Book Review - Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader

First Peter 3:15 states, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” Apologetics is the formal study of how we are to “give an answer.”

William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, professors of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, have done a great service to the Church in compiling a collection of writings from the New Testament era to AD 1500. This collection shows how writers from different eras, facing different challenges, have sought to defend the faith.

The volume here reviewed is the first of what originally was to be a two-volume set, and has 486 pages plus an 11-page index. In communications with someone working on volume two, I learned that the volume had grown to over 1,000 pages, and there is a possibility they will split the material from AD 1500 to the present into two volumes. If the second volume is of the same quality as the first, I hope that no material will be deleted in an attempt to limit the series to two volumes.

Making an anthology is like carving a statue. The editors, like the sculptor, must make many decisions regarding what to include and what to chisel away. In my judgment, Edgar and Oliphint have made very good—and in one case surprisingly good—selections from the material available. This book provides an excellent introduction to how believers have fought for the faith against pagans and atheists as well as against heretics and false religions.

The book begins with an excellent introduction to the overall project, providing both a short review of the state of apologetics today and the criteria for making the selections included. The editors state, “The twentieth century saw both significant development in apologetics and a measure of decline.” (p. 1) They cite the “onslaught of the Enlightenment, followed by Romanticism” (p. 2) as making both reason and faith independent of Scripture, calling for a need to develop new ways to explain our hope to the world around us. In our day, when many now associate taking religion seriously with violence, there are new challenges as well.

The structure of the book

The editors used two questions to determine what to include in this anthology. “The first is historiographical. What are the major eras?” (p. 7) This volume covers two eras. Part 1’s focus is “The Early Church: The struggle for Vindication,” while Part 2’s focus is “The Middle Ages: The Church Becomes Established.”

Within these major eras, the editors then employed a second question: “one of priorities, that is, which materials to select, and how extensively” (p. 7). For the first 1500 years of church history, the editors chose 15 authors. For each author, the book provides representative writings as well as extensive quotations of one or two of their key writings. These extended quotations only allow a limited range of the topics some of these authors covered, but they have the advantage of allowing the apologists’ fuller method to be seen. The editors also included five Scripture texts that summarize the New Testament approach to apologetics.

Each of the major parts begins with an introduction to the era, including what was happening historically as well as the key themes of the apologetic work coming out of the era. In the introduction to Part 1, the authors identify the three central challenges the early apologists faced: persecution, heresy, and unbelieving Jews. Persecution led to writings that sought relief from the persecution, and answering the charges of atheism, cannibalism, incest and disloyalty that were used to justify the persecutions. Heresies led to writings that carefully and clearly explained the true teachings of Scripture while refuting the errors of the heretics. The unbelieving Jews were often the instigators of the persecutions but also were a key evangelistic target of the early apologists since there was a shared monotheism and belief in the Old Testament writings.


Each apologist receives a brief biographical introduction, along with a brief setting of the background for the selection from that author. Chapter one begins with an overview of the early church, primarily from Acts. The Biblical texts cited are Luke 1:1-4, John 20:20-31, Acts 17:1-34, I Peter 3:13-22 and Revelation 2:1-3:22. By including these passages, the editors show the connectedness of the early church apologetic activities to the text of Scripture itself. For this they deserve to be applauded. Some have charged that apologetics is philosophy hijacking theology. If the editors had started with the early apologists directly, the connection between their concerns and approaches with those of the writers of Scripture would not have been as evident.

The “diagnostic questions” at the end of each chapter form one of the strongest features of the book. While one could find all of the texts included in this volume elsewhere, (nearly all are available on the Internet), the editors provide questions that help the reader understand the method and the motivations of the various writers. For someone reading the book on his own, these questions provide a useful review and reflection on each article. For small groups, Sunday school or seminary classes, the questions provide a good starting point for discussions about the texts.

Some reviewers have criticized the editors’ decision to let “the texts speak for themselves” (p. 7). Outside of the introductions, diagnostic questions, and occasional explanatory footnotes, the editors do not explain the selections. This book would not serve as a standalone introduction to the apologetics texts, nor was that the editors’ intention. What this book strives to do, and achieves, is provide the minimal background needed to effectively interact with the primary sources included. This approach allows the reader to interact with these early apologists directly and form their own opinions about the merits and flaws of their apologetic.

Chapter 2 introduces the first post-NT apologist, Aristedes. The chapters’ selection is the earliest known apologetic writing after the New Testament, possibly written within 35 years of the book of Revelation. Aristedes wrote an apology, or defense, of the Christian faith which he may have presented in person to the Roman Emperor Hadrian or Antoninus Pius. The apology was written primarily to address the challenge of persecution. Aristedes bases his argument on the eternality and creatorhood of God and exposes the emptiness of paganism.

Justin Martyr is the focus of chapter 3, which opens with one of the best introductions of the book. The editors use Justin to explain the use of ad hominem arguments in the early apologists, as well as the interaction of the early apologists with philosophy.

An ad hominem argument is one “against the man,” or one’s opponent. An example of an ad hominem argument would be to assert that someone is a theological liberal and therefore wrong. Such an argument is a logical fallacy since, even if the person is a liberal, he may be right about the matter at hand. His liberal beliefs, for example, do not affect his statement that it is sunny today.

The editors carefully point out that there is a non-fallacious use of ad hominem, one in which the beliefs or actions of the person do directly affect the viewpoints debated. The authors provide the example of “a scientist who is rigorously committed to the empirical method yet who definitively renounces, a priori, any notion of creation has opened himself up to a legitimate ad hominem rebuttal. There are legitimate issues of trustworthiness and credibility that can be raised” (p. 36). The very fact that the scientist does not use his own method and rejects, without evidence, the claims of creation is an appropriate issue for debate. Justin Martyr and other early apologists argued that if their opponents consistently used their own beliefs and methods, they would be forced to abandon those beliefs and methods. “They were addressing their accusers’ assumptions and the contradictions that result” (p. 37).

The introduction to Justin Martyr also provides a helpful overview of the interaction and role of philosophy in the early apologists. Justin Martyr himself was a student of nearly all the major schools of philosophy in his day and found them all wanting. He then met someone who introduced him to Christianity. There he found a complete system that answered all his questions. Justin does make some startling claims, such as that Socrates knew of Christ (see the quote from the Second Apology on p. 41). We would not want to use his apologetic method without modification. Yet reading Justin, we see one who does not speak ashamedly as though the claims of Christianity were second rate. Justin speaks boldly as one convinced that no other system offers a sure foundation from which to understand the world around us and prepare us for the life beyond.

Beyond Justin Martyr

Other writers in the early era include Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom and Augustine. Some may be surprised to see Origen included since he taught many things that were heretical or the seeds of future heresies. But his Contra Celsus was a point by point refutation of the Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris or Christopher Hitchens of his day. Celsus had written A True Discourse to show the foolishness and dangers of believing in Christianity. Following Celsus’ outline, Origen provides a careful, reasoned defense. Origen did blend much Greek philosophy with his theology, which led to his errors. But Contra Celsus shows we would be wrong to not learn from him.

Part 2 closes with Augustine, who provides the transition from the Early Era to the Middle Ages. Augustine is rightly awarded the largest section of the book—over 100 pages—with selections from Confessions and The City of God. It would be hard to choose from among the 5,000 pages of Augustine’s work that appear the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection. So much of Augustine’s writings were apologetic in nature. The editors chose the two largest and best known of Augustine’s works to illustrate his apologetic style and method.

The Middle Ages

Part 2 covers the Middle Ages, with selections from Boethius, Peter Abelard, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Raymond Lull, and Girolamo Savonarola. The introduction provides another helpful overview of the changes in the environment in which the Middle Ages apologists worked. No longer was Christianity persecuted, but rather it was now the official religion of much of the world, if only nominally. The editors summarize the critical period of the fourth and fifth centuries and the dramatic changes that came about in Augustine’s lifetime and shortly after. “The change in focus, such that those defending the faith were not immediately in danger of execution, also changed the styles and methods used” (p. 313).

This second part features the best surprise of the work, the inclusion of Raymond Lull’s work The Book of the Gentiles and the Three Wise Men. Lull, who lived from 1232-1316, was the only writer in this anthology not known to me prior to reading the book. Lull lived in Majorca, the largest island of Spain, and “He became convinced that his primary calling was to convert the ‘Saracens’ to the worship of Christ” (p. 410). He set out to master Arabic so that he could effectively communicate with the Muslims. He gave the rest of his life to writing books addressed to Muslims and to training others in Arabic so they could go as missionaries to Muslim lands. While one may not agree with the form of apologetic used by Lull, the inclusion of his work is of great interest given the rise of Islam in our world.

A weakness

The biggest flaw of the book comes in the chapter before the one on Lull—that on Thomas Aquinas. I have two specific criticisms of this chapter. First, the introduction features a very technical discussion of the role of analogy in Aquinas’ thought. This section is far more technical than the rest of the book, and those not familiar with the subject will probably find the section incomprehensible. Second, the introduction to Thomas Aquinas runs nearly seven pages, yet the selection from his work consists of only six pages. The scantiness of this selection might leave a newcomer to the field with the impression that Aquinas has had only a minor role in the development of apologetics though even the editors admit, “Thomas Aquinas was without question the most important and influential figure of the medieval period” (p. 395). While neither the editors nor I agree with Aquinas’ methodology, providing such a brief selection of his work seems a serious slight.

I highly recommend this collection for pastors, seminarians and lay people. The book is extremely well constructed—as a reference volume should be—and provides an excellent collection of the key writings of the first 1500 years of the Church’s apologetic work. If you want to better understand apologetics and how believers in different ages tried to give “the answer” to their generation, this is the book to read.

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Paul Henebury's picture

Thank you for a thoughtful and thorough review of this work. I agree with you re. the sparseness of the readings from Aquinas.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Charlie's picture

Thomas Aquinas has suffered pretty severe misinterpretation at the hands of Protestants - Schaeffer, Van Til, Henry, and others. On the other hand, I don't blame them harshly because Thomists for a long time misrepresented Thomas, and the Protestants were mainly following their interpretation. I tried to look at this book on Amazon, but a few pages were missing, and I wasn't sure how the authors represented Thomas' intentions regarding the 5 ways.

In the 20th century, a widespread reversal occurred among medieval scholars - de Lubac, Gilson, Balthasar, de Broglie, Maritain, etc. - who realized that Thomas had been interpreted in the light of 16th- and 17th century Thomists, who had radicalized and distorted some of Thomas' views to respond to Protestant and Cartesian threats. These 20C scholars maintain that Thomas did not intend the 5 ways as a preamble to one's faith or as necessary stepping stones in evangelism. Thomas is not, as Schaeffer popularized, the author of the "two-story" view of grace and nature, nor does his conception of faith significantly depart from Calvin's view.

There are plenty of Catholic resources on this subject, but Arvin Vos, a Reformed philosopher, has written a book intending to convey these insights and corrections to Protestants.

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