Reflection: What is/are apologetics?

A few years ago I received an email which had in it a Catholic IQ test.  I have search for this quiz for years, and have not yet found it.  Sorry for the bubble burst.  Anyway, one of the questions was “Apologetics means” and then there were four options.  I don’t even remember the wording of the right answer.  I just remember one of the wrong ones:


“Never having to say you’re sorry.”


It’s more true than one might think, but its still not quite right (and the Love Story reference is enough to make one squirm).  Apologetics has nothing to do with apologizing in the way we use the word in English.  When we apologize normally, we say we are sorry for some wrong done, and by doing so promise to correct what was wrong.  In Apologetics, however, your purpose isn’t to say you are sorry and admit you were wrong.  On the contrary, you are proclaiming that your belief is correct.  You are defending your beliefs and convictions.  You are fighting a battle, an intellectual, albeit, and you are not backing down, and you are certainly not saying sorry. 


When you think Apologetics, think of Plato’s The Apology.  In this dialogue, the great philosopher Socrates defends his philosophy before an Athenian court.  Socrates is not apologizing in the way we normally use the word.  He’s not saying sorry for having taught the existence of a spiritual world of Forms, or of the immortality of the soul (which he re-proclaims in this dialogue), but is rather presenting again his arguments.  He is defending his position.  He is Apologizing in the way we use the word here on this blog.  He is seeking to defend his position and by doing so bring his hearers over to his side. 


So it is with Christian Apologetics.  There is a long and glorious history of Christian apologists throughout the last two thousand years of Church history.  Jesus urged his followers not to give up hope in their beliefs, and to not worry what to say when questioned, that He would let them know what to say (Luke 21:13–15).  Likewise, St. Peter, the first pope, encouraged the faithful to “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).  Generations of Christians have done just that. 


St. Justin Martyr was one of the first, and perhaps most famous, early apologist.  He defended the Church’s teachings before two Roman Emperors (while, one should not, Christianity was still illegal) and in a dialogue with Trypho the Jew.  In both cases, Justin sought to defend the Faith in his writing; he is an apologist.  Many of the Fathers of the Church likewise wrote in defense of the Faith, especially during the 4th and 5th centuries, when heresies drove the Church to clarify her teachings about God, Christ, and grace.  Men like St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and St. Jerome all wrote tracts against certain errors of their day, presenting an apology, in the same way Socrates did, of the Christian Faith. 


The need for apologetics died down during the age of Christendom, the Middle Ages, as much of the known world shared the same beliefs.  There are some exceptions, of course.  St. Dominic formed the religious order that bears his name, the Dominicans, in response to a need for clear apologetics in the face of the Albigensian Heresy.  St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican, wrote a full summary of the Christian Faith in his Summa Theologica, which was set up in the popular scholastic style of the time.  It is a very effective method of arguing.  First the writer poses a question, the topic of the debate.  Then the dissenting position is given, complete with citations to support their arguments.  Then there is a quote from some authority which questions the dissenting positions.  Then the writer writes a summary of the proper answer to the question.  Finally, the speaker, point by point, responds to the dissenting opinions.  It is a very thorough process, one which remains effective especially in today’s intellectual dialogues. 


The Protestant Revolt (more popularly known as the Reformation) provided the opportunity for a new breed of apologists.  Every Protestant reformer, from Luther to Calvin to Zwingli, presented an apology for their writings, and each one had a counter argument from the Catholic Church.  Perhaps the most definite counter argument lies in the teachings of the Council of Trent, held in three sessions from 1545–1563.  As the age of revolutions swept throughout the world, men became less concerned with arguing over the Faith, more concerned with not loosing their heads (as many clerics did during the French Revolution).  Towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, a new wave of apologist formed.  Based mainly in England, these men of orthodoxy, such as Chesterton, Belloc, Dawson, and Lewis, sought to defend Christianity first and foremost, for in that age of Modernism and anti-religious sentiments, basic tenants of the Christian Faith needed repeating. 


This push towards a re-Christianization of Europe came to a halt with the turmoil of the mid-20th century.  It was only towards the end of that century, in the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s, that the apology for Christianity continued again in earnest.  That led to a huge boom in apologetic literature, not just from Catholics but from all the various Christian denominations.  The Internet produced a huge wave of people expressing their ideas, no matter how outlandish, and there was soon another person with a counter argument. 


So is the field of apologetics today.  People turn to the internet more so than television, radio, and movies for their education.  So too they turn to answers concerning the Faith.  What does a priest or pastor know?  They’re paid to talk about God.  And soon the Internet becomes a counter-church, wherein the modern man offers himself in sacrifice to a digital deity, seeking scriptures more manufactured than the computer through which he searches.  How much wrong information lingers out there! 


An apologist on the Internet must be aware of such a situation.  He must be as informed as his audience as to the methods and sources of information now used.  Thick theological treatises will no longer satisfy the curious mind.  We no longer have the attention span to sit and read.  An apologist must therefore be brief and to the point.  It will be hard for me, since as you can tell, I’m pretty wordy, but I hope that my presentations will be both informative and inspiring.  Since one of the most crucial attributes of an apologist is his humility, one must be aware of one’s own limitations. 


The ultimate goal of the apologist is not to show off his knowledge about God.  It is to bring souls to the truth.  I do not hope to be the next great apologist; I just want the truth to be known, and known with open hearts, so that in knowing the truth, God might allow his graces to flow into each of your lives. 


God bless you all!

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