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After growing up in a Christian home, I began to experience doubts about Christianity in college. Struggling through some nagging questions, one thing that brought relief was realizing I wasn’t alone. The church had raised, reflected on, and responded to similar questions for 2,000 years. Christians hadn’t been sticking their head in the sand, trying to hide from these challenges. Though the churches I grew up in didn’t expose me to these intellectual resources, I discovered the church had a rich tradition of critical inquiry that could buoy my faith in rough times. I learned that, in order to deal with my doubts, I needed to look backward before I could move forward.  

In order to deal with my doubts, I needed to look backward before I could move forward.

In recent years, a growing trend has emerged among many evangelical theologians and pastors to recover theological resources from the past and apply them to the present. As Gavin Ortlund has recently written, theological “retrieval is on the rise in evangelicalism.” Yet a similar retrieval more specific to apologetics could also serve the church in both helping those struggling with doubts and inspiring creative responses to new questions.

I suggest we begin by retrieving two features of apologetics from the early church.

1. Retrieving the Role of Pastor-Apologist

Many theologians and pastors are hesitant, and even averse, to embrace the role of apologist. Yet church history teaches us that this reticence is a more modern development. As Avery Dulles observes, “After the first quarter of the second century . . . apologetics became the most characteristic form of Christian writing.” Unsurprisingly, then, there were few leaders in the early church whose body of work didn’t include contributions in apologetics. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, labored against the Gnostic heresy and is known for his imaginative and bold defense of the fourfold Gospel accounts. Theophilus, Syrian bishop of Antioch, defended the faith to the Jews by appealing to its Old Testament roots. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, was a stalwart defender of Christ’s divinity. These pastor-theologians intuitively took on the role of apologist as part of their identity as a gospel ministers.

As the early church existed as a strange minority in a pluralistic context, too much was at stake for the pastors not to be apologists. 

As the early church existed as a strange minority in a pluralistic context, too much was at stake for the pastors not to be apologists. 

Given that today’s pluralism finds closer parallels with the cross-pressured world of Irenaeus and Augustine than with the Christendom of Aquinas and Calvin, the public theology of these early pastor-apologists could prove more illuminating for our secular age. What would it look like for a late-modern apologetic to be formed in the crucible of pastoral ministry and informed by early Christian leaders living as a minority group in a hostile culture?  

If this question was given more attention, it might also help us navigate and advance some of the methodological debates that have taken up oxygen in apologetics discussions. Since apologetics is a culminating and practical discipline, our approaches need to be applied and tested on the ground rather than simply put forward in the classroom.

For example, Augustine’s City of God was a response to a friend’s request for help in persuading a pagan and answering the popular critique that Christianity was bad for the empire. Pastorally, Augustine wed philosophy, history, and theology to answer critics, go after lost sheep, and bolster the faith of the fragile. In this spirit, it could be pastors and missionaries—those freed from the academy’s apologetic tribalism—who lead in applying apologetics in evangelism and preaching each week, and who will help us move beyond some of the turf wars that have plagued these discussions. 

What would it look like for a late-modern apologetic to be formed in the crucible of pastoral ministry and informed by the theological leaders of the early church living as a minority group in a hostile culture?

Plus, who’s going to help those who, like my younger self, aren’t aware of the rich intellectual Christian tradition and are struggling with the cross-pressures of a post-Christian world? Even if you’d prefer not to wear the apologist label, when questions are posed about suffering and evil or the Bible’s oppressive ethics, what Christian doesn’t want to be able to help the person asking? In an increasingly secular age, too much is at stake for pastors not to be apologists. 

2. Retrieving a ‘Natural Theology’ for Post-Christendom 

For many, “natural theology” can be a confusing label because people mean different things by the term. My co-editor in The History of Apologetics, Alister McGrath, has offered six options for what’s meant by the term (see Re-Imagining Nature). While studying the history of apologetics will enable you to see more clearly what’s at stake in these different approaches, it can also move you forward to be winsome and wise in applying your theology. 

I suggest two axioms to serve as guideposts. First, there’s a “givenness” to the universe that declares the glory of God (Ps. 19); church history reminds us this is assumed as a standard Christian doctrine. Second, history also teaches us there’s no view from nowhere. While the heavens declare divine glory, humans interpret these creational signposts in differing ways. The question, then, is how should we use arguments that pick up on the fabric of creation and the religious nature of God’s image-bearers in a post-Christian context?  

The early church had their own context, which they studied and plundered for their arguments. Certain arguments seem more plausible when Platonism is assumed, or the existence of angels and demons is seen as obvious. Yet we aren’t breathing the same cultural air. In our late-modern age, these metaphysical assumptions no longer feel, well, natural. So while appealing to a givenness within the universe is still vital in persuasion, we will often have to start further back. Simply carting out “proofs” developed within the second century, or later during Christendom, will not likely persuade today’s skeptics. If we ignore the cultural shifts and prevailing social imagination, our apologetic appeals might “work” with those already open to Christianity—but not with those who are more deeply secular.

If we ignore the cultural shifts and prevailing social imagination, our apologetic appeals might ‘work’ with those who are already open to Christianity—but it likely won’t be effective for those who are more deeply secular.

One way forward, which I attempt to make accessible in Telling a Better Story, is to start with the inescapable features of being created as persons—a sense of beauty, meaning, purpose, morality, guilt, and desire. Yet I’m also confident that, in the future, there will be other openings for natural theology as the plot holes within secular storylines widen. To creatively maximize these opportunities, though, we will first need to go backward and apprentice ourselves in the wisdom of our tradition’s past.

Editors’ note: 

Joshua Chatraw recently edited a volume on apologetics, The History of Apologetics: A Biographical and Methodological Introduction.

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