Doing Civic Good without Bowing to Civic Gods: Second-Century Apologetics as Cultural Catechesis

“The second-century world,” Carl Trueman notes in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, “is, in some sense, our world.” In the second century, suspicion and hostility toward the church arose, at least in part, as a response to the moral practices of Christians and to their refusal to participate in the civic religion. This is, in Trueman’s estimation, analogous to certain expressions of antipathy that have been directed toward Christians in the early twenty-first century.

Trueman does not develop this observation any further, noting that such considerations stand beyond the scope of his work. This paper further explores his observations, considering specifically how second-century apologetics strategies might be useful in contemporary contexts. This research argues that apologies such as the second-century Apology of Aristides were intended to challenge cultural hostility by imbuing the church’s catechesis with public accountability and by demonstrating how Christianity contributed greater civic good than the cultus deorum. Central to Aristides’ argument was the contention that Christians could and did practice radical civic good without bowing to the civic gods.

Although the second-century apologies of Aristides, Justin, Athenagoras, and Melito may have been addressed to emperors, the design of their authors was not primarily to convince any ruler of the truth of Christian faith. These writings were, rather, intended to equip Christians for public engagement with reference to the greater civic good that Christians practiced. Against, e.g., T.D. Barnes, J. Rendel Harris, and R.M. Grant, it is contended that these apologies were never meant to be read by the named emperors. Instead, their purpose was primarily catechetical. The mention of imperial names was intended to prepare Christians to practice and to articulate the civic goodness of their faith by imbuing the church’s catechesis with public accountability.

It is at this point that the example of these second-century apologies may be particularly helpful when engaging contemporary challenges. Sexual progressivism, for example, demands participation in formative cultural liturgies and questions the civic goodness of any community that does not participate in these liturgies, putting the goodness of Christianity for the social order in doubt. In such a context, the initial defense that Christians must be prepared to make may be the capacity to articulate publicly the civic good of Christian faith. Such a defense may not convince the world, but it forms Christians into a resilient community that practices a distinctive way of life that contributes to flourishing in the world.

5 thoughts on “Doing Civic Good without Bowing to Civic Gods: Second-Century Apologetics as Cultural Catechesis”

  1. Correlation between 21st century and 2nd century I find tenuous
    It’s true that Trueman makes this correlation, but I can’t say I was persuaded by it in his work either. Seems like a big difference between “post-Christian” and “pre-Christian” culture to my mind (not to mention pre- vs post- Trump . . . ).

    That doesn’t ruin his whole thesis; but . . . distracted me from it, honestly. . . .

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