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From the Greek roots apo and leg (apologia ), the term apologetics can be translated as "speech with cause." In the Christian context, apologetics is important in science and religion discourse because it aims to provide religious faith with credibility. Particularly since the seventeenth century, a shared understanding of divine action in the world has progressively diminished due to new, scientific explanations for natural events that were previously accounted for in terms of supernatural agency. Apologetics increasingly incorporates scientific material in recognition of the universal scope of scientific knowledge in contrast to theology's alleged lack of empirical basis. It is a hybrid form of theology that aims to provide credibility for divine revelation under the light of human reason. In theological terms, apologetical literature aims to account for foundational elements in doctrine under the perspective of a religious conversion, while providing a systematic way for that doctrine to be understood. It "is the theoretical and methodical exposition of the reasons for believing in Christianity." (Bouillard, p. 11)

Early Christian apologetics

In historic Christian theology, apologetics has been characterized by skilled, often impassioned rhetoric. In the New Testament, the word apologia is translated as a defense of the hope that inspires the believer to remain upright (1 Peter 3:15), and for Paul and Luke, apologia is employed in situations of mission or conflict. This usage expands on the Old Testament usage, where it possesses sapiential qualities (Wis. 6:10). In neither case does it connote a legal or even a rigorous philosophical justification of religious faith.

In early Christianity, apologetics arose as a theological response to political crisis and as the theoretical expression for ecclesial community. Early Christian apologetics focused primarily on the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ in arguments with Jews (as in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho ) and later with pagan culture through varying critical incorporations of Platonist and gnostic ideas (as in Origen's Contra Celsum or Tertullian's On Prescription Against Heretics ). Theological arguments turned toward civil authorities regarding the toleration of Christianity until the time of fourth century Roman Emperor Constantine. Early Christian apologetics reached a high point with Augustine of Hippo's City of God, and especially The Literal Meaning of Genesis, which is often cited in modern attempts to cohere a reading of the biblical text with science.

In the medieval period, apologetics was diverted by the encounter with early Islam, evident through Thomas Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles. As a result, a theological distinction in religious knowledge between revelation and reason was forged and intensified in a full development of theology as a scientific discipline. Through tensions resonant in early Protestant appeals to natural theology, Calvinist apologetics emerged as a formidable stream of thought that is still manifest in several modern theological schools. Against traditional Aristotelian metaphysics and natural theology, John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) stressed the complete sovereignty of God's Word over the instrumental causes of natural powers.

Science and technology

The rise of science and technology in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought about a stricter, empirical notion of objectivity, which had a pivotal impact on theological apologetics. Combined with a new reluctance on the part of theologians to refer to Christian revelation, the rise of the natural sciences led to diminished religious grounds for natural philosophy. In this new situation, the religious engagement with Enlightenment reason led to a diversity of theological responses to the new sciences. Since the seventeenth century, apologetic writing has stressed a harmony between science and religion, by selecting or neglecting different aspects of scientific and religious knowledge. Only in the late twentieth century has attention turned to uncovering a method of selection that might fruitfully anticipate ongoing discoveries, updates, and new evaluations for expressing theological knowledge.

Five historical questions are particularly important in illustrating this pattern: Copernicanism, the rise of physico-theology, Darwinism, biblical criticism, and scientism. In each case, the initial theological reaction to new scientific learning was confusion and disagreement, followed by concord and agreement.

First, echoing Augustine's hermeneutic that the biblical text is revealed in a way accessible to the uneducated, Galileo Galilei's Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615) was a classic attempt to render Copernican astronomy and Catholicism compatible. No recourse to a natural proof for the existence of God was offered in the Galilean controversy.

Second, adopting contrary positions, in the spirit of William Derham's 1713 work Physico-theology, thinkers like Samuel Clarke, John Ray, Nicolas Malebranche, and René Descartes speculated on which fundamental natural principles (mechanics or mathematics) ground a proof for God's existence. Isaac Newton's position was the pivotal argument from design and is found in writings such as the Opticks (1704), rather than the crucial Principia (1687).

Third, after the mid-nineteenth century, Darwinism took this range of opinion and expanded it further into two discernible currents in the English-language world. Initially, there were those who incorporated the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and adaptation into theological reflection (Asa Gray, Charles Kingsley, Aubrey Moore). Then, there were those who sought to confront and to critique evolution altogether (Charles Hodge, Samuel Wilberforce).

Fourth, advancing beyond the various attempts by philosophers Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Ernst Schleiermacher, Georg Wilhlem Hegel, and theologian John Henry Newman to reestablish a synthesis in knowledge, was scientific historical biblical criticism (David Strauss, Hermann Reimarus, Albert Schweitzer) and its impact upon biblical hermeneutics. This research and that which followed it quickly eclipsed nineteenth and early twentieth century defense of a historically precise text (Pope Pius IX, Karl Barth).

Fifth, from the middle of the twentieth century, a growing chorus of critique against scientific reductionism or scientism has developed within the natural sciences, as positivist assumptions of earlier scientific investigation have been shown to be limited.

Twentieth-century apologetics

Still common in the thought of evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and orthodox Judaism, theological apologetics resembles much historical literature in its continuing reference to Christian doctrines such as incarnation, resurrection, creation, and immortality of the soul. However, in other quarters, apologetics has evolved beyond the focus on doctrine and has transformed itself to accommodate the specialization of knowledge and the secularization of university life. This is reflected in the natural theology offered in the prestigious Gifford Lectures offered at Scottish universities since 1889. In Roman Catholicism since 1950, apologetics has been designated as "fundamental theology." Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue have also shaped the importance and impact of theological apologetics.

Late twentieth-century apologetic literature with a scientific accent and doctrinal focus is represented in the writings of the scientist-theologians Stanley Jaki, Alister McGrath, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Robert John Russell, and Thomas Torrance. A less precise theological reconstruction of apologetics exists. It transposes Christian doctrine philosophically through a capacious theoretical commitment. This method is present in the writings of scientists such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred North Whitehead, contemporary philosophers Nancey Murphy, Joseph Bracken, and Holmes Rolston III, as well as the theologians Wolfhart Pannenberg and John Haught.

See also Natural Theology


bouillard, henri. the logic of faith. new york: sheed and ward, 1967.

buckley, michael. at the origins of modern atheism. london and new haven, ct: yale university press, 1987.

dulles, avery. a history of apologetics. new york: corpus, 1971

lindberg, david c., and numbers, ronald l., eds. god and nature: historical essays on the encounter between christianity and science. berkeley and los angeles: university of california press, 1986

lonergan, bernard. method in theology. minneapolis, mn: seabury press, 1979.

paul allen

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Apologetics (Lat., apologia, ‘defence’). The defence, or commendation, of a religion.

Among Christians, the name ‘Apologists’ is given to the earliest group of Christian writers who (c.120–220) composed defences of Christianity addressed to educated outsiders. They include Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, Minucius Felix, Tatian, and Tertullian. A notable later example is Augustine's City of God. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is addressed to Francis I (the French King) to persuade him of his error in pursuing a policy of persecution.

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"Apologetics." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 17 Jan. 2018 <>.

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