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The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight

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Making the case for the Christian faith—apologetics—has always been part of the Church's mission. Yet Christians sometimes have had different approaches to defending the faith, responding to the needs of their respective times and framing their arguments to address the particular issues of their day.

Cardinal Avery Dulles’s A History of Apologetics provides a masterful overview of Christian apologetics, from its beginning in the New Testament through the Middle Ages and on to the present resurgence of apologetics among Catholics and Protestants. Dulles shows how Christian apologists have at times both criticized and drawn from their intellectual surroundings to present the reasonableness of Christian belief.

Written by one of American Catholicism's leading theologians, A History of Apologetics also examines apologetics in the 20th and early 21st centuries including its decline among Catholics following Vatican II and its recent revival, as well as the contributions of contemporary Evangelical Protestant apologists. Dulles also considers the growing Catholic-Protestant convergence in apologetics. No student of apologetics and contemporary theology should be without this superb and masterful work. As well-known apologist Karl Keating notes: "The historical information that Cardinal Dulles gathers and the analysis that he gives of the history of the apologetical method will be invaluable to today's apologists."

Carl Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently spoke with Cardinal Dulles about A History of Apologetics, the role of apologetics in the life of the Church, and the challenges facing apologists today.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Why write A History of Apologetics?

Cardinal Dulles:
I wrote the first edition, published in 1971, because I was asked to do so by the editors of a projected multi-volume theological encyclopedia, tentatively entitled Corpus Instrumentorum. I wrote the present revised edition because the editor of Ignatius Press asked my permission to reprint the first edition. I took time to do a thorough revision and updating because I felt that there were some gaps in the original and there was a great deal of important new literature.

The editors who asked me to do each edition rightly discerned that such a book was really needed. Hardly anything like it exists in any language, and certainly not in English. Most apologists are shamefully ignorant of the history of their own discipline, and for this reason they overlook important distinctions that have been worked out over the centuries and fail to build on the best achievements of the past.

The history of apologetics holds a certain fascination because it exhibits the Christian faith confronting a whole succession of cultures, religious and secular. The unchanging gospel gives unity to apologetics, but the variety of cultures makes each era unique.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What have been the most common misunderstandings of apologetics, both in the past and today?

Cardinal Dulles:
Some have imagined that the way to win converts is to minimize the element of mystery and thereby make Christianity appear more accessible to reason. But if God speaks, he might be expected to say things that would be far beyond the capacity of the human mind to discover by itself. Preserving the mystery of the divine, apologetics does not seek to prove the contents of revelation, except to show that they cannot be disproved. It does aim to show that Christianity brings blessings on the world, that we may reasonably believe it to have been revealed, and that for those who see the grounds of credibility, it is unreasonable to withhold assent.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the proper place of apologetics in the realm of theology?

Cardinal Dulles:
Apologetics depends on theology for an accurate delineation of its own object, Christian revelation, and to show how God’s grace makes use of human reason in bringing about the assent of faith. Apologists who are not theologians sometimes try to defend propositions that do not really belong to the Christian faith or else fail to defend what is truly essential. Others are confused about the respective roles of nature and grace, faith and reason. Apologetics must therefore have a solid basis in theology.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What have been the most important developments within apologetics throughout the Church’s history?

Cardinal Dulles:
Because its situation is continually changing, apologetics has not progressed along a straight line, but along a jagged trail as it goes out to meet new adversaries. On some points writers of the early centuries speak more clearly to our problems than writers of the recent past.

The earliest apologists pleaded for civil tolerance on the ground that Christians were being unjustly accused of criminal acts. In the Golden Age of patristic theology, apologists exposed the absurdities in Greco-Roman mythology and claimed that the valid aspirations of neo-Platonic philosophy were surpassingly fulfilled in Christianity. During the Middle Ages apologists tried to demonstrate to Jews that Jesus fulfilled the messianic promises of the Old Testament, and to Muslims that Jesus was marked by signs of divine approval that were not given to Muhammad. In early modern times apologetics had to respond to skepticism, which denied the knowability of God, and to rationalism, which contended that revelation could disclose no more than reason could prove without it.

Then in the nineteenth century apologetics had to address an overconfident scientism that exalted empirical scientific method as the sole norm of truth. In the twentieth century apologetics had to face the assaults of religious relativism, carried to an extreme in postmodern subjectivism. Thus the work of apologetics is never finished. It can learn from the past, but it also has to be creative.

IgnatiusInsight.com: How have perceptions and attitudes toward apologetics changed in the United States since you wrote your first edition in 1971?

Cardinal Dulles:
In 1971 apologists were under a cloud. Theologians shrank from even using the word "apologetics" because it seemed to imply an aggressive and opportunistic kind of proselytism. But today apologists are more conscious of the limitations of their discipline. They want to face the real problems as honestly as possible. They acknowledge that they cannot argue people into faith, which has to be a gift of God. On the other hand, Christians of our day have come to see that faith cannot be confidently professed unless people see good reasons for holding that it is true. Hence there is more openness toward apologetics as a study of the rational grounds for faith.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Apologetics has changed over the centuries, but what qualities are consistently found in the best apologetics?

Cardinal Dulles:
The best apologetics in my opinion has always directed attention to the figure of Jesus Christ, with his challenging message, his powerful deeds, his loving self-sacrifice, and his glorious vindication by the Father. He is the great witness of God, and the Church bears witness to him. Where the story of Jesus Christ becomes clouded over with secondary questions, apologetics loses itself in fruitless and inconclusive debates.

IgnatiusInsight.com: The practice of apologetics has often been criticized, both in the past and in the present day. What are some of the criticisms and how valid are they?

Cardinal Dulles:
Apologists are prone to commit certain mistakes. In trying to win arguments with particular opponents, they sometimes mistakenly take over the assumptions of their adversaries. Exaggerating the powers of reason, some try in vain to demonstrate mysteries of faith such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. Others, as I have mentioned, make Christianity uninteresting by minimizing the element of mystery. I am convinced that it is best not to conceal the offense--the scandal, if you like--of the God who died on the Cross.

Authors such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, in their critique of apologetics, helped apologists to avoid the pitfalls to which their profession exposes them and thereby rise to their true vocation.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Many people seem to think that Vatican II did away with the need for apologetics. What is your view of the matter?

Cardinal Dulles:
At Vatican II the Catholic Church called a moratorium on the defensive polemics that had been associated with apologetics. The Council avoided denigrating other religions and other forms of Christianity. Nevertheless the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World made a strong claim Christ alone offers the light and strength needed for mankind to measure up to its supreme destiny (GS 10). The Declaration on Religious Freedom boldly asserted that "the one true religion subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church" (DH 1) and that disciples of Christ had a grave obligation to defend the truth received from him (DH 14). The Council did therefore give a new mandate to Catholic apologists.

Since Vatican II Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, Faith and Reason, showed how reason can prepare the path to faith and can confirm what faith believes. In his Crossing the Threshold of Hope he gave reasonable and persuasive answers to a number of common difficulties against Christian and Catholic faith.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Who are the finest Christian apologists of the past two thousand years? Why?

Cardinal Dulles:
A great apologist must be a firm believer, a profound thinker, a sensitive guide to the perplexed, and a clear and eloquent writer. In my book I devote particular attention to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, and John Henry Newman, all of whom were conspicuous for these qualities.

In the twentieth century the most successful apologists may have been G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, who were not professional theologians but highly talented and popular authors who had undergone personal conversions, the one to Catholicism, the other to be more general form of Christian orthodoxy. Karl Rahner, as a systematic theologian, had some excellent things to say about the possibility of belief today. Another great systematician, Hans Urs von Balthasar, developed an aesthetic approach to apologetics, notably in his work Love Alone is Credible. He shows the faith attracts people in great part because they perceive its beauty.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are the greatest apologetic challenges facing Christians today?

Cardinal Dulles:
The greatest challenge today is the combination of Kantian agnosticism and religious relativism that pervades the atmosphere in which we live. Religion tends to be regarded as a purely subjective preference, a mere matter of taste or custom, incapable of making objective truth-claims. Whereas Christians used to be challenged by rival faiths, today the challenge comes principally the trivialization of faith itself. Pope John Paul II indicates some ways of responding to this situation in his great encyclical, Faith and Reason.

Related Links:
Foreword to A History of Apologetics | Dr. Timothy George
"Be a Catholic Apologist Without Apology" | Carl E. Olson
"Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics" | by Fr. John R. Cihak
"Kreeft On Apologetics" | An interview with Peter Kreeft
"Who Do You Say I Am?" | Peter Kreeft on the Divinity of Jesus Christ
• Author page for Hans Urs Von Balthasar
• Author page for G. K. Chesterton
• Author page for Karl Keating
• Author page for Frank Sheed

Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., is the author of over 700 articles and 22 books. He has served on the International Theological Commission and as a member of the United States Lutheran/Roman Catholic Coordinating Committee. He is presently an advisor to the Committee on Doctrine of the NCCB, and is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.

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