Over a number of blog posts, I’ve been arguing for the addition of ‘emotional’ apologetics to the apologists armory. I’ve been making the case that apologists should pay more attention to basic human needs, feelings, longings, and desires and the suitability of the Christian faith to meet and satisfy them. In a previous post, we looked at the biblical evidence for such an apologetic method and today we want to highlight examples of this approach in church history. Unless stated otherwise, the quotations are from Avery Dulles’s classic book, A History of Apologetics.
The Letter to Diognetus (@130 AD): This letter of disputed authorship was written by “a brilliant rhetorician who painted an appealing picture of Christian faith and life” and “it remains one of the most stirring presentations of the Christian ideal.” (29)
Clement (150-215): In his apologetics, he writes in a style “calculated to attract his readers and make them enthusiastic for the following of Christ.” Clement portrayed Christ as “the new song, which, like the canticles of David before Saul, drives out evil spirits and restores health to those disturbed in mind.” (32)
Tertullian (160-225): He “gives a moving description of the Christian way of life, reminiscent of that in Justin’s First Apology.” (41)
Origen (184-253): Christian minds, he says, “are marvelously filled with peace and joy” and experience “wonderful moral renewal.” (36-7)
Augustine (354-430): One of his books was entitled The Happy Life, An Answer to Skeptics. “The point of departure for Augustine’s apologetic is subjective and psychological rather than objective and systematic. He notes within man an inescapable drive toward happiness and, once the possibility of immortality becomes known, a drive toward eternal life. As he observes at the conclusion of his dialogue On the Happy Life:
This, then, is the full satisfaction of souls, this the happy life: to recognize piously and completely the One through whom you are led into the truth, the nature of the truth you enjoy, and the bond that connects you with the supreme measure. (60)
Dulles sums up the apologetics from the third to the sixth century as similar in structure to those of the second century but notes “they prefer to argue from the effects of the gospel on the minds and hearts of believers.” (70)
Aquinas (1225-1274): He develops “some very long and persuasive proofs based on the total harmony of revealed truth, the accord between revelation and naturally known truths, and the correspondence between the Christian dogmas and the needs of man.” (94)
John Duns Scotus (1266-1308): God “gives light and consolation to those who sincerely inquire and adhere to the Christian faith.” (99-100)
Raimundus Sabundus (d. 1436): His basic principle was ‘Believe whatever makes a person happier.’ “A fundamental principle of the author’s reasoning is that man ought to affirm ‘whatever is more for his profit, good, and improvement, for his perfection and dignity and exaltation, insofar as he is a man, whatever promotes joy, happiness, consolation, hope, confidence, and security, and whatever expels sadness, despair.’ On this basis Sabundus finds it easy to establish the existence of God as a belief that impels man to higher perfection and joy.” (95)
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498): Savonarola’s argued for Christianity based on the effects of embracing the Gospel. “Unlike many of the apologists so far examined he puts little emphasis on the proofs from prophecy and physical miracles. Far more central to his argument are the wisdom and goodness of Christ and the manifest effects that follow from a wholehearted acceptance of the gospel. One of the principal effects of the Christian life is peace, joy of spirit, and liberty of heart.” (109)
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662): Although Pascal is often thought to be the pioneer of the more psychological needs-based type of apologetics, the evidence thus far shows that he was simply following a long tradition of apologists. Pascal’s basic question was ‘If man was not made for God, why is he never happy except in God?” He explains his method:
Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.
After listing various religions and philosophies, he asks: “Do they give a plausible account of the actual state of man and do they offer any remedy that could give man happiness?” The aim of his argument says Dulles is to bring someone “to the point of wishing that he could believe, without having yet proved that Christianity is true (125)
In Existential Reasons for Belief in God, Clifford Williams highlights Pascal’s classic ‘Infinite Abyss’ passage:
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.
Or as he put it elsewhere “No one is so happy as a true Christian, or so reasonable, virtuous, and lovable.”
Williams notices how hopeful this existentialism is compared to the despairing existentialism associated with the French atheistic existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yes, Pascal agrees, there are great human needs, but the Christian God can satisfy them all and has done so on many occasions. Whereas Camus and Sartre used the dark holes in humanity to run away from God, this existential argument uses them to drive people to God.
Pascal argued for the Christian faith not only because it is true, but because it satisfies heart-need, or, as he put it: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
Jaques Abbadie (1654-1727): Like Pascal, his apologetic employs the “logic of the heart” and “shows how the intrinsic attributes of the Christian religion correspond with the religious needs of man.” (132).
George Berkely (1685-1753): He “defended Christianity against the skeptics on the ground of its tendency to good, its superiority to the other religions, its natural harmony with man’s needs, as well as the usual arguments from miracles and prophecy.” (140).
Schleiermacher (1768-1834): “Schleiermacher was perhaps the first to construct a thoroughgoing ‘inner apologetic’ that proceeds through the progressive unfolding of man’s innate longing for communion with God.” (161)
August Tholuck (1799-1877): “Tholuck extols the joyful experience of regeneration through Christ and maintains that the new life impressed upon men’s hearts by the Holy Spirit is its own guarantee.” (164)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834): In his Aids to Reflection he warned the evidentialist school against a merely theoretical approach to Christianity that forgets the spirit and life at the heart of it:
Hence I more than fear the prevailing taste for books of Natural Theology, Physico-Theology, Demonstrations of God from Nature, Evidences of Christianity, and the like. EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY! I am weary of the word. Make a man feel his want of it, and you can safely trust to its own Evidence
Coleridge can say that-strong as are the historical evidences in favor of Christianity, the truth revealed in Christ … has its evidence in itself, and the proof of its divine authority in its fitness to our nature and needs;—the clearness and cogency of this proof being proportionate to the degree of self-knowledge in each individual hearer.” (168-9)
Thomas Erskine (1788-1870): “Sometimes called the Scottish Schleiermacher, he looked to the inner life of the believer for the rational basis of faith. In his best-known work, Remarks on the Internal Evidence for the Truth of Revealed Religion (1820), he stresses the moral influence of the gospel and bypasses the usual arguments from miracles, prophecy, and eyewitness testimony…As a testimony to the inner life of a deeply convinced Christian, Erskine’s Internal Evidence is not unimpressive.” (171)
Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872): “At a time when England was being rocked by the controversy growing out of Strauss’s Life of Jesus, Maurice maintained that the current debates about documents could never lead to any religiously satisfying results. In faith, he argued, one knows God as He personally imparts Himself to man in experience, and this personal communion is for the believer its own evidence.” (170)
Like any Reformed reader of Dulles’s book, I wish he had given more attention to the high-calibre apologetics being produced in the Reformed Church, especially over the last century. However, there haven’t been many Reformed exponents of ‘experiential’ or ‘emotional’ apologetics in the same period. That wasn’t always the case, as I’ll show you tomorrow with a surprising example from Puritan times.
Previous articles in this series
What is Apologetics?
The Two Primary Aims of Apologetics
The Most Common Apologetic in the Bible?