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Foreword to A History of Apologetics | by Timothy George

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In the fall Of 1936 a bright, handsome young man, fresh from one of the leading prep schools in New England, began his undergraduate studies at Harvard College. Had the Harvard application form asked for religious affiliation, he would have marked "Protestant" for he came from a long line of Presbyterians and his mother had taught him to say the Lord's Prayer as a little boy. But, like many other students before and since, his nominal attachment to the Christian faith had left him bereft of any serious religious convictions. He no longer believed that the cosmos had been brought into being by an intelligent and purposive Creator or that the human soul had any destiny to look forward to except that of oblivion or that there was any real moral meaning to life except the kind of utilitarian ethics based on the pleasures and preferences of this or that person or community Avery Dulles was an atheist.

However, like many other seminal shapers of Christian thought, including Justin Martyr, St. Augustine, and C. S. Lewis, Dulles was led through the study of philosophy to question the certitude of his doubts and denials. Aristotle taught him to appreciate the dignity of reason and to see the design at the heart of the created world. Through Plato he came to see that moral value—things true and beautiful and good—were more than mere whims of preference; they had an objective basis in that which was ultimately real. All of this came together for him one gray rainy February afternoon when he left his carrel in Widener Library (where he had been reading a chapter from St. Augustine's City of God that he had been assigned in a course on medieval history) and began to trudge through the melting snow and mud along the banks of the Charles River:
As I wandered aimlessly, something impelled me to look comtemplatively at a young tree. On its frail, supple branches were young buds attending eagerly the spring which was at hand. While my eye rested on them the thought came to me suddenly, with all the strength and novelty of a revelation, that these little buds in their innocence and meekness followed a rule, a law of which I as yet knew nothing. How could it be, I asked, that this delicate tree sprang up and developed and that all the enormous complexity of its cellular operations combined together to make it grow erectly and bring forth leaves and blossoms? The answer, the trite answer of the schools, was new to me: that its actions were ordered to an end by the only power capable of adapting means to ends–intelligence–and that the very fact that this intelligence worked toward an end implied purposiveness–in other words, a will. It was useless, then, to dismiss these phenomena by obscurantist talk about a mysterious force of "Nature." The "nature" which was responsible for these events was distinguished by the possession of intellect and will, and intellect plus will makes personality. Mind, then, not matter, was as the origin of all things. Or rather not so much the "mind" of Anaxagoras as a Person of Whom I had had no previous intuition. [1]

This epiphany was for Dulles not so much a moment of mystical illumination as an insight or recognition of the then-and-thereness of the created order and of the reality that sustains and governs it by a beneficent providence, the same reality Dante referred to as "the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars". In time, through personal friendships, through the study of the Holy Scriptures, through the witness of a believing community, Avery Dulles would learn the name of that Love: Jesus Christ, the Son of Man of the four canonical Gospels, the eternal Son of the heavenly Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, the Savior of the world, the Lord of the Church, the coming King and judge of all. Avery Cardinal Dulles is the first United States born theologian to be made a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church without having first served as a bishop. A History of Apologetics, magisterial in its scope, represents the ripe vintage of a productive life of theological labor and the fruit of a personal pilgrimage of faith in search of understanding. Beginning with the New Testament documents themselves and moving through the successive eras of Church history, Cardinal Dulles presents the drama of apologetics as the story of Christian Faith's encounter with various challenges and threats both within and from its environment and the secular culture.

One way to interpret the history of apologetics is to see how the Church and her theologians have oscillated through the centuries between the poles of identity and adaptability. In certain historic episodes, the Church has focused narrowly and almost exclusively on her own identity-her internal structures, beliefs, and practices, with little or no concern for the task of evangelization. At other points, the Church has been so outwardly directed in her mission to the world that she has tended to lose her distinctive message and to become assimilated to ideas and trends inimical to the gospel itself. There is a Clear and present danger in both extremes: either the Church becomes a "holy huddle", a sectarian enclave cut off from her social and intellectual milieu, or, conversely, the Church evolves into an expression of the reigning Zeitgeist. Inculturation gives way to acculturation. At its best, Christian apologetics has been alert to these twin dangers and has sought to mediate an expression of "the faith once delivered unto the saints" that avoids both extremes.

Apologetics is for everyone. This particular history, while not lacking in learning, was written with the conviction that the issues with which Christian apologists have been concerned through the ages are, or should be, of interest to anyone who asks the basic questions of human life: Who am I? Where did I come from and where am I going? What is the meaning of my life, and of life itself? How should I live in this present world? Is there life beyond the grave and where will I be thirty seconds after I am dead? Such questions, of course, are not unique to Christians. Indeed, they are the property of all persons everywhere. But the Christian faith does not shrink from the task of considering such questions in the light of our common human strivings and with the aid of reason. illumined by faith. In the opening lines of his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II put it this way:
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth-in a word, to know himself-so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fulness of truth about themselves.
In addition to doubters and seekers, believing Christians of all traditions will welcome this volume and find it useful because, in his vast sweep of Christian history, Cardinal Dulles has dealt primarily with the pressing issues confronting Christianity itself, not with the internecine and interconfessional disputes often exploited by apologetics in the past. This is not to say that there is no place for polemical theology, or that the serious differences that still divide Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical believers can be easily swept aside in the interest of a facile unity. Cardinal Dulles, himself a major interlocutor in many ecumenical discussions, including the ongoing project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, has always emphasized the necessity of seeking unity-in-truth. But it is also important to recognize that, while historic church-dividing differences among believing Christians still remain to be resolved, there is an urgent need for a common front against the regnant ideologies of secularism, materialism, naturalism, and an anthropocentric humanism divorced from the belief that individual men and women are infinitely valuable and cherishable by the God in whose image each one of them was made. Cardinal Dulles has given us an apologetics of mere Christianity, not "mere" in the minimalist sense of that word, but in the vigorous old-fashioned sense meaning "nothing less than", "absolute", "sure", "truly", "really". It is an approach to apologetics in keeping with the oft-quoted maxim used by, among others, Pope John XXIII: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas–"in things essential, unity; in things secondary, liberty; and in all things, charity" (Ad Petri Cathedram [June 29, 1959]).

just as the Church in her history has veered from time to time between the poles of identity and adaptability, so too apologetics has been tempted by the lure of fide-ism on the one hand and of rationalism on the other. Cardinal Dulles has called for "the revival of apologetics" in our day, and this book is a major resource for such a retrieval. But if Christian apologists are to speak winsomely and convincingly to the pervasive culture of doubt and unbelief so prevalent today, they must remember to be tender-hearted as well as toughminded. They must cultivate an apologetics of personal testimony no less than a mastery of evidences that demand a verdict. Such an approach will recognize that revelation, both in the cosmos and. the conscience as well as in the Word of God itself, ever remains charged with mystery, and that, as Pope John Paul 11 has said, "Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently."

This is the kind of understanding that began to dawn for young Avery Dulles as he trudged through the snows along the Charles River those many years ago. All Christians everywhere can be grateful for the deepening and flowering of such understanding in the life of Avery Cardinal Dulles, a humble servant of the Lord who is also a prince of the Church. As he later reflected on that initial step of faith and all that has followed since, Cardinal Dulles, in words that echo St. Augustine's Confessions, celebrates the grace of God in the life of the mind and invites others to taste and see that the Lord is good and faithful and true:
That I did eventually make this act of faith is attributable solely to the grace of God. I could never have done so by my own power. The grace which I received was a tremendous and unmerited privilege, but I sincerely believe that it is one which God, in His faithfulness, will deny to none who earnestly seek Him in prayer. I found Him to be exactly as Our Lord had described Him–a Father Who would not give a stone in place of bread, or anything but the Holy Ghost to those who asked for it. "Knock, and it shall be open unto you." [2]


[1] Avery Dulles, S.J., A Testimonial to Grace (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1996; original ed., 1946), 36.

[2] Dulles, Testimonial, 60.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com link:

"The History and Purpose of Apologetics" | An interview with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.

Dr. Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University. He teaches church history, historical theology, and theology of the Reformers. He is currently serving as executive editor for Christianity Today along with serving on the editorial advisory boards of The Harvard Theological Review, Christian History, and Books & Culture. He has served on the Board of Directors of Lifeway Christian Resources (formerly the Baptist Sunday School Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention. A prolific author, he has written more than 20 books and regularly contributes to scholarly journals.

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