Thank You, Athenagoras

Back in the first and second century AD, Christians were thought of as being atheists. Roman society proclaimed the divinity of the Roman pantheon and also worshiped the emperor. Christians challenged the validity of their pagan religious system and were thus accused as atheists. This letter, written by Athenagoras of Athens in 177 AD, directly debunks this misconception, and also reveals some incredible truths about the nature and character of God, at least in the limited scope in which we have the capacity to know or describe Him.

“We are not atheists, therefore, in that we acknowledge one God, who is uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by understanding and reason, who is surrounded by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable, by whom the universe has been created through His Logos, and set in order, and is kept in being. I think I have made this clear. (I say ‘His Logos,’ for we acknowledge also a Son of God.) Nor should anyone think that it is ridiculous that God should have a Son. For though the poets, in their fictions, represent the gods as no better then human beings, our way of thinking is not the same as theirs, concerning either God the Father or the Son. But the Son of God is the Logos of the Father, in idea and in operation. All things were made by him after his pattern, since the Father and the Son being one. And, the Son being in the Father and the Father in the son, in oneness and power of spirit, the understanding and reason of the Father is the Son of God.”

I love the description of Christ as the Logos of God! Granted, I love the whole passage, but the way Athenagoras confidently stands up to Roman accusers is something incredible in itself. It’s important to remember that Christians were still oppressed and suppressed at this time. Meetings took place in secret, and consequently, there was little opportunity for Romans to learn what Christians actually believed, “other than through the writings of Christians who were prepared to take seriously the concerns of secular culture, such as Athenagoras,” (Alister McGrath, Theology, The Basic Readings). The unwillingness of early Christians to observe the religious practices of Roman society marked them as potential revolutionaries. Imagine that! Christians actually being pegged as countercultural. If only we could get a better grasp on what that means. Not to disobey our government but to understand how to live in this world without being of it.

Athenagoras paints God in a very powerful way, and still it does no justice to the unfathomable being that He is. Perhaps my favorite part of his whole letter is that after he describes God as He “who is uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by understanding and reason, who is surrounded by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable, by whom the universe has been created through His Logos, and set in order, and is kept in being,” he simply says, “I think I have made this clear.” O that we would stand up, unafraid of whom we’re speaking to, or what they have the power to do, and proclaim our God in the very same way.

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