This essay explores the fascinating era of the later Apologists and the other Ante-Nicene Fathers from the late second century up until the First Ecumenical Council (held in Nicea in 325). It is a time when the Church continues to reach out to the surrounding society with the good news of Jesus Christ. It is also a time of ongoing efforts to adequately articulate the true faith, especially as it is challenged by a number of heresies. And it is an era of sporadic yet fierce persecution of Christians by the imperial authorities, requiring the Church to encourage members to stand strong and firm in their faith in Christ.
“The Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne” is a gripping account of a severe persecution that arose suddenly in the Rhone Valley in Gaul (France) in 177. It describes the martyrdoms of a large number of Christians, including some who denied Christ at first, yet later reaffirmed their faith. This account is quoted at length by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine, the first great church historian, in his Ecclesiastical History (EH V.1-4).
Bishop Pothinus of Lyons, martyred in this persecution, is succeeded by the illustrious Irenaeus, who wrote the well-known Against Heresies (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1; Book 1 is also in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 55). This work is a masterful refutation of many heresies–mostly various forms of Gnosticism–that threatened the church. He also writes a beautiful summary of salvation history in his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (ACW 16; also an edition published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).
Also flourishing in the late 2nd c. are the apologists Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras of Athens, and Melito of Sardis. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, writes a persuasive apology–that is, a defense of the faith–entitled To Autolycus (ANF 2). Athenagoras, called “the Christian Philosopher of Athens,” writes A Plea for the Christians, a defense of Christianity addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus (ANF 2; Library of Christian Classics, vol. I). He is also traditionally credited with writing On the Resurrection of the Dead, an eloquent defense of the doctrine of the general resurrection at the Last Day (ANF 2; ACW 23). Melito, Bishop of Sardis (one of the Seven Churches of the Book of Revelation, chs. 2-3), was once described by his fellow bishop Polycrates of Ephesus as “the eunuch who lived entirely in the Holy Spirit.” Most of Melito’s many works are lost, but his magnificent liturgical poem called “On the Pasch,” celebrating the mystery and paradox of God becoming human in Christ, has survived (SVS Press).
In the 190s in Carthage, the leading city in western North Africa, Tertullian, a former lawyer who converted to Christ around the age of thirty-five, begins writing prolifically, mostly against various heresies. By far his longest work is Against Marcion (ANF 3), in which he refutes the errors of Marcion, a teacher in Rome in the middle of the second century who discarded the entire OT because he thought the God revealed in the OT could not be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Tertullian also writes an Apology for the faith, addressed to the “Rulers of the Roman Empire” (ANF 3; Fathers of the Church, vol. 10), and he makes very important contributions to trinitarian theology in his Against Praxeas (ANF 3). In his Treatise on the Soul (ANF 3; FC 10) he offers speculations that will later influence Augustine’s view of the total depravity of humanity after the Fall. As the first major theologian to write in Latin, Tertullian becomes known as the Father of Latin theology. Sadly, he converts to the rigorist sect of the Montanists later in life, and dies outside the church.
Perhaps an associate of Tertullian, Minucius Felix writes Octavius (ANF 4; ACW 39; FC 10), an elegant apology for the faith in the form of a dialogue between Octavius, a married layperson with children, and a pagan named Caecilius. Through Octavius’s compelling arguments, Caecilius is convinced of the truth of the gospel.
In about the year 180, Clement, a truth-seeker originally from Athens who has traveled far and wide seeking wisdom, comes to Alexandria, Egypt, the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire. Here, sitting at the feet of Pantaenus, who has recently founded a catechetical school for Christians, Clement finds the true wisdom in the good news about Jesus Christ. Upon the death of Pantaenus in about 190, Clement takes over as head of the school. His most famous writings form a trilogy: Exhortation to the Greeks (ANF 2) presents the gospel to the pagan world; Christ the Teacher (ANF 2; FC 23) encourages Christians to bring every single aspect of their lives under the lordship of Christ; and the quite abstruse Miscellanies (ANF 2; FC 85; Books 3 and 7 are also in LCC II) speaks about the deeper mysteries of the faith to those Christians who are striving to know the Lord Jesus as intimately as possible. He also endeavors in this work to show the sophisticated philosophers of Alexandria that Christianity is more intellectually stimulating than any human philosophy—and indeed, that it is the True Philosophy, the fulfillment of all the sound intuitions of all the various human philosophies through the ages.
In 202, Clement is succeeded as head of the catechetical school by the brilliant Origen, who with iron-willed determination lives a life of extreme asceticism as he produces some 6000 works, most of which are lost. He writes commentaries and/or homilies on nearly every book of the Bible, including Genesis and Exodus (FC 71), Lev 1-16 (FC 83), Joshua (FC 105), the Song of Songs (ACW 26), Jeremiah (FC 97), Matthew’s Gospel (ANF 9 [formerly X]), Luke’s Gospel (FC 94), John’s Gospel (ANF 9 [formerly X]; FC 80, 89), and Romans 1-10 (FC 103, 104). He also compiles a massive, six-fold edition of the OT known as the Hexapla, thus becoming the “Father of Biblical Criticism.” His famous On First Principles (ANF 4) is the first systematic effort to describe in a logical order all the various facets of the Christian Faith; this makes him also the “Father of Systematic Theology.” Unfortunately, there are certain Platonic speculations in this work which will lead to various “Origenist heresies” in the following centuries. His treatises On Prayer and On Martyrdom (both are in ACW 19 and LCC II) will become highly regarded, especially in the flourishing monastic movement that will arise in the 4th century. And his Against Celsus (ANF 4) is an important apologetic work directly refuting what was probably the earliest extensive literary attack on Christianity, written by a pagan philosopher named Celsus in around the year 176.
Meanwhile, in Rome, a priest named Hippolytus combats what he sees as Sabellian (modalist) tendencies in the thought of Bishop Zephyrinus (198-217) and his successor, Callistus (217-222). The last major theologian in the West to write in Greek, Hippolytus has been traditionally credited with writing The Refutation of All Heresies (ANF 5), an attempt to demonstrate that all Christian heresies have their roots in various human philosophies. On the Apostolic Tradition (SVS Press) has also been traditionally attributed to him. This liturgical compendium contains descriptions of various rites and practices that are probably used in Hippolytus’s own church after he renounces allegiance to Callistus. Having been reconciled with Bishop Pontianus, a successor of Callistus, as they both suffer for the faith in the mines of Sardinia, he comes to be recognized as Hippolytus.
In the next generation in Rome, a longer lasting and more damaging schism, called Novatianism, arises after the terribly brutal Decian Persecution of 250-251. This occurs as Novatian, a leading priest there, takes the rigorist view that those who lapsed during the persecution, meaning that they denied Christ, cannot now be received back into the Church—even through lengthy, heartfelt repentance. When the Church in Rome elects the more moderate Cornelius instead of Novatian to succeed Bishop Fabian (who was one of the first to be martyred under Emperor Decius), Novatian breaks communion with him and establishes his own alternate ecclesiastical structure. Nevertheless, he makes a worthy contribution to the ongoing development of trinitarian theology with his work On the Trinity (ANF 5; FC 67).
In response to this schism, which is attracting some of his own flock, Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, writes the famous essay On the Unity of the Church (ANF 5; ACW 25; FC 36; LCC V) in which he urges his flock to remain in unity with the legitimate bishop of Rome and with all the bishops of the one, undivided church throughout the Empire. He writes many other treatises, including the renowned On the Lord’s Prayer (ANF 5; FC 36) and many letters (ANF 5; ACW 43, 44, 46, 47; FC 51) addressing various pastoral issues–including the efforts of Stephen, the new bishop of Rome, to dictate to the church in Carthage concerning the way to receive into the church those who had been baptized by groups outside the church (such as the Novatianists) who want to join the universal hierarchical church. In this struggle, Cyprian, backed by two regional councils held in Carthage, valiantly defends the right of each bishop to have jurisdictional autonomy in such matters—over and against this early manifestation of “Papal presumption”—to extend the rule of the church of Rome beyond her natural territorial boundaries.
Back in Alexandria, Dionysius the Great, the bishop there from 247 to 264, was writing prolifically on various pastoral issues and on trinitarian themes. A number of extant fragments from his works are given in ANF 6.
In central Asia Minor, as Bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Cappadocia, Gregory the Wonderworker, a former student of Origen who imbibed Origen’s sound teachings while avoiding his unsound speculations, is writing a number of significant works, including his celebrated “Panegyric on Origen.” He also writes a “Confession of Faith” for the instruction of Christian catechumens (both in ANF 6 and in FC 98).
Methodius of Olympus, Bishop of Lycia in Asia Minor, is apparently the first major writer to expose the speculative errors of Origen. His only complete work that survives intact is his Symposium, or Banquet of the Ten Virgins (ANF 6; ACW 27), in which he highly extols the life of consecrated virginity and maintains a high view of marriage. Methodius dies as a martyr in about 311 near the end of the Diocletian Persecution.
Arnobius of Sicca is another lay theologian and rhetorician in western North Africa who, like Tertullian, begins to write on Christian themes after converting to Christ later in life. His one surviving work is an extensive, erudite apology for the faith called The Case against the Pagans (ANF 6; ACW 7 and 8), written during the Diocletian persecution.
Lactantius, also a lay theologian and rhetorician, studied under Arnobius in his youth. He taught rhetoric at Nicomedia before his conversion to Christianity around the year 300. Later he tutored the son of the first Christian emperor Constantine the Great. Lactantius writes a major apologetic work entitled The Divine Institutes (ANF 7; FC 49), as well as a treatise called On the Anger of God (ANF 7; FC 54), and another entitled On the Workmanship of God (ANF 7; FC 54) in which he marvels especially at the wondrousness of the human body, mind, and soul.
Eusebius of Caesarea’s great work called Ecclesiastical History (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 1; also in various more recent editions) also must be highlighted. The first comprehensive history of the church, this work basically covers the first three centuries of the Christian era, with particular emphasis on the bishops in the leading cities of the Empire, the persecutions and martyrdoms, and the major theologians of the church and their struggles against the various heresies and schisms of these years. Eusebius often quotes first-hand sources in this riveting account of the formative years of the Christian church.
The various efforts of these great Apologists and other Ante-Nicene figures to articulate the mysteries of the faith–especially how God the Trinity can be both three and one, and how Jesus can be both fully God and fully human—will find their basic fulfillment in the fourth century. While their work is not always as theologically sound as the Fathers of the later centuries, they do reveal some of the early church’s great leaders valiantly trying to explain the mysteries of the faith in order to instruct and edify their fellow Christians, as well as to aid in spreading the gospel to those outside the church. These writings also reveal much about the fascinating interplay in this era between the church and the surrounding society. Hence, there is much in these works, and in the lives of these writers, that can enlighten and inspire us as we try similarly to bring our own society to faith in Christ.