The state of Christian apologetics — from hard times to hopeful signs…


It was virtually impossible to not believe in God some five hundred years ago.  But today, many find giving up belief not only easy but even inescapable.  This famous assessment of the dramatic shift in Western society by philosopher Charles Taylor sets out, in broad terms, the challenge facing the Church today—how to bring the Gospel to our post-Christian culture.


Ironically, as the secular nature of this era intensified, the Church largely abandoned the apologetic task of defending and commending the faith.  In the twentieth century, there were numerous fine efforts to revive interest in apologetics.  But at the same time, several forces combined to produce what William Edgar and Scott Oliphint call an “eclipse in apologetics.”


In the Introduction to their two-volume Christian Apologetics, Past and Present, Edgar and Oliphint give a short but very helpful survey of the place of apologetics in the Church during the five-century era described by Charles Taylor.  Perhaps the eclipse of apologetics is being followed by a revival of interest?


The eclipse of apologetics


The loss of zeal for the defense of the faith has a number of causes. The onslaught of the Enlightenment, followed by Romanticism, presented numerous challenges to the church. While human reason was celebrated by certain branches of the Enlightenment, serious doubts set in about whether humanity is capable of accomplishing anything without faith in something transcendent. Yet neither the newer use of reason nor the newer faith was quite the same as what the church had taught in previous centuries. Reason was now much more assertive than it had been, and faith much less rational.


This shift left the church with less common ground with the surrounding culture than previously, and thus with the conviction that it needed to take another look at the whole enterprise of theology. Many questions arose: How can Christians exercise the newly touted faculty of reason without betraying its dependence on the authority of revelation? How can faith appropriately deal with Enlightenment skepticism—for example, that of Voltaire—without denying the reality of evil, often the basis for disbelief? Is God really so well defined as in our theology books? Is Christianity the only true faith? The answers to these questions seemed elusive to many. Naturally Christian apologetics became much more problematic.


Besides such challenges in the realm of ideas, various social forces had the effect of making arguments for the faith implausible, that is, not so much false as incredible. Pluralization, the multiplication of people and cultures from different horizons in one place, as well as globalization, in which borders are increasingly porous, have made belief in one truth less likely, at least on the surface. In a day of greater awareness of other religions, the exclusivity or superiority of one creed simply sounds arrogant. …


Much of the impetus for the recent decline in apologetics can be credited to Karl Barth (1886–1968), perhaps the most powerful theological voice in the twentieth century. Barth sensed that the liberal outlook of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) had done the faith a disservice by making it far too compatible with science and philosophy in order to appease its “cultured despisers.” Barth retorted that Christian faith is not a religion, wherein humans aspire upward in the search for God, but rather a revelation of the “wholly other” God in Christ.  In his Church Dogmatics he states that the only effective apologetics has been the “unintended one,” which he describes as that which “took place when God himself sided with the witness of faith.” We cannot go into all the nuances of Barth’s approach here. Suffice it to say that while his intention was to allow pride of place to divine sovereignty, the effect was to put into doubt any serious attempt to engage with unbelief by means of intellectual persuasion. …


A revival of apologetics, signs of a renewed interest


1.       A number of initiatives in apologetics are connected to evangelism and missions. The recent best seller The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by New York–based pastor Timothy Keller, is a good example of the revival of popular apologetics. Keller not only tackles some of the perennial challenges to the gospel—exclusivity, freedom, evil, and so on—but he stresses the vitality of the Christian faith as a path toward meaning. He presents the cross of Christ as “a reversal of the world’s values.”

2.      One subject of concern, often in the Anglo-Saxon world, is the relation of Christian faith to science. John Polkinghorne, Thomas F. Torrance, Alister McGrath, John C. Collins, David Livingstone, Stanley Jaki, and many others have written extensively on the way the authentic findings of science may be compatible with Christian faith. …

3.      Philosophical apologetics has returned to a prominent place in many circles as well. Christian philosophers have recently risen to prominence in the academy. … [Individuals discussed here include Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne.]

4.      Somewhat different concerns are expressed by an amorphous group that focuses on worldview and presuppositions. In essence, this view holds that if we begin with a truly transcendental Origin, the God of the universe, then every part of life—from the intellect to politics to the arts to the family—holds together in an overarching understanding of the creation, the fall, and redemption. … [Individuals discussed include Abraham Kuyper, Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer.]

5.      One important trend to note, because it has changed the way apologetics has operated, is a shift in opposition to Christian faith: from rationalist or even atheist to a religious opposition. Thus, the rise of Islam and other religious antagonists to Christianity has caught many Christians in the West off guard. While accustomed to debating humanists and rationalists—from the older radical atheists like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre, to the so-called new atheists, including pundits like Samuel Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens (whose titles include, The God Delusion and God Is Not Great)—now apologetics must address the claims of Muslims or Hindus or even New Age views, which are fairly different from the claims of atheists. …

6.      For another example, apologetics is now wrestling with various forms of postmodernism. Arguments against the postmodern condition are often thoughtful refutations of the sophisticated forms of relativism set forth by postmodernists. …



William Edgar and Scott Oliphint’s survey of Christian apologetics over the past few centuries can be accessed online.  It is in the Introduction to the Two-Volume Work,” the first introduction to Christian Apologetics, Past and Present.  Go here and scroll down topage 2.


Christian Apologetics, Past and Present is a remarkable two-volume anthology of apologetic writings, beginning with the biblical texts and coming down to the present day.  It will be most useful for those who are not new to apologetics.  Even so, a committed reader without a background in apologetics can gain a remarkable education by careful attention to these two volumes.


William Edgar’s Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion is an excellent place to start for someone not familiar with apologetics. 


Another fine resource is Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith.  Christian Apologetics is both comprehensive and accessible.  It may well be destined to become for apologetics what Wane Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine has become for theology—a standard work on the shelf of beginner, student, layman and scholar alike.




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