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On Playing the Man: Personal Reflections on Polycarp

By Corey Latta

Apologetics is all logos, and mind, and cerebration, and ism. And theology, apologia’s paterfamilias, conceptualizes and constructs new theories about God. If it’s very good theology, it recalls those older ideas from which the theories are built. I confess, as one who toils in both apologia and theologica, I find myself and my fellow thinkers a tad tiresome. Who are we, after all, that we would presume to argue on God’s behalf? What could I say to move a man’s mind closer to his Maker? Apologetics can be a presumptuous field full of ambitious intellectuals. I’m pressed to publish new material, to articulate anew at annual conferences. We say a lot, we apologists, maybe too much. I would distrust the apologist who didn’t doubt an old diatribe or regret not having a bit more reticence on occasion. And I suspect apologists and theologians are professional pundits and theatergoers critiquing God’s moving picture show.

In moments of clarity, I’m reminded that apologetics is, was, more.  I know myself involved in something greater. Apologists were the gospel of the crucified Christ embodied. Rationalizers and reasoners who bannered all truth as God’s. Defenders of the faith, I must remember, whose arguments weren’t vetted by editors or tenured peers but by persecutors and oppressive government officials. This is the apologetic tradition. I’d hold suspect any modern defender of the faith whose entire life was spent in the safe arena of academia, whose creed never faced the sword, or whose apologia didn’t determine living another day, if he didn’t feel just a tinge of sheepishness for all that theorizing so far behind the frontline.

Like the die-hard patriot who refuses to enlist, I’ve certainly let my theological arguments venture out beyond the truth of my life. And I might better know my place if I looked back to my greater kin. The authority from which I speak might gird me up if I leaned against it a little harder. If I could incarnate my ideas with more muscle and enflesh my Christian apologia so that it ran vein-long through me as it did my fathers in the faith.

Suppose, like Polycarp second-century Bishop of Smyrna, my case for God from the moral law or whatever defense for the historical validities of the Gospels I may make came from the same Christ-held-center that caused the apologist to say, “It must needs be that I shall be burned alive,” when his defense would cost his life. Sought, arrested, and led into a stadium for fatal interrogation, Polycarp heard what seems to me the apologist’s call, a voice from heaven saying “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” Play the man. Would I, too, as one who defends the faith of Christ, who stands in the line of Polycarp?

When pressed by the Roman magistrate to consider his frail old frame and swear the genius of Caesar and “revile the Christ,” Polycarp replied, “eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” An apologetic from testimony laden with as much keen logic as poignant pathos, Polycarp deals in reason and reciprocation. Polycarp’s response—my life proves that I’ve been treated well by God, so why should I not return my faithfulness to him?—is a sound defense in itself, but how much more coming from one whose best defense for the faith was his mere presence? Polycarp could play the apologist only because he played the man.

It seems to me, when reading Polycarp, that modern apologetics is at stake. My role as an apologist is at stake. What else should define my call, if not some Polycarpian paradigm? Indeed, if I, with mere degrees and books and a couple dozen conference papers, might wrap rhetorical wit the way Polycarp did, as a deflection against heresy premised by the apologetic of my life, then I might occasionally move to a defense beyond a regurgitated designer theory of the universe’s fine-tuning or an armchair deconstruction of naturalism. I might be more than a professional apologist, more than scholar, as Polycarp was more.

When the Roman magistrate commanded the Smyrnan Bishop to turn away from his fellow Christians, often accused of atheism because they denied Roman gods, and dismiss his kin’s faith by saying, “Away with the atheists,” we’re told that Polycarp answered, “with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, ‘Away with the atheists.’”

An essential apologetic employs rhetorical wit in service to the Savoir. Polycarp knew no other kind. So he stands as, and so I’m reminded of, the Christan apologia’s beau ideal. It’s the old idea on which the western church was founded: that idea of a faithful disciple learned in the scriptures and sharp in thought, a living and breathing proof of Christ. No superfluous theologizing here. Only lived apologetics. A breathed bastion for the gospel. That’s the old idea.

Perhaps some modern apologetic publications would have more teeth if they were written to uphold the tradition of Polycarp, the “puller down of the gods,” as he was called. To pull the gods down so that the world might see Christ unobstructed. That we would have Polycarp’s strong shoulders able to topple over the statues of unorthodox thought. Modern apologetics as pulling down false gods. That’s the tradition in which I toil. I’m beginning to remember.

When threatened to be thrown to wild beasts—and if that wasn’t vile enough—to be burned, Polycarp said: “You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.” Polycarp’s pitting temporality against eternality and positing that life is best lived for the latter . . . that has teeth.

It’s all very romantic, I guess, and some esteemed colleagues might object to such a lofty, even unnecessary, return. Why should any western apologist want to champion Polycarp as anything more than a mythic figure? An antiquated model. Don’t we tend to see the first apologists as Thors and Herculeses and Beowulfs, really, trapped in distant hero tales? How unsettling, now in 2015, to meditate on my line of work in the light of Polycarp’s death. Polycarp died by fire and dagger in front of frenzied masses, while some apologists live by speaking to safe rooms of moderately hostile audiences, for goodness’ sake. I write this to recall the history in which I stand in hopes that I might remember to play the man when I play the apologist.

God, that we would be more romantic. That we would rehearse the myth when the times call for it. That we would pray Polycarp’s prayer when our backs are to the posts of the unbelieving world, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You. . . . I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ. . . . You that art the faithful and true God. For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen.”

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