The term "apologetics" has nothing to do with "apologizing" in the ordinary use of that term. It is the entry of the theologian into the intellectual arena, where questions are asked about the meaning of human life, and his grappling with those questions from the standpoint of Christian faith.
Apologetics is the branch of Christian theology that has the twofold task of defending the Christian faith against its critics and of discovering the common ground in reason and experience that may offer the basis for leading non-Christians toward Christian belief. Apologetics thus is distinguished from dogmatics, which is the setting forth of the faith of the Christian church and is addressed to those who already believe.
Any theology that seeks to enter into a serious conversation with questioning minds will have an apologetic element.
Faith and Reason
When Arabian versions of Greek philosophy were introduced into western Europe in the Middle Ages, Christian theologians had to interpret their faith in relation to these new versions of Greek philosophy and to reconsider the relation of Christian faith to the major concepts in the philosophical tradition. Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) entitled one of his chief works Summa contra Gentiles, since it was a treatise written to help missionaries interpret Christian truth to nonbelievers. All of Thomas' work has an apologetic element, the foundation for which was laid in a distinction of four kinds of propositions that had been made earlier by Hugh of St. Victor (died 1141). There are, first, propositions contrary to reason that have no standing in Christian faith. There are, second, propositions that can be demonstrated by reason, such as the existence of God, the freedom of the human will, and the immortality of the soul. Third, there are propositions above reason, such as the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, that are revealed truths known only by faith, not proved by reason. There is also a fourth class of propositions "according to reason" that occupy a somewhat ambiguous position. The creation of the world in time is an idea belonging to this class.
Apologetics in the Thomist manner makes use of this analysis in arguing for the existence of God, freedom, and immortality on the basis of an appeal to man's reason apart from any claim to special revelation.
A further step is necessary if the nonbeliever is to become a Christian. The nonbeliever must recognize the reasonableness of the act of faith in accepting the teaching of the church. Here apologetics must establish the credibility of Christian teaching about God's special revelation. Arguments are drawn from prophecy and miracles to show the plausibility of the belief that God has revealed Himself in tne special ways attested in the Bible.
Not all Roman Catholic apologetics has been based upon the Thomist type of confidence in reason. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) followed the Augustinian tradition when he emphasized the necessity of faith for belief in God. Yet Pascal's thought also has an apologetic aspect as he introduces arguments to show the futility of cynicism and atheism.
Christianity and Science
The tradition of apologetics in Anglican and Protestant theology has been closely related historically to the rationalistic thought of the 18th century. Theologians of that period tried to adjust theological beliefs to the scientific theories of Copernican astronomy and Newtonian physics. An important method in this adjustment was the development of the arguments of natural theology for the existence of God and for belief in a universal moral order culminating in eternal life with its just rewards and punishments. The arguments were revised versions of Thomas' proofs. They asserted the necessity of a First Cause to explain the world of finite things and the necessity of a Supreme Intelligent Designer to explain the adjustment of means to ends in the world. William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) is a classic of this type of apologetics.
A vital problem for 18th century apologists was the adjustment of the supernatural elements in the Christian tradition, such as belief in miracles, to the concept of a natural order obeying mathematical laws. Some thinkers, like John Locke in the latter part of the 17th century, adopted the arguments of natural theology but held also to the validity of belief in the supernatural. Radical deists discarded the supernatural element entirely.
Because of the impact of modern scientific method and knowledge on religious beliefs, apologetics in the modern period often has sought to draw a boundary line between scientific and religious beliefs so that conflict between the two is avoided. One of the classic 18th century works in this spirit is Joseph Butler's Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736). Butler argued that all human knowledge depends on judgments of probability and that the same difficulties that are urged against natural religion and against Christian beliefs are found also in our knowledge of nature. He argues for the reasonableness of belief in miracles, for example, by saying that much of nature remains inexplicable and displays extraordinary happenings.
Many theologians have felt the insufficiency of the rational arguments for belief in God. David Hume and Immanuel Kant attacked the traditional arguments during the latter part of the 18th century, and their criticism increased the need for another interpretation of the grounds of Christian belief. Friedrich Schleiermacher's Reden uber die Religion an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verachtern (1799; Speeches on Religion to Its Cultured Despisers), was an essay in apologetics that appealed to intuition and feeling rather than to abstract reason for the clue to the nature of God and the world. Such an appeal to religious experience has been a primary mode of apologetics in the 19th and 20th centuries. As scientific developments became more influential with the rise of evolutionary theory, increasing attention was given to the distinctive nature of religion, and the attempt was made to show how religious belief complements and does not contradict science.
Among the powerful attacks upon Christian faith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were those of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Nietzsche sought to show that Christianity exploits human weakness by turning it into a morality of subservience. Karl Marx classified all religious belief as ideology, that is, a false projection resulting from the class divisions in society. Sigmund Freud taught that religious belief is the illusory projection of unfulfilled human wishes. Christian apologetics has had to face these criticisms; to ask whether or not they may be perversions of some valid insights; and finally to show that Christian faith rests on firm ground that cannot be undermined by such criticisms.
The complex intellectual situation of Christianity in the 20th century, coupled with the rise of such violently anti-Christian movements as national socialism in Germany, has produced two developments in the theory of apologetics.
One development is the assertion, by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and his followers, of the confessional character of all Christian theology. All natural theology is rejected, along with any appeal to human experience and reason as giving preliminary grounds for faith. The truth that Christianity proclaims, this group asserts, can be accepted only by personal faith. All attempts to find any common ground between Christians and non-Christians break down on the point that man's mind and spirit are corrupted by sin; and, therefore, all attempts to understand God apart from faith result in false and idolatrous beliefs.
A second group of theologians believes that the confessional theology goes too far in rejecting all apologetics. This group holds that theologians must discover the relevant way to communicate the Christian faith to those whose lives are shaped by contemporary culture outside the Christian faith. The apologist is not so much concerned with proving by argument the existence of God as he is with interpreting the meaning of such terms as God, grace, creation, and forgiveness to people for whom this language has lost its meaning. The task of apologetics, viewed from this standpoint, is to interpret the relation between Christian beliefs and man's fundamental questions about his existence without compromising the distinctive character of the Christian revelation. In this way apologetics becomes one of the modes in which Christian truth is clarified and interpreted.