Christian Apologists Develop Concept of Theology

Christian apologists developed a concept of theology, providing the young Christian Church with a solid core of durable beliefs about humans and their relationship to God.

Summary of Event

Christian theology begins with Saint Paul’s trip around 49 c.e. from Antioch to Jerusalem to meet with the surviving followers of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. According to the Acts of the Apostles, this conference, or the Council of Jerusalem, came about because of the insistence of James, Jesus’ brother, and others of the Jerusalem church that circumcision was demanded by the law. Disputing this, Paul went from Antioch with Barnabas to settle the issue and left with a compromise dispensing with circumcision, while agreeing to Jewish laws governing sex and diet. However, in chapter 2 of his epistle to the Galatians, Paul mentions no compromise on the law, stating only that his congregation would go to the heathens (Gentiles) while the Jerusalem church went to the circumcised, or the Jews. Paul, Saint

For Paul, the Apostolic conference raked over no mere legal dispute among sects but forced a momentous showdown over the importance of Jesus’ life. He insists in Galatians 2, verse 16 that “man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ,” adding later (chapter 3, verse 13) that “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law.” In Paul’s theology, Jesus of Nazareth was descended from David and born of a woman, but through his resurrection he proved himself the Son of God. He was crucified for humankind’s sins and was raised to the throne at God’s right hand. He was Jesus Christ, or the Messiah, whose death redeemed all humanity. This world would fade away and Christ would return from heaven as the Son of Man. Much of this new salvationist theology is outlined in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

Saint Paul.

(Library of Congress)

The success of Paul’s revolutionary vision was guaranteed by the political unrest in Jerusalem and the city’s subsequent destruction by Titus in 70 c.e. after four years of civil war. In 135, Hadrian put down another revolt and built a new Roman colony on the site of the old city. These events destroyed the Jewish-Christian congregation, leaving Rome to become the center for the propagation of Paul’s teachings. Certain fringe sects soon condemned Paul as a heretic, and although these charges introduced the notion of heresy into the new church, just what constituted heresy was not clear.

The emerging church was threatened by external foes. Greek philosophy, for instance, would have rationalized the Gospels, Hellenizing them. Another Greek element that persists to this day among many Christians is a sharp conflict between matter and spirit, with a concomitant conviction that salvation demands the spirit’s escape from the bondage of the human flesh.

Further competition came from Gnosticism, a combination of beliefs from many Mediterranean and Eastern sources. The Greek word gnosis, or “knowledge,” denotes a direct apprehension of spiritual truth, and the Gnostics received their name from their belief in a secret knowledge that can be passed on to initiates. They also stressed the dualism of flesh and spirit, teaching that the emancipation of the spirit could be accomplished only by initiation into the Gnostic mysteries.

One powerful thinker influenced by Gnosticism was Marcion. Marcion was wealthy, and he gave generously to the church in Rome when he gravitated there from the Black Sea region around 140 c.e. Marcion’s preaching attracted enough followers that he could begin his own church. Although he believed in the dualism of the Gnostics, he supplanted Gnostic insistence on initiation with a radical faith in the Gospel. Marcion preached a God of love who revealed himself in Christ, who, in Marcion’s Gnostic-influenced theology, only seemed to have a physical body (an argument called docetism).

Marcion’s emphasis on salvation through faith made him a natural follower of Paul, and he collected Paul’s letters and edited the Gospel of Luke to his own taste. This work made Marcion one of the earliest collectors of Christian documents. Although Marcion was also an effective organizer who brought his followers together into churches, his insistence on absolute celibacy and the separation of husbands and wives spelled eventual doom for his teachings.

Another group that flourished in the late second century c.e. were the Montanists, named after their leader, Montanus. They were also known as Phrygians after the region of Asia Minor from which they came. They were chiliasts, or believers in the imminent second coming of Christ. Montanus spoke in tongues, declaring that the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, spoke through him. Montanus had two women disciples who also claimed to speak for the Holy Spirit, but ironically it was opposition to Montanus’s women followers that helped bar women from the ministry.

Montanism had a wide following in Asia Minor and North Africa as late as the fifth century c.e., including among its converts the wealthy Carthaginian-born Tertullian. Well educated in philosophy and history, Tertullian practiced law in Rome until he converted to Christianity in middle age and returned to Carthage to spend his remaining years writing on questions of theology. Tertullian wrote beautiful prose, which he used to condemn heretics and to attack Marcion and his teaching that love is sufficient to guide rational human beings through life. Tertullian’s innate pessimism reflected his conviction of human corruptibility and his contempt for Greek philosophy and rational inquiry in general. Like Paul, Tertullian valued most highly the faith of the elect and proclaimed the absolute necessity of the individual spirit in direct, unmediated communion with God.

Among the early shapers of Christian theology, none was more intellectually gifted and creative than the Alexandrian scholar Origen. He identified three levels of meaning in the scriptures: a surface meaning accessible to any common reader; a didactic sense offering moral edification; and a hidden, allegorical meaning available only to the spiritually pure. Origen was a prodigious scholar whose thinking was shaped by Greek as well as Hebrew thought, and his fluent writings did much to give the young Christian Church a coherent vision of God and humanity by the time he died around 254 c.e.


The need to harmonize the clamor of competing voices within the church led to the shaping of an apostolic succession that created an episcopate, to the stabilization of a New Testament canon, and to the formulation of the Apostles’ Creed.

The first of these demands was met partly by Ireneaus, a native of Smyrna and an outstanding theologian who became bishop of Lyons. He stressed the reliability of the apostles’ accounts and the validity of the line of bishops descended from them. Ireneaus exerted a vital influence in establishing a secure episcopacy. The episcopal system was strengthened by the insistence of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, that the impossibility of salvation through direct communion with God necessitated the mediation of bishops.

The need for a New Testament canon was partly met by Marcion’s work with Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke, and it was furthered by Irenaeus’s firm insistence on a total of four Gospels. By 200 c.e., the final canon of twenty-seven works was fairly well settled as a companion to the Jewish scriptures.

Although the declaration known as the Apostles’ Creed was not fixed in its present form before the sixth century c.e., an early version, the Roman Symbol, was known in part by Tertullian and Irenaeus. The Roman Symbol may have evolved from the primitive baptismal statement, altered in response to Marcion’s idiosyncratic view on God’s role in the creation of the universe.

Further Reading

  • Barnhart, Joe E., and Linda T. Kraeger In Search of First Century Christianity. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. A look at early Christianity and Saint Paul.
  • Harnack, Adolf von. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Durham, N.C.: Labyrinth Press, 1990. An examination of this early Christian thinker.
  • Hoffman, Daniel L. The Status of Women and Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Tertullian. Studies in Women and Religion 36. Lewiston, N. Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995. An examination of Tertullian and Irenaeus and their effect on women in Christianity.
  • Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. 1976. Reprint. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Part 1, “The Rise and Rescue of the Jesus Sect (50 b.c.e.-250 c.e.),” is an excellent source, especially good on the genius of Paul.
  • Osborn, Eric Francis. Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A look at Tertullian and his role in forming the doctrine of the early Christian church.
  • Rankin, David. Tertullian and the Church. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A look at the early doctrines of the Christian church and Tertullian’s role.

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Jesus; Origen; Saint Paul; Tertullian. Christianity;theology