Cardinal Dulles on the History of Apologetics

The Place of Belief in Explaining the Faith

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NEW YORK, SEPT. 14, 2005 ( The great improvement in apologetics in recent years is to see it as a theological discipline, done from within the perspectives of faith, says Cardinal Avery Dulles.

That’s a view offered by the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University in an updated version of his book «A History of Apologetics» (Ignatius).

Cardinal Dulles shared his ideas about apologetics with ZENIT.

Q: What have you learned firsthand about the strengths and weaknesses of Christian efforts — both Catholic and Protestant — to make the case for Christianity, especially in recent years?

Cardinal Dulles: The strongest apologists in recent years have been conservative evangelicals. Arguing from the Bible alone, they defend some essentials of the faith, but their individualist, biblicist Christianity is insufficient for Catholics.

Anglicans often engage in a rather mild apologetics, leading to the conclusion that theism or Christianity is probably true. But they do not make a good case for the full commitment of faith.

Catholics in recent years have been uneasy with apologetics, perhaps in reaction to a hypertrophy of apologetics in recent centuries.

But it is not enough to say, as many do, that faith is a gift. We have to show why it is reasonable to make the commitment of faith.

Much of the best Catholic apologetics comes from authors who are not primarily known as apologists, for example: Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope John Paul II.

Q: What, if anything, have you changed your mind about concerning apologetics since you wrote the first edition?

Cardinal Dulles: So far as I can judge, my views on apologetics have remained substantially unchanged since I wrote my «Apologetics and the Biblical Christ,» first published in 1963. That book is based on lectures I gave in 1961, ten years before the first edition of my «History of Apologetics.»

I should add, however, that some of my assessments of the past have changed. In the 1971 edition of my «History of Apologetics,» for example, I did not pay enough attention to the Scholasticism of the 18th century, which does not lack merit even though it has gone out of fashion.

The new edition fills in some lacunae in the old and makes use of new literature. In particular, the 20th century had to be thoroughly reworked to bring the book up to date.

Q: How has apologetics evolved in both substance and form in recent years? What have been the factors behind this needed change?

Cardinal Dulles: From my perspective, I would say that the great improvement is to see apologetics as a theological discipline, done from within the perspectives of faith.

Apologists should not be trying to explain how we reason ourselves into faith, because they should know that we do no such thing. The apologist should be a believer because only the believer can accurately say what the Christian believes and why.

For people to come to faith, they must have heard the Christian message credibly proclaimed. God brings them to assent to his word because he draws them from within by his grace and at the same time surrounds his message with signs that authenticate it as his word. Faith is a reasonable act, not a blind leap into the dark.

Apologetics seeks to identify the signs and help people to grasp the joint meaning of all the signs, taken together. They are, so to speak, God’s signature.

Q: What are the chief objections Christians encounter in defending their faith?

Cardinal Dulles: The answering of objections is only a part of the apologetical task. By themselves, such answers will never produce faith. But to win a hearing for faith it may be important to show that the objections are not conclusive. I will mention three sets of difficulties.

First, there’s the problem of evil. Already in biblical times the Psalmist and others asked God why the ways of the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. Almost since the dawn of Christianity, adversaries have taunted Christians with the contention that God cannot be all-powerful and at the same time good, for if he were, he would not permit the world to be so full of evil.

A second set of objections focuses on the supposed unreliability of the Bible. People say that it is full of myth and legend.

Thirdly, some object that the world has not been much improved by Christianity, as it should have been if Christianity were true.

And so there is no lack of stumbling blocks.

Q: How should apologists go about addressing these objections?

Cardinal Dulles: Regarding the problem of evil, we can only conjecture what reasons God has for permitting so much suffering, especially on the part of persons who seem relatively innocent.

The cross of Jesus does not give a theoretical answer, but it helps us to cope with evil. If God allowed his beloved Son to suffer so much at the hands of wicked men, suffering must not be an absolute or ultimate evil.

The Resurrection shows that even the worst suffering and injustice, patiently borne, can be redemptive and can lead to glory.

As for the Bible, it does not purport to be scientific history. Although it contains much solid history, it is above all else a testimony to the faith of the authors, who indicate some of the grounds of their own faith.

The first Christians obviously had strong reasons for being convinced of the resurrection of Jesus and his divinity.

As for the effects of Christianity, it can at least be shown that if people lived up to its ideals the world would be a far better place. Christianity has never promised to make this world into a paradise. Christian hope focuses on the world to come.

Q: There is widespread rejection of many central Catholic/Christian tenets among professional Catholics/Christians. To what extent do apologists need to address the people within Christianity?

Cardinal Dulles: Christians are in need of apologetics not only to help them spread their faith but also to overcome their own doubts and temptations to unbelief.

When addressing Christian believers, apologetics adopts a different style than when directed to unbelievers. It can argue from those revealed truths that the believer does accept, whereas in the case of unbelievers, apologetics must abstain from basing its arguments on revealed truth.

Q: John Paul II challenged Catholics to engage in a new evangelization. What is the relationship between evangelization and apologetics?

Cardinal Dulles: Evangelization is a confident proclamation of the Christian message. The evangelizer does not always have to spell out reasons for holding that the message is true. Some people will spontaneously see its credibility without requiring any demonstration.

Others, however, may need something like apologetics before they can credit the message. Therefore apologetics may have a place in the process of evangelization.

Q: Some people — including some Catholics — would hold that interreligious dialogue and ecumenism preclude apologetics. What is your view of the matter?

Cardinal Dulles: In interreligious and ecumenical dialogues the objective is to find or extend common ground rather than to convert the dialogue partner to one’s own faith, which is the purpose of apologetics.

But honesty requires us not to conceal our true convictions where they differ from those of the partner. It may be that in dialogue we have to explain why we cannot accept the positions of the other party. If so, dialogue will contain an ingredient of apologetics.

Q: How do you think apologetics needs to continue to evolve in the future?

Cardinal Dulles: I always hesitate to predict the future. But I would say that the most promising
developments of apologetics in recent years are in the direction of personalism.

Faith is seen as a personal commitment to a personal God, who discloses himself and his will for us out of love. To believe is to accept the testimony of God as a loving response.

We do not have to prove the truth of what he tells us, but we must have reasons for believing that the word we accept in faith truly comes from God.

God’s word commends itself to us by its beauty, its majesty, its profundity, and its power to effect conversion. Apologetics calls attention to these wonderful properties.

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