CH101 - The Second Century

The Persecuted Church, 90 - 202 A.D.

Key People:
Clement of Rome
Ignatius of Antioch
Justin Martyr
Irenaeus of Lyons
Clement of Alexandria

The Apologists
The second century brought with it a steady growth of Gentile Christianity, but not without opponents. We have seen the rise of various heresies, opposition marked by a twisting of "apostolic teaching." This led the early Christian leadership to further develop creeds and formulas as a way to solidify "orthodox" positions. One must remember that in the early second century the New Testament had not come fully into form – the writings of the apostolic successors was held in high esteem. The growth of the church into something of a "grassroots" movement also brought critics like Lucian (a writer), Galen (a physician) and Celsus (a philosopher). Celsus is the most well-known early critic of Christianity. His attack must have had some influence - we know his writing through Origin's argument against him, Contra Celsum, written nearly 100 years later. The following arguments, voiced by Celsus, were commonly used against Christianity:

- Jesus could not have been divine
- with secret teachings, Christianity is suspicious (Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, etc.)
- how can God be "eternal" and be known?

It is important to understand that intellectual criticism of the Christian faith and doctrine was not uncommon in the second century. This is important for many reasons, but let me point out two:

    1. Christianity has always had critics. What we see and hear leveled against the faith is not new – believers before us had to find answers against critics and so does the contemporary church.
    2. The answers we find to the objections clearly indicate that the primary doctrines of the faith were well established before the NT took its final form. Those who argue that the faith being taught in the 21st century is somehow different from what the earliest believers held is simply not true. The virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the divinity of Jesus – we find the same cardinal doctrines of faith in early second century Christianity.

This consistent criticism of the faith gave rise to another special group of Christian writers, the Apologists. These writers argued for the faith, and in the process allowed Christians for all ages to know what the second century church believed. The first two men (Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons) are clearly second century; the influence of the two other men (Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria) was mainly felt in the third century and beyond, but they are both considered apologists, therefore I will introduce them as such with a brief discussion of their influence in this area. These apologists have already briefly appeared in other sections of CH101 and continue to come up (for example in the next section on the New Testament canon).

Justin Martyr (cir. 100-165)
Justin was an ardent student of philosophy (mainly Stoicism and Platonism) and taught philosophy. In his early thirties he met an elderly man on a seashore who impressed upon Justin the trustworthiness of the gospel. Justin investigated the faith and became convinced. He continued to wear his philosopher's gown and teach philosophy, but now advocating the only true philosophy to be Christianity.

Justin is mainly known through his writings:
The Apologies – a set of discourses propounding the supremacy of the Christian faith. The first Apology is addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161) and to his son, Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180), who himself was something of a philosopher. Justin appeals to these emperors and their sense of decency, arguing against the persecution directed at Christians.

Dialogue with Trypho – a treatise again proposing the primacy of the Christian faith, but with more emphasis on how the followers of Jesus represent the “new” people of God. Trypho was an educated Jew and also a student of philosophy.

Justin is often criticized for leaning too heavily on his Greek philosophy, but he must have stood out as an intellectual giant among his peers and perhaps dulled some of the sharp attacks coming from the critics of the faith.

Justin is also quite important for the role his writings play in the development of the NT canon. He quotes from, or alludes to, each of the four gospels and to many of Paul's letters. Many early fathers cite Justin as an important early Christian voice. He was arrested and beheaded in Rome and thus receives his name as Justin Martyr.

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Irenaeus of Lyons (cir. 135-202)
Irenaeus, a bishop in Gaul sometime in the latter half of the second century is mainly known for his work Against Heresies circa 175-185. The title is actually Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge, falsely so-called - thus the shorter title. This work is a summary and brief history of all the heresies known by Irenaeus, focusing on Gnosticism. Indeed, Gnosticism was the dominant heresy of that time, even overshadowing the orthodox faith in the Egyptian region to some extent.

We learn from the author himself that he grew up in the faith and actually sat at the feet of Polycarp as a young boy (A.H. III.3,4). Eusebius gives us more from a letter of Irenaeus which no longer survives:

"For when I was a boy I saw you in lower Asia with Polycarp....I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the 'Word of life,' Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures...I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God's grace, I recall them faithfully.”   (E.H. V.20,5-7)

What begins as a refutation of gnostic groups becomes something of a history of the Christian church up until his day. In fact, Eusebius leans upon Irenaeus to a great degree in his church history volume written 200 years later. Irenaeus gives us many details about Christianity during this period that might have otherwise been lost. For example, he recounts the succession of bishops in Rome from Peter and Paul to his day. This is done to combat a claim being made by several heretical leaders that they were in the rightful lineage of the apostles. He gives us the basis for a creed recited during his day (A.H. III.4,2). He cites passages from the four canonical gospels and from almost every other NT book.

Many scholars during the early years of the 20th century attacked Irenaeus and his description of these gnostic groups, accusing him of exaggeration in order to make the Gnostics look far worse. The discovery of Nag Hammadi in 1945 of several gnostic writings dated from the second century (the Nag Hammadi Library) have proven that Irenaeus was, in fact, not making anything up, nor was he exaggerating.

Irenaeus served as the bishop of Lyons until 202 when it is thought he may have died during the persecution under Emperor Severus.

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Tertullian (cir. 155–230)
It is not known exactly when Tertullian was born, but he was born in Carthage, North Africa, the son of a Roman centurion. He was trained in law and apparently served as a jurist in Rome for a while. We do not know how he came to faith, but he does seem to indicate in some of his writings that he was not always in the faith.

He is known only for his writings, which are many. Tertullian was a prolific writer and is the first of the Latin Fathers – the first Christian writer to write in Latin. His biblical quotations come from a Latin bible as well. He is a master of the written word and penned some works specifically for the general educated public in defense of Christian faith. Some were written as open letters to the authorities arguing (as did Justin) against the Roman persecution of Christians. His writings are terse, direct, and always attacking – as he probably argued in courtrooms, his aim is always to win the battle of the argument.

Tertullian had a fiery temperament and that contributed to some very strong disagreements with others in church leadership. The most serious issue is known “second repentance.” Basically the church believed that after your initial repentance, baptism, and entrance into the family of faith you could not be formally allowed readmittance to the church if you commit a “sin unto death.” Typically three sins were considered mortal sins: adultery, fornication, and apostasy (denouncing Christ during persecution).

During some of the more heated persecutions of the second century the faith of many believers failed, or “lapsed.” After the persecution calmed bishops found themselves with numbers of the lapsed desiring forgiveness and admission to the church. This number could be in the dozens in the major cities. As in any age, some bishops were more stern than others – some wanted to grant mercy to these penitent sinners. Others wanted to the church to hold to a high standard and demanded that lapsed believers could not be forgiven. Tertullian falls into the rigorous camp, but the issue is not a simple one – he mainly felt that to go easy on an adulterer and to then hold someone at arms length whose faith held failed under torture was just wrong. We cannot go further into this issue, but you can read a paper on Second Repentance to get a better explanation and understanding.

Clement of Alexandria (cir. 150-215)
The final significant second century apologist is Clement of Alexandria. It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Clement. Although his influence is not focused in the second century, he certainly served as an apologist.

Clement's first major work is titled “Exhortation to the Greeks” and is basically a call to the educated Greco-Roman society to hear the gospel of Jesus. Many scholars say this is Clement's most graceful piece of writing. This “Exhortation” is filled with numerous citations from the most popular Greek writers, each citation being used to prove Clement's underlying arguments. The document reads like an anthology of Greek literature, and it is clear that Clement is not new to this literature. He is an educated man and his use of Greek is of a high quality.

His other significant apologetic is “Miscellanies,” a strange work that covers a multitude of topics without any apparently clear outline. What is clear in this work is that Clement is attacking the various Gnostic leaders who had made an impact in second century Egypt, chiefly Basilides and Valentinus (Gnosticism was briefly covered in another chapter). He names these men throughout this work, citing texts from their writings and arguing against them. “Excerpts from Theodotus” is another work attributed to Clement. In this work Clement takes large portions of Theodotus, a teacher of Valentinian gnosticism, and argues against this gnostic teaching.

Although Clement is clearly on the offensive against gnosticism, it is also clear that some of his views are not consistent with other early writers. This is something a problem with Clement of Alexandria. He represents a time in the development of Egyptian Christianity when the church was recovering from what appears to have been a 50-60 year period when gnosticism was the dominant force. Nonetheless, Clement of Alexandria certainly represents the development in early Christianity when highly educated Christian leaders presented a reasoned defense of the faith.

Learn more:
Clement of Alexandria
Origin of Alexandria
Comparison: the Schools of Alexandria and Antioch

Questions, Comments or Criticisms:
You can send an email to directly to me Al Baker, CH101.
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Book Reviews
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Culture and Opinion
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Clement of Alexandria:
Enduring Influence

Clement's main influence comes from being the first writer in what becomes known as the Alexandrian school of thought. Clement is followed, and also overshadowed by, the great Origen of Alexandria. These two men laid foundations for theological and biblical thought that church leadership relied upon for the next several centuries. Indeed, their influence continues to this day in certain sectors of the Christian church, mainly in the Orthodox movement: both the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches hold these two Christian writers in very high regard.
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Second Repentance - Hermas, Tertullian
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Early Church Heresies
Second Century Christian Apologists
Irenaeus Tertullian Justin Martyr
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How the NT was Formed
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Early Church Heresies
First Century Persecution
1st Century Persecution of Christians
Gnosticism in the 1st Century Early Church
Early Church History of Galations
Early Christianity War and Conflict
Early Christianity Constantine and War
Important Issues in Early Christianity