In the next few essays I want to try to bring a bit of clarity to the term “apologetics”. More precisely: I want to try to bring a bit of clarity, not primarily to the way the word “apologetics” is commonly used, not primarily to the task that historical apologists have most focused on, but to the normative question, How should we understand apologetics? If – as the Church has believed – there is a need for intellectual and dialectical defense within the Church (put differently: a need for a discipline of reason-giving), what precisely is this need? What sort of intellectual and dialectical defending is most valuable to the Church and its mission?
Part One: Apologetics Historically Understood.
Christian apologetics gets its name from the title that was bestowed on a number of second and third century Christian writers and thinkers. They were called “apologists” (from the Greek “apologia” meaning “verbal defense”) because they busied themselves with “defending” Christianity from its critics. In most cases this meant battling against objections that had been raised to the central propositions of the Christian faith, and formulating what they considered to be good arguments for the central propositions of the Christian faith.
Whatever precisely these different apologists were up to, and whatever their particular methods, the Church has historically praised the endeavor of the apologist. Christianity is in some need of intellectual and dialectical support, has thought the Church. That has been the historical consensus. Not a position held in perfect unanimity, but the consensus nonetheless.
I am someone who accepts this consensus — in part because of reasons independent of this historical fact, but in part because of this historical fact itself. The tradition of the Church has a good deal of normative epistemic force for me. By that I mean that the mere fact that the tradition proclaims “X” is a reason (albeit a defeasible reason) for me to believe X. In other words: unless I have good reason to believe otherwise, I’m going with what the tradition tells me. Why? At the very least, because I’m much too aware of the epistemic limitations imposed on me by my own place and time, much too aware of how foolish I would be to think I alone can consistently arrive at truth from this small pool of knowledge and perspective available to me. I’m in need of the knowledge and perspective of others. I’m in need of a sort of “peer review”, a doxastic democracy (to borrow from G.K. Chesterton who equated tradition with “democracy extended through time”). So, as a Christian, I’m inclined to go with what the Christian tradition has gone with — especially when the relevant tradition enjoys a long-standing consensus which spans national, economic, and cultural lines.
But enough about me. I merely mention this bit about my respect for the tradition of the Church for the sake of making clear my own motives in this essay. As somehow who accepts the belief of the Christian tradition that within the Church there is an important role to be played involving the intellectual and dialectical support of Christianity, I find myself immediately asking the question: How exactly is this role to be understood? Just what sort of intellectual and dialectical support is so important to this thing called Christianity?
Answering that question – or attempting to – is the project of this essay. And what better place to start than with the very source that planted in me this question in the first place: the Christian tradition. There exists, or so it seems to me, a consensus answer amongst the historical gaggle of Christians to this question I have raised. That answer goes something like this:
The proper task of the apologist (what we’re calling this unique intellectual and dialectical role in the Church) is 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.
This is the task apologists have normally busied themselves with.
I don’t really have much of an argument at hand to demonstrate that this conception of apologetics-done-right has been the historically predominant one, but this certainly seems to have been the project of the early apologists. They found themselves in the midst, not just of opposition from without, but of struggle within. The Church was young, and battling hard to get clear on its identity, and to solidify this identity in such a way as to preserve itself, well into the future, as the community God had called it to be. Creeds were in vogue, not because power-hungry churchmen wanted rules by which to regulate the laity, but because the Church needed to say very clearly just what it stood for. It was in this context — of seeking to get a handle on the very heart of this thing called Christianity — that we find the early apologists. It becomes clear, then, why “defense” was such a necessity; it also becomes clear why that defense was so often preoccupied with the “central claims” of Christianity.
These first centuries after Christ are the birthplace of “apologetics”, understood as a specific discipline and role within the Church. And I think this is why apologetics has historically been understood to be in the business of articulating and defending things like creeds. (As for the business of encouraging/motivating Christian belief in non-Christians, this is simply the product of a proselytizing influence that has been within Christianity and the Christian Scriptures since its inception — nothing unique to apologetics of the time period of the early apologists here.)
That, I said, seems to me the predominant, historical understanding of the proper role of the apologist: 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.