Reasons to Believe

Book Review: A History of Apologetics by Avery Cardinal Dulles, Part 3 (of 3)

The newly revised and expanded 2005 edition of Avery Dulles’ book A History of Apologetics (first published in 1971) is arguably the most substantial of its kind (see part 1). Last week, I summarized each of the book’s seven chapters. Today I will close this review with my thoughts on the book.

Strengths
All in all, Dulles’ work is an impressive piece of scholarship and possesses many qualities appealing to those interested in Christian apologetics.

1. Dulles does a masterful job of succinctly summarizing the life, key writings, and apologetic concerns and arguments of dozens of major and minor Christian apologists. He evaluates the apparent strengths and weaknesses of the various apologists fairly. This evaluation often includes an analysis of the apologists’ theological and philosophical sophistication, the logical coherence of their arguments, their exegetical skill, originality, writing style and tone, and sometimes even their Christian character. On occasion, Dulles also summarizes the works and basic arguments of some of Christianity’s foremost critics (e.g., Celsius, Porphyry, Julian, Averroes, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, etc.).

2. The sheer number of thinkers Dulles carefully surveys is impressive. Readers will be exposed to virtually all of Christianity’s important apologists, though, obviously, with necessary brevity.

3. Dulles effectively surveys the various historical eras and in so doing, identifies central apologetics themes as well as evaluates strategy, development, and success. He notes how the apologetics enterprise evolved, depending upon the challenging cultural and intellectual zeitgeist (spirit of the age). This book would serve well in a Christian course on the history of ideas or on philosophy of religion.

4. For the most part, Dulles writes in a readable style and breaths life into obscure figures of the past. This is especially true of his handling of the ancient church fathers. Though dealing with a lot of technical material, Dulles keeps up a pretty good pace so lay readers will not get bogged down or overwhelmed (though the first three chapters are more readable than the last three).

5. This book provides a rich resource of excellent notes, bibliographical information, and indexes.

Weaknesses
The book’s biggest drawback is its brevity. It covers so much ground that it can only briefly introduce certain people and topics. Nevertheless, Dulles does a very good job of exposing readers to the critical thinkers and issues.

Another minor weakness is that, while Dulles usually works quite hard at being objective and even-handed, his commitment to Catholicism does show through at times (but then again whose wouldn’t) in his evaluation of various apologetics methods and conclusions. Worse still for conservative evangelicals, however, is that his criticism of several ancient apologists’ defense of Scripture 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, no doubt, his late dating of various Old Testament books).

But regardless of these difficulties, A History of Apologetics is an outstanding treatment of Christian apologetics history by an insightful and fair-minded scholar. Every serious student of apologetics should study the content of this book and discover just how much the masters of the past have to teach the apologists of today.

Subjects: Historical Apologetics