1902 Encyclopedia > Apologetics



APOLOGETICS is, properly speaking, that part of theology which vindicates the right of theology in general, and of Christian theology in particular, to exist as a science, and is occasioned by the presence of anti-theological and antichristian speculation. Apologetics is therefore the scientific representation of the grounds on which Christian theology, in so far as it is a part of human knowledge, rests and may be vindicated. So long as Christianity lies hid, as it were, in the mind of man or in the consciousness of the church, without assuming an external or objective form, so long as it remains only in the form of a force impelling men to action, so long as it is content to manifest itself on the active or practical side only, there is no great need of Apologetics; but whenever Christians dogmatics arise, whenever Christianity objectifies itself on its intellectual side, and begins to force its way into the circle of the sciences, its entrance is disputed, it has to face hostile criticism, and begins to form an apologetic.

Apologetics is therefore the logical antecedent but the historical consequent of dogmatics; it is the introduction to dogmatics, it prepares the way it logically by justifying its claims to exist, but it actually comes after dogmatics in the history of the intellectual manifestation of Christianity because, as a matter of fact, men do not feel called on to justify Christian theology until it actually exists in a dogmatic form. Thus, Apologetics may be compared to psychology, and in some respects is to dogmatics what psychology is to metaphysics. Just as psychology is the link between physics and metaphysics, just as in psychology the two spheres of impersonal and personal life touch each other and the two sets of natural and spiritual laws are seen in conjoin action, so Apologetics lies between human and superhuman science, in it the two spheres of human life and revelation meet, and the various and different laws which regulate each adjust themselves to each other’s varying action; and psychology, which is historically consequent to metaphysics, is logically its antecedent and introduction. The position of Apologetics necessarily gives it a somewhat changeable nature. All sciences change, but they do so according to an inward development of their own, and their change is so far orderly and progressive; but the course of Apologetics must always be more or less erratic, because it has to do with the varying relations of the two spheres of human life and revelation, and has to adjust itself afresh at each change in these relations. The special form, too, which Apologetics has for the most part assumed-a defence or vindication of Christianity-has made it more changeable. It has been compelled to change its front from time to time to meet the altered form of attack.

In one sense the general science of Apologetics and the number of treatises upon the subject mark the imperfection of dogmatics and the neglect of its study; for with the advance of theology, general Apologetics tends to disappear, and in its stead comes an apologetic introduction, justifying each of the fundamental doctrines of dogmatics; or, in other words, with the advance of theology, Apologetics gives place to speculative theology, which shows the various relations in which each particular dogma stands to all others dogmas, whether theological or other.

Apologetics, as the justification and vindication of Christian theology, has to deal with two great questions: (1), Can man know God? and (2), Does man know God? Is a theology possible? And if so, is Christianity true, and the theology which it gives, the true theology?

Under the first question are discussed all the various topics concerning man and his natural capacities for a knowledge of God and the things of God, the natural craving for a knowledge of the supernatural, the intimations more or less obscure of a higher than merely natural life.

Under this head comes every discussion concerning the capacities in man for the knowledge of God, and concerning the actual amount of knowledge which man has had of God apart from revelation. The apologist endeavours to show from psychology, metaphysics, and other sources of knowledge capable of aiding him in his research, that man is a religious as well as an intelligent being, that theology on its formal side has a real basis in the human mind, and that whenever the objects of theological science are presented to the mind, they may be assimilated by these faculties. Many delicate questions arise here-the whole question of anthropomorphism, for example. It is argued that because our knowledge of God and of divine things must pass through and be assimilated by human faculties, it must necessarily be as much human as divine, and in this way the divine is more or less transformed into the human, and becomes anthropomorphic. The doctrine of the personality of God is often instanced as a notable example of anthropomorphism in theology. Apologetics vindicates theology from this charge by ascertaining from psychology whether the human factor tends to vitiate all human knowledge, and what is the precise influence of the formal element, or that element which the mind supplies, upon the material of human knowledge; and in this way tries to show that theology, while it is knowledge which passes through the mind of man, is not necessarily anthropomorphic.

But man has not merely capacity to know God and divine things, he actually does know something about these things; they have actually become objects or material of human knowledge. This brings us within the range of natural theology, which is just the sum of the knowledge which man, apart from revelation, has about God. Natural theology may be studied and its results presented in two different ways. Paley, Butler, and Chalmers, for example, have endeavoured, from an analysis of the human mind and character, to describe the kind and amount of knowledge which man has of the being and attributes of God, of the moral government of the world, of the immortality of the soul, and of the future state of reward and punishment. This method of inquiry is open to the objection, that it is very difficult to separate between what man has acquired by revelation and what he possesses without revelation, if the mind analysed be one already impregnated by Christianity. Hence it is well to supplement and correct the knowledge obtained in this way by an historical survey of what man has actually known and taught concerning God and divine things in the great natural religions which have existed, and still exist. Natural theology, in this sense of the word, is the result of a comparative history of religions, and contains a methodical summary of all the various religious ideas which have been evolved in the religious experience of mankind. The historical method s useful to correct the analytic, and the analytic gives order and method to the historical. This historical method is as yet in its infancy, but few historical sciences are engaging more attention than the new science of religions, and its growth cannot fail to have a considerable effect upon the future course of Apologetics. It looks upon all religions as more or less related to each other, and seeks to find the real course of the development of religious ideas, and natural theology becomes in this way the orderly statement of the various religious truths which each natural religion has contributed to the sum of the religious knowledge of the race; and every great religion is conceived to leave behind it a residuum which is its contribution to natural theology. But while Christian Apologetics thankfully acknowledges the contributions made by natural theology to our knowledge of God and His relations to us, it is always much more disposed to regard them as of indirect than of direct value. They are of more use in showing that man has capacities whereby he may arrive at a knowledge of theology, that he has aspiration which can only be satisfied by theology, than in furnishing actual and reliable information about God and His relations to us. They serve to prove that man is able to learn truths about God if the true materials of information were presented to him; or, in other words, in Apologetics natural theology has a formal rather than a material value.

2. Does man know God? Is the Christian theology true? Christianity is founded on certain presuppositions, can these be vindicated? The most important of these is the presupposition of the possibility and actual existence of a divine revelation, or a superhuman source of knowledge of God and His relations to us, and the most important task of Apologetics is to vindicate the possibility and existence of the Christian revelation. It is because it possesses this revelation that Christianity claims for itself a position altogether different from other religions, and hence the possibility and fact of a revelation have always been attacked by antichristian speculation. The precise point of attack has varied continually, but in the present day the chief objection to a revelation, in the Christian of the word, is based upon the fact, that an historical study of religions shows that every religion has professed to be founded upon a divine revelation, and claims for itself the same supernatural sanction which the Christian theologian declares to be the exclusive possession of Christianity. To this the apologist answers, that the fact that numberless false claims have been made is not a sufficient ground for summarily rejecting the claim of Christianity, which has to be judged upon its own merits; he then proceeds to point out, that just as Christianity professes to be different in kind, and not in degree only, from other religions, so the Christian revelation is one generically distinct, even in the external form which is assumes, from all other supposed revelations. While most pretended revelations claim to be the promulgation of divine truths, the Christian revelation is the manifestation of a divine life in the world, the intrusion into human history of a divine force, which, flowing on from generation to generation, at last condenses itself in the presence and person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the perfect revelation of God. It is sufficient to disprove the claims of any pretended revelation, to show that the truths it teaches might have been reached without any special and supernatural communication; but before the Christian revelation can be discredited, it must be shown that the divine life in the world, which reached its most perfect development in Jesus Christ, is not specifically different from the life of man, - that Jesus Christ was a mere man, not different in kind from other men. The great difference, then, between the Christian and other so-called revelations is, that it ends and is summed up in the person and work of Christ, and so is a consistent whole; while they do not end in a life like that of Christ, and lacking this to bind them together into a unity, are merely a more or less disjoined series of statements,-not even the record of supernatural manifestation, still less that manifestation itself.

The first thing, therefore, that Apologetics has to do, in this its second and most important division, is to describe the character and meaning of revelation, discuss the possibility of the thing from all sides,-logical, metaphysical, and moral,-show that it can be known by man, and prove its necessity for the religious life of mankind.

The apologist must describe carefully the character and course of this divine life which has entered into history for the purpose of redemption, explaining it both on its objective side of manifestation and on its subjective side of inspiration. He has to show how it appears in miracle, and is apprehended by the mind specially fitted fore this apprehension; and he points out that such a conception as that of the Christian revelation, such an idea as that of the continuous manifestation of God in the world, does not belong to any pagan religion or theology.

This manifestation of God, which is miracle in the proper sense of the word, and the special apprehension of it, which is inspiration in the more limited meaning, have happened, and have been recorded, and the apologist has therefore as much to do with the record of the revelation as with the revelation itself; and hence, after the preliminary investigations into the nature of revelation and its twin sides, manifestation and inspiration, comes an investigation of the sources from which we derive our knowledge of this revelation. The whole question of the Canon of Scripture must, therefore, be looked into and settled, the character, historical or other, the authenticity, and the credibility of the various books of the Old and New Testament must be discussed, and whatever assistance in this task can be obtained from contemporary history must be taken advantage of. Connected with this inquiry, several difficult and delicate question arise, about the relation between inspiration and perfect historical accuracy in every point, the questions of plenary and non-plenary inspiration, whether plenary inspiration requires perfect accuracy in minute details of history, whether it demands scientific accuracy of description, &c., none of which can be entered into here.

From the records of the revelation the apologist turns to the revelation itself. We have already distinguished the Christian from other pretended revelations, by saying that it is a revelation which has Christ, while other revelations have not Christ, and in our day the whole attack and defence have centered round the doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ. The opponents of Christianity, feeling that the core of the system which they are attacking is the supernatural life of Christ, set themselves to attack that conception, and they do so by attempting to show, either that there was no such life as that of the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, or else that it was not supernatural-there was no such man as Jesus Christ, or if there was, He did not differ wholly from other men. The first mode of attack is that adopted by D.F. Strauss, and the second that of Ernest Renan and others. Strauss’s position is somewhat of this kind: the historical and the supernatural are so inextricably mixed the one with the other that they cannot be separated, but the supernatural is on general grounds impossible, and therefore the historical is impossible also. He accordingly sets himself to show that the Gospels are not credible as history, and he resolves the Gospel life of Jesus of Nazareth into a poem, the poem of the Jewish nation and, indeed, of the human race. This is the basis of his celebrated mythical theory. Renan, on the other hand, cannot admit the through-going destructive criticism of Strauss. There must have been such a life as that of Jesus of Nazareth, although the account we have of it is a highly coloured picture. He admits the life, but denies the supernatural element in it, and explains it by saying that it was created round about the historical life by the enthusiasm of the early disciples; in short, he separates the historical form the supernatural, and while he admits the one he rejects the other. The apologist answers such attacks as these very much by pitting the one antagonist against the other. He asserts with Strauss that the historical and the supernatural are inseparably belnded, and he takes from Renan the general idea, that, according to all laws of historical research, the Gospel narratives are truly historical. In this way he tries to show, specially against Strauss, that there is no time, even if the Gospel narratives are brought down to the latest possible date, for the growth of the poem into which he resolves the life of Christ; and specially against Renan, he points out that if the historical be granted even only to the length to which Renan goes, it is so blended with the supernatural that the miraculous cannot be separated from it. This defence of the historical and supernatural character of the life of Christ, and of Christianity because it has the life of Christ as its center and essence, widens into a general description of His position and character as these are shown in the Gospels. Apologetics tries to show that Jesus Christ is, as it were, the sum of all the previous revelation of God contained in the Old Testament. It traces the broadening down of revelation, in order to show how perfectly the life of Christ came as the conclusion and perfection of all that went before, and that it fulfilled both Jewish prophecy and pagan aspiration. It attempts to show that Jesus is not merely the actual and perfect fulfillment of every previous theophany, but that He is and must be the Perfect Revelation of God. It does this in various ways: by describing the character of Jesus, unique intellectually and unique morally; by describing the teaching of Jesus, and its marvelous similarity and yet dissimilarity with the doctrines of Jewish revelation and gentile philosophy; by describing the actual work of Jesus, by showing that in Him miracle or manifestation and prophecy or inspiration came to their culmination; and by pointing to the mission of the Holy Ghost and the victorious spread of Christianity throughout the world. Such is a short outline of Apologetics and the field of investigation which it occupies: we shall now proceed to give a short summary of the history of the study.

The historical course of apologetics may be divided into five great periods:-

The first period, extending from the beginning of the 2d century to the end of the 5th, may be subdivided into two: (1.) From the beginning of the 2d to the beginning of the 3d century; and (2). From the beginning of the 3d to the end of the 5th. The first of these is marked by the writings of Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, and Minucius Felix. The two Apologies of Justin were directed, the one against the Jews, and the other against the pagans. In both he follows the same method of justifying the Christian religion from the charges which were then commonly brought against it, and then attacking his opponents severely. All the apologists of this age follow the same course, and we see from their writings that the common attacks upon Christianity were charges of atheism, immorality practiced at their Agapae, the Thyestaean banquets, and the like. The second of these periods is marked by the writings of Origen, Arnobius, Lactantius, Eusebius, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine. These names show the course that Apologetics was taking. It had raised itself far above the positions of a mere defence against vulgar prejudice and polished sarcasm; and Origen, when he opposed Celsus, was giving a philosophical defence against a philosophical attack upon the principles which lay at the basis of Christianity (cf. Pressense’s Hist. De l’Eglise, 2me serie, ii. pp. 104-142). With Arnobius begins the study of Christian evidences; and he tries to show that Christianity is not merely probable, but certainly true; while Lactantius proceeds upon the idea that, if Christianity be only clearly understood, it must be accepted, that its best defence is a clear statement of the principles on which it rests. Eusebius, on the other hand, is the first of the learned apologists, and proves the truth of Christianity by an elaborate comparison between it and all that was best in the various systems which went before it, and so far prepared the way for it. Cyril opposes Julian as Origen had opposed Celsus. Julian had directed his attack against the claims Chritianity to universal dominion; he admitted that it was one form, but denied that it was the only form of truth, and Cyril’s defence is interesting, inasmuch as it is the first answer of the Christian apologist to the objections of the pure Theist. Augustine’s great work, the De Civitate Dei, is apologetic in so far as it endeavours to show that Christianity and the church are the only ark of safety in presence of the dissolution of the empire and human society which then seemed imminent. In this second division of the first period, Christianity has become triumphant, and the duty of Apologetics has not been to defend it from the coarse attacks of passion and prejudice, but to give a philosophical answer to philosophical objections, and then to show how Christianity adapts itself to the intellectual, moral, and political requirements of men and nations.

The second period dates from the 6th to the middle of the 15th century. It is that period in the history of theology in which the church attempted to rule thoroughly the intellectual life of mankind; when the ecclesia salvans had become an ecclesia docens, and the ecclesioe patres had given place to the eccleioe shcolastici. It embraces the growth, life, and decline of scholasticism. In this period there are no direct attacks upon Christianity, and so no direct defences of it; but still Apologetics, although for the most part absorbed into the sum of Christian doctrine, and recognizable only in the attempt to assimilate philosophy and theology, is to some extent visible in the jealous defence of particular doctrines against the attacks of Nominalism, and reveals itself more prominently in the attacks made by Christian theologians upon the Jewish and the Mahometan religions. Such works as Abelard’s Dialogus inter Philosophum Judoeum et Christianum, and Thomas of Aquin’s De Veritate Catholicoe Fidei contra Gentiles, are the best examples of the Apologetics of this second period.

The third period extends from the middle of the 15th to the middle of the 17th century. This was the age of the Renaissance and of the Reformation, an age of inquiry, doubt, and change. Along with the Reformation, keeping with it as long as it was merely destructive, and abandoning it as soon as it became constructive, was a spirit or tendency, best described by the term Humanism. The Humanists were men who were thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the old classical poets of Greece and Rome, and had imbibed many of the old pagan ideas with reference to Christianity. Humanism, which was at first learning revived, contained within it two tendencies which afterwards showed themselves hostile to Christianity: the first was embodied in literary criticism, and mainly displayed the antagonism between literature and dogma, while the other took the form of a pantheist philosophy founded on the divinity of nature. The most notable of the apologetical works of this per iod are those of Marcilius Ficinus (De Religione Christinana), Eugubinus Steuchus (De Perenni Philosophia, from which Bishop Berkeley has borrowed largely in his Siris), and Johannes Ludovicus Vives (De Veritate Religionis Christianoe).

The fourth period extends from the middle of the 17th to the end of the 18th century. During this period, anti-christian speculation assumes distinct forms, and Apologetics undergoes corresponding changes. The period has three divisions, which are to some extent successive, but are best distinguished by the form of unbelief then prevalent-the English deism, the French skepticism, and the German rationalism. The English deism, which began with Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Hobbes, and ended with Hume, called forth an innumerable number of replies from Christian theologians, and the special nature of the attack then made upon Christianity still gives their special form to English works upon Apologetics. The general tone of English deists was that there was no warrant for the mysteries in Christianity, for its superior morality, for its historical position and influence, and so English Apologetics has been mainly concerned with the doctrine of the evidence of Christianity; and the general line of argument commonly taken has been, that there is as much evidence for Christianity as for some ordinary set of opinions generally admitted. Thus Bishop Berkeley’s Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher, among other things, aims at establishing the existence of God by showing that the evidence is as strong as the evidence for the existence of our fellow-men; Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity shows that the Christian theology attacked is in all points able to satisfactorily explained in accordance with human reason, if the same methods of investigation and adjustment be allowed, which are usually permitted when testing the reasonableness of any common statement or opinion; and in the Analogy of Bishop Butler the whole argument rests upon the basis: - the deists make certain statements about religion; if these be true they contain as many difficulties as are to be found in Christianity, and difficulties of the same kind, therefore Christianity is as reasonable, at least, as deism or any system of mere natural theology. In the French skepticism, the principal charge made against Christianity was that it rested on imposture and was maintained by trickery. An attack of this kind is answered, not so much by special defence, as by a silent appeal to historical testimony and to the character of man, and it is not be wondered at if the French church has not produced any very valuable apologetic writings defending Christianity from the special attacks of this school. The German rationalismbegan with Lessing’s publication of the Wolfenbuttel Fragments (extracts from a work by Reimarus, a schoolmaster at Hamburg), and ended with Kant. In its earlier form it was little else than an importation of the ideas of the English deists, but latterly it assumed a special form by upholding the authority of the individual reason. The replies to the ordinary arguments of the English Deist were very numerous (cf. Lechler’s Geschichte des Engl Deismus), but do not deserve further notice. The authority of the individual reason may be vindicated, either in the province of criticism or in that of dogma; the one effort gave rise to the critical rationalism of Eichhorn and Paulus, and the other to the dogmatic rationalism of Wegscheider. The critical rationalism of Eichhorn and his school has been gradually answered by the advance of criticism itself, which shows a progressive tendency towards higher and more spiritual ideas, if not to a recognition of the inspired authority of Scripture. The dogmatic rationalism of Wegscheider has fallen before the new impulse given to dogmatic theology by Schleiermacher and Neander.

At the present time Apologetics seems to be in a transition state. Since the time of Kant the historical method of investigation has become all powerful in almost every department of human knowledge, and at the present the chief attacks made upon the supernatural and unique character of the Christian religion and theology are based upon the comparative science of religions. It is held that the Christian religion is the highest and most perfect development to which the religious spirit of man has yet reached, but that it simply differs in degree of development from any other religion. It is said that the Christian theology contains, like all other theologies, a great many elements of truth, but that it is simply a natural religion like any other. This mode of attack has not yet been thoroughly faced by Christian apologists, but it must be the work of the Apologetics of the future to vindicate the supernatural character of Christianity by arguments which are based upon historical investigation and comparison of the different religions of mankind. For the general outline of Apologetics see Hagenbach’s Encyclopaedie, and Heubner’s article on "Apologetik" in Ersch and Gruber’s Allg. Encycl. For natural theology cf. Paley’s natural Tehology, Chalmer’s Natural Theology, Bishop Butler’s Analogy, and Hegel’s Philosophie der Religion. The Bampton Lectures discuss many of the particular problems of Apologetics, and A.S. Farrar’s Critical History of free Thought (the Bampton Lecturers for 1862) gives a very good history of Apologetics. (T. M. L.)

The above article was written by Rev. Thomas M. Lindsay, D.D., Principal and formerly Professor of Divinity and Church History, United Free Church, Glasgow; translated Ueberweg's System of Logic; author of The Reformation, and of commentaries on Acts of the Apostles and St Luke's Gospel.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries