header image
Home arrow Sermons (Main Index) arrow Articles & Topical Series arrow Topical Series - Church History arrow Church History - Defending the Faith (150-300)
Church History - Defending the Faith (150-300) Print E-mail
Church History

I.  Introduction:

 Last week, we looked at the period of the Apostolic Fathers ranging from 90-150 AD., and we saw that the major issue facing those Apostolic Fathers was the issue of authority – who would lead the new church now that the major apostles were no longer on the scene? This week we move to the second group of the Church Fathers, the Apologists and the time period from 150-300 AD. During this period of church history, a number of new problems began to arise. First, a growing number of heresies – both from inside and outside the Church – began to lead many astray. Second, the first empire-wide persecutions occurred near the end of the 3rd century. The persecutions arose largely because of a number of false accusations that were leveled against the Christians. The combination of these new issues – in God’s sovereign grace to His church – gave rise to a group of men called the Apologists, men “who defended the Christian faith and, in doing so, led the church toward deeper theological truth. Error forced the church to think more precisely about what it believed and to reach a consensus on what the Scriptures taught.” 1  Today, we will take a closer look at some of the heresies and persecutions that arose in this time period and then we will examine three of the major Church fathers and how they responded.

II. The Apologists and their Battles

 A. The heresies that began to arise in the second and third centuries were manifold – Eckman mentions six in his book and there are numerous others that could have been included. We will look at only three of the major ones: Marcionism, Montanism, and Gnosticism. Marcionism was begun by Marcion in the second century, and he claimed that the god of the Old Testament was not the god of the New Testament. They were two different people and Christians were to follow the latter of the two as revealed by Jesus Christ. This resulted in a total rejection of the Old Testament and of large parts of the New Testament for “Old Testament bias.” Montanism was begun by Montanus after he and two female followers mysteriously began prophesying and claiming that a new age of church history was beginning with them. The movement was very ascetic and rigid. The Montanists did not recognize the authority of the church and denied that Jesus Christ was the apex of God’s revelation. They claimed that the Holy Spirit had given further revelation to Montanus and his followers. Gnosticism was by far the most rampant and damaging heresy that the church faced. In short, this heresy was based on the belief that the material world is inherently evil while the spiritual world is inherently good. As a result, they denied that God created the material world because God is good and that world is evil. Further, they denied that Jesus came in the flesh because it would be impossible for a good God to take on evil flesh. As a result they denied the literal bodily existence, death, and resurrection of Christ – a blasphemous heresy of atrocious proportions to the Church whose very foundation is built on the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

 B. Aside from the heresies, there were also a number of false accusations leveled against Christians that led to two empire-wide persecutions: the first under the Emperor Decius in 250 and the second under the Emperor Diocletian in the early 300’s. Christians were charged with atheism because they did not have a visible God; they were charged with cannibalism because of their claim that the communion bread represented Christ’s body and the wine represented his blood, and they were accused of immorality because many of their meetings were in secret and they often called them love feasts. Obviously, these accusations were due to misunderstandings of the early church’s teachings on these subjects, but nonetheless, they led to horrible persecutions under Decius and Diocletian.

 C. The combination of rampant heresy and widespread persecution gave rise to the work of the Apologists. The first of these that I want to mention is Justin Martyr. Justin lived from 100-165 and did not become a Christian until he was 33. A brilliant scholar and excellent student of philosophy, Justin became the early intellectual champion of Christianity. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor around 150 a.d. held Christianity in utter contempt as intellectually inferior, but Justin labored – through the writing of two “Apologies” and his “Dialogue with Trypho” – to dispel this myth. Justin also labored to battle Marcion and demonstrate the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He was extremely influential in the ongoing development of the canon of Scripture as he “quoted or alluded to all four Gospels, Acts, eight of Paul’s epistles, and 1 Peter.” 2   While not demonstrating a very developed theology, Justin labored faithfully to demonstrate that Christianity was intellectually viable until his martyrdom in 165.

 D. The second Apologist I want to mention is Iranaeus who was born in 135. Iranaeus labored for much of his life in the area of modern-day France. His major works are “The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching” and “Against Heresies.” Like Justin, Iranaeus did much to assist the early church in the continuing formation of the canon by making extensive use of both Testaments – using all but four of the New Testament books. In doing this, Iranaeus strove to teach his congregation that all of history is indeed bound together by the purposes of God – God has a grand vision and plan for all of history, and “the focal point of that history is the incarnation.” 3  In addition to this, Iranaeus fought his toughest battles against the Gnostic heretics. In fact, “Against Heresies” is an entire treatise against Gnosticism. As a response to this movement, Iranaeus made sure that Christ was at the center of all of his work. He focused, as Scripture itself does, on the centrality and importance of Christ and His work for all of history and all of humanity. While his labors were invaluable to the church, some of his teachings would later give rise to some of the problems within the Catholic church such as his emphasis on the physical presence of Christ in the communion elements and his special reverence for Mary as the mother of Jesus. Iranaeus also died a martyr in the year 202.

E. The final Apologist I want to mention is Origen. Origen was born in Alexandria but spent much of his life ministering in Caesarea until his death from intense torture under the persecutions of Decius in 254. Origen was unmistakably brilliant and spent his life laboring to leave the church with tools that would help it to better understand and follow the Scriptures. He composed the first systematic theology in church history entitled “On First Principles.” He also wrote numerous commentaries on a number of the books of the Bible, and his magnum opus – the crowning work of his labors here on earth – was the “Hexapla” which was “an edition of the Old Testament including the Hebrew text, the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew text, and four available Greek translations in six parallel columns.” 4  This work took twenty-eight years to complete and proved invaluable in helping less studied members of the church be able to study the Old Testament to the best of their ability and with the best scholarship at hand. Once again, we see Origen’s invaluable contributions in the area of the development of the canon and in the battle against heresies.

III. What can we learn from this period?

 A. The first thing we can learn from this period is that theology matters and heresy must be addressed. There was absolutely no question in the early church over whether or not to address the numerous heresies that arose within the church. The Apologists and the other early leaders of the church stood ready to combat any teaching that contradicted what had been revealed in the already recognized canon of Scripture as it was being formed. This is very instructive to us as the church today, because we live in a time when it seems that the majority of the Church believes that theology truly does not matter. Further, many believe that theology should be avoided because it simply causes division. However, the fact is that theology is inherently practical and affects the way we live. Every person acts based on what they believe. Paul understood this clearly as he wrote to the early Church. Look at Galatians 1:6-9. The things that we teach matter, and what we believe matters. Errors must be addressed or they will seep into the Church and fester and eventually the Church will find itself empty and without foundation, rotting away from the inside out.

 B. The second thing I think we can learn from this period of Church history is the value of suffering and the necessity of perseverance in persecution. Eckman writes, “Increased persecution forced the church to determine what was really important.” 5  As you may have noticed, all three of the apologists I mentioned today were martyred. This was because they knew what was truly important, and were willing to give their lives for it. While we, as the Church here in America may not experience outright persecution like these people, we do suffer. And the fact is that there are parts of the Church around the world that do still experience outright persecution. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, God has composed the body so that when one member suffers, all suffer together, so we should suffer with those who are suffering crying out to God in our prayers for their perseverance. Further, in our own suffering, we rejoice because as Romans 5 says, “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” God, grant us grace. Amen.

1 James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 21.
2 Ibid., 24.
3 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1984), 71.
4 Eckman, 26.
5 Ibid., 24.

~ William Marshall ~ 
Based on a manuscript prepared by Chad Davis, with minor changes.  For the original, look here.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 18 July 2007 )

User Comments

Page 1 of 0 ( 0 User Comments )
©2006 MosCom

Add comments to this article: Church History - Defending the Fait... ...

Enter your comment below.

Name (required)

E-Mail (required)
Your email will not be displayed on the site - only to our administrator

Comment (supported) [BBcode]


We invite you to visit our new Facebook page


Click below for the Advent Daily Devotional written by our pastor


Download or read our new church covenant


Don't Waste Your Cancer

ESV Search

(e.g., John 1 or God's love)

Who's Online
We have 6 guests online
Visitors: 8576723