Faculty wags have long wisecracked that contemporary Catholicism specializes not in apologetics but in apologies. Unfair as this quip may be, Catholicism does appear at times to have abandoned a robust defense of Christian faith and doctrine in favor of corporate acts of contrition for past errors of the Church’s members. This is one reason Cardinal Dulles’ work is a salubrious reminder to apostates from the apologetical cause that the discipline has a long and illustrious pedigree worthy of current emulation.
Dulles’s latest, A History of Apologetics, is an updated and expanded version of a volume originally published in 1971. As Cardinal Dulles laments in the new preface, he could hardly have chosen a worse time to publish a book on the defense of the Christian faith. Not only was the original publisher on the brink of extinction, the apologetical discipline itself was at ebb tide theologically. One reason apologetics went into eclipse, of course, is that the discipline smacked of arrogant, intolerant, and triumphal attitudes, capital sins in modern intellectual life. For many, the very term “apologetics” brings to mind the desiccated and jejune rationalism that, they imagine, Vatican II was striving to overcome.
In his original preface, reprinted in this revised edition, Dulles writes that he intends neither a defense of Christianity nor an apology for apologetics. His aim, rather, is a comprehensive survey of how thoughtful Christians have sought to “give a reason for the hope that is in them” (1 Peter 3:15). The chief concern, then, is with apologetics in general rather than a particular denominational approach. As the Baptist theologian Timothy George observes in his engaging new foreword, the book will be welcomed by all Christians because Dulles has examined how apologists have responded to the pressing issues confronting Christianity over the course of centuries.
And, indeed, Dulles takes us, in this expansive synthesis, from the earliest New Testament kerygmatic proclamation up through the contemporary arguments for the complementarity of faith and physics advanced by John Polkinghorne and Stanley Jaki. Since the panorama of thinkers and themes that the author summarizes and evaluates is so extensive, one strains trying to encapsulate it.
Of course, certain figures stand out: the second-century writer Athenagoras of Athens, for example, for his insistence that Christians are bound to strict standards of chastity and to a respect for life extending to unborn infants; Origen and Augustine, for their philosophical sophistication and logical rigor; Eusebius of Caesarea, for his response to Porphyry, perhaps the most significant opponent of Christianity in antiquity; John Damascene for his dialogue with Islam; Anselm for his reflections on faith and reason; Abelard for his unpolemical attitude toward Judaism; Thomas Aquinas, for his seamless introduction of Aristotelianism into apologetics; Nicholas of Cusa, for his balanced evaluation of the Koran; Pascal for his accent on intuitive logic and his juxtaposition of the esprit de finesse with the esprit de géometrie; Kierkegaard, who calls attention to the offense of the Gospel, recognizing that “philosophic reason itself stands under divine judgment”; Chateaubriand, who appealed to Christian achievements in literature, culture and the arts, arguing that religion is tightly interwoven with the imagination; Newman, who emphasized the subjective and intuitive dimensions informing religious inquiry; Barth, who rejected attempts to justify revelation on the basis of extra-theological criteria; and, finally, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, who ardently defended classical Christian orthodoxy and whose work remains influential today (attested by the expanded attention Dulles accords them in the new edition) perhaps especially among evangelicals.
Dulles treats the second half of the twentieth century in an entirely new, forty-two-page addition (the most significant of several supplements and emendations found throughout the volume). Vatican II, he observes, with its irenic and serene tone, undermined the polemical attitude often connected with apologetics. He adds, however, that in several places the council insists that the disciple of Christ is bound “faithfully to proclaim” and “vigorously to defend” the Christian faith. Vatican II, then, is not mute on the apologetical issue. Popular at the time Dulles first wrote is what has been called “immanent apologetics”: the attempt to offer probative arguments for God not by way of objective causal metaphysics (a Thomistic benchmark) but by an analysis of the intentionality of the human spirit.
Maurice Blondel, for example, in his great work L’Action, argued that a phenomenology of the will reveals an exigency and élan inexorably opening out onto the question of the supernatural. Blondel’s work is a restatement, ultimately, of the Augustinian cor inquietum or “restless heart” tradition. He opposed this “method of immanence” to the “extrinsicist” and evidential apologetics of his own day that found no touchstone in human experience. Karl Rahner, for his part, argued at length that there is a dynamic movement of the intellect toward Infinite Being necessarily inscribed in every act of knowing. Consequently, in the actions of human reasoning—the actions defining man as made in God’s image and likeness—one finds an intrinsic link between creature and Creator. Rahner further develops what he calls a “searching Christology” asking these questions: If our whole being is oriented towards God ab ovo, then is it not intelligible that we should seek some message from him? And where should we find this message except in time and history?
The philosophies developed by Blondel and Rahner served not only apologetical purposes but also effectively argued that a Christian anthropology could not accept the Enlightenment notion of an autonomous human nature essentially unrelated to God (an idea leading inexorably to the claim that religion is entirely a matter of private preference). Their own work reflected the patristic understanding, masterfully revivified by Henri de Lubac, that there exists no purely “natural” sphere, only the unicus ordo supernaturalis, the one supernatural order of grace, a position whose implications are vigorously pursued today by the Radical Orthodoxy movement.
Other late twentieth century apologists discussed by Dulles include Hans Urs von Balthasar, who, having learned a great deal from his dialogue with Karl Barth, accented the dangers of anthropological thinking and reacted against Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch” between necessary truths of reason and contingent historical events. Lessing’s dichotomy represented Idealism at its worst, sanctioning a priori limits on God’s action in history, thereby rendering itself incapable of recognizing Christ as the image of divine love. Resonances of Balthasar’s thought may be found today in Jean-Luc Marion, especially in Marion’s denunciation of those philosophies that reductively and unimaginatively seek to limit the impossible, the excess, the unexpected Gift. Dulles also examines the thought of such eminent apologists as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Richard Swinburne (whose work has surely not received the attention it deserves) as well as the well-known arguments of the Reformed epistemologists. Reference is also made to those engaged in the contemporary debates on Darwinian theory.
One can see over the course of the book that Cardinal Dulles, while always even-handed in his evaluations, has a certain penchant for those apologists who recognize the complex and elusive chain of events that brings us to the act of faith (rather than those who propose purportedly ironclad rationalistic approaches). And one understands the nature of this attraction. Calculative and demonstrative arguments are rarely convincing since, no matter the probative nature of the logic adduced, they often fail to take account of the anterior subjective attitudes and dispositions of the inquirer. Blaise Pascal, Joseph Butler, and John Henry Newman are preferable, then, to the evidentialists who assume that assent cannot be lacking to right-thinking individuals.
Dulles’ survey indicates that a viable apologetics must combine many different elements: reason and the heart, intellect and the imagination, the objective world and the inner spirit. The most effective apologetics appeals to the mystery that encompasses the entirety of human existence. Indeed, the best apologetics, as the most compelling practitioners of the discipline have understood, speaks to the unbeliever lurking in our own hearts.
When comparing the 1971 text to the latest edition, one sees that very few of Dulles’ earlier judgments are in need of revision, attesting to the strength of the original research. Some light tweaking occurs, on Thomas Aquinas and Newman for example, but one observes no significant shifts of opinion. Other aspects of the text, including footnotes and bibliography, have been brought up to date.
Cardinal Dulles concludes that while apologetics is neither necessary nor sufficient for Christian faith, it is important that believers give reasons for the various challenges made to the intelligibility of their faith. As this magisterial and masterful exposition makes clear, Christianity has consistently developed apologetical approaches for two reasons. One is the essentially conjunctive nature of faith and reason. How is the act of faith always a reasonable act, even if reason alone, absent God’s grace, can never bring one to full-blooded belief? Secondly, the Christian faith possesses a determinate content making specific truth-claims. Its foundational beliefs are understood as properly mediating (invoking here all of the qualifications between human language and divine existence) something of reality itself. Given such positions, apologists through the centuries have rightly taken as their task the development of arguments as to why the extraordinary claims of Christianity are neither repugnant to reason, nor, indeed, without significant and convincing support.
Thomas Guarino is professor of theology at Seton Hall University.