By Craig Branch

“The History of Apologetics” is the 39th issue of the Areopagus Journal.  In our seven year history we have produced 38 issues coving a wide range of relevant apologetics topics.  They have included foundational topics such as the existence of God, epistemology, the authority and canonicity of Scripture, building a Biblical worldview, Islam, Roman Catholicism, numerous, and cultural issues like homosexuality, genetic engineering, war, and abortion.

We have also covered heretical movements within the visible church such as the name-it, claim-it prosperity teachings, the Emerging Church Movement, the Apostolic and Prophetic Movement, and the New Perspective on Paul.  There are many more and we encourage you to order specific back issues, or an entire set for a significant savings so that you (and your family) can be “equipped for every good work.”

Also, in my Veritas column, I presented the goals of the Apologetics Resource Center as well as the biblical basis and scope of apologetics for the individual and the Church.  Many of our subscribers have received topical journals but have not understood the “big picture.”  I will revisit this biblical basis and calling in a moment.

In the May – June 2006 issue, we presented “Three Apologists Every Christian Should Know,” for our readers to be exposed to the life and ideas of three influential, contemporary apologists.  Part of our reason for this was to provide an application of the passages in Hebrews 12 and 2 Cor. 3:2-3, for Christians to be stimulated, encouraged, and instructed by the lives of a “great cloud of witnesses surrounding us,” and to be imitators of those who are “letters written in our hearts, known and read by all.”

In that article I did mention a number of “those who have gone before us,” both in early church history, and other influential contemporary men and women apologists.  But we realized that we had not presented an in-depth overview of the history and development of the apologetics enterprise.

Apologetics is not a monolithic field in its application.  Whereas there is agreement that we are to be about the biblical task of defending, commending, and advancing the faith in the lives of believers, unbelievers, and culture to the glory of God, there have been a number of different approaches and emphases adopted by various Christian leaders, thinkers, and others through-out the centuries.

 

Our Rich and Varied History

The early apologists entered into the field of apologetics for various reasons, though especially because of the persecution faced by the church at the time.  One of the first noted apologists was Justin Martyr who challenged the Platonic Stoicism in the Roman culture in the mid second century.  Dwain Waldrep, in his article, “Apologetics in the Ancient Church,” begins with Justin and moves to Irenaeus, to Tertullian, and to Origin, presenting a survey of the challenges they faced and their responses.

Our second article presents a summary of the apologetics of Augustine (AD 354-430), written by Ken Boa and Rob Bowman.  Augustine is known as one of the greatest apologists of his time and beyond.  He wrote treatises refuting pagan philosophies and heresies and presented a positive apologetic based on Pauline theology and God’s sovereignty.  Augustine’s apologetic still inspires apologists today.

This is followed by ARC’s Steve Cowan’s article, “Silencing the Fool,” on the influential apologist of the Medieval period (400-1000 AD), Anselm.  Like Augustine, Anselm utilized the Christian faith as foundational in his response to human philosophy.  Dr. Cowan focuses on two areas of Anselm’s noted contribution – a systematic defense of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ and the ontological argument for God’s existence.

Next is a contribution by one of Christianity’s most prolific apologists, Norman Geisler who gives us a presentation of his favorite apologist, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  Geisler carefully describes Aquinas’ interface of faith, reason, evidence and revelation in his apologetic method, clearing up several misunderstandings of his views prevalent today.

Doug Groothuis, philosophy professor at Denver Seminary, contributes an article on apologist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).  Groothuis focuses on Pascal’s development of the anthropological argument, claiming that “any credible worldview must be able to account for the strangeness of the human situation.”

ARC’s Brandon Robbins writes, “The Counter Attack”.  In this piece, Robbins surveys the thought of three prominent apologists who wrote in the wake of the Enlightenment: Jonathan Edwards, William Paley, and B.B. Warfield.  He points out both the weaknesses and strengths of their approach.

The last of our “great cloud of witnesses” are described in an article by Rick Wade, “Four Twentieth-Century Apologists.”  Wade focuses on four of the most influential and important apologists of the 20th century – Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, E.J. Carnell, and Norman Geisler.  These four apologists employ different apologetic approaches, ranging from biblical presuppositionalism, to axiomatic-deductive presuppositionalism, to systematic consistency, and classical rationalism.

 

Why the Differences?

So why are there differing views on apologetic approaches?  It is my own view that it is because we are fallible, finite individuals trying to fit truth into small boxes, as well as the need to apply apologetics to various situations and the numerous barriers the unbeliever erects to the gospel.  Yes, we can know much truth, and evangelicals from a broad spectrum of denominations agree on that.  But there are numerous traditions that evangelicals believe are derived from Scripture.  And we are told that “no one comes to the Father unless He first draws (drags) him.”  The conversion experience is usually a process.  Some sow, some water, and some reap, to use a biblical metaphor.

As contributors Boa and Bowman lay out in their book, Faith Has Its Reasons, there is some disagreement on the underlying basis for apologetics methodology.  Because of the importance of epistemology (how one knows something), the biblically-derived assumptions apologists hold on that topic, usually distinguish the methodological approaches.  Differences thus exist on the value of theistic proofs, the relationship of reason, depravity, and faith, and therefore the relationship of philosophy and Christianity.  This in turn affects opinions on the value of evidences and rational arguments.  There is also the question of the existence and nature of common ground between Christians and non-Christians.[1]

The most commonly developed systems of apologetic methodology are Classical, Evidential and Reformed apologetics.  Classical rationalists assume that the Fall did not destroy all reason and therefore logical criteria (the law of non-contradiction, consistency, coherence, comprehensiveness) are used to test truth claims.  Evidentialism shares the confidence in reason of the classical approach, but attempts to base apologetic arguments on empirically and historically verifiable facts.

There are nuances within the Reformed apologetics approach.  Most agree that because of the Fall of man, natural theology and rationalism are doomed to fail because of our moral impairment and finite abilities.  They maintain that revelation is the starting point and that reason and fact need to be first grounded in Scripture.

I personally agree with the Reformed presuppositional approach but believe that Classical and Evidential approaches have their place depending on where in the process the unbeliever is.  For example, in a classic passage where Paul makes an apologetic presentation at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:18-34), he uses a classical rational argument appealing to the common ground shared by Christians and non-Christians (vv. 22-23); he points to the evidence of the resurrection (v. 31); and he presents the unique revelatory message of truth (vv. 24-30).

So while studying the history of apologetics, I believe you will find a consistency on the function and goals of apologetics.  Those functions are (1) vindication or proof of Christianity by developing a positive case for the faith; (2) a defense of the faith by answering objections or criticisms of the faith; (3) an offense or refutation of opposing belief systems usually in comparison to Christianity; and (4) persuasion to bring the unbeliever to the point of commitment, from head to heart.

The Scriptures present these multi-dimensional approaches.  Some call them paradoxes.  For example, Paul “reasoned” and “persuaded” unbelievers (Acts 17:2,17; 19:8-9; 18:4; 2 Cor.5:11).  He also came without “persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power” (1 Cor. 2:4), so that faith would be derived from God and not on men’s wisdom (1 Cor. 2:5-14).  We are to present our case as a defense, yet part of our apologetic involves an interaction displaying the fruit of the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:15).  We correct the errors of unbelievers and teach the truth, yet with kindness, gentleness and patience (2 Tim. 2:23-26; 2 Cor. 2:14-16).

There are numerous other passages which shape our apologetic approaches such as 2 Cor. 10:3-5, Jude 3-4, Col. 4:2-6, Heb. 5:12-14, 2 Cor. 11:3-4, 12-15, Titus 1:9, Phil. 1:7-16, just to name a few.  We encourage you to read about the history, practice, and art of apologetics. But we pray that you too will engage in the important privilege and task of advancing the truth and contending for the faith to the glory of God.

 

Craig Branch is the director of the Apologetics Resource Center, Birmingham, Alabama.

(Introduction to Areopagus Journal The History of Apologetics issue January-February 2008)

 

NOTES

[1] See, Kenneth Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Faith Has its Reasons, 2nd Edition (UK: Paternoster, 2005), 33.