Athenagoras of Athens

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Athenagoras lived from 133 AD to 190 AD he is identified as a Father of the Church and an Ante-Nicene Christian apologist. Little is known for certain, besides that he did live in Athens was a philosopher, and a convert to Christianity. In his writings he identifies himself as "Athenagoras, the Athenian, Philosopher, and Christian". There is some reason to believe that he was a Platonist before his conversion.

Almost no early Christian apologists make mention of him even in the extensive writings of Eusebius he is strangely absent. Methodius of Olympus who died 311 AD does make mention of him but was also not mentioned by Eusebius.[1]

Athenagoras was believed by Philip of Side to have had Clement of Alexandria as his pupil for they had both been connected with Athens and essentially Christian philosophers who came over from Paganism to the Church.

J.H. Crehan starts his introduction to Athenagoras, saying,

"When the emperor Domitian sent for the surviving 'brethren of the Lord' from Palestine, and having examined them about their descent from David dismissed them in peace, the age of the Apologies may be said to have begun. To all Christians it had been made clear that if they could gain access to the emperor, even to the most erratic and cruel of emperors, and state their case to him, there would be a very good chance of justice being done to them. From this episode and from the wider activities of the emperor Hadrian, who traveled much in the eastern part of his empire, the Christians gathered courage to come forward with answers to the odious calumnies of... cannibalism, of incest and atheism, which a pagan, sometimes interested and sometimes uncomprehending, leveled against them."

The persecution that was often a part of the Christian conflict eith the welfare states of the world produced arguments by Athenagoras which turned phrases which appear again in the Acts of the martyr Appolonius who was put to death in Rome by Commodus in 185 A.D.

The Apologists set before themselves three objectives:

1. They challenged the widely current calumnies and were at particular pains to answer the charge that the Church was a peril to the State.

2. They exposed the immoralities of paganism and the myths of its divinities, at the same time demonstrating that the Christian alone has a correct understanding of God and the universe. Hence they defended the dogmas concerned with the unity of God, monotheism, the divinity of Christ and the resurrection of the body.

3. Not content with merely answering the arguments of the philosophers, they went on to show that this very philosophy, because it had only human reason to rely upon, had either never attained truth, or that the truth it had attained was but fragmentary and mingled with numerous errors. Christianity offers the absolute truth, since the Logos, the Divine Reason Himself, comes down upon earth, and Christianity is the divine Philosophy. Their method was to exhibit Christianity to emperors and to the public as politically harmless and morally and culturally superior to paganism.


Athenagoras pleaded for the Christian population when brought before the courts to be examined just as other citizens would. He writes, “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.”[2] 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.”[3]

Christians were often charged with Atheism because they were not members of any of the Temples that provided welfare among the pagans. They were engaged in a Private welfare system of pure Religion rather than the public welfare of the world. Athenagoras suggested that it was “exceedingly silly” to charge Christians with atheism since the “very men who charge [them] with atheism . . . are not agreed among themselves concerning the gods.”[4]

In CHAP. XIV of [ http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/athenagoras-plea.html entitled A Plea for the Christians] INCONSISTENCY OF THOSE WHO ACCUSE THE CHRISTIANS he writes:

"Time would fail me to enumerate the whole. When, therefore, they differ among themselves concerning their gods, why do they bring the charge against us of not agreeing with them? Then look at the practices prevailing among the Egyptians: are they not perfectly ridiculous? For in the temples at their solemn festivals they beat their breasts as for the dead, and sacrifice to the same beings as gods; and no wonder, when they look upon the brutes as gods, and shave themselves when they die, and bury them in temples, and make public lamentation. If, then, we are guilty of impiety because we do not practise a piety corresponding with theirs, then all cities and all nations are guilty of impiety, for they do not all acknowledge the same gods."

Christians posed no direct threat to the Empire’s stability, for they were model citizens of peace in almost every way, but with the rise of the welfare state Christians brought some of the emperor's authority into question. They were not a surety for the debt of the state nor were their children cursed by that debt.

Athenagoras pointed out that Christian doctrine presses righteous living, referencing the passages on the Christian command them to love and pray for their enemies Matthew 5:44-45.

The fake charges of incest and cannibalism that were often directed at Christians by the self justifying socialist of the day were refuted by Athenagoras who called attention to passages that condemn lust and elevate Holy Matrimony


Athenagoras inderstood the place for the government created by their neighbors and its purpose to punish the wicked. His plea for toleration in a respectful tone begins by 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."


Footnotes

  1. Methodius of Olympus was the first systematic opponent and critic of Origen of Alexandria. Jerome present one of the earliest accounts of him as the Bishop of Olympos in Lycia He was also mentioned as a later Bishop of Tyre. The record shows that Tyrannio and Paulinus were bishops there but no mention of Methodius.
  2. Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 2.2.130.
  3. Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 2.3.130.
  4. Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 1999), 2.14.135.