Apologetics to the Romans -- By: Alister E. McGrath

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 155:620 (Oct 1998)
Article: Apologetics to the Romans
Author: Alister E. McGrath


Apologetics to the Romans*

Alister E. McGrath

Alister E. McGrath is Principal, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, Oxford, England, and Research Professor, Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.

* This is article four in the four-part series “Biblical Models for Apologetics,” delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 4-7, 1997.

The Book of Acts portrays early Christian apologists presenting the gospel to one of the most politically important sections of society in the eastern Roman Empire: the Roman authorities. The arguments the first Christian apologists used with this group tend to be pragmatic, rather than theological or philosophical. The strongly pragmatic and down-to-earth approach in some of Paul’s addresses is of continuing importance, as believers today seek to defend the Christian faith against its many critics. Not all opponents of the gospel are theologians or philosophers.

Apologetics and the Roman Authorities

The approach of early Christian apologists toward Roman authorities can be summarized in two themes. First, Christians are not doing anything wicked or scandalous. Second, Christianity can be thought of as a “party” or “grouping” within Judaism.

To the Roman authorities the charge of “sedition” was enormously serious. A number of standard legal textbooks of the period suggest that the prosecutor should aim to accuse the defendant of agitation or sedition. This approach was followed by Roman authorities on a number of occasions.1 But how could the charge of sedition be made to stick? The Pauline Epistles and other early Christian writings show that believers were expected to respect existing social and political structures.

Politically the early Roman suspicion of Christianity was dominated by the

“imperial cult.” This involved a highly elevated view of the Roman emperor, which resulted from the remarkable achievements of Augustus. No longer was Augustus regarded as only an outstanding ruler; he was widely viewed as invested with some form of supernatural or transcendent significance.2 Imperial figures could be accorded a form of divine status even before their death. Ample evidence indicates that at least some members of the imperial family (such as Julius Caesar) were treated as divine during their lifetimes. The cult became especially significant in the two or three decades before the birth of Christ. By A.D. 50, when Christianity was becoming a significant presence in the eastern regions...

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