Orthodox apologetic theology


A short historical review of Apologetic works

Religious delusions ( paganism , pantheism , atheism , etc.) appear in the history of mankind just as early as other delusions ( scientific, philosophic, political, etc.). We find refutations of them in profound antiquity . For instance , in the book Wisdom of Solomon , there are elements of cosmological proofs of the existence of God , and a historical refutation of the falsity of idol worship . In general , the Bible concerned itself very little with questions of proof of the existence of God since in biblical times very few doubted the existence of God . Belief in God then was so clear and strong that every doubt in His existence seemed simply lunatic or another form of psychic abnormality and irrationality .

The fool hath said in his heart , There is no God ( Ps . 13 : 1 ). Ancient Greek philosophy , mainly in the persons of Socrates , Plato and Aristotle , contributed much that is valuable for defending the foundations of religious beliefs and for criticizing atheistic and materialistic teachings .

Our Lord Jesus Christ , in view of the supernatural signs and miracles performed by Him, had no need to turn to so-called scientific and philosophical proofs to corroborate His teachings . For that time , faith alone was enough. Faith was summarized in a heartfelt reception of that which the extraordinary Teacher spoke about.

What could Christ ’s answer be to Pilate ’s question : What is truth ? When He Himself — Truth incarnate — (I am the Way , the Truth , and the Life ) stood before the questioner ?

The Apostles and early Christians preached Christ crucified and resurrected as a veritable fact , and were not in need of any scientific and philosophical structures and dialectical subtleties . And preachers themselves, in the name of Christ , performed miracles through their faith . At first, Christianity was accepted only through faith , and only later did faith itself become an object of reflection .

Appearing in a Judeo-pagan world , Christianity , in defending itself from attack , was forced to disclose the delusions of the pagans and Hebrews . It was necessary to prove to the pagans that the Christian God is the true God ; and to the Hebrews that Christ is the Messiah promised by the prophets . In answer to the persecutions of the governing powers , the Christians had to refute defamation and prove that they not only were not injurious to the government , but on the contrary , were very useful , in consequence of the high moral basis of the new teaching . This explains the character of early Christian Apologetics .

The most ancient Christian Apologetic belongs to Quadratus ( written to the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 126 A.D. ) The historian Eusebius cites a fragment on it in which Quadratus witnesses that some of those resurrected by Christ lived up to his own day.

Since Christianity was being accepted not only by ordinary and unlettered people , but also by people highly educated in philosophy and acquainted with all of the Hellenistic wisdom , the latter most naturally began to defend the new Christian truths in the light of rationalistic , philosophical achievements of honorable , worldly knowledge . In answer to the criticism of Christianity by the pagan savants and philosophers Flavious Arrianus (+ 96 A.D. ), Lucian of Samasata ( 120 – 200 A.D. ), Celsus ( 2nd century ), and later the Neoplatonists Porphyrious ( 233 – 304 ), Philostratus (+ 217 ), Hierocles (+ 305 ) and others, Christianity put forth remarkable apologists from among former pagan philosophers and savants who had accepted Christianity . Among them were such as Apollos ( mentioned by Apostle Paul ), Justin the Philosopher ( 100 – 165 ), his pupil Tatian , Quadratus ( mentioned above as the first apologist ), Aristides , (the full text of whose apology was found by Randall Harrison in 1889 ), the philosopher Athenagoras , then Pantaenus (formerly a Stoic philosopher ), Clement of Alexandria and others.

In the struggle between the young Christian idea and the age old pagan philosophy , an urgent need became apparent : to show forth Christianity as a coherent system of thought or philosophy with a reasonable argumentation which could be contrasted to and could respond to pagan philosophical systems . In connection with this, a new problem appeared . It was necessary to decide in principle the question of the relationship of intellect to faith and philosophy to Christianity , in order to resolve the perplexing questions which were arising concerning the proper place of science in regard to Christian faith . The appearance of new heresies also suggested the same problem . In view of this, some Fathers and teachers of the Church began to deem it necessary to reveal the dogmas of faith with the help of logical methods and to fashion them into a system , setting up against the false gnosticism of heretical schools the true gnosticism of the Christian Church . These teachers of the Church gave a wide scope to their intellect in investigating and defining the dogmas of faith . Other teachers and church writers , believing the cause of heresy to lie in the heretics ’ faulty understanding of the role of human intellect and therefore in their improper application of it to Christian dogmas , endeavored to expound Church teaching using only Revelation as a basis.

The main defender of intellect and philosophy was the so-called Alexandrian School . In Alexandria , that center of learning , with its schools and institutes of learning eclipsing famous Athens , the Christian Church for the first time mastered school learning and took advantage of philosophy for the service of faith . Working here were philosophers who had turned to Christianity , among whom was Clement of Alexandria . Clement , in a definitive manner , solved the question of the relationship between Christianity and philosophy , faith and science , in terms of a full recognition of the participation of honorable intellect in matters of faith . According to Clement , there is no knowledge without faith , and no faith without knowledge . He contended for the indispensability of a faith revealed by learning and supplied with possible proofs , and for an internal bond of faith and knowledge.

Knowledge obedient to faith , and faith strengthened by knowledge , both accompanying each other, comprise a beneficial accord between themselves. Knowledge succeeds faith ; it does not precede it. Clement of Alexandria , the first to attempt to prove Christian theology through knowledge and philosophy , can be called the ancestor of Apologetics as a science.

The same thoughts about the benefits of science and the participation of intellect in matters of faith were also spread by Origen , a pupil of Clement . The thesis of Origen , On First Principles , was the first attempt to create a theological system in which the dogmas of faith are linked , argued , and elucidated by general thought.

A sharp contrast to the Alexandrian school was presented by the North-African school . The most characteristic representation of it was a Carthagenian priest , Tertullian . He sharply denied all that Clement and Origen affirmed . Having accepted Christianity at a mature age , he gave himself to it with the passion of his ardent nature — to fanaticism . Tertullian completely denied the importance of the intellect in uncovering the dogmas of faith . In his opinion , “ heresy is the daughter of philosophy .” “ Believing in Jesus Christ and the Gospel , we have no need to believe in anything else but that.” “The lust of curiosity concerning objects of faith must be completely rejected ; the passion toward science must be suppressed by a yearning for salvation .” “I believe because it is an absurdity.”

Neither Origen nor Tertullian were recognized by the Church as Fathers and unimpeachable Orthodox Church teachers . They were even subjected to censure and condemnation . But the influence of some of their works was considerable . The Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church , Basil the Great , Gregory the Theologian , and Gregory of Nyssa , were partly educated on Origen . St . Cyprian of Carthage was a pupil of Tertullian.

The influence of the Alexandrian school proved to be considerably stronger . In the 4th century , the Christians of the East had neither a fear of intellect , an apprehension of science , nor an enmity towards pagan philosophers . St . John Chrysostom was a pupil of the pagan scholar Livanius , a teacher of eloquence . St . Basil the Great and St . Gregory the Theologian received their higher education in pagan Athens.

All Greek theology during the brilliant , lively and creative age of the Ecumenical Councils , to a certain extent , shows the mark of classic Greek philosophical methods . This period ends with “The Fountain of Knowledge ,” St . John of Damascus ( 7th century ).

The extremely brusque , universal dogmatic formula of Tertullian , “ Credo quia absurdum ” (“I believe because it is an absurdity ”), finally was not accepted either in the East or in the West.

The intellect was acknowledged also as having been given to man by God , and for this reason harmony was reached between true scientific-philosophical knowledge and true religious faith , and the motto of Christian Apologetics became the affirmation : “I believe because it is not an absurdity.”

In the history of Apologetics it is impossible not to note the great importance of St . Dionysius of Alexandria (often called the Great ), a prominent philosopher and theologian of the 3rd century . In his work , “Of Nature ,” is contained a deadly criticism of the teaching of Epicurius about the origin of the earth as the consequence of a collision of atoms . Developing the ideas of Origen against materialistic atheism , St . Dionysius of Alexandria proved with exceeding conviction that the relationship of atoms is possible only on condition that they are subordinated to the universal governing force of Divine Providence.

The great Fathers and teachers of the Church of the epoch of the Ecumenical Councils were not only firm in faith and devoted to the Gospel and of holy life , but were also widely educated in science and possessed a philosophical depth of thought and a dialectical delicacy.

Notwithstanding the greater practical aim of the Latin West , the limitation of its education in comparison to the Hellenized East , and the weakness of its interest in delicate abstractions , the West also did not follow Tertullian , its first teacher and author , but followed the eastern teachers . For a long time , the West learned from the Christian East , as once stern Rome learned from subjugated Greece.

In the epoch of the Ecumenical Councils , great apologetic significance was possessed in the East by many works of St . Athanasius the Great ( 296 – 373 ), St . Basil the Great ( 329 – 379 ), St . Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444 A.D. ), the Blessed Theodoret (+ 457 A.D. ), and others. At this time theologians active in the field of Apologetics in the West were St . Vincent of Lerins (+ 450 A.D. ), Lactantius (+ 325 A.D. ), and especially the Blessed Augustine ( 354 – 430 ), that greatest theologian and apologist of the West . In his work The City of God , making use of the method of Neo-Platonic philosophy , he demonstrated that the best form of a state is found in the heavenly kingdom of the Christian Church . The Blessed Augustine passionately defended intellect and recommended dialectics for theologians . The creative activity of the Christian East flourished during the era of the Ecumenical Councils.

During the Middle Ages the attention of the historian begins to be attracted by the West . Anselm of Canterbury ( 1033 – 1109 ) gave a so-called ontological proof of the existence of God which later was highly regarded by such gifted philosophers as Descartes , Liebnitz and Hegel . Thomas Aquinas ( 1227 – 1274 ) composed a complete philosophic-apologetic system which to this day is the basis for the teaching of Apologetics in Catholic schools.

The predominant direction in the Middle Ages was the so-called scholasticism , which turned its attention mainly to dogmatics , and subjected all church dogmas to a trivially fine , dry , rationalistic analysis . Besides Thomas Aquinas , the more noted Scholastics were: Albertus the Great ( 1193 – 1280 ), Alexander de Hales (+ 1245 ), and John Duns ( Duns Scotus ) (+ 1308 ). But side by side with Scholastics , the West also found mysticism , of whom the most vivid representatives were Bernard of Clairvaux (+ 1153 ) and Bonaventure (+ 1274 ).

Amid the mass of new ideas and theories in the providence of philosophy and science during the epoch of the so-called Renaissance , the western theologians could not at first come to an appraisal . They laughed at the affirmation by Columbus of the spherical shape of the earth and the existence of the antipodes , and persecuted the gifted Copernicus and Galileo for their discoveries . Some of the western theologians even fought against the observations and results of exact natural investigations.

The Eastern ( Orthodox ) Church , however, was blameless in regard to hostility against the progress of science . As to this, there exists impartial , historical and scientific testimony of representatives of western science themselves. For instance , the famous Draper , in his well-known historic research , “The History of the Struggle Between Religion and Science ,” (there is a Russian translation entitled , The History of the Relationship Between Catholicism and Science ,) says : “The Greek Church was innocent of opposing science . On the contrary , she always treated knowledge favorably . She maintained a respect for truth , no matter where it came from. Noticing contradictions between her own interpretations of the revelations of truth and the discoveries of science , she always expected that satisfactory explanations and reconciliation would follow , and in this she was not mistaken.”

Concerning this, Professor N . P . Rozhdestvensky , in his Christian Apologetics , notes in complete fairness : “It can be said with extreme probability , that all important collisions of western theology with natural science would not have taken place if the western church had remained in communion with the Orthodox Church and had remained true to the breadth of the latter’s view concerning the relationship between faith and science , a view which results from the firm conviction in the immutability of the eternal truth of Christianity.”

A new period inflicted a heavy blow to the papacy and the scholasticism of the Middle Ages , as a result of which Catholic scholastic theology fell into decline . But this decline did not mean the fall of theology in general.

The German Reformation stimulated new religious interests and evoked a new theological science , broad and diverse , and receptive to all sorts of new scientific influences and, as a result of this, divided itself into many schools and directions.

The Holy Scripture was again recognized as the main source of religious knowledge and all theology ; the Bible , forgotten in the Middle Ages , again acquired respect and interest . But with this the authority of the Church was shaken , and a new Protestant dogma began to be built on the denial of the authority of the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church , the Ecumenical Councils and general intellectual reason , (which Luther regarded as blind and dull in its nature ). In the opinion of Protestants , struggling with Catholic rationalism , an understanding of the Holy Scriptures should be guided not by the intellect , but by a spontaneous feeling . This gave rise to an extreme subjectivism , which soon evoked a fully natural and rightful reaction in defense of intellect . But the principle of freedom of investigation and interpretation of the Bible , not guarded by the guidance and authority of the Ecumenical intellect of the Church , led to the development of a new Protestant rationalism , differing from Catholic rationalism in the arbitrariness of its individual intellect.

Based on this rationalistic ground , an immense Protestant scholasticism soon rose , not submitting to the old type of the Middle Ages in the scrupulousness of its definitions and refinements of analysis . Concerning Apologetics , the Reformation forced the defense of general , more important truths to retreat to a secondary importance before the defense of private religious convictions.

An impulse to the further development of Apologetics was the movement toward so-called deism . Deism is a religious , philosophical teaching denying Revelation and Divine Providence . The progenitor of deism was the Englishman , Lord Cherberry , in the 17th century . Deism , in the form of a recognition of God as Creator and a denial of God as Divine Providence , was especially propagated in the 18th century . Belonging to the list of deists were Shaftesbury ( 1671 – 1713 ), Tindal ( 1657 – 1733 ), Voltaire ( 1694 – 1778 ), Rousseau ( 1712 – 1778 ). ( Kant and Darwin , with certain reservations , can also be rated deists .) Many deists defended some general Christian truths very strongly and intelligently and so provided weapons for the struggle with unbelief . But for authentic Christian Apologetics this was not enough. Arguments began among apologists . Some thought it possible to interpret and base Christianity altogether on reason , for instance . Tindal ; others, conversely , insisted it is above reason .

From among all these savants and philosophers came quarrelling and often the corruption of Christianity . Distinguishing himself is the remarkable personality of Pascal ( 1623 – 1662 ), a highly gifted French mathematician and a deeply religious thinker , the great apologist of the 17th century . (For a good example , see his Thoughts on Religion.)

The philosophy of Descartes (the French mathematician and philosopher who died in 1650 ), which because of his idealistic character accepted the innateness of ideas and a super-sensible world , had a kinship with Christian views and therefore was used by theologians interested in the defense of the Christian faith , especially his new deliberations in connection with ontological proof of the existence of God.

The principal enemy fought by German Apologetics in the 17th and 18th centuries was the pantheism of Spinoza ( 1631 – 1677 ). A great deal of merit in the battle with him belongs to the German philosopher , Liebnitz (+ 1716 ). The philosophy of Leibnitz , in many ways , assisted the work of a scientific defense of Christianity . In contrast to the gloomy pantheism of Spinoza , it presented a bright philosophical view , examining the world as a creation of the Almighty , All-Wise , All-Blessed Creator . Against the mechanical theories of the formation of the world , it presented the harmonious system of theological outlook . Against the hypotheses of accidental world order , it presented the teaching of predetermined harmony . Against the atheistic theories , it presented philosophical proof of the existence of God , especially the cosmological and theological , and also the truth of the immortality of the soul . The philosophy of Liebnitz therefore gave ammunition for the disproof of materialism , skepticism , and, in part , deism . The philosopher himself took care that his basic philosophic views were reconciled with Christian teaching on God ’s Providence , Revelation , Redemption , the freedom of man ’s will, and the agreement of faith and intellect .

Near the end of the 18th century , the German philosopher Immanuel Kant gave a critique of all proofs of the existence of God which were then known , and then proposed his own new proof (a special form of ethical proof of the trust of the existence of God ). Just as the critique itself, so the new experiment in proving this truth evoked a great rise of interest in Apologetics and contributed to the growth as a particular theological science.

In the first half of the 19th century there was a strong current in both science and philosophy which tried to reconcile knowledge and religion . The authority of the learned Cuvier ( 1769 – 1832 ) illuminated in natural science the religious understanding of nature . The idealistic systems of German philosophy gave material for a philosophical foundation for these attempts . But the spirit of liberalism and rationalism , penetrating from philosophy to theology , deeply perverted the very principles of Protestant theological investigations . Having conquered scholasticism , Protestant rationalism armed itself against Church dogma in general and even against the Holy Scripture . Objections were raised against the godliness of the origin of Christianity ; the human origin of the Holy Scripture was asserted . The miracles , prophesies and, in general , everything supernatural began to be denied . The Holy Scripture began to be studied just like any other ancient literature . Philosophy began to subordinate theology to itself. Dogmatics were adapted according to the philosophic principles of Kant ( 1724 – 1804 ), Fichte ( 1762 – 1814 ), Schelling ( 1775 – 1854 ) and Hegel ( 1770 – 1831 ). The historic church understanding of dogma , the fruit of ten centuries of Ecumenical intellect and experience of the saints , began to be ignored.

Especially great was the harm brought by the German Protestant negative school of historical criticism , known under the name of the New Tubingen School of Theology , the organizers of which were Strauss ( 1808 – 1874 ) and Bauer ( 1809 – 1882 ). This school , having gathered from the past century all that was done by negative criticism in denying the authenticity of biblical books and scriptural miracles , etc., added considerably to these negative results . Armed by them, it took the field not only against Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition , but also against the Person of the Godly Founder of Christianity Himself. Books by Strauss ( 1808 – 1874 ), Schenkel ( 1813 – 1885 ) and others in support of these ideas began to appear , among them The Life of Jesus by Renan ( 1823 – 1892 ) and The Substance of Christianity by Feuerbach ( 1804 – 1872 ).

The philosophical system of Hegel had a powerful and long lasting influence on the method of western scientific , theological Apologetics . This is explained by the fact that Hegel , in his system , gave primary importance to the religious-philosophical outlook which concerned itself with the scientific basis for religious truths , and sharply objected to those theories which denied the benefits and even the possibility of the application of a scientific method to theology ( Kant , Jacobi ( 1743 – 1819 ), Schleiermacher ( 1768 – 1834 )).

For many Protestant theologians , the authority of Hegel became such as was Plato ’s to neo-Platonism and Aristotle to the scholasticism of the Middle Ages . But the efforts to conciliate Christian theology with the rationalistic system of Hegel brought sorry results : God Himself was transformed into a mere idea , and Christian theism was turned into deism and pantheism.

In the history of Catholic theology such waverings as those seen in Protestant theology have not been recorded . Thomas Aquinas remains till now the greatest authority of Catholic dogmatics and Apologetics.

During the 19th and 20th centuries , the struggle with Kant , Hegel , the materialism of Feuerbach and Karl Marx , the positivism of A. Comte ( 1798 – 1857 ) and other philosophic movements , hostile or foreign to Christianity , led to the appearance of many valuable philosophical works , having also a great apologetic meaning.

A profound crisis and, following it, the unique development of physico-mathematical sciences in the 20th century also produced a lot of new apologetic material.

One of the greatest contemporary physicists , mathematicians , astronomers and thinkers , James Jeans ( 1877 – 1946 ), drawing upon the colossal amount of material gathered by atomic research in the last half century , arrives at the deduction that the matter now found in the universe , “did not exist endlessly ,” and closes his deliberation with the statement , “the hand of God evoked it.”

The defense of particular truths and the refutation of many particular theories was chiefly the work of Catholic theologians , while the general defense of Christian truths became mainly the work of Protestant theologians .
Orthodox Apologetics , however, has always tried to give an intellectual synthesis of both general and particular apologetic problems , using as a cornerstone the positive method of building the organically whole Christian world-view . The literature of Apologetics is unusually vast , diverse and almost boundless . But, from a strictly Orthodox point of view , a fully complete , whole and deeply absorbing textbook of Apologetics has not yet been prepared.

Among the various works on Apologetics written in the 19th and 20th centuries , worthy of note are: Ulrici ( 1806 – 1884 ), God and Nature ; F . Hettinger ( 1819 – 1890 ), Apology of Christianity ; and J . Ebrard ( 1818 – 1888 ), Apologetics . All of these works are also translated into Russian.

Of the Orthodox Russian works in Apologetics , noteworthy are the classic work of the Moscow Metropolitan , Macarius ( Bulgakov ), An Introduction to Orthodox Theology , ( 6th edition , St . Petersburg , 1897 ); a remarkable two volume textbook for religious academies by Professor N . P . Rozhdestvensky , Christian Apologetics — A Course of Fundamental Theology ( 2nd edition , St . Petersburg , 1893 ); and an original investigation of dogmatic theology from an apologetic point of view , by the Professor V . Rev . P . Y . Svetlov , Experiment of Apologetical Exposition of Orthodox Christian Doctrine , Vol . I and Vol . II ( Kiev , 1898 ). These remarkable works have not lost their meaning even up to the present time.

Also deserving attention are some other Russian textbooks . For instance , Father Augustine ’s, A Manual of Fundamental Theology ; Professor V . Rev . D.A. Tichomirov ’s, A Course in Fundamental Theology , St . Petersburg , 1887 ; Professor V . Rev . Kudryavtsev ’s Short Course of Lectures in Orthodox Theology ( 2nd edition , Moscow , 1898 ); Piantnitsky ’s Fundamental Theology ; Eleonsky ’s Brief Report on Fundamental Theology ; Petropavlovsky ’s In Defense of Christian Faith Against Unbelief and several others.

Please note:
The full book is in preparation and will soon be available for download in PDF format.