moral inconsistencies in Greco-Roman thought and life. He begins by identifying a notable civil inconsistency: Christians are not allowed to worship their God freely while “no one [else] is hindered by law or fear of punishment from following his ancestral usages, however ridiculous they may be.”[3] He reminds the Emperors of the afflictions being experienced by those claiming Christ, despite the fact that they deserved toleration under the law.

The argument proceeds with Athenagoras pleading for the Christian population to be examined just as other citizens would, if they had an accusation brought against them. He says, “None of them before trial is deemed by the judge either good or bad on account of his science or art, but if found guilty of wickedness he is punished. . . . Let this equal justice, then, be done to us.”[4] Later after recounting the allegations against the Christians, he asserts: “[I]f these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes.”[5]

A second inconsistency pertains to the charge of atheism that had been pinned to the Christians. Athenagoras refutes this charge, showing that the Christian worldview is not problematic, but rather that the Greco-Roman worldview is. Christians had been accused of atheism since they did not subscribe to the worship of the pantheon of gods. However, Athenagoras reminds the Emperors that the very “best of Hellenistic thought was monotheistic” by appealing to Euripedes and Sophocles.[6] In numerous places, he shows that influential poets and philosophers had an understanding of God more consistent with the basic tenets of theism!

Athenagoras observes it as strange, even “exceedingly silly” to charge Christians with atheism since the “very men who charge [them] with atheism . . . are not agreed among themselves concerning the gods.”[7] In different regions in Greece and other cities, various gods were worshiped. Names were being used interchangeably to represent Zeus and Apollo. Such contradictions and ambiguities in ancient belief seem to outweigh the metaphysical complaints lodged against Christians. After all, the Roman gods have a traceable origin! They were created, and their origin stories were recognizable in the writings of Orpheus and Homer.[8] He concludes that these heathen gods were simply men.

Theology and morality meet as Athenagoras challenges Roman beliefs, especially the gods’ absurd characteristics, including the “impure love” that’s ascribed them. He questions how many of them could be gods when they engage in lewd acts that Christians are condemned for supposedly committing![9] Athenagoras compares this with Christian conduct, and shows that the moral high-ground is with those who live out their doctrine, regardless of whether society at large espouses that doctrine.

Christians pose no threat to the Empire’s stability, for they are model citizens. Athenagoras explains that Christian doctrine prompts righteous living, highlighting passages on Christian conduct that command them to love and pray for their enemies (e.g., Mt. 5:44-45 [Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)] ). He also refutes charges of incest and cannibalism, calling attention to passages that condemn lust and elevate holy matrimony,[10] and much later to their belief in bodily resurrection as a foundation for leading serious moral lives.[11]

Use of Secular Authorities

The letter’s second instructive feature is the extensive use of secular authorities. Athenagoras quotes from numerous ancient poets and philosophers, from the pre-Socratics such as Thales, Homer, and Euripedes, to Plato and Aristotle. These sources function to corroborate Christian claims, and to describe or illustrate other elements in an argument.

One of the theological points that Athenagoras seeks to establish is God’s unity, using Euripedes and Sophocles to support his case.[12] Because many of these poets and philosophers possessed cultural authority, Athenagoras’ tactic was reasonable. These sources corroborated Christian belief.

In regards to the problematic representations of the gods, Athenagoras uses Homer and Euripedes to describe what might be acknowledged as serious moral deficiencies with these “gods.” Sometimes citations aren’t solely ‘corroborative’ or ‘descriptive,’ but in some sense perform both functions. However, these two are generally legitimate distinctions that structure his use of secular sources.

Respectful Appeals to the Letter’s Recipients

The final instructive element is the respectful appeals to the letter’s recipients. Many apologists emphasize 1 Peter 3:15’s injunction to “always be prepared to give an answer,” but often neglect 3:16, which says to “do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience.” Biblical apologetics is properly concerned with an argument’s tone, as well as its form and content.

Athenagoras couches his plea for toleration in respectful language from the beginning, saying,

[W]ith admiration of your mildness and gentleness, and your peaceful and benevolent disposition towards every man, individuals live in the possession of equal rights; and the cities, according to their rank, share in equal honour; and the whole empire, under your intelligent sway, enjoys profound peace.”[13]

This tone permeates the letter, especially in its appeals to the Emperors’ intelligence. Since they are “well instructed in philosophy and all learning,” he anticipates fair treatment after they hear his case.[14] He asks that they not prejudge the case, but apply their “desire of knowledge and love of truth” as they examine the Christian’s doctrine.[15]

This appeal to the Emperors’ intellectual virtue carries throughout the letter. Whether this language is disingenuous or not, Athenagoras’ words adorn his argument, making it more persuasive to the Emperors’ ears.[16]

Contemporary Ecclesial Impact

While A Plea for the Christians remains one of the most significant apologetic works in early Christianity,[17] how prescriptive can Athenagoras’ approach be for contemporary ministry?

Our world is not entirely unlike his. Due to social forces such as immigration and global communication, Westerners (and Americans particularly) are confronted with numerous inconsistent and/or incoherent belief systems. However, other commonalities provide a framework to derive contemporary ministry insight from this early Christian example.

First, we have a political and legal order that upholds equal treatment under the law—at least in principle. Because of the Bill of Rights, America is uniquely positioned to offer Christians a mode of discourse that preserves certain rights to carry out our work and lead a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:2).

Second, we have access to special and general revelation just as the early Christians did.[18] Athenagoras’ citation of secular sources follows a nascent Christian tradition, at least as early as Paul, in appealing to general revelation in the form of secular writers to support Christian arguments (e.g., Acts 17:22-29; Tit. 1:12).

Some may question Athenagoras’ use of sources, arguing that he concedes too much to the “nature of the non-Christian’s method.”[19] However, we must remember that though Athenagoras is a Christian apologist, his chief purpose in the Plea is to make a case for civic toleration, and not necessarily to evangelize. The argument’s main premise is that Christians ought not be the object of persecution. It is more of a plea for clemency than an apology for Christianity.

A third commonality helps us not simply to learn from Athenagoras, but to mitigate concerns that his Plea isn’t sufficiently evangelistic. He argues that Christianity’s credibility lies in the lives of Christians themselves. So the main evangelistic aspect of this plea for toleration is the emphasis on the faithful witness of God’s people. This coincides with the respectful language that permeates the letter. Language that reveals civility, humility, and Christian charity further adorns the Gospel of Christ, and also fosters the conviction that Christianity is true because it is good, and good because it is true.

Convictions about the coherence of Christian truth claims, the validity of general revelation, and the moral authority of Christian speech and conduct are all principles found in Athenagoras’ Plea, which also have great relevance to the contemporary apologetic work of the church.


[1] Some English translations of this work use the word “supplication” or “embassy” in lieu of “plea.”

[2] Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 34.

[3] Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 2.1 (ANF: Peabody, MA: Hendrikson Publishers, 2:129).

[4] Athenagoras, 2.2.130.

[5] Ibid., 2.3.130.

[6] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 1999), 62.

[7] Ibid., 2.14.135.

[8] Ibid., 2.18.136.

[9] Ibid., 2.21.139.

[10] Part of the confusion among Roman observers that caused them to suspect incest was the “brother” and sister” language used among Christians in their assemblies. To be married to a “sister” as well as a “wife” seemed a problematic contradiction.

[11] Ibid., 2.36.148.

[12] See chapter five.

[13] Ibid., 2.1.129.

[14] Ibid., 2.2.130.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Athenagoras even mentions the Old Testament prophets again here, suggesting that the Emperors’ great zeal for knowledge and intellectual achievements must make them aware of these writings as well as the others mentioned earlier. See 2.4.133.

[17] This work is often included in apologetic readers. See L. Russ Bush, Readings in Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983); William Edgar & Scott Oliphint, Christian Apologetics Past and Present (Volume 1, to 1500): A Primary Source Reader (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009).

[18] Arguably, we have better access to special revelation given our wider cultural literacy of Scriptural images, themes, and ideas (even if people aren’t aware that they originate from Scripture!). Additionally, scientific discovery as a means of getting at general revelation has certainly made great advances that are, at times, useful to the Christian apologetic enterprise.

[19] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 131. In other words, he may be giving too much deference to the unbeliever’s demand for reason over revelation in making moral claims.