Apologetics as an Ecumenical Practice and its Three Major Areas


Gerald O’Collins locates Christian apologetics as an ecumenical practice with a dual approach: [1] to deal with objections to the Christian religion, and [2] to makes a reasonable case for the central claims of the Christian religion (O’Collins 2011, 230).

Although commentators have demonstrated that apologetic responses have varied among Christians it has never, as O’Collins shows, functioned independently of the Christian Church to which it is inextricably linked. O’Collins identifies two primary reasons for this: it represents the church and its doctrines as a rational option for outsiders, and it is an internal church practice where arguments are used in philosophical and systematic theology to make the case for certain theological perspectives. O’Collins is interested in how apologetics gained traction in the early twenty-first century, particularly within the United States where increased efforts have attempted to counter objections raised by agnostic and/or atheist critics (O’Collins 2011, 225). Increase in adherents to agnostic and/or atheist worldviews present challenges to accepted Christian truths, and O’Collins reveals how this has led twenty-first century Christian apologetics to become primarily active within three major areas: faith in God, knowledge in Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus.

Faith in God. A number of Christian scholars have articulated critical responses to atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (O’Collins 2011, 228). These Christians argue that science and evolutionary theory have not made belief in God obsolete, that faith in God is neither irrational nor socially dangerous, and that the argument from the presence of evil and suffering in the world does not provide a rebutting defeater of God’s existence. A rebutting defeater directly attacks the conclusion to an argument or the thing being believed in, and must be undermined if one still intends to hold to a belief. These scholars have probed into natural theology to demonstrate that belief in God is reasonable. Natural theology looks to the natural order to provide justification for religious belief, and has led to arguments from the consistency of nature and Christian theism, the origins of the universe, and the directionality in evolution.

Knowledge of Christ. Skepticism concerning supernatural and historical components of Christ’s ministry stems from late nineteenth-century German scholarship, and has influenced modern scholars, notably the Jesus Seminar (O’Collins 2011, 229). The Jesus Seminar argued that many gospel sayings of Christ are inauthentic. Some within the seminar also included the pseudo biographical Gospel of Thomas alongside the canonical gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) for learning about the sayings of Christ. Although the seminar had little influence on academic scholarship a number of Christian scholars including Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener, James Dunn, and Gregory Boyd, among others, some of whom have been at the forefront of historical Jesus research, have countered their claims. Their work argues in favour of the reliability of the gospels as providing a historical witness to Christ. Typically argued is that archaeological consistency with biblical narratives suggests historicity, as does the earliness of the gospel sources in proximity to purported events.

The Resurrection of Christ. Christ’s resurrection is deemed central to Christian faith because if true demonstrates that Christ has power over death and sin (O’Collins 2011, 229). Arguments in favour of the resurrection trace back to the very beginning of the Church and Christian movement as throughout history Christian thinkers have attempted to defend its historicity. This apologetic is picked up by contemporary thinkers such as N. T. Wright, William Lane Craig, and others. These scholars demonstrate historical deficiencies in rival non-supernatural hypotheses attempting to account for the resurrection story such as the wrong tomb theory (Christ’s followers went to the wrong tomb which they found to be empty), the hallucination theory (that the disciples, skeptics, and opponents of Christ only had hallucinations of a risen Jesus), or the swoon theory (that Christ survived his crucifixion and entombment, and later convinced his followers he had been raised from the dead). Deficiencies of rival hypotheses are demonstrated and attempts are made to demonstrate the superiority of the resurrection hypothesis (that God raised Christ bodily from the dead).


O’Collins, Gerald. 2011. “Contemporary Apologetics.” The Furrow 62: 225-230. Accessed July 7, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23046333

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