The history of apologetics may be roughly organized through a quadripartite division of Church history: The New Testament era, the Patristic/Church Fathers, the pre-Reformation and post-Reformation epochs, with each historical era becoming fertile soil for the obstinate developments which arose from within and without the Church. All of these times afforded faithful Christians who would rise to the occasion to contend earnestly for the Faith entrusted to them. These four ages also suffered and benefited from the dominant philosophies ‘round about them, with the Church finding both costs and assets from each historical context.
Drawing from the text of scripture, the New Testament apologetic elucidates three important points: 1) the apologetic mandate of I Pet.3:15 itself carries three imperatives; a. “towards a well reasoned defense” – our defense is to be reasoned and coherent, b. is wholesale, to all, and c. must be presented in a godly manner. 2) John’s writings reveal an indicative case study of an internal defensive, while 3) Luke and Acts offer a prescriptive account of contextualizing the Faith and its proclamation in the cultural setting of the Church to come.
Within a generation after the Apostles, ideologies and persecution had come to maturity in stride with the Church; men like Origen and Justin Martyr used both mediums as milieus for defense. Years later, Augustine’s theology and writings in the forth century began to give apologetics a more uniquely Christian nature, which spanned the ages to the time of Anselm (11th cent.), both of these fine apologetes building a defense from a “faith-to-reason” epistemology. Shortly after Anselm’s time, God raised up Aquinas, the father of so-called traditional or classical apologetics. Relying on Aristotelian proofs and reasoning, Aquinas developed what has become known as “the five ways” of proving God’s existence through a natural theology. The decline of this era (Scholasticism) and the rise of Humanism made way for cataclysmic changes in both history and the face of apologetics; that event was the God blessed Protestant Reformation.
Beyond doubt, the two most critical figures of the time were Luther and Calvin. While the latter made great contributions to the Gospel’s dispersion, he added little to its defense. Calvin, in an attempt to create an epistemology founded on the Bible and “faith-to-reason,” helped to poise the Church for the battles during the Age of Enlightenment, which was fermenting beneath the futile notion of unaided human reason and its ability to operate correctly and autonomous without reference to the Divine Mind. Though the Reformation elevated the Bible back to its rightful authority in the life of the Church, Sola Sriptura still waned in the wings of the rational/empirical methods of Aquinas. It seems the Church of this epoch, in light of the rising skepticism, almost unanimously chose to fight the new attacks solely behind enemy lines—in the worldly courts of rationalism and empiricism. Pascal, Butler, and others maintained the Church’s reasonability through this time, only to meet new challenges ahead, Darwinianism and the fall of inductive reasoning under Hume’s axe.
Concurrent with Butler, moving towards a modern apologetic was a Scottish theologian named Thomas Reid, the founder of Scottish Common Sense Realism. Reid responded to rank skepticism with ‘common sense,’ positing that there is a universal a priori knowledge, which Hume could not explain away; and this, in spite of what one chooses to do with that knowledge. This doctrine found a home in America, at Princeton Seminary, where both Hodge and Warfield used it to bolster their perpetuation of the Thomistic approach and in keeping step with the rise of Modernism. Yet this perennial resurgence of the Thomistic methodology found no small rival in Kierkergaard who elevated paradox to the zenith of Christian epistemology, consequentially, pitting faith against and even in spite of reason.
At the turn of the last century, while Modernism was unwittingly beginning to flounder under its own speculations, three men sought to reunite the false dichotomy between nature and grace. Orr’s cumulative evidences, Kuyper’s formula of antithesis between the Church and the world, and Dooyeweerd’s efforts all lead to the recognition of the power of “worldviews” and thus revolutionized modern apologetics. All this has been to bring the Church a point of unification in the battle we face. Upon the shoulders of past giants still stand two generations of modern warriors. Van Til and Clark, and their students offer a presuppositional apologetic from the Faith, while others maintain a rational and scientific front line arguing to and for the Faith; renowned names such as Lewis, Kreeft, Craig, and Montgomery comprise this battalion. Today, the contemporary Christian is privileged to glean blessings and armor of genius from either side of the Lord’s modern point men. Even the path in between has been trodden for us by the likes of Schaeffer and Carnell.
Despite the rise of postmodernism, and the need for Christians to be self-conscious about their own distinctive worldview and its ability to conquer in its own right, there is still a place for the use of evidence, history and reason as tools in apologetics, as Jesus is Lord of all. Given the faithful work and light afforded to us by 2000 years of struggle, the only wrong apologetic approach would be to not approach apologetics at all, since every Christian “should be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks for a reason for the hope that is in them.” – St. Peter
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4