Reasons to Believe

Book Review: A History of Apologetics

A History of Apologetics
By Avery Dulles. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999. 307 pages. Paperback.

Christian apologists can learn much from the apologetics masters of the past. Yet, unfortunately, works that carefully recount and catalogue the history of Christian apologetics are rare. This rarity is likely due to the fact that the author of such a work must possess substantial scholarly competence in multiple academic fields––including theology, philosophy, history, culture, and science.

The recent reprint of Avery Dulles’ book, A History of Apologetics, fills a real void. Out-of-print for many years, this work first appeared in 1971. The most substantial book of its kind (in English), the reprint deserves a fresh review for students of apologetics unfamiliar with its content.

Jesuit scholar Avery Dulles (recently made cardinal, a rare honor for an academic) has been a leading American theologian for the past half-century. His astute awareness of Catholic theology, philosophy, and church history combined with his familiarity of Protestant thought aptly prepares him to write such a work.

With a straightforward and clear aim, Dulles tells “the story of the various ways in which thoughtful Christians, in different ages and cultures, have striven to ‘give a reason for the hope that was in them’” (p. xvi). He divides the book into six chapters that correspond to six consecutive eras of Christian thought: (1) apologetics in the New Testament, (2) the patristic era, (3) the Middle Ages, (4) the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, (5) the nineteenth century, and (6) the twentieth century. Each chapter, covering people, ideas, and apologetic arguments, deserves attention in this review.

Chapter one examines the type of apologetic material that appears in the New Testament, specifically in the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Pauline and general epistles. Dulles explains that this material centers on the person, nature, mission, and messianic ministry of Jesus Christ, highlighting Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, His miracles, and especially the Resurrection. Dulles comments that while the Gospels are more concerned with telling the story about Christ (i.e., preaching the good news rather than defending its reliability), they do nevertheless contain important apologetic data.

Chapter two addresses the patristic era, or the period of the church fathers, which extends roughly from the second through the fifth centuries a.d. During this period, Christian apologists first engaged the officials of the Roman Empire in a plea for tolerance, but later the focus turned to distinguishing their faith from Judaism and confronting the ubiquitous paganism of the classical Greco-Roman world. The apologetic contributions of eight major Greek and Latin Christian thinkers receive comment: Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Ambrose, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, and Augustine. Dulles also discusses nine lesser-known Christian thinkers who in varying degrees made important additions to the developing Christian apologetic enterprise.

Chapter three covers the medieval period, or the Middle Ages, spanning nearly a thousand years of church history, from the sixth through the fourteenth centuries. Dulles suggests a threefold apologetic focus for this era. First, Christian apologists helped preserve and revive intellectual culture hurt by the so-called “dark ages” (the eclipse of classical culture). Second, Islam forced Christian Europe to address growing religious, intellectual, and military challenges, all of which brought religious pluralism to the fore. Third, Christian apologists explored the proper relationship between faith and reason. Dulles surveys the apologetic theories of such medieval luminaries as Anselm, Peter the Venerable, Peter Abelard, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas.

Chapter four evaluates the general apologetic thinking set forth from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the broad sweep of events from the Protestant Reformation to the Catholic Counter Reformation to the Enlightenment. According to Dulles, serious challenges to Christian truth-claims arose in this era along with a general inability of Christian thinkers to effectively turn the tables on their critics as they had in the past. This chapter catalogues the apologetic thought of both leading Protestant and Catholic intellectual leaders, including: Martin Luther, John Calvin, Robert Bellarmine, Blaise Pascal, John Locke, Joseph Butler, William Paley, and Gottfried Leibniz, among others.

Chapter five explores the post-Enlightenment period of the nineteenth century. In response to Immanuel Kant and others, this period marked the beginning of a shift on the part of some Christian thinkers away from a strictly rational and objective apologetic toward an inner-subjective experiential apologetic. This period also brought the scientific challenges of Darwinian evolution and higher critical theories concerning the origin and development of the Bible. Dulles summarizes the work of such major thinkers as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Georg Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and John Henry Newman, as well as that of lesser-known apologists and theologians.

Chapter six provides an overview of the apologetic developments of the first half of the twentieth century, touching on the emergence of Catholic modernism, Protestant liberalism, and Christian fundamentalism. Dulles surveys the views of such influential thinkers as Maurice Blondel, Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich.

Dulles’ work is an impressive piece of scholarship with many appealing qualities. The positive features of the book include these five:

  1. Masterful writing succinctly summarizes the life, writings, and apologetic concerns and arguments of literally dozens of Christianity’s major and minor apologists through the centuries. Dulles even-handedly evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the various apologists. This evaluation often includes the apologist’s theological and philosophical sophistication, the logical coherence of arguments, exegetical skill, originality, writing style and tone, and sometimes even Christian character. He also summarizes some of the arguments of Christianity’s foremost critics through the centuries (e.g., Celsus, Porphyry, Julian, Averroes, Kant, Voltaire).
  2. The sheer number of thinkers that Dulles surveys in his book gives the reader both a detailed and comprehensive tour through the Christian apologetics “Hall of Fame.”
  3. Effective surveys of the various historical eras identify central apologetic themes as well as assess apologetic strategy, development, and success. Dulles notes how the apologetic enterprise evolved through the centuries depending upon the changing cultural-intellectual zeitgeist (spirit of the age). This book would serve well as the text for a course on the history of Christian thought or on the philosophy of religion.
  4. A readable style breathes life into some obscure figures of the past; this vitality is especially true of Dulles’ handling of the ancient church fathers. While dealing with an abundance of technical material, he maintains an adequate pace (especially in the first three chapters, less so in the last three) to keep the reader from getting bogged down or overwhelmed.
  5. Excellent notes, bibliography, and indexes make this book a rich resource.

One drawback is that the book is dated. Dulles’ survey ends in the middle of the twentieth century, just after World War II. Thus, important contemporary evangelical apologists are omitted or dealt with superficially (as in the cases of Benjamin Warfield and C. S. Lewis). Dulles’ leaves the assessment of the apologetic works of more current evangelical thinkers to someone else.

While Dulles works hard to remain objective and avoid personal bias, his commitment to Catholicism shows through at times in his evaluation of various apologetic methods and conclusions. More troublesome still for conservative evangelicals, however, is that his criticism of several ancient apologists’ scriptural defense is tainted by his own acceptance of certain higher critical theories concerning the Bible (e.g., his rejection of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and his late dating of various Old Testament books).

Despite the weaknesses readers cannot help but appreciate that an insightful scholar wrote a thoroughly excellent treatment of the history of Christian apologetics. Studying this bookmay help serious students discover how much the apologetic masters of the past have to teach apologists of today.

Subjects: Historical Apologetics, Historical Theology

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.