What Should Christians Study?: Part 2(b) Historical Apologetics

What Should Christians Study?: Part 2(b) Historical Apologetics September 2, 2022

In the previous post in this series, I discussed the first category of Christian Apologetics: Philosophical Apologetics. Philosophical Apologetics can also be referred to as Natural Theology. Natural Theology is concerned with constructing arguments based in our observation of either the natural world or our reflections upon our selves as rational and moral creatures. However, there is also the discipline of Philosophical Theology. While Natural Theology overlaps significantly with Philosophical Theology, the latter is more restricted in scope.

Philosophical Theology deals with particular claims of the Christian faith. Theologians employ philosophical tools (usually in the analytic tradition) to clarify, expand on or show to be coherent, specific Christian doctrines. These are usually doctrines of dogmatic concern, like the Trinity, the Incarnation or Biblical Inspiration. Philosophical Theology, unlike Natural Theology, thus addresses issues internal to the Christian faith (or some other faith), which derive from its exclusive sources. In the case of Christianity, these would be the Bible, the Creeds, and, in some cases, the traditions of the Church. However, once we begin to explore particular doctrines, as derived from concrete sources like the Bible, we inevitably move into the realm of history. And so a need for a different type of apologetics emerges: historical apologetics.

Philosophical Speculation and The Need for Revelation

One thing is clear to anyone who has studied Philosophy in any great depth. That is that there is no consensus view about anything in philosophy. There isn’t even a consensus about what philosophy is, even if there a reasonable consensus about what it does. As one Christian philosopher points out:

Why is it the case that philosophical disagreements are never finally resolved? Why is it that the history of philosophy reads like a never-ending argument between enduring worldviews? From the ancient world to the contemporary world we find disputes between materialists and idealists, empiricists and rationalists, theists and atheists. I think that at least part of the answer lies in the fact that the answers provided to the questions of philosophy ultimately lead, as the Greeks saw so clearly, to different ways life must be lived. One reason people disagree about philosophical questions is that they want to live their lives in different ways. A commitment to a philosophical view (at least on the deepest questions) is not merely assenting to a set of propositions, but a decision as to who I am and who I want to become.

C. Stephan Evans, A History of Western Philosophy (579-580)

Evans goes on:

From my perspective, the lesson to draw from this is that we must give up the quest for an absolute, objective certainty that would eliminate philosophical disagreement.

In short, if Philosophy, understood as the deployment of human reason to draw conclusions about reality, still leaves us after more than 2,500 years clueless about questions like “What is real?” or “How do I know anything?”; and if we are driven by underlying instincts that themselves are arational or subrational, then it is not wrong, and perhaps even necessary, to look elsewhere to make sense of things. However, the only other kind of thing that might make sense of our reality is something like Revelation. And so while Revelation and reason are not in opposition per se, they are different kinds of things. They are different sources of knowledge, if they be sources at all.

Revelation could be generally understood as the claim that Someone, or something, has broken into our sphere of existence and disclosed some truth to us about the way things really are. This truth, or set of truths, could not otherwise have been known to us through purely rational speculation and empirical investigation alone. This is where historical studies and Historical Apologetics becomes vital to the life of the Church and the claims of the Christian Faith. For without a historical revelation, Christianity is not really a religious faith. Without divine acts in history, Christianity is only another philosophical theory about the world; not unlike Plato’s theory of Forms or David Lewis’ “plurality of worlds.

Enlightenment Skepticism and The Bible

That Christian belief is bound to historical claims is, however, itself contested. Since the emergence of Higher Biblical Criticism in the late 17th century, and the Enlightenment critique of the supernatural that shortly followed (especially Hume’s critique), there have been attempts by scholars and churchmen to separate Christian faith from its historical claims. The Enlightenment’s philosophical skepticism led to 20th-century New Testament scholars, like Rudolf Bultmann, voicing their own skepticism with regard to grounding Christian faith in actual historical events. While the Christian faith was about the testimony of real people, in real places and in real times; those testimonies were less about real events than about the existential hopes and deep human longings of a pre-scientific folk.

Bultmann, and his many followers, instead sought the existential core of the Christian Revelation as it applied to individual experience (in itself not an unimportant task). On this subjective, existentialist view, it was the historical proclamation, or kerygma, of the Apostles that “Jesus is Risen” which itself just is the resurrection of Jesus. In other words, “resurrection” does not refer to an actual dead man coming out of a tomb in or around 33AD. Instead, “resurrection” signifies a subjective, yet inspired faith in the message of the Lord Jesus (who in the end was more like Jesus of Nazareth, an enlightened martyr). The resurrection is not more than a myth, even if as a myth it bears features that appear universal to human beings everywhere and at all times. Moreover, when applied to the life of the person who appropriates this myth, it can have profound impact on one’s life.

However, this demythologized, existential and personalized Christianity led to the gradual demise of the Bible being understood and treated as the revealed Word of a transcendent God. The conclusion of these and similar views, whether directly or indirectly, was a Christianity that emerges out of purely human speculation about the divine by historically and culturally situated authors. This stands in stark contrast to Christianity as a progressive disclosure by the actual God, embodied both in Christ Himself and the inspired words of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament writings. For Bultmann and other modernists, Christianity was true in a metaphorical or mystical sense, but not true in the way it would need to be, if its fundamental claims were grounded in real, spacetime history. Bultmann’s view and that of his predecessors is what many refer to today as Liberal Protestantism; related to, but not identical with, today’s “Progressive” Christianity.

Two Responses To Liberal Protestantism

As existentialist views of the Bible gained traction in the early 20th century, a new thrust of historical, and academically rigorous, apologetics led by the so-called “Fundamentalists” was ushered into existence. Men like B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, A.C. Dixon, R.A. Torrey and later E.J. Carnell lead this charge. The goal of the Fundamentalists was to defend the historical reliability of the Bible, and, more specifically, its dogmatic claims about the historical Jesus.

These Fundamentalists, not to be confused or conflated with the term often applied to some flavor of religious cult, saw the importance of recapturing the historicity of the Christian proclamation. This historicity entailed the essential role of divine acts of God in space and time. This particularly English-speaking movement, provided a bulwark against more corrosive forms of historical criticism, and sought to put the Bible firmly back on its historical foundations. The seminal work of the Fundamentalists was aptly titled, “The Fundamentals,” and is still a must-read for any Christian interested in apologetics today.

The other response to Liberal Protestantism came from a certain strain of scientific verificationism. This kind of philosophical naturalism left little room for existentialist and metaphorical claims about reality. This strict scientism of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s culminated in popularity with the “New Atheists” of the late 1990’s and early 2000s. New Atheist Daniel Dennett appropriately described the cognitive stance of these liberal or existentialist Christianities as that of “believing in belief” as opposed to having belief (and faith) in an actual, super-mundane and agentive God.

Under the scrutiny of the scientific positivists and given the resistance by Evangelical fundamentalists, Liberal Protestantism in the West has now withered away as an intellectual movement. Today’s intellectually bankrupt “Progressive” Christianity is all that remains of this once academically robust, albeit misguided, version of Christianity. This in spite of the fact that the vague language of faith, as in “just have faith” or “communities of faith,” has lingered in the register of our popular, American cultural. Nevertheless, the death of the “mainline” Protestant denominations is a known fact. Analytical philosophy and scientific triumphalism have ended the short-lived attempt to make Christianity into a purely metaphorical religion.

Where the Conflict Really Lies*

In lieu of this dynamic, since the 1990’s the apologetics’ battle has been contested mainly between contemporary modernists who place a total faith in science (Dawkins, Dennett, Coyne et al.) and orthodox Evangelical and Roman Catholic apologists, who have not abandoned reason and rationality in favor of a purely subjective and existential faith. Although very recently the former of these two worldview has itself come under a withering critique, mainly by a resurgent interest in various types of Continental Philosophy. And so as I write this, the battlefield has shifted just in the last few years. I will discuss this shift in the next post on Cultural Apologetics.

This conflict, however, has revitalized Historical Apologetics into an incredibly vibrant field of research. The challenges against the propositional claims of the Bible and the historical claims about Jesus have crescendoed in American public life. In response to this, biblical scholarship over the last 30 or 40 years has experienced a genuine renaissance. The so-called “Third Quest” or “Quest for the Jewish Jesus” has exploded, revivifying interests in the historicity of the Bible and, in particular, the Resurrection. Old Testament scholarship among Christians has also boomed in recent decades and now more than ever in Western history, there is a recapturing of the Jewish heritage of the Christian faith.

Subsequently, there has been a deluge of Historical Apologetics at the popular level as well. The historical claims of Christianity have now been defended with greater precision and detail than ever before. With the mid-20th-century finds of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi documents, the arguments for the biblical accounts are more refined than ever. This is in spite of the fact that much of the classical, 19th-century scholarship on the historicity of the Bible is lost upon a culture willfully ignorant of history.

Two Lines of Defense: Higher and Lower Criticism

There are two sub-disciplines of Historical Apologetics, both of which require careful study to show the Bible is reliable and authoritative. These two sub-disciplines often go under the terms Higher and Lower Criticism.

Higher Biblical Criticism (or HBC) deals with the background of the biblical content and its production, its genetic makeup, so to say. HBC tries to answer questions like:

  • When were the books of the Bible, or their parts, written?
  • By whom were they authored?
  • Under what historical and cultural circumstances were they composed or arranged?
  • In what literary style or genre were they written?
  • And, especially in regard to the Old Testament books, was there a series of redactions to older texts that produced the texts we have now?

These are the questions that most historical apologists try to answer. Of course, this cannot be done exhaustively, given that we simply do not have the extant data to answer these questions in great detail. Nevertheless, to do HBC well, one should know the original languages of the Bible as well as the historical circumstances surrounding its production. Most OT scholars will not only know Hebrew, therefore, but also other ancient Near Eastern languages, like Akkadian or Ugaritic. New Testament scholars, on the other hand, will know Greek and Aramaic, and have to be very familiar with Greco-Roman history and culture.

Lower (Textual) Criticism has to do with the recovery and study of the biblical manuscripts themselves. This is often referred to, in clearer terms, as textual criticism. Textual criticism deals with actual, physical texts (i.e., extant, hand written copies of biblical books). The goal of lower criticism is to ascertain whether or not we can reconstitute the original words of the Old and New Testaments. Obviously this is much easier to do for the New Testament than for the Old. New Testament textual critics try to answer question like:

  • In what family of manuscripts does a certain manuscript belong?
  • What kinds of materials were used in the production of the manuscripts and how does that relate to their content?
  • How did the shrift of biblical manuscripts change over time?
  • How many and what are the quality of variants between different manuscripts?
  • What is the most likely reading of a biblical passage if variants are present?

Currently, Dan Wallace’s Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, provides the best, most up-to-date database about textual criticism. Textual Criticism is a fascinating area of study, and it does matter in the defense of certain Christian doctrines about the Bible, in particular biblical inspiration and inerrancy. However, while there is good evidence from textual criticism to support the authenticity of our contemporary New Testament, difficulties surrounding the Old Testament texts are manifold and further research into the Old Testament texts is needed.

Three Objects of Historical Defense: Old Testament, New Testament, and Church History

When it comes to defending historical claims, there are three historical objects in view that require defense: the Old and New Testaments, and the broader history of the catholic (small “c”) Church. Some might argue that it is not necessary to defend the Church’s history, but I think it actually quite important to give a defense.  This defense should not act as an excuse for the Church’s moral failures. But we should have good arguments for the Church’s spread throughout the world, for its evangelism to the nations and for the amount of good it has done for human flourishing.

To be fair then, the Church’s history is not one that should be whitewashed. It, like all histories, must be presented fairly and accurately, warts and all. However, that the Church has been foundational to the development of Western Civilization, to include all of its major cultural forms and institutions, is simply undeniable. To neglect so great a history, ugly parts included, would be a disservice to humanity. However, this is exactly what some anti-theists have been keen to do. The Religion-Science conflict myth has been part of American academic culture since at least Andrew Dickson White in the 19th century. And with the current trendiness of critical theory, a new kind of conflict myth is being stoked in America. We might call it the “Religious Oppressor-Religiously Oppressed” myth.

The Old Testament

The most significant problem with any attempt at a comprehensive defense of the Old Testament is the sheer lack of evidence. But that means evidence either way: for or against. As such, the logical fallacy that should not be made in relation to the historical narratives of the Old Testament is lack of evidence being treated as evidence of absence. It is an obvious inference that much of the evidence for events narrated in the Old Testament has been eroded by natural processes, war and the sands of time. That said, certain philosophical presuppositions will obviously come into play with any investigation of biblical historicity.

Thus, while some evidence may still be forthcoming as archaeologists continue to dig, the simple fact remains: we do not know with certainty. Nevertheless, there have been discoveries in the last century, most prominently the Dead Sea Scrolls, that have provided additional hope that more can be found, even more documentary evidence. Also, recent archaeological digs have turned up concrete remains that point to at least some fundamental OT history being true. These are not insignificant, and the trend is definitely in the direction of greater confirmation of the OT historical books.

However, in the last few years apologists have been forced to turn their attention from the defense of the historicity of the Old Testament, to the defense of the moral character of the Old Testament. This more aggressive and visceral anti-theistic attack, directly targets the moral character of Yahweh in the Old Testament. This attack has even influenced many Christians to abandon the idea of trying to “rescue” the God of the Old Testament, in what could be called a kind of neo-Marcionite turn in Christian theology. In either case, the kind of violence that not only seems to be allowed by Yahweh, but actively endorsed by Him in the Old Testament, is a topic of apologetical debate that cannot be easily resolved.

As such, there are two main lines to defend regarding the Old Testament: the facticity of the historical narratives and the moral character of YHWH. A third line, alluded to above, is the reconstitution of the original texts, a problem which seems effectively unsolvable, although I have written about this elsewhere.

The New Testament

For several years, roughly 1,800 of them, the Church has wrestled with three big questions about the New Testament:

  • Why four, distinct stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?
  • Why so many discrepancies between them, especially between John and the other three (the Synopotics)?
  • Why were the Gospels written so much later after the purported events?

Early Church Fathers, like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen were not overly concerned about the fact of four Gospels, or their apparent lateness. That said, they were concerned about the existence of other writings about Jesus that seemed to be unorthodox, late and that wildly contradicted the accepted four. Thus, one of the first apologetical issues addressed by the ante-Nicene fathers especially, was the nature and scope of the biblical Canon.

However, even having four “official” accounts of the life of Jesus inevitably led to fundamental questions about each account’s independent historicity, the historicity of the larger story they all point to and whether or not the accounts can be properly harmonized. How reliably each Gospel attests to the events they purport, how well their independent data cohere and to what degree they affirm the same moral and theological views, is axiomatic to the Church’s witness to and exclusive claims about the truth.

The Reliability of the Gospels has therefore been, and continues to be, the main line of defense for Christian New Testament scholars. From the time of Origen (184-253 AD) it was clear that only these four: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were widely accepted by the Church as divinely inspired and authentic. Other, later works like the Didache, may have been considered useful or helpful to the Church, but not inspired. Still others, like the Gospel of Thomas, never really gained any traction in the early Church and only became fashionable in the era of Hollywood and cheap, historical fiction.

Origen explains how, from the earliest moments of the Church’s life, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were considered uniquely inspired texts:

1. Now, in the New Testament also, ‘many have tried’ to write gospels, but not all have found acceptance. You should know that not only four Gospels but very many were composed. The Gospels we have were chosen from these gospels and passed on to the churches. We can know this from Luke’s own prologue, which begins this way: ‘Because many have tried to compose an account.’ The words ‘have tried’ imply an accusation against those who rushed into writing gospels without the grace of the Holy Spirit. Matthew, Mark, John and Luke did not ‘try’ to write; they wrote their Gospels when they were filled with the Holy Spirit….

2. The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have many. One of them is entitled According to the Egyptians, another According to the Twelve Apostles. Basilides, too, dared to write a gospel and give it his own name. ‘Many have tried’ to write, but only four Gospels have been approved. Our doctrines about the Person of our Lord and Savior should be drawn from these approved Gospels….We have read many others, too, lest we appear ignorant of anything, because of those people who think they know something if they have examined these gospels. But in all these questions we approve of nothing but what the Church approves of, namely only four canonical Gospels.

Origen, Homily on Luke

The Resurrection of Jesus (and Us)

Of course the most pressing reason to defend the reliability of the New Testament is the Resurrection of Jesus. For without a bodily resurrection, the Apostle Paul himself makes it clear we are in serious trouble:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

I Cor 15:12-19

That said, it seems almost a moot issue in the first generation of the Church that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Of course, this was when the Church was almost exclusively Jewish. The notable exception to the earliest claims of bodily resurrection emerge around the mid 2nd-century with Gnostic Christianity, itself heavily influenced by Greco-Roman dualism. Only then do we see opposition to the bodily resurrection of Jesus in favor of a more spiritualized account. However, these Gnostic alternatives by no means rejected Jesus’ divinity, but rather sought to undermine a bodily resurrection because the escape from the body was the summum bonum of their platonized Christianity.

As such, the idea that Jesus would rise bodily from the grave became utterly distasteful to some later hellenistic Christians like Valentinus, Basilides and Marcion. These hyper-spiritualized and extreme metaphysical views occasioned early apologetical work by Church fathers like Athenagoras (133-190), Justin Martyr (100-165)  and Irenaeus (130-202), all defending a bodily resurrection.

That Jesus rose from death is simply taken for granted in the early church, even if it might have been “spiritualized” out of philosophical pre-dispositions by the Gnostics. It is only after the advent of HBC and the Enlightenment critique of miracles that the historicity of the Resurrection event became the central issue of Historical Apologetics, which it still is today.

Defending Church History

It might seem that once a reasoned defense of the Bible has been provided that the task of Historical Apologetics is largely complete. And, in fact, this is probably true. A robust defense of the Bible’s historical reliability and textual authenticity should suffice to compel the skeptic to consider the Bible’s claims. However, the Church that emerges out of the Jesus movement of the 1st century AD is also important to defend.

It is not irrelevant to learn how the purported revelation knowledge of the Bible motivated and shaped the communities that considered it to be true. How the lives of those who accepted divine revelation played out in history does have some bearing on the truthfulness of that knowledge. However, this is not to make the genetic fallacy, as judgments about truth can never ultimately rest on the behavior of those who purport to believe that truth. Christian claims would still have to be adjudicated on other grounds, with some exceptions perhaps.

Therefore, it is of enduring value to the Church to have historians capable of capturing not only the Church’s history for its own sake, but also for the sake of correcting the historical record when false charges are made or accusations levied against the people of God. This is a point that the French sociologist and theologian, Jaques Ellul, rightly emphasized:

We have to avoid two errors. The first is that of rejecting all the church’s past, of scorning and condemning all it has done, of saying categorically, as is unceasingly said today in an abominable fashion, that the church means obscurantism. On this view Judeo-Christian thinking is the cause or origin of every modern evil, of state absolutism, of capitalist alienation, of universal deception and hypocrisy, of Oedipus complexes or guilt, of the subordination of women, of the enslaving of the Third World, of the spoliation of nature. The medieval church is the Inquisition, serfdom, the Crusades, theocracy, the forced construction of cathedrals by a brutalized and terrorized people. A little later it is Galileo, the origin of capitalism, the invasion and subjugation of the whole world, the destruction of original native cultures, the crushing of people under Christian dogma and morality. All evils derive from the Judeo-Christian faith, and alongside these fierce and simplistic accusations we find a glorification of the pure and cheerful pagan, of a human and liberal polytheism, of a spiritual infancy that Christianity has supposedly rendered abortive.

There is little truth in all this–a very little–as regards to Christendom. But it needs exact historical examination, for there is in it a good deal of polemical exaggeration in the interests of what are in reality totalitarian ideologies.

Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, 7-8

The same principle applies in America today. The subversion of the Church’s history by totalitarian ideologies is as alive now as it ever has been. And so there is a historical apologetic for the Church as well as for the Bible that we should not neglect. If anyone still thinks that defending the Church’s history is unimportant or negligible, they only need to watch this recent interview with three historians.

Conclusion: Christianity Is Necessarily Historical

Unlike philosophical apologetics, Historical Apologetics must, in virtue of the Christian claim that God has revealed Himself concretely in history, deal with historical evidence and argument. Most of this evidence comes either from documents or other kinds of archaeological evidence, e.g. coins, monuments, engravings. As such, historians have a more focused data set to work with than philosophers. At the same time there is a degree of uncertainty about what can be proven to be “historically the case” due to that limited data.

However, this applies to all of human history, especially any ancient history. It will matter therefore with what underlying metaphysical and theological commitments one approaches such historical evidence. Historians firmly entrenched in naturalism, or even theists who desire to hold to methodological naturalism, will inevitably have to find non-supernatural conclusions about at least many of the claims of both the Old and New Testaments and maybe even Church History, e.g. post-Biblical miracle reports.

Nevertheless, there is also good reason to believe that testimonial evidence, which is what most historical evidence is, is actually a reliable source of knowledge. It has been shown that most of our beliefs are developed through the acceptance of some kind of personal or public testimony. Even the scientist must rely on the testimony of several others who have gone before him, lest he grope in the dark about where, and how, to begin his experiments. Further, recent work in fields like Social Epistemology has shown how significant testimony really is to the justification of our beliefs. This is especially the case when observers as sources of information are multiplied, and a communal effort made to get at truth. This is something many NT historians have pointed out with regard to the Gospel events.

When it comes to the objects of historical investigation Apologetics must address, they are clear: the canon of scripture, the content of those scriptures, and the public history of the catholic (universal, orthodox, historical) Church. Above all, there is one event that stands out as decisive to understanding the Christian faith either as fundamentally subjective, existential, and private; or as objective, forensic, and universal. That, of course, is the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. While Bultmann thought Christianity could be sustained in an existential mode, others, like Wolfhart Pannenberg, saw that project as entirely hopeless. Instead, Pannenberg argues, not only could the Resurrection be rationally investigated, but that ultimately it had to be for Christianity to make any sense:

Whether or not a particular event happened two thousand years ago is not made certain by faith but only by historical research, to the extent that certainty can be attained at all about questions of this kind.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man

In conclusion, a robust program of Historical Apologetics will seek to defend the factual nature of Christian claims about God’s divine activity in this space-time reality. Even if we cannot achieve the kind of certainty Lessing would have liked, still there are degrees of epistemic confidence. As with any belief about any thing, even beliefs about what exists at all, a certain degree of faith is required. For Christians, this is not a problem to solve but a mystery to explore.

*see Plantinga, Alvin Where the Conflict Really Lies?: Science, Religion and Naturalism 

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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