The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview
with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview
with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. | Carl E. Olson
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
times and framing their arguments to address the particular issues of
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
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
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
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
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
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.
A History of Apologetics | Dr. Timothy George
"Be a Catholic
Apologist Without Apology" | Carl E. Olson
is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasars Apologetics" | by
Fr. John R. Cihak
"Kreeft On Apologetics"
| An interview with Peter Kreeft
Do You Say I Am?" | Peter Kreeft on the Divinity of Jesus Christ
Author page for Hans Urs
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
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