Connecting Today’s Apologetics to the Past

The discipline of apologetics continues to be a popular area of study among Christians, particularly as Christians face increasing challenges to beliefs once widely accepted. Modern believers have an embarrassment of riches in regard to apologetic resources, such as print and electronic books, websites, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Geared to the specialist as well as to the layperson, Christians are not at a loss for resources on how to defend the faith.

Despite Christian apologetics’ rich history and today’splethora of resources, it seems to me that current works (particularly popular works) tend to emphasize the present to the neglect of the past. That is, books, articles, and other resources on apologetics tend to focus primarily on current topics, questions, and challenges to Christianity with little attention to how apologists in ancient and medieval Christianity addressed similar matters. Granted, Christians are generally concerned about immediate challenges to our faith. Yet, with this emphasis on currentarguments and answers, there’s little attention as to how the past informs today’s challenges.

Now, current works don’t completely ignore apologetics of the past, but by and large, any mention of the past is made in the context of the present. That is, Christianity’s past consists of historical facts – the way Christians of old answered their own challenges. Or, apologetics of yesterday are a link in a long chain of development to the present – a necessary link, but now outdated or irrelevant in light of today’s challenges.

Further, popular apologetic works tend to emphasize method over context. Take a look at the various titles of current books in apologetics: Conversational Apologetics; Covenantal Apologetics; Expository Apologetics; The Apologetics of Jesus; Cold Case Christianity; Apologetics by the Book; Relational Apologetics…and the list goes on. Implied in the titles provided is that methodology is the key to effective apologetics. By “methodology”, I mean howone does apologetics. For instance: What is the starting point with an unbeliever? Does one first begin by demonstrating God’s existence? Ought one to use natural theology (i.e. argument from design, etc.) in their apologetics, and if so, at what point? The idea seems to be that there is a “better way” or “right way” to do apologetics compared to recent attempts.

While there may be indeed more effective means of doing apologetics, the emphasis on method is a recent development. Since the Enlightenment – when scientific thinking and methodology became the bar of truth – Christians were faced with challenges not encountered before. As Christian apologists answered these new affronts to the faith, the matter of methodology came to the forefront – an issue somewhat foreign to pre-Enlightenment apologetics (especially from ancient Christianity).

Allow me to clearly state that I am not against the current apologetic works available today. They are a valuable source for Christians and the church today. Nor am I against the ongoing dialogue on apologetic method; we need to ensure that we effectively communicate and defend the Gospel. What I am saying is that we need to revisit the apologetics of the past to see how they can inform today’s challenges. That is, we need to study Origen’s Contra Celsum, Anthenagoras’ Plea for the Christians, and John Damascene’s apologetics against Islam (among others), for they’re not merely of historical interest. Rather, ancient Christian apologists can (and do) speak to the very challenges Christians face today.

This semester I am teaching Apologetics II where we study the various apologetic methods (such as presuppositionalism, classical apologetics, evidential apologetics, etc.). In the first two week of class, we spent time going through four chapters of Five Views on Apologetics (ed. Stanley Gundry, Zondervan, 2000). The remainder of the semester, however, is devoted to studying the works of apologists from ancient Christianity up to the eighteenth century. Each week a student is responsible for taking a small passage from that week’s assigned text where they are to provide:

  1. The place of that passage within the work as a whole.
  2. Identify relevant points, such as tone, word usage, characterizations, etc.
  3. Identify proper names and places, dates, etc.

The purpose of this assignment is to get students to understand (to the best of their ability) the context in which the apologist operated. What questions did Christians face? What challenges did unbelievers bring before Christians, and what informed these challenges? Why did the apologist argue as they did? Such questions do bring up matters of method, but what I want my students to see is that the apologists were less concerned (relative to some today) about method, and more about addressing the questions and challenges against Christianity. Likewise, as we seek to give an answer for our faith, we too ought to consider the questions and context that inform the unbeliever’s beliefs. Our response, shaped by and informed by the Gospel, begins with these questions.

More so, we have much to learn from apologetics from the past. While the details may differ, the questions and challenges Christians face do not. There are only a finite number of ways one can oppose Christianity. (I believe Solomon’s “there is nothing new under the sun” applies here.) We can benefit from the energy and thought other Christians have invested in their defense of the Gospel.

Christianity today faces challenges that deserve our attention and careful study. Christianity has always, though, faced challenges. fWe stand on the shoulders of Christians who have gone before us. Let us enrich our apologetic work by reading and studying our brothers and sisters of past who have been faithful to give an answer for the Gospel.

A New Resource: Center for Ancient Christian Studies

A new center for the study of ancient Christianity was launched yesterday – The Center of Ancient Christian Studies. Independent from the North American Patristic Society, the Center serves as an opportunity for Evangelical scholars to present current work on issues dealing with the 2nd Temple, New Testament, and Patristics. The Center’s website (www.ancientchristianstudies.com) houses the Center’s blog, book reviews of books related to the Center’s focus, interviews, and the Center’s journal – Fides et Humilitas.

In an article titled “What is Ancient Christianity?”, Coleman Ford, Shawn Wilhite, and Michael A. G. Haykin explain why the Center’s focus is on ancient Christianity as opposed to Patristic studies. The term “Patristics” was first used in the nineteenth century to reference the study of early Christian fathers. However, as times have changed institutionally and socially, the term “Patristics” has changed as well, for it does not adequately reflect scholarly work that engages “Jewish literature, female contributors, and broader heterodox literature” (Ford, Wilhite, and Haykin, “What is Ancient Christianity?”,  accessed December 3, 2014, http://www.ancientchristianstudies.com/what-is-ancient-christianity). To include the wide range of scholarly work in the area of ancient Christianity, the Center focuses on Christianity from AD 80-700.

The existence of this Center illustrates the burgeoning interest among Evangelicals in the study of Christianity in its formative years. It’s exciting to see what this Center has in store. Feel free to take a look at the site, and if you have an article, book review, or other work related to the Center’s focus, then visit the “Contribute” page here.