Apologetics thrived for many centuries as a movement inspired to provide a rational defense of faith. But it collapsed in the middle of the 20th century, according to Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham.
Cardinal Dulles described the downfall of apologetics and its current resurgence, and offered advice to advance the movement in the 21st century during his spring McGinley Lecture, “The Rebirth of Apologetics,” on March 2.
“Recognizing that faith is enfeebled if its rational grounds are undermined, committed Christians are today returning to apologetics,” he told the audience in the Leonard Theater of the Fordham Preparatory School. “All over the United States there are signs of revival.”
Throughout the 19th century, apologists had to recast their defense of Christianity in the face of new scientific discoveries, according to Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
Photo: Chris Taggart
The task of apologists is not an easy one. They are charged with finding a systematic way of explaining why we should believe that God’s word is truly His word. In the first three centuries after the death of Christ, apologists were often defending their faith to avoid persecution by Roman officials.
In early modern times, apologists were met with skepticism from philosophers who claimed that human reason made revelation unnecessary. During the 19th century, natural scientists and historians attacked the reliability of the Bible on scientific and historical grounds. By the last third of the next century, apologetics had collapsed.
“Apologetics fell under suspicion for promising more than it could deliver and for manipulating the evidence to support the desired conclusion,” Cardinal Dulles said.
Apologists were known to revise Christian doctrine to make it more acceptable to secular society. Christ was described as an inspirational teacher in this watered-down theology, and His miraculous deeds were no longer defended. Apologists withdrew from controversy to avoid offending believers and non-believers alike.
“This privatization has debilitating consequences on the faith of believers themselves,” Cardinal Dulles said. “If we do not consider that it is important for others to hear the Christian proclamation, we inevitably begin to question its importance for ourselves.
“The result is a massive loss of interest in religious teaching,” he added.
However, evangelical Protestants are leading the revival of apologetics, evidenced by the large numbers of enthusiastic students they are attracting to their seminaries, Cardinal Dulles said. Catholics are joining the renewal more slowly, the charge being led by converts to Catholicism from other Christian denominations, particularly former evangelicals.
Contemporary apologists use a variety of methods. The best approach, according to Cardinal Dulles, is inspired by Pope John Paul II, who believes that personalism—the interpersonal version of Christianity that focuses on the aspirations of the human heart for communion with the Divine—is the path to a religious awakening.
Personalism, along with testimony, can drive this resurgence, Cardinal Dulles said, noting that God’s word has always come to us through human witnesses like the prophets and apostles.
“To evangelize, we must allow the testimony of God, of the apostles, and of the church to speak through us,” Cardinal Dulles said. “If we love Christ and cherish our faith, and if we wish to spread its saving influence, we will not shirk this important responsibility.
“The time is ripe, the need is urgent, for a rebirth of apologetics.”
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