A History of Apologetics by Avery Cardinal Dulles is a systematic historical survey of Christian apologetics from the New Testament era to the present. The book provides the student with a very thorough outline of every major apologist and his writings.
Most valuable to this study of apologetic history is that it allows the reader to notice trends; a kind of ebb and flow of ideas. For instance, the early apologists (the New Testament era and early second century) were primarily concerned in their apologetic writing with either defending against persecution or winning new converts. Later trends can be seen in response to varying attacks against Christianity. For instance, heresies in the third and fourth centuries bring an apologetic response that addresses the false doctrines directly. Knowing why the apologists wrote helps one to better understand their content and the approach of their apologetics.
In addition to knowing why the apologists responded, this study also provides insight into how they responded. One example would be Pascal’s response to the Frenchmen of his day. Their indifference roused Pascal to appeal to them in such a way that would stir their hearts from their apathy. Although Pascal was highly intellectual, he employed “reasons of the heart” in winning souls, rather than intellectual reason alone. Further examples could be cited with responses to the writings of Kant, Hume, and others.
The student may also benefit in seeing that the battleground has always been basically the same battleground. Different weapons have been employed, but the content and purpose of Christian apologetics has remained the same. As the author puts it in his preface, “… a careful reading of the old masters in the field reveals that the same basic problems continually recur and that it is almost impossible to say anything substantially new.”1 This can be demonstrated by the title of Benedictine Francois Lamy’s apologetic work refuting the ideas of Benedict Spinoza: The New Atheism Overthrown. Apparently, apologists have been refuting the “new atheism” since the seventeenth century.
The author obviously cannot cover every apologist since the New Testament, but he does a good job hitting the most prominent. Both Catholic and Protestant apologists are noted throughout. The final chapter dealing with present-day apologetics relies heavily on citations of Stephen B. Cowan’s Five Views of Apologetics, which deals with the various apologetic methodologies most prominent today.
A History of Apologetics can be commended as a “should-read” for serious apologetics students, as the depth and background provided are very useful. In addition, it is not a difficult read, as some more historical books can be. The reader will gain a rich understanding and deeper appreciation of the many defenders of the faith.
1 Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), p. xx-xxi.