Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: apologetics from Collins English Dictionary

n (functioning as singular)

1 the branch of theology concerned with the defence and rational justification of Christianity

2 a defensive method of argument


Summary Article: Apologetics from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

The concept of apologetics comes from the Greek apologia, meaning the act of defending some postulate or belief. Very early in the life of the Christian church, certain individuals were apologists who defended the veracity of Christianity's teachings. St. Paul saw himself in that light when he said, “I am appointed for the defense [apologia] of the gospel” (Phil. 1:17). Similarly, St. Peter wrote to the Christians of his day urging them “always be ready to give a defense [apologia] to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you …” (1 Pet. 3:15). Following Paul and Peter, other Christians engaged in apologetics, for example, the great apologist Justin in the 2nd century. On account of his strong defense of Christianity, he suffered martyrdom under Emperor Marcus Aurelius when he was executed in ad 166. For his apologetic posture, historians continue to call him Justin Martyr.

In addition to Justin Martyr, numerous other Christian apologists wrote in defense of Christianity. Space permits citing only a few. At the end of the 2nd century, Minucius Felix, a lawyer, in his book Octavius defended Christianity so well against pagan critic Caecilius that he became a Christian. And also at the end of the 3rd century, Tertullian (c.150-c.220), a leading Latin church father from northern Africa, wrote numerous treatises defending Christian teachings, as well as Christians who held to those teachings in the face of accusations made against them for rejecting pagan Roman practices. For instance, Christians spurned attending Roman theaters, boycotted gladiatorial contests, declined to call the emperor “Lord,” refused to honor Rome's pagan gods and goddesses, and turned their back on pagan religious libations. In fact, Tertullian titled one of his many books Apology. Later, St. Augustine (356-430) wrote his monumental work, The City of God, in which he defended Christianity by showing it produced many beneficent effects in the Roman Empire. His work countered the Roman argument that Christianity prompted many to abandon their pagan gods and hence Rome declined. Augustine's work was the first major defense of Christianity.

In the realm of Christian apologetics, one finds three approaches. One is the classical approach that largely employs rational arguments to convince skeptics that God exists or that given biblical accounts are not contrary to reason. Another approach is the presuppositional method. It assumes that skeptics, like most individuals, have unrecognized presuppositions, for example, that God exists. Thus, its proponents say, this presupposition means that there is little need for apologists to convince skeptics that God exists, but they need to use this presupposition to persuade them that the Bible is true, since it is inspired by the God who exists. The third approach is evidential apologetics. Its advocates contend that it is vitally important that apologists present the biblical evidence. For instance, Christ's miracles, and especially the evidence of his bodily resurrection, must be presented as reliable evidence, similar to the manner of attorneys in a court of law. These apologists contend that given the presentation of the evidence in the New Testament, which a number of renowned scholars have shown to be a historically reliable book, the Holy Spirit can bring skeptics to faith in Christ and his atoning work. From such evidence, they can rightly conclude that the miracles Christ performed, along with his bodily resurrection, were indeed the work of God, in fact, that Christ himself is God.

Evidential Christian apologetics is not new. St. Paul used this tack when he tried to persuade the doubters in Corinth who said Christ did not rise from the dead. To counter this false belief, Paul told them the risen Christ had been seen by him personally, by Cephas, by James (the one-time skeptical brother of Jesus), by the twelve apostles, and by some 500 other people, many of whom were still alive (1 Cor. 15:4-9). In effect, Paul told the Corinthian skeptics they could ask those eye-witnesses whether Christ had in fact risen from the dead. Moreover, Paul also said that if Christ had not risen from the dead their “faith” was futile or null and void (1 Cor. 15:17).

The evidential method was also used by Jesus when he answered two disciples of the imprisoned John the Baptist, who one day came to ask him whether he really was the promised Messiah. Jesus reminded them of the evidence that he had healed individuals who had been blind, lame, deaf, and leprous (Matt. 11:4-5). In short, Jesus pointed John's disciples to the empirical evidence of his miraculous works from which John could conclude he was indeed the Messiah.

Although evidential apologetics has biblical precedents, it is largely ignored by most Christian theologians and clergy today. Instead, they argue that a Christian's faith is not — and should not be — dependent on the historicity of the events reported in the New Testament. This argument largely reflects the influence of some modern theologians, such as Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). Tillich taught, “The truth of faith cannot be made dependent on the historical truth of the stories and legends in which faith has expressed itself. It is a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith so to identify it with belief in the historical validity of the Biblical stories.” Bultmann argued similarly. “Let it be most emphatically stated that it is of absolutely no importance for the Christian faith to prove the possibility or historicity of the miracles of Jesus as events of the past ….” Given the influence of individuals, such as Tillich, Bultmann, and others of like mind, numerous theologians and clergy today have no interest in evidential apologetics. To them, the validity of Christianity cannot be defended by pointing to historical events recorded in the Bible.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Dulles, A. (1999). A history of apologetics. Harper & Row San Francisco.
  • Faid, R. W. (1982). A scientific approach to Christianity. Bridge Publishing South Plainfield, NJ.
  • Marcus Minucius, Felix (1974). The Octavius of Marcus Minucius Felix (trans. Clarke, G. W. ), Ancient Christian Writers 39. Newman New York.
  • Lewis, C. S. (1949). The case for Christianity. Macmillan New York.
  • Montgomery, J. W. (1978). Faith founded on fact: Essays in evidential apologetics. Thomas Nelson Nashville, TN.
  • Montgomery, J. W. (1991). Evidence for faith: Deciding the God question. Probe Books Dallas, TX.
  • Alvin J. Schmidt
    Wiley ©2012

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article apologetics
    The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

    Philosophical writings that attempt to refute attacks on the Christian faith. Apologists include St Justin, Origen, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bl

    Full text Article Apologetics
    Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology

    Apologetics (from the Greek apologia , the speech for the defence in a law court) refers to that branch of theology that seeks to offer a...

    Full text Article APOLOGETICS
    Global Dictionary of Theology

    Apologetics is the discipline of theology that seeks to respond to objections raised to Christian belief or to problems that seem to be internal to t

    See more from Credo