Friday, January 31, 2014

Where Have All the Apologist Gone?

In his systematic theology, Christian Theology, Dr. Millard Erickson wonders where the theological giants of this generation are. Over the past one hundred years, there were a number of great theological thinkers, like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, G. C. Berkouwer, Edward Carnell, and Carl F. H. Henry, who formulated extensive, carefully crafted systems of theology. These men, for the most part he suggests, have passed from the active theological scene, and no thinkers have risen to dominate the theological landscape quite as they did. (65)

On his personal blog, Dr. Roger Olson asks the same question. There was a time when the theological landscape of Christianity was stalked by “giants” he writes. These "giants" were theologians and biblical scholars of world wide reputation whose scholarship was read by nearly every serious student of theology. And not just theological students, but even the broader culture. Olson goes on to show how regular such theologians like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich would be featured on the cover of TIME Magazine. What made these theologians giants was more than the volume of books and articles they published or their ongoing footprint on theology, but in their influence and read throughout the Western world.

Neither theologian denies that there has been a vacuum of theological leaders and scholars. The issue both men raise is worth a serious debate and both seek to explain the apparent absence of theological giants prevalent today. However, now that America has entered into a post-Christian stage, perhaps we should ask a slightly different question: Where have all the Christian apologist gone?

Every first year Church history student learns that after the apostolic age concluded with the death of the Apostle John, the church quickly moved to a period of apologetics. Though there is plenty of theology to chew on from the first centuries of the young church, it is the rise of the apologists that gets the most ink. The most famous of these apologists include Justin Martyr (whose two apologies are just as good today as they were in the 2nd century), Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others. These men made their own contribution to Christian theology (Tertullian, for example, coined the Latin term trinitas meaning "Trinity"), but their theological work was usually done in the context of defending the faith against internal heresies (like Gnosticism, docetism, Marcionism, and countless other early heresies) and external criticisms.

Some of the rumors these early Christians faced are baffling today but were real nonetheless. Christians were accused of being incestuous (referring to each other, including spouses, as "brother," and "sister" and meeting weekly for what they called a "love feast") cannibalistic (eating the body and blood of a Nazarene), and atheist (refusing to worship the Roman gods). Such accusations were easily refuted, but they were not the only challenges the culture threw at the early Christians. As if fulfilling Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 1, the "sophisticated" throughout the Empire believed Christians were foolish followers of a deceased Jew. Did I mention he had been crucified?

Regarding internal threats, the early apologists were always having to defend the faith against the rise of heresies of all stripes. Ebionism, similar to the Judaizers of the 1st century, challenged what the Reformers would later call sola fida and sola gracia. The Docetics, rooted in Greek philosophy, denied the humanity of Jesus and naturally encouraged antinomianism. Marcion published his own canon rejecting the Old Testament in its entirety and most of what we now call the New Testament extracting all Jewish influence from Holy Scripture. In response, the apologists turned to a "Rule of Faith" that clearly defined the boundaries of orthodoxy and continued to fight for the purity of the church.

These apologists lived in a pagan culture. Given the direction of history later in the 4th century, we could even say they lived in a pre-Christian culture. Prior to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, Christianity was mostly limited to house churches and the grassroots. Once the persecution officially ended, the church could focus more on developing more robust theology and theological giants like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Athanasius would rise. We still read their words and see their footprint throughout theological studies today.

If apologetics was necessary in a pre-Christian culture, it will certainly need to be a focus in a post-Christian culture and recent trends have shown that. The study of apologetics, as opposed to just the study of ethics, theology, and philosophy, has grown noticeably in Christian colleges. Likewise, most Christian retail stores have featured an apologetic section for some time. The names of many apologists are becoming more recognizable; Josh McDowell (most notably his Evidence That Demands a Verdict) and his son Sean McDowell, Lee Strobel and his endless The Case of books and DVDs, William Lane Craig's frequent debates with atheists, Muslims, and anyone else, and even Dinesh D'Souza (who is more famous for his anti-Obama documentary but has written and debated against many atheist). The now late Charles Colson made it his life's work to articulate and to train Christians in a biblical worldview. He sought to apply such a worldview in prisons and local governments throughout the country. John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas have sought to step in in light of Colson's absence.

One might not call these men giants, but I suspect that as secular American continues to dust all Christian influence off its proverbial feet and as Christianity becomes more marginalized, the need for apologetic giants will be required. The first Christians were accused of being atheists without a visible god, we are being accused of being heartless bigots who hate women, homosexuals, and other secular darlings. The early church had to fend off a docetic heresy which denied Christ's humanity, we have been fighting its opposite in the form of liberalism for two hundred years. The early church appealed for tolerance from government officials who were regularly persecuting the church. Today, a soft tyranny is rising and secular progressives continue to shout inaccurate pejoratives (bigots, closed minded, hatemongers, homophobes) which stir up more animosity and eventual government intervention. The tax code will likely become a powerful weapon in the days ahead as a result. The early church had to articulate orthodoxy regarding Christ, the nature of salvation, and the canon, we today must defend the doctrine of creation, an immutable God, and the importance and work of the church.

Where have all the apologists gone? I suspect soon - and very soon - we will find them. Let us pray they will be like the giants the church has produced in the past.

For more:
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 5
Wherefore Art Thou Theological Giants?
"Christianity's Dangerous Idea" by Alister McGrath
"Dug Down Deep" by Josh Harris
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