Through the Centuries With Cardinal Dulles

A History of Apologetics

by Cardinal Avery Dulles

Ignatius, 2005

420 pages, $18.95

To order: (800) 651-1531

As the smashing success of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has reminded us — the movie is now closing in on the $300 million mark — C.S. Lewis was one of the 20th century’s most successful and versatile Christian apologists. An Anglican, Lewis was not interested in defending all the theological nuances of a particular confessional posture. He promoted “mere Christianity,” pointing out the broad chasm between a Christian worldview and a secularist one.

That’s also the approach Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles takes in this book, an update of his own 1971 work of the same name. A convert, he was well qualified to write it: Born into a powerful Presbyterian family — his father, John Foster Dulles, was secretary of state under President Eisenhower — he largely read his way into the Catholic faith while at Harvard.

Apologetics, the discipline of offering a rational defense of Christian faith, fell out of favor after the Second Vatican Council. Recent years have seen its revival, as both Catholics and Protestants have risen to respond to St. Peter’s exhortation to “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15).

Note, however, that this is a history of apologetics, not a guide to its practice. Cardinal Dulles sweeps across the centuries, taking into account many of the key thinkers who set out to defend Christianity against those who tried to dismiss or discredit it. By casting such a wide net, he is able to show the resiliency and universality of Christ’s call.

Yet this approach also ends up giving somewhat short shrift to intra-Christian apologetics. Most notably thin in this category is the discussion of Catholic vs. Protestant hermeneutics. Nor is much light shed on apologetics in the post-Patristic Christian East.

There is much merit to the “mere Christianity” approach, as the fundamental challenge today’s apologists face is defending Christianity against various forms of unbelief.

This is a scholarly survey of formidable reach. By the sheer range of apologists Cardinal Dulles examines, it’s clear he assumes his readers will have some familiarity with the principal players. How else do you shrink Thomas Aquinas into nine pages or Hans Urs von Balthasar into three? The book is thus brisk and broad, but it’s not light reading.

Cardinal Dulles has his favorites. He likes Blaise Pascal. He wrote a book on Cardinal John Henry Newman (2003’s Newman, an entry in Continuum Publishing’s Outstanding Christian Thinkers series). Given the space he affords certain writers — justifying the extra attention by citing their impact on contemporary theology — Cardinal Dulles seems to have some sympathy for what came to be called the “transcendental Thomism” synthesis.

“The task of apologetics is to discover these signs [that objectively justify the assent of faith] and to organize them in such a way as to be persuasive to particular audiences,” he writes. “The arguments can never prove the truth of Christianity beyond all possible doubt, but they can show that it is reasonable to believe and that arguments against Christianity are not decisive. God’s grace will do the rest.”

Apologetics touches upon many critical, abstract and sensitive theological issues, so it should be no surprise that Cardinal Dulles’ book will require careful study to discern where the fault lines lie. There are few better authors writing in English with whom to embark on such an exploration than Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles.

John M. Grondelski writes from

Washington, D.C.