1 Peter 3:15 is generally regarded as the locus classicus of Christian apologetics: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Apologetics is defense. The assumption behind this verse and behind apologetics as a discipline is that one’s defense of the Gospel is inextricable from one’s defense of Scripture. There is no Christian apologetics without the authority of the Bible. However, there is another form of apologetics that is both distinct from and derived from biblical defense: historical apologetics. In other words, referring to church history in order to defend doctrine can take place without referring to Scripture, but not without the understanding that the Bible itself is an historical document. Therefore, in some sense, Scripture itself provides the church with divine warrant to look to history as a means of defending the faith.
Historical apologetics is an ancient practice, stretching back to the early church fathers. Tertullian, for instance, challenged the followers of the arch-heretic Marcion in the second century to trace their teaching back to an apostle of some kind. But as time passed, appeals to historicity and apostolicity began to diverge as separate forms of apologetics. The Protestant Reformers, for example, testified to the unfortunate truth that the Catholic Church’s appeal to apostolic authority was not necessarily an appeal to real biblical history.
Still, in many ways church history as apologetics was begun with the man most historians recognize as the first church historian: Eusebius. His two-part treatise entitled Praeparatio evangelica and Demonstratio evangelica has been called “with all its faults…probably the most important apologetic work of the early church.” (Lightfoot, 1880) His famous Ecclesiastical History was itself an attempt to prove that Christianity was also a religion of antiquity alongside ancient Greek thought. And Eusebius wasn’t the only patristic figure to utilize the gift of history to defend the authenticity and authority of the Christian faith. Augustine’s City of God, like Origen’s Contra Celsus, was a Christian apologetic against classical thinking. However, Augustine’s definitive arguments against paganism were also organized into a grand interpretation of world history. As Jaroslav Pelikan observes, “Like Eusebius, Augustine translated apologetics into history.” In an age of modernity quick to dispense with or secularize history, it appears the church is not too far removed from the time of Eusebius or Augustine.
The issue of historical apologetics has also become an intermural affair. In today’s scholastic circles, there is often a silent misconception that apologetics is essentially a theological and philosophical endeavor, precluding any notion of real historical study. This is to our detriment as a church and as an academy. Not only does this latent modern thinking misalign with our own church history, it neglects the obvious historical character necessary for any theological and/or philosophical defense. In the words of J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity is an historical phenomenon.” Therefore our attempt to partition history from any form of Christian apologetic is a false and dangerous dichotomy. From the English origin of American Baptists to the traditional understanding of the hierarchy of the Trinity, modern theological issues continue to demand historical digging if we are to hear ourselves correctly in light of the voices that have come before us.
In his preface to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis briefly reflects upon the state of modern research and “the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.” According to Lewis, theologians can often mute the voices of our past by neglecting to read them directly: “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teachers to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” Reading history means reading the men and women of history. For its self-understanding as well as its defense of the Gospel, may the church march forward by continuing to look backward.