Athenagoras was a noteworthy apologist from the Athenian Church who wrote in the late second century A.D. He is especially important to Christian theology because his works disclose a belief in two doctrines that have been questioned throughout the development of the Christian Church. He details the belief in one God in three distinct persons—the Trinity, a concept not specifically named in the Bible but held by the Christian Church to be biblical, and the resurrection of the physical body along with the soul.
The Book of Acts documents Paul’s sermon in Athens, given at the Areopagus (Act 17). After viewing their many altars to various gods, he came upon the altar to the “Unknown God”; thus, Paul had his hook. While his message of Christ was received less than warmly, this was probably the beginning of the Christian Church in Athens. About one hundred twenty years later, that church produced the noteworthy apologist Athenagoras.
Little is actually known about Athenagoras himself because he is not mentioned by well-known early Christian historians such as Eusibius or Jerome. It is believed that he came to the Christian faith as an adult, having been trained in Greek philosophy. His writings show him to be well-instructed in grammar and logic. His apologetic writings on the nature of God and the physical resurrection are known for their powerful style and strong reasoning.
Apologists are those who defend and prove a particular stance or teaching. Athenagoras addressed his writings to two Roman Emperors: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, writing in A.D. 177-179. Christians under Roman rule were facing three accusations: that they were atheists, that they were immoral, and that they were cannibalistic.
The accusation that Christians were atheists grew out of their refusal to worship the emperor; emperor veneration was expected in the second century. The accusation of practicing anthropophagy (eating human flesh) grew out of a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper. Athenagoras wrote to defend Christians against all three. Two of his apologetic writings have survived: Supplication for the Christians (later known as the Apologia) and On the Resurrection of Bodies.
In providing evidence that Christians were not atheists, he detailed the early Christian belief in one God, in three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While not using the term Trinity, he gives a clear definition and defense of the doctrine. His writing shows that early Christians had a developed understanding of this teaching. He wrote, “So we are not atheists, in that we acknowledge one God, who is uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, and without limit…” He goes on to explain the positions of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, as God. He uses words that are very similar to creeds that were adopted much later, both the Nicene Creed (325) and the Athanasian Creed (date uncertain).
In defending Christians against the accusation of anthropophagy (eating human flesh), Athenagoras points out Christians avoided and hated common practices of the times against the flesh, particularly the gladiator fights and the exposure of children. Then he explained the importance of the human body to Christians; they expected the physical body to be raised from the dead. Thus, he discloses the early doctrine of resurrection of the body.
In defending these two important teachings, Athenagoras proves that they were understood and held as truth in the Christian Church as early as the second century. He remains an important apologist to this day.