The History of Apologetics
eBook - ePub

The History of Apologetics

A Biographical and Methodological Introduction

Zondervan, Benjamin K. Forrest, Joshua D. Chatraw, Alister E. McGrath, Benjamin K. Forrest, Josh Chatraw, Alister E. McGrath

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eBook - ePub

The History of Apologetics

A Biographical and Methodological Introduction

Zondervan, Benjamin K. Forrest, Joshua D. Chatraw, Alister E. McGrath, Benjamin K. Forrest, Josh Chatraw, Alister E. McGrath

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ECPA Christian Book Award 2021 Finalist: Biography & Memoir

Explore Apologetics through the Lives of History's Great Apologists

The History of Apologetics follows the great apologists in the history of the church to understand how they approached the task of apologetics in their own cultural and theological context. Each chapter looks at the life of a well-known apologist from history, unpacks their methodology, and details how they approached the task of defending the faith.

By better understanding how apologetics has been done, readers will be better able to grasp the contextualized nature of apologetics and apply those insights to today's context. The History of Apologetics covers forty-four apologists including:

  • Part One: Patristic Apologists
  • Part Two: Medieval Apologists
  • Part Three: Early Modern Apologists
  • Part Four: 19th C. Apologists
  • Part Five: 20th C. American Apologists
  • Part Six: 20th C. European Apologists
  • Part Seven: Contemporary Apologists

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Part One


The patristic period is usually taken as the formative phase of the early church between the final works of the New Testament and the Council of Chalcedon (451). This was a remarkably creative and important stage in the consolidation of Christianity in the Mediterranean world, as leading Christian thinkers set out to consolidate the core ideas of their faith, as set out in the New Testament, leading to the formulation of definitive statements about the identity and significance of Jesus Christ and the distinctively Christian understanding of God. The period saw an emerging consensus on the sources of theology, particularly through the fixing of the canon of Scripture.
Yet the early church faced other challenges during this period, most notably the need to respond to growing hostility toward Christianity on the part of other religious and philosophical movements in the Greco-Roman world. While theological clarification was of major importance in protecting the church’s identity, the early Christian communities also faced challenges from Judaism and traditional Roman religion, whose members came to regard Christianity as a threat. Justin Martyr wrote a particularly significant apologetic work responding to Jewish criticisms of Christianity. His Dialogue with Trypho argued that Christianity was the fulfillment of Jewish life and thought. Christianity was the true philosophy and would displace its pagan rivals.
The rise of Gnosticism in the second century posed a particularly significant challenge to Christianity. Although our knowledge of the origins and distinct ideas of this movement is not as comprehensive as we might hope, it clearly posed a significant threat to the church by proposing alternative ideas of salvation that were verbally similar to those of the gospel or by interpreting the New Testament in decidedly non-Christian ways. Irenaeus of Lyons was one of the most effective critics of Gnosticism. His apologetic strategy incorporated a powerful critique of Gnosticism’s internal coherence and historic roots, along with a lucid account of core Christian beliefs that emphasized their interconnectedness and superiority over those of their pagan rivals.
As Rome’s political and military power began to decline in the late second century, many blamed the rise of Christianity for weakening the hold of traditional Roman religion. Christians came to be referred to as “atheists,” in that they did not conform to the polytheism of Roman civil religion. Several late second-century Christian apologists responded to this criticism, most notably Athenagoras of Athens, who argued that Christian monotheism was to be preferred to pagan polytheism. Athenagoras countered the criticism that Christianity subverted imperial cultural norms by showing that pagan poets and philosophers were themselves monotheists, whether implicitly or explicitly. This concern about Christianity causing the decline of traditional Roman religion, on which the stability of the Roman Empire depended, peaked in the Latin west around 248, marking the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome.
By this time, a significant apologetic tradition had been established within the western Latin-speaking church. One of the most important of the early Latin apologists was Tertullian of Carthage, a third-century orator generally thought to have been based in the great Roman North-African city of Carthage. Tertullian debated the fundamental truths of faith with a number of significant cultural groups, including secular philosophy, Gnosticism, and Judaism.
The Greek-speaking eastern church also developed a distinct apologetic approach, particularly in the great city of Alexandria. One of the most important early contributions to this approach came from the third-century theologian Origen, who responded to the philosopher Celsus’s charge that Christianity was fundamentally irrational. Yet Celsus’s criticism of Christianity went further than this. Christianity was a religious innovation that was leading people to abandon their traditional religion. Origen’s rebuttal of Celsus, usually known by its Latin title Contra Celsum, is widely agreed to be one of the most important works of early Christian apologetics, showing that a Christian philosopher was able to hold his own against an educated pagan critic. This work represents a detailed rebuttal of Celsus’s philosophical, moral, and religious criticisms of Christianity, demonstrating a remarkable confidence in the intellectual and moral credentials of the gospel. Although Origen perhaps leans on Plato too much for comfort at points, his response to Celsus opened the way to others developing similar apologetic approaches.
Origen’s approach was further developed in the fourth century by other Alexandrian writers, as well as writers based in the region of Cappadocia, such as Gregory of Nyssa. Athanasius of Alexandria, one of the most important apologists of the fourth century, placed considerable emphasis on the internal coherency and consistency of the Christian faith, pointing out how Arius’s reduced Christology could easily be shown to be incoherent. More importantly, Athanasius’s treatises De Incarnatione and Contra Gentes (which many consider to be a “double treatise”) include significant apologetic elements—such as an appeal to history—that could function as the basis of a defense of the Christian faith to either a Jewish or Greco-Roman audience.
Although the conversion of Constantine in or around 312 led to Christianity becoming culturally acceptable and eventually politically dominant in the second half of the fourth century, later patristic theologians rightly saw that cultural acceptability did not necessarily secure rational acceptance of the gospel. This is evident in the writings of the greatest apologist of the Latin west, Augustine of Hippo, whose conversion to Christianity in August 386 is widely regarded as a landmark in the development of western Christianity.
Augustine’s contribution to apologetics was significant at several levels, including the philosophical defense of the rationality of the Christian faith, the appeal to divine illumination in securing human knowledge, and the importance of the subjective world of memory and feeling in matters of faith. Augustine’s substantial theological output laid a robust conceptual foundation for apologetics, as he recognized the role of divine grace and illumination in conversion while at the same time highlighting the importance of human agency in the apologetic task.
Perhaps most importantly, Augustine recognized the vulnerability of the western Roman Empire and strategized about how Christianity could engage a possible postimperial scenario. It was a wise move. During the second half of the fifth century, the central Roman state collapsed. The scene was set for the rise of Christianity in western Europe, with Augustine widely recognized as one of the most important resources for Christianity’s theological and apologetic foundations.

Prophetic Revelation as the True Philosophy

Justin Martyr (ca. 100–164/7) is the earliest postbiblical writer to have left us writings in defense of Christianity. He is particularly interesting in that he addressed both Jews and gentiles, which allows us to see how one early Christian approached these very different audiences. He paid for his beliefs with his life and remains an inspiration to all who would follow Jesus and preach his gospel to a hostile and uncomprehending world.


Justin was born sometime around AD 100 in the city of Flavia Neapolis, which Emperor Vespasian had founded in AD 72 near the site of ancient Shechem in Samaria. He described both his father, Priscus, and his grandfather Bacchius as “natives” of the city, but it seems probable that his grandfather emigrated there from elsewhere, possibly being one of the original inhabitants.1 The fact that Justin later addressed both the emperor and the Roman senate suggests that he was a Roman citizen, though he does not tell us this in his writings. He had considerable knowledge, not only of Jews but also of Samaritans, who were the largest population group in his homeland. He even said that Simon Magus, who was of Samaritan origin, belonged to the same nation as he did, though what he meant by “nation” is not clear.2 Justin was certainly educated in Greek, but he may have known Aramaic and Latin as well. In his adult years he moved from his home to Rome, perhaps to escape the Jewish revolt under Bar Kokhba, and it was on that journey that he became a Christian.3 In Rome he established a school that attracted some brilliant pupils, including the Syrian, Tatian.4 Justin was in the capital when the heretic Marcion was teaching there, but although Justin mentions him in passing, Marcion’s errors were not the focus of his writing.
In his youth Justin had received a Greek education, which awakened in him a desire to discover the truth that the philosophers purported to make the focal point of their lives. In his later years he realized that philosophy was a noble endeavor that had gone wrong, as he eventually explained in his Dialogue with Trypho:
Philosophy is, in fact, the greatest possession, and most honorable before God, to whom it leads us and alone commends us; and these are truly holy men who have bestowed attention on philosophy. What philosophy is, however, and the reason why it has been sent down to men, have escaped the observation of most; for there would be neither Platonists, nor Stoics, nor Peripatetics, nor Theoretics, nor Py...

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