Defending and Defining the Faith:
An Introduction to Early Christian Apologetic Literature
By D. H. Williams
Oxford University Press. Pp. 465. $74.
Review by Jonathan Bailes
I can’t recall what was the first apologetics book that I ever read. It might have been Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Or maybe it was G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. I don’t remember. But I do remember a time in my life during high school and college when I was very drawn to this genre of Christian writing, partially, I think, because it gave a sense of ballast to my faith as I began to confront new intellectual challenges, but also because it offered me a deeper understanding of that faith. Reading apologetics helped me understand what it means to be a Christian. It taught me to focus my attention on the shared essentials of Christian belief and it clarified for me their profound significance.
Ironically, it was only when I started studying theology at a graduate level that my reading of apologetics began to wane. And I don’t think I’m unique. From my experience, there is a distinct absence of interest in apologetic literature within the world of academic theology. Why that is, I am not entirely sure. Maybe it’s because apologetic works tend to be written for a general and not an academic audience. Maybe it’s the result of a post-Barthian discomfort with natural theology or a MacIntyre-inspired suspicion of the possibility of persuasion among “incommensurable” rival traditions. Or maybe it’s just because the project of apologetics today is so often associated with the legacy of American fundamentalism, which is an object of common disdain in academic theology departments.
But these objections to apologetics — that it is a modern phenomenon and that it fails to persuade true skeptics — are misleading. As a matter of fact, apologetics has an old and extensive pedigree in the Christian intellectual tradition and its purpose has never simply been to persuade critics of the faith. That, at least, is the argument of the new book by Baylor professor D. H. Williams, Defending and Defining the Faith: An Introduction to Early Christian Literature.
Of course, to say that the early Church had its own works of apologetics is nothing new. Every seminarian is introduced at some point or another to that group of second-century Christian writers known as “the Apologists,” that motley crew of authors who penned the earliest apologies in defense of the Christian faith. But as Williams reminds us, it is a mistake to think that the task of apologetics began and ended with them. To the contrary, apologetic literature played a prominent role in the life of early Christianity, not only during times of persecution, but well into Christianity’s ascendancy as the official religion of the Roman Empire. And the authors of this literature varied widely, from the well-known and influential — Origen, Athanasius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Ambrose, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria — to the obscure and nearly forgotten — Minucius Felix, Arnobius of Sicca, Marcarius the Magnesian, the anonymous author of the Cohortatio ad Graecos.
Reading the works of these early apologists also makes it very clear that the purpose of apologetics has always extended beyond that of defending the faith. For most of these authors, as Williams points out, wrote their apologies at least partially if not primarily with a Christian audience in mind. Apologetic literature, therefore, was never intended simply to persuade critics. It was also intended as a means of teaching Christians, of strengthening the faith of those who were wavering and more clearly defining the faith for those whose pagan past might still hold undue influence.
The range of authors and texts covered in the book prevents Williams from engaging with any of them at length or in detail. What he offers instead is, as the subtitle indicates, an “introduction” to their major texts and arguments. The book is also noticeably lacking a unifying thesis (the reader feels this absence especially in the final chapter, which ends abruptly after summarizing an argument put forward by Theodoret of Cyrus, with no attempt to offer a conclusion of any sort). Those looking for a creative, interpretive analysis of early Christian apologetic will find this disappointing. But there is also a strength to the approach that Williams takes. For while the book does not offer the reader a definitive interpretation of early Christian apologetics, it does give her a deep appreciation for the breadth of this tradition and an opportunity to witness for herself both the similarities and distinctions in the arguments Christians make to defend their faith as their relationship to pagan society evolves.
This book will prove to be an excellent resource for any student or scholar or pastor who wishes to gain greater familiarity with early Christian apologetic literature. It will also serve another valuable purpose if it can help to dispel once and for all the mistaken notion that the project of apologetics is simply a modern and reactionary trend unworthy of the attention of Christian intellectuals. And for some who read this book, it may serve a greater purpose still by inspiring them to take up the task of defending and defining our faith today, in the context of what T.S. Eliot once called a culture of “modern paganism.”
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bailes is cathedral theologian at Christ Church, Plano, Texas.