The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight
Making the case for the Christian faithapologeticshas 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 Dulless 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 Gods 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 Churchs 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.
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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