Defending the Faith: Religious apologetics has its place in history

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

I’m sometimes told that religious “apologetics” — the defense of a religious belief — is unworthy of true scholars and that no organization supporting apologetics can pretend to scholarship.

But some of the greatest scholars and thinkers who ever lived have devoted significant time and effort to religious apologetics — and not only within the Christian tradition. (Cicero, Averroes, Maimonides, and al-Ghazali come instantly to mind.)

One of the pivotal figures of Western civilization, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, wrote his “Apology” about another pivotal figure: his teacher, Socrates. In it, Socrates defends his religious beliefs against the Athenian court that will ultimately execute him.

Christian apologetics commences with such figures as St. Justin Martyr, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria — if, indeed, it doesn’t begin even earlier, in the scriptures themselves. (See, for example, such appeals to natural evidence as Psalm 19:1 and Romans 1:20.) “Come now,” says Isaiah, “let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). St. Augustine, the greatest of the early Latin Fathers of the Christian church, remains one of Christianity’s greatest apologists, as well. Nobody can seriously argue that Augustine is beneath scholarly attention.

The brilliant 13th-century Dominican philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas devoted his multivolume “Summa contra Gentiles” to apologetics. Moreover, his “five ways” — arguments for the existence of God set forth in his vast “Summa Theologica” — continue to be studied and debated by philosophers, as does the “ontological argument” formulated by St. Anselm of Canterbury in A.D. 1078.

The great 17th-century French philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal, in his famous apologetic work “Pensees,” laid out four goals for apologetics: “Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable, to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true.”

Even Pascal, though, was more committed to showing that religious claims are plausible than to trying to prove them beyond any possible doubt. Accordingly, in his famous “wager,” Pascal argues that, if the evidence for belief and unbelief is roughly balanced, it’s wisest to choose belief: If there is no God, believers lose nothing, while unbelievers gain little; if there is a God, unbelievers lose very much, while believers gain salvation. In a similar spirit, Pascal’s near-contemporary, John Locke, one of the first great English-speaking philosophers, titled his 1695 tome “The Reasonableness of Christianity.”

Over the past two centuries, many notable Christian scholars and writers have contributed to the literature of apologetics, including G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox. High-quality apologetics is still being done by such eminent philosophers as Alvin Plantinga (Notre Dame), Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale), Keith Ward and Richard Swinburne (Oxford) and Peter Kreeft (Boston), as well as by the physicist-turned-Anglican-priest Sir John Polkinghorne (Cambridge), the mathematician John Lennox and his Oxford colleague, the molecular biophysicist and theologian Alister McGrath. Another leading apologist is the American evangelical philosopher William Lane Craig, who has contended for the reasonableness of Christian faith generally, and, along with the eminent Oxford New Testament scholar N.T. Wright and the American philosophers Gary Habermas and Stephen Davis, argued powerfully for the physical resurrection of Christ.

There is rich reading from these and many similar authors for those interested in rational arguments for faith.

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