Thinking About Christian Apologetics: Review (Part 2)

In part one of James Beilby’s review of his book Thinking About Christian Apologetics I reviewed the nature of the book and his first chapter on why apologetics is important and how to classify the various kinds. A very helpful introduction since many who do it, I sometimes wonder, actually have any model for how and why they do it.

In this part (two of three), I want to review chapters 2 and 3 which outline apologetics from the patristic to modern times. Chapter 2 concerns us with patristic and medieval apologetics. Here we first find discussions of the NT texts in support of apologetics (1 Pt 3.15, Acts 17). These are not so much justifications for the tool but instead models of how it was practised. 1 Pt 3.15, for example, is a response to persecution while in the first half of Acts 17 it precedes it.

Then, moving forward, we have discussions of various classifications of apologetics during the patristic period (political, religious, heretical-response). Classifications are nice and help us think through appropriate scenarios for when an apologetic is to be used. But examples often help set in stone how to think about such classifications. Thus, we find discussions involving the big-whigs: Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine. As in the discussion in the middle ages, it would be easy for one versed in church history to suggest the need for other names (i.e. Tertullian, Irenaeus?) Alas, the choice of examples may seem a bit arbitrary, though they certainly are worth the attention they have gained. In the Middle Ages, the emphasis and purpose of apologetics often shifted from growth to the civilization of “the barbarians”, especially Muslims, and combat with a corrupt Catholic Church. Thus, we see examples of Aquinas, Anselm, Peter the Venerable, Luther, and Calvin.

Chapter 3 begins appropriately with a discussion on the Enlightenment and it’s importance for Christian apologetics. Beilby notes rightly that this was a period when “opponents of orthodox Christian belief began to get the upper hand on Christian apologists.” The reason, at least in part, is because of the lingering debates between Protestants and Catholics. Shots were aimed at each other while, at the same time, Christianity was enduring blows from skeptics like Hume and Reimarus. Still, some sophisticated responses were made by those like Joseph Butler, John Locke, and the famous Blaise Pascal. Beilby suggests at this time reason became a deciding factor on whether one should or should not accept Christianity. For example, John Locke argued that Christianity was reasonable, but admitted that if there were shown to conform to reason than it should not be believed. Locke’s influence is still held to by many evidentialists.

In modern apologetics Beilby discusses Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Van Til, Swinburne, and Alvin Plantinga. The variety of opinions on apologetics in the modern world, as Beilby notes, are exceptionally diverse. Some figures (i.e. Schleiermacher, Barth) seem a bit odd in being included in the list (they both generally dismissed apologetics), their significance is found in the fact that they both have had lasting impacts on how theologians and the Church approach the field. Some adopt Lewis’ views as being a strong proponent of apologetics; others follow Barth’s more sober and subtle approach.

Perhaps a helpful add in to the list of contemporary apologists (both Plantinga and Swinburne are both still living and writing) would be William Lane Craig. The influence of his work and presence, while perhaps not being as academically impacting, has arguably provided him the title-belt of contemporary apologetics.