The task of apologetics has, in recent decades, fallen out of favour with many in the Western church. Whether over concerns that the discipline grants too much weight to natural theology or a conviction that apologists depend too greatly on a modernistic framework to craft their arguments, some have gone so far as to say that the very idea of apologetics should be rejected altogether.
Yet, while disagreement may rightly exist concerning precisely how the apologetic task should be approached, the idea that defending the faith per se is a modern one lacks historical merit. It seems rather evident that the Church Fathers engaged extensively in what would today be considered a form of apologetics, following in the footsteps of the New Testament authors themselves.
In my essay published in Post-Christendom Studies 6 (“Apologetics in the Patristic Era:
Pre-Christian Wisdom for a Post-Christian Age”), I argue that while patristic figures such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, and the John of Damascus may differ in their style and approach, their legacy of defending the faith both from outside attack and errant doctrine from within provides a solid rationale for contemporary Christians to continue this endeavour. Patristic-era theologians, who lived and wrote in a pre-Christian culture largely hostile to their convictions, provide a model by which Western Christians might engage their increasingly post-Christian culture.
The essay is organized under six sections. The first analyzes Justin’s apologetic approach, in particular his dialogue with Trypho the Jew where he makes the case for Jesus as the Jewish Messiah from the Hebrew Scriptures. It then proceeds to engage Tertullian’s defence of Christian ethics during the persecution of Pliny the Younger. The third section outlines Augustine of Hippo’s defence of Christ’s bodily resurrection and rebuttal of the charge that believers were largely to blame for Rome’s fifth-century debacle, while also highlighting his conviction that Christian faith must appeal to the human heart as well as the intellect. John Chrysostom’s pivotal role in the Christological controversies is then acknowledged, followed by a discussion of how the early church’s compassionate response to those affected by plagues and pandemics greatly advanced its evangelistic and apologetic endeavors. This section in particular is a timely one in light of the COVID-19 crisis that disrupted the lives of many around the world. Finally, in response to the false assumption that Christianity is a white, Western religion, Eastern Church Fathers such as Ephrem the Syrian and John of Damascus are consulted, asking how their ecclesial location outside the Roman Empire and its Hellenistic mindset could provide fresh insight to a Western church that is heir to such a worldview in many ways. One prime example might be in constructing a coherent apologetic response to Islam, rapidly growing among some in the West who express reservations toward Christianity in light of the church’s historical injustices.
By consulting a diverse array of figures from the patristic period, Western Christians should look to the Fathers as a theological resource to correct, challenge, yet ultimately enrich our apologetic work.
[Editor’s Note: The above is a synopsis of Mr. Butler’s article in Post-Christendom Studies 6. If you are interested in reading this article in full, it is available on the website here.]
Geoffrey Butler is a PhD Student at Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*