IntroductionThe apologetic arguments of the early and medieval church fathers are still useful today. This short paper will discuss some of the history of the early and medieval church fathers as apologists and some of their major arguments and how modern apologists can use those arguments still today. This paper will go through Justin Martyr, Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas; concentrating on these writings: Martyr’s First and Second Apology, Augustine’s Confessions, Anselm’s Monologium, and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. In these works, some arguments are no longer used, some are still in use, and some should be revived. This paper will attempt to show that there are various arguments and styles that historical apologists used that have fallen out of style but should be revived. Some of these are specific arguments and some are styles. Modern apologists are removed from the Church Fathers not only in time but in desires, thoughts, attitudes, and arguments. These trends are some things that should be changed in modern apologetics.
As is appropriate this paper will open with the oldest of the Church Fathers that is well known for his apologetics, Justin Martyr (c. 100-165).1 Justin studied Greek philosophy including stoicism, Aristotelian philosophy, Pythagorean philosophy, and Platonism before becoming a Christian.2 However, as Lane says, “[Justin] was not just a Christian seeking to relate Christianity to Greek philosophy. He was a Greek who had come to see Christianity as the fulfillment of all that was best in philosophy, especially in Platonism.”3 This is reminiscent of a great quote from a modern Christian philosopher, William Hasker, as he writes in his short book on Metaphysics, “[I am] a Christian who loves philosophy and would like to consider himself a philosopher; [I am] a philosopher who loves Jesus Christ and wants to be known as a disciple. A Christian first, a philosopher second—but neither one at the expense of the other.”4 This modern quote seems to reflect the ideas of Justin Martyr. Justin himself clearly held a high view of philosophy and Greek philosophers. In his first Apology, he references philosophy quite often and even writes a chapter saying that Plato’s Timæus referenced the image of the cross from the Old Testament story of Moses and the serpent lifted up in the desert.5 How well this works as an argument is not so clear. However, Justin does write quite a bit in defense of Christians that were being unfairly mistreated. Justin countered ideas like how Christians were called atheists, and he argues that Christianity is the true philosophy.6 One of the key points that can be clearly seen in Justin’s “short” works (the first and second Apologies) is his extensive use of non-Christian writings and thoughts. He is not afraid to reference various Greek writings. If anything, he seems to like co-opting Greek philosophers in his writing. It seems that most modern apologetics works use Greek terminology, but do not often reference Greek or other non-Christian writing to co-opt them into their writings. Modern apologists could do well to use the philosophy of non-Christian writers against them. Christianity does have the most consistent philosophy and modern apologetics writers would do well to emphasize that and demonstrate it using both biblical arguments and non-Christian philosophy.
AugustineAugustine (Bishop of Hippo) lived about 189 years after Justin had died (354-430)7 and is probably one of the most famous of the Early Church Fathers to this day.8 Augustine studied Neo-Platonism and became a Christian after following Manicheism for a time and was a prolific writer over a wide range of subjects.9 His most famous work, Confessions, is a somewhat dense autobiographical work that starts with his childhood in book one and progressing through his life and confessions/theology to book thirteen.10 Like Justin, Augustine seemed happy to incorporate certain (Greek) philosophical ideas into his own. And, he wrote of his struggles using Neo-Platonic thoughts and terminology.11 These influences may or may not have been a good thing, but Augustine and others that were influenced by Greek philosophy still seem devoted to building their theology on the Bible. Augustine’s apologetic writing is as varied as his theological works are, but his famous line, “Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee”12 is an early version of C. S. Lewis’ argument from desire. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”13 Also, Augustine’s view that evil is “nothing but a privation of good,” is a kind of answer to the “problem of evil.”14 Augustine also referenced Romans 1 as a kind of cosmological argument.15 The lessons of Augustine are less in the form of what he writes about, rather in how he writes. Augustine’s writings are very personal in nature. Augustine also quotes the Bible very often. Many modern apologetics texts tend to not reference the Bible hardly at all. So, modern apologetics writers ought to follow Augustine’s example in how he writes from personal experience and how he utilizes biblical arguments throughout his work.
AnselmAnselm has somewhat of a bad reputation among many apologists today as he was one of the first, and certainly the most famous for using, the “ontological argument.” Anselm lived in the early 11th century (c. 1033-1109) and wrote creatively as the Bishop of Canterbury.16 As mentioned above his most famous argument comes in the form of the ontological argument. The argument, found in the Monologion:
[A]ll other goods are good through another being than that which they themselves are, and this being alone is good through itself. Hence, this alone is supremely good, which is alone good through itself. For it is supreme, in that it so surpasses other beings, that it is neither equalled nor excelled. But that which is supremely good is also supremely great. There is, therefore, some one being which is supremely good, and supremely great, that is, the highest of all existing beings.17This argument has been reworded, reformatted, and argued by multiple writers since Anselm penned it. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists such writers as “St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Gassendi, Spinoza, Malebranche, Locke, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, … Charles Hartshorne, Etienne Gilson, Maurice Blondel, Martin Heidegger, Karl Barth, Norman Malcolm, and Alvin Plantinga.”18 Unfortunately, though that is an impressive list of writers, it is not considered a very good argument by many apologists today. Many think of the ontological argument as defining God into existence. And, though that is a fair critique, others, most notably Alvin Plantinga, have revived the argument with some success. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online) has an entire article devoted to this argument that often references Plantinga’s version.19 It is the position of this paper that apologists have too long ignored this argument, which in its own way also reflects the ideas expressed in Romans 1. All people actually know intuitively that God exists and this argument can move other arguments into the realm of possibility. It can establish the idea that belief in God is reasonable, because after all it is possible that there is a “Best Being” (God), to use the term “good” that Anselm uses, and if it is possible that such a being exists, then it is at least reasonable that it be so. This argument can be used as a stepping stone. If one can get a skeptic to at least admit that it is possible for such a being to exist, then one can move on to other arguments like the cosmological arguments, which were very popular for the next apologist this paper will discuss.
Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1224-1274, is well known for his use of Aristotelian philosophy.20 This may be a weakness of Aquinas because critics of Christianity often say that it is unduly influenced by various Greek philosophers and there are even some Christians who disagree with the Greek influences and refuse to listen to anything written by such theologians because they deem them unbiblical in their reliance on Greek philosophy.21 Aquinas was so enamored with Aristotle that he took to simply calling him “the Philosopher.”22 Aristotle not only heavily influences Aquinas, but Aquinas heavily referenced the writings of Anselm and Augustine (though not always agreeing with them).23 He was and still is revered, particularly by Roman Catholics, as the best philosopher/theologian/apologist of his time, perhaps of all time.24 Undoubtedly, Aquinas’ most famous and influential apologetics work is in his “five ways.”25 The "first way:"
It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. … It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.26This is just the "first way" and each of the other arguments are just as powerful. They each deal with different aspects of the universe, so they could be taken together as all cosmological arguments. The "second way" deals with efficient causes (again using Aristotelian terminology); the "third way" deals with the nature of being and not being; the "fourth way" deals with the gradation of goodness in everything (somewhat similar to Anselm’s ontological argument); and the "fifth way" is an argument from design.27 What can one learn from Aquinas’ apologetics? Clearly, there is a ring of confidence in the way Aquinas writes. So, perhaps the best point to learn from Aquinas is his tone. He writes as one having authority, interestingly, as Jesus was described (Matt. 7:29 and Mark 1:22).
LessonsThe lessons we can learn from these great masters are too many and too powerful for this short paper to express. However, let us try to sum them up here. Justin Martyr has a few weaknesses. His weaknesses are not born out of his inabilities or anything like that; it is just that he was writing to a different audience in a different time period. In fact, when he was living/writing the canon had not even been established yet.28 Justin’s weaknesses are that he appeals almost exclusively to the Scriptures to make arguments. But, this is also a strength. Modern apologists have been drawn to a style the reflects that of Aquinas, who relies more on philosophical argument to make apologetic points. But, Augustine is not without his weaknesses as well. He had an unfortunate emphasis on Church authority that Counter-Reformers latched on to, as well as a view of faith-leading-to-salvation that Reformers admired.29 Perhaps the best lesson in that is for modern apologists to be careful not to espouse overly contradictory views. Regardless, Augustine’s candor and self-reflection are things that modern apologetic writing would do well to emulate. When one comes to Anselm there is much to be said (indeed much has been said), but one of his weaknesses could be that his work is dense; it is nearly impenetrable. It takes scholarly work well beyond the scope of this short paper to truly understand even small parts of this master’s work. Despite being opaque with difficult phrasing Anselm certainly has a powerful apologetic tool in the ontological argument. Modern apologists should follow Plantinga as he follows Anselm in pushing this argument as a starting point. Lastly, this paper explored some of Thomas Aquinas’ work and it is certainly tough to find a weakness here. Perhaps the only one, as has already been mentioned, is Aquinas’ near infatuation with Aristotle. Aquinas’ style of authority is certainly to be respected and emulated, but there is a danger in speaking too authoritatively as well. That style can push away people seeking God. Yes, as previously mentioned, Aquinas’ strength is his confidence, but that strength can be a liability. It can push people away.
ConclusionThis paper is too short to contain all that is needed to really make the point expressed in the introduction. However, it should be clear that these four and many other major Christian Church thinkers/apologists/theologians of the past should still be studied today. There is much we can still learn from these masters. That is indeed why they are often referred to as “masters.” This paper on Justin Martyr, Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas is just the tip of the iceberg concerning Church history with regards to apologetics. It is great thinkers like these that should encourage all of us to do our research and learn from these masters as they have learned from the Master.
1 Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) Chart 1.
2 Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 10.
3 Ibid., 10.
4 William Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a World View (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Pr., 1989), 25.
5 Justin Martyr, The Apologies of Justin Martyr, trans. Rev. Alexander Roberts, and James Donaldson, Suzeteo Enterprises), Kindle Locations 1038-1054.
6 "3. A Brief History of Apologetics," Bible.org, accessed July 10, 2018, https://bible.org/seriespage/brief-history-apologetics.
7 Walton, Chronological and Background Charts, Chart 1.
8 Lane, A Concise History, 47.
9 "3. A Brief History of Apologetics."
10 A concise summary and the full text of each book can be found here: "The Confessions," Catholic Encyclopedia: Miguel Hidalgo, accessed July 10, 2018, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1101.htm.
11 Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 85.
12 Augustine and E. B. Pusey, The Confessions of St. Augustine (No publisher information), Kindle Edition, 1,
13 C. S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 58.
14 Augustine, The Confessions, 20.
15 "3. A Brief History of Apologetics."
16 Walton, Chronological and Background Charts, Chart 1.
17 Anselm of Canterbury, Monologium, (The Fig Classic Series, 2012), Kindle Locations 72-75.
18 Greg Sadler, "Anselm of Canterbury," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed July 10, 2018, https://www.iep.utm.edu/anselm/.
19 Graham Oppy, "Ontological Arguments," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, February 12, 2016, accessed July 10, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-arguments/.
20 Walton, Chronological and Background Charts, Chart 1.
21 This observation is based on years of interacting with various believers and unbelievers on social media platforms about theology and philosophy, and some of the comments in this article: Paul Vincent Spade, "Medieval Philosophy," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 15, 2016, accessed July 10, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-philosophy/.
22 This series of lectures from Recorded Books give a very thorough treatment of Aquinas’ philosophy: Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas Course Guide (Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2009), 38.
23 Ibid., 7.
24 Ibid., 6.
25 "3. A Brief History of Apologetics," As the footnote on that page says there is an abundance of literature written about the “five ways.” There is no way to capture all of that here.
26 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged) (Coyote Canyon Press.), Kindle, 10.
27 Kreeft, The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, 17-19.
28 "3. A Brief History of Apologetics," though to be fair, this is true of many of the Early Church Fathers.
29 Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, 47-48.
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