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By Kenneth R. Samples
A History of Apologetics
By Avery Dulles. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999. 307 pages. Paperback.
Christian apologists can learn much from the apologetics masters of the past. Yet, unfortunately, works that carefully recount and catalogue the history of Christian apologetics are rare. This rarity is likely due to the fact that the author of such a work must possess substantial scholarly competence in multiple academic fields––including theology, philosophy, history, culture, and science.
The recent reprint of Avery Dulles’ book, A History of Apologetics, fills a real void. Out-of-print for many years, this work first appeared in 1971. The most substantial book of its kind (in English), the reprint deserves a fresh review for students of apologetics unfamiliar with its content.
Jesuit scholar Avery Dulles (recently made cardinal, a rare honor for an academic) has been a leading American theologian for the past half-century. His astute awareness of Catholic theology, philosophy, and church history combined with his familiarity of Protestant thought aptly prepares him to write such a work.
With a straightforward and clear aim, Dulles tells “the story of the various ways in which thoughtful Christians, in different ages and cultures, have striven to ‘give a reason for the hope that was in them’” (p. xvi). He divides the book into six chapters that correspond to six consecutive eras of Christian thought: (1) apologetics in the New Testament, (2) the patristic era, (3) the Middle Ages, (4) the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, (5) the nineteenth century, and (6) the twentieth century. Each chapter, covering people, ideas, and apologetic arguments, deserves attention in this review.
Chapter one examines the type of apologetic material that appears in the New Testament, specifically in the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Pauline and general epistles. Dulles explains that this material centers on the person, nature, mission, and messianic ministry of Jesus Christ, highlighting Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, His miracles, and especially the Resurrection. Dulles comments that while the Gospels are more concerned with telling the story about Christ (i.e., preaching the good news rather than defending its reliability), they do nevertheless contain important apologetic data.
Chapter two addresses the patristic era, or the period of the church fathers, which extends roughly from the second through the fifth centuries a.d. During this period, Christian apologists first engaged the officials of the Roman Empire in a plea for tolerance, but later the focus turned to distinguishing their faith from Judaism and confronting the ubiquitous paganism of the classical Greco-Roman world. The apologetic contributions of eight major Greek and Latin Christian thinkers receive comment: Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Ambrose, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, and Augustine. Dulles also discusses nine lesser-known Christian thinkers who in varying degrees made important additions to the developing Christian apologetic enterprise.
Chapter three covers the medieval period, or the Middle Ages, spanning nearly a thousand years of church history…
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