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Christian Apologetics Past and Present - Volume 1

Christian Apologetics Past and Present - Volume 1

Christian Apologetics Past and Present: Volume 1, ed. by William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint

The defense of the Christian faith, often called apologetics, is as old as the Bible itself. Given that God's people have always lived in the midst of competing stories about reality, the Scriptures are often posed as a polemic against alternate worldviews. In the Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets stand in contrast to idols made by human hands and the superstitious worship of created things. In the New Testament, the wisdom of the world is critiqued as foolish by the wisdom of the cross. Naturally, the church continued this apologetic discussion with her neighbors as the centuries progressed and she found herself in a variety of new contexts.

Volume 1 of Christian Apologetics Past and Present serves as an excellent primary source reader for anyone wanting to sample the fathers and theologians of the church without digging through countless works of church history (but if you have the time, go for it!). Beginning with the apologetic edge of the Scriptures themselves, the primary sources selected by Edgar and Oliphint span the post-apostolic age of Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, the works of fathers like Augustine and Chrysostom, and the more philosophical works of later scholastics such as Abelard and Aquinas. The texts run just short of engaging the Reformation, leaving the reader ready for Luther and Calvin in volume 2. 

Each historical section is preceded by an introduction that explains the unique challenges faced by the church at that given time. For the first section of the book, the editors go into detail about the severe persecution of the post-apostolic apologists that called for a defense of the legality of Christian practice in the Roman Empire. Faced with false accusations of atheism, cannibalism, and even incest, Justin and Tertullian offered an apologetic more in line with the actual use of the Greek word apologia - a defense given to an accusation. In a society where Christian ethics are more and more prone to misunderstanding and even accusation, modern readers will do well to trace the arguments of these early church apologists.

The second section of the book deals with apologetic issues related to heresy rather than outright challenges to the legality of the church. Since the threat of persecution gradually faded and the church became more established, a renewed effort to clarify the catholic faith in response to heretical counterfeits called for apologetic masterpieces such as Athanasius' The Incarnation of the Word of God. Athanasius speaks about the uniqueness of the gospel in such a way that modern readers will find it helpful in dialogues with skeptics as well as the modern day manifestation of the Arian heresy - the Jehovah's Witnesses. 

A large portion of the second section is devoted to Augustine's Confessions and his massive City of God. The works are excellent enough that their length is enjoyable rather than arduous (except for a few portions in the City of God where Augustine may be difficult for some readers - at times I found it hard to follow some of his more subtle philosophical trains of thought). The apologetic quality of The Confessions rests in the argument of a restless sinner won over by seemingly irresistible grace. The reader gets the impression that God literally cornered Augustine until he cried "uncle" and caved into the Spirit's work of conversion. Modern readers who engage with a distinctly postmodern mindset may very well find Augustine's narrative of salvation intriguing to their audiences. The City of God also stands out as applicable in our context, especially given the recent political unrest of our nation and threat of foreign violence. Augustine wrote during the collapse of the Roman Empire as the enemy was literally at the gates. Perhaps the church will find this work all the more relevant in coming decades. 

The third section engages the scholastics - Anselm, Abelard, and Aquinas to name a few. I admit that this part was the least interesting (except for the personal life of Abelard). Anselm's ontological proof of God is deeply interesting - especially the piety with which he approaches the intellectual task of understanding with his mind what he has already received by faith. However, his defense of his work to the monk Gaunilo degnerates (in my opinion) into painful philosophical hairsplitting. Aquinas is interesting as well, but anyone without a solid understanding of Aristotle will work through the selections of the Summa with difficulty.

The volume closes out with the fiery Savonarola, known by many as a precursor to the Reformation. Savonarola stands out in contrast to the scholastics by offering an apologetic based on the piety of the saints rather than their outstanding intellects. This Dominican preacher is no dummy himself, but he chooses to center his apologetic argument on what the church has readily given up for the sake of Christ rather than philosophical arguments.

Overall, I found this volume to be an excellent journey through the pre-Reformation apologetic writings of the church. While some of the contexts to which these apologists speak are more or less foreign to our own, they nevertheless serve to train our minds to think well, and also help us to sympathize with believers in other parts of the world who may find themselves in similar situations. Furthermore, the volume does an excellent job of showing how apologetics is intimately tied to systematic theology, or as some would argue, simply systematic theology applied in response to other competing philosophies. And finally, while the editors are Reformed Christians - the book is published by Crossway and its editors teach at Westminster Theological Seminary - their theological leanings do not come out in their selection of texts. I found the survey to be fair and balanced. I'm working my way through volume 2 now, which proves to be more Calvinistic in focus.

Finally, my only criticism of this book is that some of the sections are too long (I think Anselm could have been shorter, and even Augustine at some points), and a few of the sources could have been longer (Irenaeus and Athanasius, for example). However, none of these potential faults should keep you from having a dog-eared copy of this book on your shelf.

Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church

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