The Early Church’s Defense Against the Argument of Antiquity

 

Church Father Friday is the ongoing examination of Patristic writings, controversies, biographies, and modern interpretations. These short selections from church history remind us of where we’ve been, and what God has done throughout history for the Church

C.S Lewis wrote a famous introductory essay for Athanasius’ work the Incarnation of the Word of God (1). In it, he argued that ancient works ought to be read more frequently than modern ones. His main point was that the thoughts, arguments, and conclusions of ancient authors have been tested by time, whereas new works are untested and undecided. We can see the trajectory of Athanasius’ theology over a period of 1600-years, and we can, therefore, see the effects of his ideas in history and how it’s endured over and against heretical positions. Novelty is conditioned by experience, and it’s hard to be objective about ideas so intimately connected to our own time. 

A similar argument was often used against Christianity by Hellenistic philosophers. Celsus, the famous 2nd-century critic of Christianity, reportedly stated that paganism was “an ancient doctrine which has existed from the beginning, which has always been maintained by the wisest nations and cities and wise men” (2). And Arnobius cited, and then refuted, the common argument that paganism was “…truer because it has been supported by the authority of antiquity” (3). Simply, the argument of antiquity was the position that since Christianity was a novel idea it didn’t merit serious discussion. Here’s the early church’s defense against the argument of antiquity.

Truth is Older than Letters

The frequent use of the argument of antiquity against the church resulted in a host of early apologetic responses. Tatian’s argument in his Address to the Greeks summarizes the Christian refutation well:

But now it seems proper for me to demonstrate that our philosophy is older than the systems of the Greeks. Moses and Homer shall be our limits, each of them being of great antiquity; the one being the oldest of poets and historians, and the other the founder of all barbarian [pagan] wisdom. Let us, then, institute a comparison between them; and we shall find that our doctrines are older, not only than those of the Greeks, but than the invention of letters. — Tatian (4)

The core of Tatian’s argument is that Moses himself was more ancient than the famed Homer and that many of the ideas found in Hellenistic thought could not be wholly original. Tertullian echo’s this argument stating that “Moses and God existed before all your Lycurguses and Solons. There is not one after-age which does not take from primitive sources” (5). The early church, therefore, argued that the Gospel events “were announced beforehand in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament” (6). Homer may have predated the advent of Christ in history, but the revelation of the One True God is timeless.

This argument is important on two counts. First, it shows the early church’s commitments to the Old Testament (as opposed to heretical Gnostic sects.) They didn’t unhitch themselves from the Old Testament, they quoted it regularly.  And, in this case, they used it to show how Christ wasn’t relevant only to the 1st-century, but that He was the culmination of redemptive history. Second, and even more powerful, is that the truth of the Gospel is the revelation of the Godhead. The truth claims of Christianity are timeless and even predate the invention of letters in human history. 

The strategy of the early apologists was brilliant. The Greek thinkers either had to deny that their argument was valid, or proclaim Christianity as a superior thought system by the merit of their own time-based polemic.

More  than Winning an Argument

While this was a genius strategy winning the argument wasn’t the final goal. Apologetics isn’t simply about winning an argument. It isn’t solely about defending the faith. It’s only aim isn’t going on the offensive against secular ideology. There is a deeper aspect in which the end of apologetics is proclaiming the truth to a fallen world in a variety of contexts for the glory of God. There will be no need for apologetics once Christ returns because we will all be in agreement to what constitutes truth because we will be in the presence of the One True God. 

If apologetics was simply about winning arguments then we wouldn’t have to engage against secular ideas, they would come and go with the times. Think about it, the antiquity argument wouldn’t be accepted by modern secular thinkers because they would laugh at the idea that older thoughts must be intrinsically correct. The enlightenment utterly killed that viewpoint in the West.

That’s why I appreciate the wise words of Ambrose in relation to the antiquity argument. He said “It is undoubtedly true that no age is too late to learn. Let that old age blush which cannot amend itself. Not the old age of years is worthy of praise but that of character. There is no shame in passing to better things” (7). Age doesn’t automatically generate correctness, and there is nothing sweeter than an old person seeing the truth and turning from long-held errors. Ambrose would continue this thought saying:

This alone was common to me with the barbarians, that of old I knew not God. Your sacrifice is a rite of being sprinkled with the blood of beasts. Why do you seek the voice of God in dead animals? Come and learn on earth the heavenly warfare; we live here, but our warfare is there. Let God Himself, Who made me, teach me the mystery of heaven, not man, who knew not himself. Whom rather than God should I believe concerning God? How can I believe you, who confess that you know not what you worship? — Ambrose Letter 18.7

Holding on to a false idea only because it’s what you’ve always known is foolish. There are things far better than anything this world has to offer, and these better things are found in the God-man, Jesus Christ. The arguments of the early apologists weren’t solely about defeating pagan philosophy, it was about being the light of the world. And it was done in hopes of changing hearts and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Passing on to better things is the sign of wisdom, and there is nothing better than Christ.

 

Bibliography 

1 – C.S Lewis Introductory Essay to Athanasius: https://tinyurl.com/cslewis2124323142

2 – Origen Contra Celsus 1.14

3 – Arnobius Against the Heathen Book 2.72

4 – Tatian Address to the Greeks, 31

5 – Tertullian Against Marcion, 2.17

6 – Pelikan, J. J. (2007). The emergence of the Catholic tradition: (100-600). Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press. Pg. 34

7 – Ambrose Letter 18.7

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