A Distinction Between God and Matter (Athenagoras)

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      I’ve mentioned the 2nd century church father Athenagoras on this blog several times before (on theology here, on violence and abortion here, and on homosexuality here).  One helpful section of his treatise called “A Plea for the Christians” is where Athenagoras defends the fact that Christians do not worship matter, but God, who is separate from matter and the Creator of it.  In today’s language, we’d say that Athenagoras was making a distinction between the Creator and the creature.

Athenagoras put it this way:

“[We] distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval.”

Many in the Roman Empire accused Christians of impiety and godlessness because they did not worship images of the gods.  Here is part of Athenagoras’ answer to the charge of impiety:

“…The the multitude [of people], who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore [[we who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them]] are we to come and worship images?

If, indeed, matter and God are the same, two names for one thing, then certainly, in not regarding stocks and stones, gold and silver, as gods, we [Christians] are guilty of impiety. But if they are at the greatest possible remove [distance] from one another – as far asunder as the artist and the materials of his art – why are we called to account [of impiety]?

For as is the potter and the clay (matter being the clay, and the artist the potter), so is God, the Framer of the world, and matter, which is subservient to Him for the purposes of His art.  But as the clay cannot become vessels of itself without art, so neither did matter, which is capable of taking all forms, receive, apart from God the Framer, distinction and shape and order. And as we do not hold the pottery of more worth than him who made it, nor the vessels or glass and gold than him who wrought them; but if there is anything about them elegant in art we praise the artificer, and it is he who reaps the glory of the vessels: even so with matter and God – the glory and honor of the orderly arrangement of the world belongs of right not to matter, but to God, the Framer of matter.

So that, if we were to regard the various forms of matter as gods, we should seem to be without any sense of the true God, because we should be putting the things which are dissoluble and perishable on a level with that which is eternal.”

This is obviously part of a larger apologetic argument, but I think it makes sense without the larger context.  I appreciate it because Athenagoras is defending the Christian faith by explaining the distinction between the Creator and the creature.  Many religions today are pantheistic, so Athenagoras’ defense of Christian truth still speaks today.

Athenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. B. P. Pratten, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 135.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


Gladiator Games, Abortion, and the Early Church (Athenagoras)

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      Just over a week ago I highlighted a section from Athenagoras (an early Christian apologist from the end of the 2nd century AD) in which he defended Christian morality since many were accusing Christians of immorality.  Specifically, Athenagoras said Christian sexual ethics were much better than those of non-Christians, since Christians upheld purity in marriage and avoided homosexuality.  You can read the article here.

In the same context, Athenagoras also explained how Christians detested all sorts of cruelty, abuse, and bloodshed.   Apparently some had accused Christians of being murderers and cannibals because of the Lord’s Supper (eating/drinking the body/blood of Jesus), so Athenagoras refuted the accusation as completely untrue.  The truth is, he said, that Christians are against brutality and murder:

“[Which Roman citizen] does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you?  But we [Christians], deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles.  How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?

In other words, since Christians renounced things like the brutal gladiator games, how can someone accuse them of being murderers?  [As a convicting side note, although Christians aren’t murders today, we typically no longer “abjure” watching the spectacles of brutality and death like our Christian forefathers did.]  Athenagoras goes on:

“And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder?  For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.”

Athenagoras is arguing that since Christians were against abortion and exposing a child (letting it die soon after birth), how can one accuse them of murder?  Christians in the early church believed a fetus in the womb and newborn children were created by God and under his care, so they would never kill them.  The were against murder, not for it (think of the 6th commandment)!

In a brilliant way, Athenagoras turns the tables on the accusers: Christians are not the ones who are murderers, since they detest gladiator games, brutality, abortion, and the exposing of children.  The non-Christians do those things, but not Christians – therefore no one can accuse Christians of being immoral murderers.

The entire apology by Athenagoras is worth reading: A Plea for the Christians.  The above quotes were taken from paragraph/chapter 35.

shane lems
hammond, wi

The Early Church on Homosexuality

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      In the days of the early church – I’m thinking specifically of the 2nd century – Christian apologists had to defend the faith against false charges, accusations, and misrepresentations.  One such apologist, Athenagoras (d. 200 AD?), wrote a booklet to Roman rulers called A Plea for the Christians.   This apology by Athenagoras is still quite relevant today because it discusses things we still talk about today.  I’ll come back to this booklet later, but for now I want to point out what this 2nd century Christian apologist said about sexual immorality and homosexuality.

Athenagoras refuted the claim or accusation that Christians were very sexually impure compared to non-Christian Roman citizens.  He said Christian spouses – man and wife – were committed to one another and instructed to avoid and detest adultery while the same could not be said of the Romans.  He also argued that Christians avoided and detested homosexuality.  As Athenagoras introduced this topic, he noted that he is not comfortable to “speak of things unfit to be uttered.”  But he briefly did in order to defend Christian sexual morality:

“For those [Romans] who have set up a market for fornication, and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure – who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations, outraging all the noblest and comliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonoring the fair workmanship of God. …These men, I say, revile us for the very things which they are conscious of themselves, and ascribe [them] to their own gods, boasting of them as noble deeds, and worthy of the gods.  These adulterers and paederasts [pedophiles] defame [even] the eunuchs and once-married, while they themselves live like fishes, for these gulp down whatever falls in their way….”

In other words, while non-Christians accused Christians of being sexually immoral, it was actually the non-Christians who were far more sexually immoral as was seen in their homosexual and pedophile practices (which were even part of the religious stories of their gods!).

One more thing worth noting is that Athenagoras mentions how the old Roman laws condemned homosexuality and pedophile acts.  When Roman citizens commit these acts, they “do violence in contravention of the very laws which you and your [Roman] ancestors, with due care for all that is fair and right, have enacted.”  In other words, those old Roman laws of sexual morality were good and fair: we Christians follow them, you Roman citizens do not!

Much more could be said here, but I’ll end with the following points: 1) the early church agreed with Scripture that homosexuality and adultery were sinful acts, 2) the early church desired to live sexually pure lives in the midst of a sexually impure culture, 3) the apologists did not give in to culture’s ways, but stood for Scripture’s truth when (falsely) accused, and 4) the apologists were not afraid to mention the usefulness of good and fair government laws which Christians obeyed.

This booklet, A Plea for the Christians, is recommended reading if you want ancient Christian help in standing for the truths of the faith.  Next time, I’ll share what Athenagoras said about Christians and abortion.

shane lems

Learning About God From God: Athenagoras

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      Athenagoras (d. c. 200 AD?) was an able Christian apologist in the early church.  Before he became a Christian, he was a Greek philosopher.  After he became a Christian, he used his gifts to defend the Christian faith against the opposition of the Roman government that was hostile to Christians.  One of Athenagoras’ writings that survived is called “A Plea for the Christians,” which was written to Roman rulers and philosophers.  The entire work is certainly worth reading; below is one part that stood out to me.

“Since, therefore, the unity of the Deity is confessed by almost all (even non-Christian Greek philosophers of the past), even against their will, when they come to treat of the first principles of the universe, and we in our turn likewise assert that He who arranged this universe is God – why is it that they can say and write with impunity (exemption from punishment) what they please concerning the Deity, but that against us a law lies in force, though we are able to demonstrate what we apprehend and justly believe, namely, that there is one God, with proofs and reason accordant with truth?”

“For poets and philosophers, as to other subjects so also to this, have applied themselves in the way of conjecture (speculation), moved, by reason of their affinity with the afflatus (impulse) from God, each one by his own soul, to try whether he could find out and apprehend the truth; but they have not been found competent to fully apprehend it, because they thought fit to learn, not from God concerning God, but each one from himself; hence they came to their own conclusion respecting God, and matter, and forms, and the world.”

“But we have for witnesses of the things we apprehend and believe, prophets, men who have pronounced concerning God and the things of God, guided by the Spirit of God.  And you too will admit, excelling all others as you do in intelligence and in piety towards the true God, that it would be irrational for us to cease to believe in the Spirit from God, who moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments, and to give heed [instead] to mere human opinions.”

Athenagoras is saying that not only was it unfair that Christians are punished for their beliefs about God while philosophers are not, it is also true that philosophers did not learn about God from God, so they are wrong in their beliefs.  Christians, however, learn about the true God from his prophets, whom the Spirit used to speak God’s truth.  To put it simply, Christians learn about God from God – that is not irrational nor should it be the reason for punishment and persecution!

The entire work can be found in volume 2 of The Ante Nicene Fathers – page 129ff.

shane lems

The Faith of Our Fathers

In the first of his five-volume series on the history and doctrinal developments of the Christian church, Jaroslav Pelikan evaluates, explains, and summarizes the Christian beliefs of the catholic (universal) church from 100-600 AD.  Since many people today are writing – and duped by – historical revisions of the early church and its beliefs, it is good for us to find accurate and reliable books and studies on ancient church history.  Though not perfect in every way, Pelikan’s series is both reliable and accurate.

The following quote from volume one is a quote that shows Pelikan’s level-headed approach to studying the beliefs of the early church fathers.  Anyone who has read various writings, tracts, and treatises of teachers like Cyril, Cyprian, and Augustine (etc.) knows that it can be difficult to get a detailed and orderly snapshot of early Christian theology.  Pelikan’s notes here are helpful in this area.

“Against various heresies and schisms, the orthodox and catholic church defined as apostolic doctrine that which it believed, taught, and confessed.  This doctrine, so it was presumed, had been believed and taught by the church before heresy demanded that it be confessed.  Yet the task of reconstructing it from the existing documents is a complex one.  A large part of the Christian literature which has been preserved was preoccupied either with the defense of Christianity against the cultured among its despisers or with polemics against heresy.”

“Hence the interpretation of what was Christian doctrine during the second and third centuries is likely to concentrate on these same issues, at the expense of other doctrinal themes in the belief and the piety of the church.  The methodological problems in the attempt to uncover those themes in the documents are formidable, but the documents themselves make the attempt both necessary and justifiable.”

“To cite one of the most explicit instances from the second century, Athenagoras opened his apologetic for the resurrection with a distinction between a ‘plea for the truth,’ addressed to skeptics and doubters, and an ‘exposition of the truth,’ addressed to those who were prepared to accept the truth; he noted that the exposition was more valuable and important, but that pagan hostility to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead made it necessary for him to give precedence to the plea over the exposition.  Athenagoras’s distinction justifies the effort to supply as much as possible of the missing ‘exposition’ in defense of which the ‘plea’ was made” (p. 121).

Though the discussion is detailed, Pelikan made a great point here.  Much of the early Christian literature was more of a defense of the Chrsitian faith and not a point by point exposition of it.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t find the exposition in the defense.  Though it is sometimes difficult to find the “exposition” woven in the “defense,” it is certainly right and proper for us to do so.  There is such a thing as historical Christian orthodoxy that our forefathers believed, taught, confessed, and defended!

Again, the quote was taken from Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 121.

shane lems