Apologia (II)

In the first post I explored what apologetics in the Bible actually meant as a necessary Gospel shaped activity. In this post I look at the history of apologetics from the classical world to present day.

The first time we see a more familiar form of apologetics in the New Testament (NT) is in Paul’s famous address to the Areopagites. Acts 17 is the seminal text in the scriptures that shapes contemporary apologetics. In it the apostle employs a mix of theological, philosophical and evidentiary arguments. He was formally engaging intellectuals in their philosophical traditions. Paul’s intellectual prowess is well known. In his epistles he is often found wrestling with the popular philosophy of Stoicism. Apart from being the forbear to more modern approaches, what he did echoed something a lot older.

Plato’s Apology was a record of the trial and defence of Socrates which eventually ended in the great philosopher being executed. Plato narrated it as a philosophical discourse between Socrates and the court. As you have probably already guessed the Greek title is Apologia. The legal meaning of the word is very much present but here it also connotes rational philosophical discourse for which apologetics will later be known by. Now Socrates was charged with two offences: impiety and moral corruption. I think a similar charge could be levelled against the early Jesus movement in the Roman world. The charge of moral corruption was that through his philosophy he was encouraging the youth to challenge the political status quo and thereby leading them astray. The early church’s missionary activity declaring Jesus as Lord certainly challenged the status quo. Now the charge of impiety is something that relates more closely to Paul and his preaching. In his Apology Socrates is charged with:

[1]…corrupting the young, and not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel. (24b)

Before he delivered his address at the Mars Hill auditorium he engaged with the Greek philosophers at the market place. Some said,

“He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities (Greek daimonion)” – because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection – Acts 17:18 ESV.

As Acts tells it, Paul later on in Ephesus literally did lead people away from the worship of Artemis, the city’s patron goddess. Now Plato’s Apology served as a precedent for a more philosophical apologia as well as one that dealt with theological and religious issues. Luke it seems was very aware of this and presents Paul paralleling Socrates in the sense that by his arguments and debates, the status of the gods came into question. The gods were the foundation of the social order therefore to challenge their position was to challenge the status quo. You could say in that regard Plato was the forefather of apologetics. Centuries later his philosophy became very influential in Christian theology through Augustine of Hippo. With Paul as a Jewish Christian he did have the specific goal of eliminating idolatry. Christianity did eventually destroy the gods, overthrowing the worship of the Greco-Roman pantheon and other deities.

Now the Book of Acts in itself can be seen as an apologia. NT scholar Craig Keener writes,

[2]One purpose of the work is to record consistent legal precedents in favor of the early Christians. In Acts every Roman court declares Christians not guilty, and this record has so impressed some scholars that they have suggested Luke wrote Acts as a court brief on Paul’s behalf. Acts, however, is a narrative, not a list of precedents. More likely, Luke cites a wide range of legal precedents from different local courts (which would be helpful but not binding) for the same reason that Josephus does on behalf of Judaism: to argue that Christianity should enjoy continued legal protection in the empire. Luke thus gives Christians legal ammunition (Lk 21:15) and paves the way for later Christian lawyers and philosophers like Tertullian and Justin Martyr, who would argue for the toleration of Christianity… The apologetic in Acts extends beyond Roman law and beyond Paul’s case. All history was written with a purpose; it was influenced by rhetoric and (to a lesser extent) wider literary and dramatic conventions, and was also used to illustrate moral principles… History with a theme or focal point (church history, social history, African-American history, etc.) is no less history for having an interest or editorial perspective. Luke’s apologetic purpose is often advanced in the book’s speeches. Acts works on several fronts: the gospel confronts Roman law courts, Greek philosophers, rural Asian farmers and others on their own terms, and nothing can stop it. A major theme is the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. Ancient religions were respected by virtue of their age, and Christians needed to demonstrate that the Old Testament was their book and that they were the authentic voice of Judaism (despite the opposition of much of the Jewish community of Luke’s day to this claim). Luke develops this theme by displaying the fulfilment of Old Testament motifs.

(For more in depth background on Acts 17 from Dr Keener go here.) As Dr Keener hinted at, it is in the post-apostolic era with people like Origen and Tertullian that we have a more recognizable form of apologetics. These early Church Fathers were known as the Apologists. They not only responded to challenges without but those within the church as well. Perhaps the most significant of those early apologists was Justin Martyr. The First Apology, the most famous of his three extant works, is addressed to the Roman Emperor Antoninus using various philosophical, ethical as well as historical arguments to convince him to end the persecution of Christians. Though apologia in the NT was done in a legal context Justin’s was not. Yet he made the case for Christianity in a socio-political environment, which of course has legal implications. In his work there is a clear philosophical emphasis which is a hallmark of modern apologetics. Like Luke he is not only making a case for Christianity but for the Christian community as well which is very significant. Even with individual apologias, it is about defence of the faithful believer, of his beliefs, character and the value of his life. Apologetics of that early Christian era had a distinctly human face.

As Christianity progressed, Christian discourse became highly influenced by classical philosophy. Arguably the greatest Christian philosopher was Augustine of Hippo. His influence cannot be understated because after the apostle Paul, he is the most significant Christian thinker, as well as indelibly impacting all of Western society. When he became a Christian, Augustine was highly influenced by Neoplatonism. He even argued that classical philosophers like Socrates and Plato were in some sense Christian in their philosophy, something Justin also did. His arguments about freewill, the problem of the evil, natural theology and the existence of God have greatly influenced Christian apologetics. As Christian philosophy grew so did apologetics, at least in the form that we recognize it. When we get into the scholastic era, which was the height of Christian philosophy, we have Thomas Aquinas’s five ways, Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological argument and other theistic arguments. By this time apologetics had gained a distinctly philosophical bent. However, it is only in the Enlightenment era, that is, after the political and cultural upheavals that marked the transition from medieval to modern Europe that apologetics gained a distinct identity.

[3]The first recorded use of the word “apologetics” was in the early 18th century and it wasn’t until [4]1794 that it was used to designate a specific theological discipline. After the Protestant Reformation and the European Wars of Religion, orthodox Christianity came under heavy criticism. In this period known as the Enlightenment we find the secularization of Western culture marked and further advanced by developments in philosophy, science, history, art as well as new political paradigms. To these challenges, particularly of deism and secular atheism, Christians had to develop poignant responses. Arguably the first modern Christian apologist was the French polymath Blaise Pascal with the posthumous publication of his Christian classic Pensées. Though most of the arguments against Christian faith were not entirely new, the historical and cultural circumstances certainly were. What was new was the sweeping anti-supernaturalism championed by the likes of David Hume. Also the work of Samuel Heimann Reimarus as the first critic of the historical Jesus and early Christianity, who not only dismissed miracles but challenged the orthodox position of Jesus’ divinity and the origin of Christianity, prompted the addition of historical, evidentiary components to apologetics and so not solely relying on philosophical arguments.

Rational discourse has always to an extent been a part of apologetics but in the Enlightenment era it became the main focus of apologetics as well as cultural commentary and critique. These changes moulded apologetics into the form we know today with its distinct identity as a multidisciplinary activity that employs rational arguments in defence of the Christian worldview. All the great apologists since like William Paley, B.B. Warfield, Cornelius Van Til, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer have all been participants and heirs of the modern Enlightenment. This is significant. As we have tracked the development of apologia to apologetics, the ancient world to the modern, we have entered a new postmodern era, a course that has never been chartered in human history and that presents its own challenges. The question then becomes: how will apologetics evolve to meet those challenges?

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[1] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Apology_(Plato)

[2] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament 2nd Edition, p. 315, IVP, 2014.

[3] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/apologetics

[4] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Apologetics,” in Studies in Theology, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 9 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 3-21.


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