Christian Apologetics Past and Present

October 08, 2009

An unprecedented anthology of apologetics texts with selections from the first century AD through the Middle Ages. Includes introductory material, timelines, maps, footnotes, and discussion questions.

"Understanding apologetics as explicating, affirming, and vindicating Christianity in the face of uncertainty and skepticism, Edgar and Oliphint have skillfully selected the best pre-Reformation sources..." - J. I. Packer, Board of Governors Prof. of Theology, Regent College

"For years I have wanted a book of primary sources in apologetics to use in my classes. Now we have an excellent one in this volume..." - John Frame, WTS BDiv, Prof. of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, RTS

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Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader,
Dr. William Edgar
and Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, editors 

An excerpt from the 'Introduction'

In this two-volume work we present an anthology of texts in Christian apologetics from the early church down to the present. Apologetics is a historic discipline, genre that goes back to the ancient world.

In the Christian context the word apologetics means "defending" and "commending the faith". The apostle Peter tells his leaders always to be ready to make a defense to anyone who calls them to account for their hope (1 Peter 3:15). Such an account or argument will look different from one age to another, although the gospel message remains the same.

Why is a two-volume collection of texts in apologetics important for our time? Though historical assessment is sometimes done when a certain exhaustion sets in or when the vitality of a movement is gone, that is not the current state of apologetics. And while historical studies can be dry, purely empirical data - little more than a record of a past over and done with - we believe the present work is nothing of the kind. Indeed, apologetics today is flourishing in many quarters, and we hope these volumes will serve as a guide to this burgeoning field. The twentieth century saw both significant development in apologetics and a measure of decline.

A few examples of renewed interest include the following:

France witnessed a revival of interest in apologetics beginning in the nineteenth century. The remarkable Roman Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel (1861–1949) developed what he called the “method of immanence,” by which he meant that if we listen to our very best personal insights, the question of God will be there. e may then follow up our inquiry and find that God has made abundant provision to answer our aspirations. A little later were Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) and Étienne Gilson (1884–1978), who contributed much to the revival of Thomistic apologetics.

From Great Britain came a number of unique apologists. G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) argued creatively for the faith, using, among other things, paradox to keep unbelievers off balance. It is because the Christian faith combines optimism and pessimism, crusades and peacemaking, poetry and prose that it is true, unlike theism, which is mathematical and one-dimensional.

C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) is arguably the most influential apologist of the twentieth century. In Miracles, Mere Christianity, and fantasy literature such as the Chronicles of Narnia, his clear, imaginative presentation of the basics of the Christian faith shows it to be not only true, but the only safeguard against The Abolition of Man. His influence continues to be felt today. The list could go on.

In America, we can think of J. Gresham Machen 1881–1937), Presbyterian defender of the faith against liberalism and so-called modernism. At the same time, strangely enough, one can observe in the twentieth centurya decline in the belief that apologetics serves any healthy purpose. The loss of zeal for the defense of the faith has a number of causes. The onslaught of the Enlightenment, followed by Romanticism, presented numerous challenges to the church. While human reason was celebrated by certain branches of the Enlightenment, serious doubts set in about whether humanity is capable of accomplishing anything without faith in something transcendent. Yet neither the newer use of reason nor the newer faith was quite the same as what the church had taught in previous centuries. Reason was now much more assertive than it had been, and faith much less rational.

This shift left the church with less common ground with the surrounding culture than previously, and thus with the conviction that it needed to take another look at the whole enterprise of theology. Many questions arose: How can Christians exercise the newly touted faculty of reason without betraying its dependence on the authority of revelation? How can faith appropriately deal with Enlightenment skepticism - for example, that of Voltaire - without denying the reality of evil, often the basis for disbelief? Is God really so well defined as in our theology books? Is Christianity the only true faith? The answers to these questions seemed elusive to many. Naturally Christian apologetics became much more problematic.

Besides such challenges in the realm of ideas, various social forces had the effect of making arguments for the faith implausible, that is, not so much false as incredible. Pluralization, the multiplication of people and cultures from different horizons in one place, as well as globalization, in which borders are increasingly porous, have made belief in one truth less likely, at least on the surface. In a day of greater awareness of other religions, the exclusivity or superiority of one creed simply sounds arrogant. Another factor that puts doubts in our minds about the positive contributions faith can bring is the perceived connection between faith and violence. Many critics of religion point out that where there is religious certainty, there is often conflict. To many it would seem safer and more tolerant to leave faith out, or to make it so private as to allow it no palpable social effect.

Not surprisingly, several theological trends began to emerge out of these circumstances, trends that shied away from persuasive arguments for faith. One of these is fideism, the view that inquisitive reason is not needed for verification of belief and may even be counterproductive. Building on the heritage of Immanuel Kant, fideism (literally, “faith-ism”) seeks to spare faith any interaction with proofs or the use of evidences. Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), famous for the declaration of 1917 supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was also a lay theologian who advocated faith based on authority, not argument. For him instinct, custom, and the like were the way to God, rather than abstract reasoning.

Much of the impetus for the recent decline in apologetics can be credited to Karl Barth (1886–1968), perhaps the most powerful theological voice in the twentieth century. Barth sensed that the liberal outlook of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) had done the faith a disservice by making it far too compatible with science and philosophy in order to appease its “cultured despisers.” Barth retorted that Christian faith is not a religion, wherein humans aspire upward in the search for God, but rather a revelation of the “wholly other” God in Christ.

In his Church Dogmatics he states that the only effective apologetics has been the “unintended one,” which he describes as that which “took place when God himself sided with the witness of faith.” We cannot go into all the nuances of Barth’s approach here. Suffice it to say that while his intention was to allow pride of place to divine sovereignty, the effect was to put into doubt any serious attempt to engage with unbelief by means of intellectual persuasion...

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