I’ve been doing some research into Puritan apologetics over recent weeks and thought I’d share a little of what I’ve discovered in a short series of blog posts. Today and tomorrow I want to work towards a definition of apologetics.

What is apologetics? This question can be answered by surveying both the relevant biblical material and the history of apologetics. Thankfully, we don’t need to start from scratch as this work has already been done by many scholars. For example, Avery Dulles’s History of Apologetics,generally recognized as one of the classic histories of apologetics, surveys both the biblical material and the history of apologetics. It can therefore be used as one source for constructing a definition of apologetics.

The foreword to Dulles’s book describes it as “an instructive account of how the major systems of theology have formulated the case for Christianity.” Apologetics, in its widest definition, then, is formulating a case for Christianity. In the preface and early pages of the book, Dulles further refined this definition:

  • By only including in his survey apologists who viewed Christianity as their religion and who accepted it as a revelation from God.
  • By excluding theologians who were focused only on a particular doctrine or denomination.
  • By distinguishing apologetical writing from controversial writing, with the latter being only concerned about controversy with other Christians.
  • By excluding dogmatic theology from apologetics because whereas dogmatics is simply the stating of Christian doctrine, apologetics has more of a persuading and reasoning character.

Using these criteria, a fuller definition of Christian apologetics can be suggested: the formulation of a persuasive case for Christianity as a whole, by a Christian who views their religion as a revelation from God. That’s consistent with Douglas Groothuis’s definition of apologetics as “the ancient and ongoing discipline of defending and advocating Christian theism.”[1]

This general definition can be made more specific by following Dulles’s analysis of the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles to determine whether they “fit into the category of apologetic documents” (13). He acknowledged that “at a glance, they bear little resemblance to modern apologetical treatises. They are narrative in form and contain little sustained argumentation. They purport to tell a story rather than to prove a case.” (13-14)

Despite this initial difficulty, Dulles says the question should still be asked to what degree the New Testament authors were “motivated by the intention of persuading unbelievers to accept Christianity or of helping believers to overcome their doubts and hesitations.” He then answers, “If one defines apologetics in terms of this general intention, one will find at least an apologetical ingredient in all these writings. (13-14)

Tomorrow we’ll look more closely at Dulles’s distinction between two key apologetical activities: persuading unbelievers and persuading believers with a view to further refining our definition of apologetics.

[1]. Douglas R. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2011), 20.

*Dulles was a Roman Catholic, but his historical scholarship is highly regarded and his book largely reliable. Some of his biases come out a little when he discusses apologetics in the Reformation era, but, on the whole, it’s a helpful historical survey. If there’s any other book that’s anywhere near as comprehensive I’d love to know about it.