Note: This is posting #14 in a series on historical theology within the Christian church. To view other postings, please click here.
The influence of one man is often overstated in our culture. We expect individuals to be the ones who change the world by their own might. This is never the case. However, there are some who have made a lasting impact for generations to come. But all of them have been instruments of God, and never has it been of their own doing. In the realm of historical theology, there are a number of men who have influenced much in the development of the doctrines of the Christian faith. Some are known more than others. Yet, each of them did it not for their own glory, but instead were submissive to being used by God in order that He may be glorified. Athenagoras of Athens falls in the category of under-known men, defending the faith by providing influence into the development of the doctrine of God.
We are unsure of Athenagoras’ birth and death, but his life has been dated to about AD 133 through AD 190. We also unsure of his testimony, but it is well understood that he was both a Christian and a philosopher. Finally, we are unsure of exactly how many writings Athenagoras’ provided since many have lost, yet we have enough to know both his intentions and the state of the world at the time.
One of the difficulties that Athenagoras faced was a lack of development in the doctrine of the Trinity. With little developed, it was difficult to defend monotheism in Christianity to a culture that accepted and required belief in this key aspect. Athenagoras did the best he could though and was one of the first to acknowledge the doctrine of the Trinity by describing details about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. This also lead to a vehement defense of Jesus Christ, since the Athenians believed God having a Son contradicted His own deity. Like Justin Martyr, he relied heavily on the concept of Logos in this defense.
Defenses such as these are featured prominently in Athenagoras’ most prominent (and I believe most well-preserved) writings, A Plea for the Christians. In this writing, he addresses the well-known Emperor Marcus Aurelius in attempt to appeal to him about the treatment of Christians. In it, he defends the Christians by refuting the false accusations. Knowing much about Marcus Aurelius, Athenagoras knew that if he could appeal to his belief in philosophy it was more likely that the Emperor would transform ways. Therefore, he instilled philosophers into his writings, alluring Aurelius with the same Stoic ideas that he subscribed to.
Sometimes it can be difficult to describe God to others because we are finite beings trying to describe an infinite being. For that reason, Athenagoras relied heavily on apophatic theology, a form of theology that described God by what He is not instead of what He is. This theology was often adopted because of the belief that God was incomprehensible. While it is true, there is much that we cannot understand about God, He is a personal being who has relationship with people. Thus, there is much we can know. It is not necessary to know everything about God, but only necessary to know and be faithful to what God has revealed to us about Himself.
He is little known. His influence extends far beyond his years. But, it hardly matters how little we know about Athenagoras of Athens. What does matter is how Athenagoras was used by God. God allowed him to have influence on people through his writings, not just in his day, but in the future as well. Furthermore, we see how God has instigated the preservation of key texts for the sake of teaching the future generations. While like many, including each of us today, we may be influenced by sin, and thus wrong in certain aspects of theology, Athenagoras helped provide perspective on key points, guiding us to develop, define, and defend who God is.