Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The History of Apologetic Theology and its Contemporary Role

Here is a paper I wrote last semester for my Fundamental Theology class on the History of Apologetic Theology and its Contemporary Role. It is very, I repeat very, cursory. This is certainly not an easy topic to limit to 6 pages. My most glaring deficiency, in my opinion, is of course the very little said of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Here goes...

Though it has recently been absorbed by many into “fundamental theology,"[1]apologetics has been a distinct practice as long as man has had hope and the need to give a reason for it. Indeed he has never been at a loss for an occasion to do so. Whether it was in establishing God’s self-revelation through his Son in the New Testament, or defending against the errors of the Reformation, or more recently standing athwart relativism and modernism, apologetics has undergone a long and complicated history of change in method and purpose. Here we will take a brief look at this history of apologetic theology and then examine its contemporary role.

For our purposes here we will take as our guide, Avery Cardinal Dulles who has masterfully presented a history of apologetics broken up into seven periods: the New Testament, the Patristic Era, the Middle Ages, the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century before the Second Vatican Council, and the twentieth century after the Second Vatican Council.[2]

In the gospels and letters of the New Testament, Cardinal Dulles argues that we do not find apologetics texts, per se. What we find are gospels and letters “primarily concerned with telling the story of Jesus and with drawing the consequences of that story for belief, for worship, and for the practical conduct of human life."[3] But this certainly does not mean that the New Testament is bereft of any elements commonly associated with apologetics. For example, St. Paul defends the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 by presenting as evidence first Christ’s appearance to Cephas and the twelve (an appeal to authority), then to the “five hundred brethren at one time” (an appeal to sheer number of witnesses), and finally to his own first-hand experience. He then continues to explain the consequences if there is indeed no resurrection of the dead, as some are arguing, and the logic behind Christ’s resurrection.

In the Patristic Era, of the second century through St. Augustine, we find the first master of a concerted effort and discipline of apologetics, St. Justin Martyr. In his apology to the emperor Antoninus Pius, St. Justin describes the faith of the early Christians as essentially reasonable. “This reasonableness supports everything they practice and profess and is (or should be) their defense against unjust persecutions and accusations."[4] This purpose sets the tone of apologetics for the Patristic Era, one that moves from explanation to brave defense against both persecution and the influence of Jewish and pagan teachings. “Against the Jews they still urge, most of all, the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies, interpreting them in the light of the new fact of Christ.[5] With the fourth century onward, Cardinal Dulles draws attention to the markedly positive accommodation of Hellenistic elements into Christian apologetics. Giants of this period like Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine were quick to take the goods of “Greek and Roman antiquity” and show how they shined in a Christian framework.

Moving to the Middle Ages, we find the Doctor of the “greatest century,” St. Thomas Aquinas. His Summa contra gentiles marks the pinnacle of medieval apologetics whose role was to respond to “the failure of the Crusading movement, together with the incursion of Arabic philosophy into the West.” But, before him came St. Anselm and his reflections on the relationship between faith and reason especially in his Monologion, his Prosologion, and his Cur Deus homo.[6] Many other works of the period from Peter Alphonsi, Hermann of Cologne, Rupert of Deutz, and Peter the Venerable (who Cardinal Dulles calls “the most eminent twelfth-century apologist”) are works against Muslims and Jews but were also at times for them, i.e. for their salvation. Indeed, Peter approaches the Muslims not “as our people often do, by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in love."[7] The most influential lead to St. Thomas though is Peter Abelard.

His “Quaestio” method of theology, in which a question was raised, a defense was made, an opposing argument was given, and then a conclusion was drawn, became the form for theology and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. This theology benefited greatly from the goldmine of Aristotle’s works preserved by Islam. His works were soon translated into both Latin and Arabic and had a lasting effect on theology and apologetics up to the present day.[8]

Our next period in the history of apologetics is the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century, a period marked heavily by the Protestant Reformation. Here we find apologetics from Protestants against certain abuses in the Church, against the Magesterium and Tradition, and in support of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The Church in turn tried in her apologetics to bring the Reformers and their followers back into the fold but made little progress.

Finally a council was called, one that would influence the Church and her apologetics until the Second Vatican Council. This was the Council of Trent which ran from 1545 to 1563(4). In the Council, and in response to the Reformation, the Church was very defensive and scholastic and condemned Luther and the Reformers. Here the role of apologetics, as blessed by the Council, was to explain her decrees, clarify dogma proposed by the Reformation, correct abuses, and condemn the Protestant Reformers.[9]

Apart from the influence of the Reformation, Cardinal Dulles explains that the apologetics of this period was also heavily influenced by the break from religious unity that characterized the Middle Ages. The sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries saw “hostile religious camps”, religious literature of which “controversy became the dominant form”, “inter-Christian polemics”, “skepticism and religious indifferentism,” and the blatant attack from “forces of the Enlightenment."[10] For the first time its role was to respond to direct rejection and attack. Cardinal Dulles observes that

the initiative in this period no longer lies with the protagonists of the Christian cause but rather with the adversaries… [the former] seem unable to turn the tables on the adversaries by mastering and correcting the new currents of thought – as Origen had done for middle Platonism, Augustine for Neoplatonism, and Aquinas for Averroistic Aristotelianism.[11]

This brings us to the fifth of Cardinal Dulles’ seven periods of the history of apologetics, the nineteenth century. In this century, the role of apologetics was to answer the rapidly increasing notions of “an inward apologetic of the heart”: individualism, subjectivism, feeling and movements of the heart, and faith resting “not simply on external authority but rather on personal motives that are subjectively compelling though objectively insufficient."[12] Other challenges included the progress of natural and historical knowledge (i.e. Darwinism), biblical criticism, and comparative religion. But, alas, due to all of this, Cardinal Dulles states that the nineteenth century is “unquestionably one of the most fruitful in the entire history of Christian apologetics” because it had so much to respond to and with such intense complexity. This period also saw a master in John Henry Cardinal Newman, the “leading Catholic apologist of the nineteenth century and one of the greatest of all time."[13] He was most concerned with the criteria of religious knowledge, the problem of faith and reason, the apostolicity of the Catholic Church, and the “history of his religious opinions” (via Apologia pro vita sua).

Finally, we come to the twentieth century, first looking at the period before the Second Vatican Council. Here apologetics was faced with a new challenge. Cardinal Dulles explains that before,

The apologist, speaking from the stable platform of official Christianity, whether Protestant or Catholic, had only to refute the adversaries and convince them of their errors. With the rise of deism, and even more, under idealism and liberalism, the lines between defense and attack became increasingly blurred.[14]

For the first time, apologists were not so sure they were defending the same faith. Here, inter-church apologetics became increasingly important. There was competition between a defensive type and a revisionist type of apologetics. Important and still very popular figures from this period are Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis.

Following the Second Vatican Council, the status of apologetics was criticized and put into question partly out of reaction to its association with the earlier manuals, based on the “neo-Scholastic analysis fidei.” Cardinal Dulles presents what Claude Geffre, O.P. wrote in The Development of Fundamental Theology:

[T]he term “fundamental theology” is now preferred to describe Christian apologetics. It is not simply that in an age of dialogue the word “apologetics” is discredited. It is rather, and more profoundly, that we have become conscious of the weakness of apologetics when it pretends to be able to prove the fact of revelation on historical grounds. We can only be sure of divine revelation within the experience of faith.[15]

Henri Bouillard concludes that apologetics and fundamental theology cannot be separated.

Today though, we still see the traditional practice of apologetics as a reasoned defense of faith distinct from serving as a foundational/fundamental instrument or function (though, to be sure, it is that too). This is most vivid in the revival of Catholic apologetics in the United States. Figures such as Karl Keating, Patrick Madrid, Peter Kreeft, Sheldon Vanauken, Thomas Howard, Dale Vree, Ronald K. Tacelli, and Scott and Kimberly Hahn[16] are at the forefront of this resurgence that has provided much revitalization and confidence to the Catholic Church in America, a Church beaten down in many ways by priestly scandals, false allegations, and bankruptcies. Their success in large part can be attributed to their return to the “stable platform of official Christianity” after American Catholics for four decades have been doubting and wondering exactly where and what that platform is.[17] Finally, two more popular figures have also satisfied this hunger: the beloved Pope John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Both have “lifted up the radiant beauty of Jesus Christ as grounds for adhering to Him in a loving submission of faith. For them, the figure of Christ as given in Scripture and in the liturgy is its own evidence. No complicated arguments from history or source criticism, they believe, are needed."[18] And as Pope John Paul II has said, “Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently."[19]

[1] We will see later how and why this occurred.
[2] See A History of Apologetics, by Avery Cardinal Dulles, Ignatius Press, ©2005, revised edition
[3] Dulles, p. 1
[4] “On St. Justin Martyr’s Apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Contemporary Work of the Church,” by Matthew Hardesty for HS 500, Ancient and Medieval Christianity
[5] Dulles, p. 88
[6] Cf. Dulles, p. 99
[7] Dulles, p. 106 quoting Peter the Venerable’s A Book against the Sect or Heresy of the Saracens.
[8] See lecture summary, “Fundamental Theology Notes on the History of Theology,” by Matthew Hardesty on notes given by Fr. Hy Nguyen in SL 500, Fundamental Theology
[9] See second lecture summary, “Fundamental Theology Notes on the History of Theology, Continued
[10] Dulles, p. 145
[11] Dulles, p. 206
[12] Dulles, p. 210
[13] Dulles, p. 245
[14] Dulles, p. 271
[15] Dulles, p. 326-327
[16] See Dulles, p. 343
[17] Dulles has a helpful comment: “In such a time as our own, when many Christians find it especially difficult to articulate the reasonableness of their faith, it can be particularly profitable to review the record of the past”, p. xxi
[18] Dulles, p. 366
[19] Dulles, p. xiii quoting Pope John Paul II on the mystery of revelation


phatcatholic said...

dude, i'm posting this on my blog

Matt1618 said...

now way man, it's not that good!

Laura H. said...

Yeah, Nick. He didn't say enough about my favorite Saint!! Don't post that.

(haha. I jest. This rocks!)