Saturday, January 24, 2015

Use of Apologetics in the Early Church

A lot of people in the church today don't seem to understand the need for apologetics. Some even argue against it. Yet apologetics was widely used in the early church (though not by that name, obviously). Using evidence (including extra-Biblical evidence) to back up the claims in the Bible is as old as Christianity itself. If we are to follow the example of those who have gone before us and be effective in winning the lost and strengthening the faith of believers, we must learn to use apologetics.

Of course, we Christians should also include scripture in our defense of Christianity, as the early church also did. But we are not limited to only quoting the Bible. We should also be prepared to defend the accuracy of the Bible with evidence. For some people, this is a necessary first step before they will accept that the Bible is true and listen to its instruction on how to be saved.

Here are some examples of apologetics being used in the Bible:

Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2

Excerpt: "Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: ... This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses."

Peter references the well-known miracles of Jesus as evidence that Jesus was indeed God and the evidence from eyewitnesses of the resurrection that Jesus was raised from the dead. Of course, Peter also used scripture (OT) in his sermon as support, but He didn't ask his hearers to simply believe Jesus was God without evidence. He provided evidence that they knew about to support his conclusion.

Peter's sermon to Cornelius in Acts 10

Excerpt: "And we are witnesses of all things which he [Jesus] did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly; Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead."

Again, Peter references Jesus' miracles and the resurrection and the eyewitness testimony.

Keep in mind that we think of speaking of the resurrection as quoting scripture, but to Peter, the resurrection of Jesus wasn't found in any scripture yet because the New Testament wasn't written yet. Peter was pointing to real world evidence, outside the Bible, to support his claims (in addition to using the scripture of the Old Testament).

Also notice that in Acts 10:44, while Peter is still speaking these words - giving real world evidence to these people - the Holy Spirit works in their hearts and brings them to repentance. The Holy Spirit isn't limited to working through the quoting of scripture, but can also work in people's hearts when they hear extra-Biblical evidence for Christianity as well.

Paul's sermon on Mars Hills in Acts 17

Excerpt: "For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands."

In this case, Paul, speaking to a heathen audience, uses their innate understanding that there is a God out there they do not know and appeals to the creation to tell them about God. He didn't start by telling them what the scripture says. He started by appealing to the creation and the need for a Creator. He knew they wouldn't accept quotes from a scripture they didn't know and didn't believe. He had to prepare their hearts to hear the scripture first.

These are just a few examples. The general rule of the early church was to use Old Testament scripture (mainly prophecies) and the eyewitness testimony of the resurrection when dealing with people who already believed in scripture (e.g. the Jews) and appeals to creation and also the evidence of the resurrection for those who didn't already believe scripture. In other words, they used apologetics. They didn't merely assert that they believed; they also provided evidence for that belief.

Of course, we today are further removed from the events of Bible times and use slightly different apologetics methods because of that. In the days of the early church, for example, they could use eyewitness testimony directly. They had people standing there who could testify that they had seen Jesus alive after He was crucified. That's good evidence, but we don't have any of those eyewitnesses alive today. So, we use historical texts and accounts of early Christians who died rather than recant their testimony to show that it is reasonable to believe they were telling the truth.

In the days of the early church, the idea that the world was created was self-evident to everyone and Christians needed only to point out that a creation requires a Creator. In today's world where evolution is widely believed, we have to provide evidence that the universe actually was created in order to then point out the Creator.

The Bible not only gives us examples of the early church using apologetics, but it also provides a command that we do so. 1 Peter 3:15 says "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer (Greek: apologia – from which we get “apologetics”) to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear."

We aren't told to simply state our belief, but to give reasons for it. We're told to answer the why of our belief, not just the what. Apologetics is the why. Giving reasons and evidence is what we are commanded to do and what the early church did.

The purpose of apologetics is the same as it was in the early church - to provide evidence that Christianity is true. The methods vary, but the need is the same. May we all become better apologists for the truth of Christianity. A lost and dying world desperately needs us to.


  1. I believe strongly in apologetics. But I also disagree with your starting premise that the Early Church Father are na example Christians should follow, they way I see it they were Pergamos and sadly their Apologetics frequently involved selling out and compromise.

    1. The early church I'm talking about involves Jesus' own disciples and others who were eyewitnesses of Jesus' resurrection. They most certainly were an example that we should follow.

      Of course, there were those who were involved in the early church who brought heresy, and we ought not follow them. But the apostles and their immediate disciples are great examples to follow. These people are the ones who wrote the New Testament. If we can't follow their example, how then can we decide how to live?

  2. Speaking of early church fathers, The Confessions by Augustine of Hippo is a good starting place for those looking into Christianity. I've heard a few former atheists say The Confessions helped lead them into the faith.

  3. The Reformation overturned many of the Latin Church's excesses accumulated over a thousand years of papal dominance. But, unfortunately it substituted the fourth century philosophical ideas of St. Augustine, a former Gnostic. Augustine's approach was revolutionary compared to the Christian apologists before him, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. They argued, not only from Scripture, but also from the unanimous oral traditions of the Apostles deposited in and preserved by the local Apostolic churches — the agreement of universal orthodoxy. Augustine was a philosopher, caring little for preserved orthodox tradition. His approach was to interpret Scripture in light of his paradigm of Neo-Platonic thought. This drastic shift in Christian apologetics, from defending preserved orthodoxy to legitimizing Christian philosophical speculations, eventually led to what is today called, "Calvinism."
    Quote from Pristine Faith Restoration

    I would stick very closely to THE SCRIPTURE and compare them to whatever doctrine you are looking at. I do recommend the Didache as one source of comparison of early teachings of the Apostles not long after the NT was compiled.