Apologetics is the art of defending and justifying a specific point of view. On this broad definition, there are apologists for many perspectives for there are obviously many points of view. This includes rational defenses of religious faith and, for the purposes of this entry, Christianity in particular.
Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s engagement with the intellectual evolution of Christian apologetics in his book Reasonable Faith suggests there exists a far greater depth to the Christian apologetic enterprise and its historical development than initially perceived.
Although this is true from the very beginning of the Christian church, this is especially evident during the Enlightenment, a period to which Christian apologetics owes much. The Enlightenment has become infamous among religious believers for its theorists who challenged the “superstitions” of religious faith and belief. It was a time in which reason over faith was the order of the day for many of Europe’s intellectuals. Religious faith was being challenged (and rejected) within society with a great deal more openness than ever before.
The period of roughly 30 years between Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and Pierre Bayle (1695) has been said to be the golden age of classical French apologetics (1). Prevalent thinkers of the time were Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), Pierre Daniel Huet (1630-1721), Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), and Jakob Abbadie (1654-1727). However, it was a disciple of Pascal’s, Nicolas Filleau de la Chaise (1631-1688), who would be hugely influential given his approach to apologetics via the method of proof par les faits (by the facts). According to Filleau, it did not require one to make theological mysteries comprehensible or reasonable in order to convince people of the truth of Christianity. Rather, one could show this by certain incontestable historical facts. According to Filleau,
“If men know anything with assurance, it is the facts; and of everything that falls within their knowledge, there is nothing in which it would be more difficult to deceive them and over which there would be less occasion for dispute. And thus, when one will have made them see that the Christian religion is inseparably attached to facts whose truth cannot be sincerely contested, they must submit to all that it teaches or else renounce sincerity and reason” (2).
Filleau argued that we can prove the mysteries of the faith, not directly, but indirectly by the historical facts that support their truth. Craig explains that French apologists “began to make a bifurcation between the contenant and the contenu of the faith. Roughly rendered, the distinction contrasted the “container” of the faith to the “content” of the faith” (3). Although the “content” of Christianity, namely the body of theological doctrines may be above reason, the container of this religion, namely the historical events of the gospel narrative, is provable by the facts. Given this approach, apologetics that sought to provide reasons for belief in Christianity through considering historical evidence grew in influence during the 17th and 18th centuries.
During 18th century England there was also an apologetic development that considered empirical, historical proofs of Christianity. Arguably most prominent in this regard was philosopher John Locke. Locke defended the reasonableness of Christianity on the basis of Jesus Christ’s miracles in his late 17th-century book, The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), from which it is clear that he was convinced that the biblical Scriptures were in agreement with human reason. However, it was priest Charles Leslie (1650–1722) who emphasized the methodological approach of proving Christianity by facts in his Short and Easie Method with the Deists (1697) (4). Leslie argued that if one were to examine the biblical narratives as he or she would examine anything else, they would discover them to be historically reliable. He thus contended that one must either reject all historical evidence and works of classical antiquity or, alternatively, admit the gospel accounts along with them. Leslie had a major influence on the historical apologies that would go on to be published in the following century.
There is a distinction between the approaches of French and English apologists of those centuries. Craig explains that,
“English apologists tended to dissolve the distinction between truths of reason and truths of faith, the upper story collapsing down into the lower, so that all truths became in a sense truths of reason, demonstrable by philosophy, science, history, and so forth. When English writers spoke of truths above reason, they did not generally mean mysterious or incomprehensible truths, as did their French counterparts; rather they meant simply truths that we lack the necessary facts to prove. But in both cases, it was the methodology of history that they counted on to carry the weight of the case for the truth of the Christian faith” (5).
Today Christian apologists routinely employ a rationalist approach to the justification of the Christian faith by pointing to the allegedly well corroborated historical facts supporting the historical resurrection of Christ and the inspiration of the biblical texts. Often apologists argue for the fact of the resurrection without assuming the inspiration of the texts, thus employing a particularly rationalist historical methodology that examines the New Testament source materials as historical documents like a professional historian would. What this shows is that modern apologetic approaches to defending faith did not arise in a vacuum but is rather the continuation of a discipline that is centuries old in thought and tradition. Today, given the prevalence of secularism in academia and the major domains of knowledge (especially philosophy and science) there has been a dramatic upsurge in a market and a need for Christian apologetics which has grown accordingly.
1. Craig, W. Reasonable Faith (3rd ed.). p. 460 (Scribd ebook format).
2. Filleau de la Chaise, “Discours sur les livres de Moise,” in Discours sur les “Pensées” de M. Pascal, ed. with an introduction by V. Gitaud (Paris: Editions Bossard, 1922). p. 104–5.
3. Craig, W. Ibid. p. 461 (Scribd ebook format).
4. Library of Historical Apologetics. Leslie-Charles. Available.
5. Craig, W. Ibid. p. 463 (Scribd ebook format).