by Brandon Robbins

It is clear from the history of the church that apologetic concerns are often formed most by the culture and society at large. As society builds its walls against the truth of the Gospel, apologists must stand ready to scale those walls in defense of the truth of Scripture. To truly understand any apologist of a given age one must try to understand what is going on in the society and culture in which he worked. It is even fair to say that in many ways culture and society determine the arguments and approaches apologists take in defending the faith. This does not mean that the Scripture does not determine how we defend the faith, but culture and society set the agenda for defending the Gospel. In this article, I will discuss the apologetic efforts of Christians who lived in the wake of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment.

Apologetics in The Enlightenment

To understand the apologists of this period we need to understand the intellectual climate of their day. They arrived on the stage of the history of apologetics as children of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought on what is often referred to as the “age of reason” where human reason became the test for all truth and human ingenuity the solution to every problem. As the society and culture moved into the modern age the church had to fight new battles. Things that once were taken for granted were now brought into question. These challenges needed to be answered. The apologists of this period sought to answer the objections straight on. As man sought to be at the center of reality and give answers for the nature of the universe through scientific study, these apologists sought to show that the Bible provides a greater and more perfect explanation for the world around them. Since evolution is still a very hot topic within our own cultural climate, the arguments given in defense of Scripture in the face of science are still of great use today. At its most basic level, the “Enlightenment apologetic” focused on the defense of inerrancy of the Scriptures if the face of Enlightenment thought.1

Who are these Enlightenment apologists? The first and most notable of these scholars was the former Princeton president Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He is often remembered as one of the great preachers of the first great awaking. He was a master theologian. But he was also a great philosopher and apologist. Edwards was a keen mind from his youth and had a great hunger for understanding the world around him. It is this drive and hunger for observation that lead Edwards to greatly affect the history of apologetics. He could be considered the first of the so-called “Princeton apologists.”

Edwards’ approach to apologetics was profoundly affected bya number of philosophers that he studied from his youth. Two of these were Thomas Reid (1710-1796) and John Locke (1632-1704). Locke’s works on empiricism informed much of Edwards’ thinking about how to view and understand the world around him. Empiricism is the view that knowledge arises primarily from sense experience. It should therefore not surprise anyone that the Princeton scholar focused almost exclusively in evidential apologetics. Edwards and those who would follow him at Princeton, as well as other Christian apologists in the period, would have had little choice but to answer the culture in a way that would have an impact on the thinking of the day. They faced certain cultural and societal issues that where rooted in the rationalism and  empiricism   of  the Enlightenment. In many ways this time period was a beginning of a golden age of empirical apologetics. Although most of the apologists discussed in this article are not known for any ground-breaking apologetic arguments, they are known for providing a platform for those who would come after them.

Interestingly, however, Edwards is probably best known in apologetics for his work on the ontological argument for God’s existence. R.C. Sproul and others have summarized Edwards’s ontological argument as follows: “This eternal, infinite being must necessarily exist because we cannot think of it not existing; and the only ultimate proof of the existence of anything is that we cannot think of it not existing ever.”3 Though not empirical in nature, this argument certainly fits within the rationalist strain of the Enlightenment.

Other members of this “Princeton School” include Charles Hodge (1797-1878), A.A. Hodge (1823-1886), and B.B. Warfield (1851- 1921). These men are more known for their work in theology than they are for their work in apologetics, but they made a contribution nonetheless. B.B. Warfield is particularly known for his detailed defenses of the authority of Scripture and the deity of Christ against objections from skeptical contemporaries.4 Concerning the former, he was among the first to argue that we ought to accept the Bible as the Word of God on the authoritative testimony of Jesus. Additionally, it may surprise some contemporary evangelicals to know that while Warfield defended the Bible as the Word of God, at the same time he was willing to concede that the theory of evolution (the new intellectual rage in his day) may indeed be true.

Another Enlightenment apologist who was not part of the Princeton group was the Englishman, William Paley (1743-1805). When much skepticism was arising concerning the existence of God, Paley developed an early version of what we know as the teleological argument. Using an analogy with a watch, Paley argued that God must indeed exist. If a person happened upon a watch in an empty field and noticed the complexity of it, one would naturally conclude that it was made by an intelligent being. In the same way, when we look at the complex nature of the world around us, it is natural to assume an intelligence behind it. The argument from design is at the center of apologetics today as seen in the intelligent design movement that similarly argues that the intricate fine-tuning of the universe and the irreducible complexity of some living organisms point to the existence of God.

Then as now, “hot topics” drive the task of the apologist. Since evolution and creationism are debated in school boards around the country, apologists have been called upon to defend to notion of creation just as Paley did. And since the authority of Scripture is under attack as never before, Warfield may have something to teach us as we face this challenge.

What Is “True” Reformed Apologetics?

It is note worthy that most of these Enlightenment apologists were advocates of Reformed theology. Within Reformed theological circles today there are two broad camps of apologetic thought. For the purposes of this paper I am going to refer to them as evidentialism and transcendentalism. I have often thought that the real spilt between these groups goes back to a much older debate, the question of which comes first metaphysics or epistemology? Do we talk about the nature of what “is” or do we talk about how we can “know” what is? These Enlightenment apologists were very concerned with the nature of the world around them and the rational classical arguments to defend God’s role are creator and sustainer of it all. In essence, Edwards, Paley, Warfield and others within the Reformed community at the time saw great importance in looking at the metaphysical issues.

However, since Cornelius Van Til came on the scene in the 20th century, most apologetics within the Reformed community has focused on the theory of knowledge. Since man suppresses the truth in his unrighteousness, facts about the world are considered of little help in defending the faith. So, the issue has moved to how we can know. This is why today it is often thought that “true” Reformed apologetics is only found within presuppositional (transcendental) circles. At the end of the day the evidential approach to apologetics within Reformed circles focuses on the metaphysical realities that verify the existence of God. Transcendental approaches focus more on epistemological issues that are considered by many to be more fundamental and more crucial to the apologetic task. This is important to keep in mind as we seek to understand the development of apologetics historically. It is fair to say that it is because of the strong empirical apologetics of the Reformed scholars from Princeton that there is a continued existence of classical apologetics in some reformed circles.

Although I might not agree with the approach of the Enlightenment apologists in its entirety, their commitment to reason is noteworthy. In an age in which the church is bombarded by fluff and watered-down teaching, and the culture is awash in postmodern relativism, these men can remind us that the Christian worldview can stand up to any test to which intellectuals put it. We need not let the faulty logic and foundationless ideologies of the day go unanswered. When we need to fight scientific and empirical challenges on their own ground, we can thank God for the example that was provided by these apologists.

Brandon Robbins is a staff apologist for the Apologetics Resource Center.


1 See Randall Balmer, The Princetonians and Biblical Authority: An Assessment of Ernest Sandeen Proposal” in Scripture and Truth, eds. O.A. Carson and John 0. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 251- 279.

2 I do not intend this label “Enlightenment apologist” as pejorative, but merely to indicate that these thinkers did their work during and in the wake of the Enlightenment.

3 R.C. Sproul. John Gerstner. Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1984),106; See Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (Yale University, 1957), 152, 186.

4 B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: P&R, 1964); and The Lord of Glory (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2003).