Part Two: Is Contemporary Apologetics A Departure From Early Apologetics?
In the previous essay I suggested that the understanding of the task of apologetics that best comports with the historical origins of the “Christian apologist” was something like this: to discover, and provide others with, reasons which would demonstrate belief in the creedal claims of the Christian faith to be rationally justified, and to do so in a way which will actually encourage (motivate) belief in these claims.
Some would argue that this understanding of apologetics is not the sort of apologetics practiced today. Apologetics today, it has be argued, has a much narrower focus. Instead of defending the creedal claims of the Church, the apologist is now concerned with defending one small part of the creedal claims of the Church: the existence of the Christian God. If there is an alternative model of the task of apologetics on offer by contemporary apologetics, perhaps we could characterize it thusly: The proper task of the apologist is to attempt to discover, and provide others with, argumentative reasons which would demonstrate belief in the existence of the Christian God to be rationally justified, and to do so in a way which will actually encourage (motivate) belief in His existence.
So says our imaginary interlocutor: There’s a contemporary obsession with one topic, the existence of God. Does He or does He not exist? Is it rational to believe that He exists, or is it irrational? Natural Theological arguments (think of the Cosmological Argument, or the Fine Tuning Argument), Historical arguments (think of the many Resurrection arguments), the arguments of Alvin Plantinga and his Reformed Epistemology ilk — these arguments are almost always concerned with demonstrating the rationality of belief in God, or in the Christian God. Granted we can find exceptions. There’s still some work being done in other fields of old-school apologetics. There’s a good bit being said about the Trinity (how does all that craziness work?), or the Two Natures of Christ, or the historical reliability of the Christian Scriptures, and so forth. But go read the majority of the Church’s apologists of the last two millenia, and then go read the apologetics of the last half-century, and there is no doubt that the emphasis has changed.
I am inclined to say that while, yes, the emphasis has certainly changed, this is not a reason to think that the historical project of apologetics has been abandoned. After all, it makes perfect sense that contemporary apologists would overemphasize these particular creedal claims (about the existence of the Christian God); they live in a world where the existence of God is not at all taken for granted. The Church has always shifted its focus towards those areas where it has been most under attack. When German higher criticism was the cat’s meow, apologists went to work defending Scripture. When scientists pronounced a conflict between science and religion, apologists flocked to deal with the relationship between the two. And when academia had become a contagion of atheism and agnosticism, apologists rushed to defend the rationality of belief in the existence of God. The time and place have always set the stage for the apologist and defined his role.
Is contemporary apologetics a departure from the apologetics of the early Church? At least as regards the content of the task of apologetics, Not necessarily. Could a preoccupation with the question of God’s existence become an impediment to the more full-orbed practice of apologetics? Certainly.