Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: Christian Apologetics Past and Present by Oliphint and Edgar

William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, eds., Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader (vol. 1; Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2009). 512pp. Hardcover. $39.00.

Though the veracity and content of the Christian faith remain constant in the midst of an ever changing landscape of competing worldviews, every generation must give a fresh voice to that content. And yet so much of the false teaching that the Church faces, even today, has appeared at some point in the history of the Church under some other name. Heresies are recycled, remixed, and disseminated afresh. It is for this reason that the Church must not only be aware of what she believes but she must also know how the church has responded to different heresies so that she may avoid historical amnesia and answer in unison with the testimony of the past. With such a goal in mind, William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, editors of Christian Apologetics Past and Present, have given the church some helpful resources. Both editors are professors of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Christian Apologetics Past and Present (CAPP) is volume 1 of a projected two volume project. Volume 1 is a compilation of readings from noted Christian apologists beginning from the time of the Bible through 1500. Volume 2 is projected to cover readings from 1500 to the present. The readings are “primary source readings,” which means that the selected readings are not about an author or his work but readings by a particular author. The book is broken up into two sections. Part 1 covers the early Church era in what the authors call the “Struggle for Vindication” as the early Church sought to make a name for itself, clear that name from misleading slander, and work through the great Christological controversies that grappled with the identity of Christ. Part 1 includes readings from the Bible, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine. Part 2 covers readings from popular apologists in the middle ages as the “Church Becomes Established.” Readings from this time period come from Boethius, Peter Abelard, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Raymond Lull, and Girolamo Savonarola.

The editors give a very insightful introduction to the “Two-Volume Work” on pages 1-8 that gives a definition of apologetics, the reason why the Church must engage in apologetic endeavors, a brief history of the major flow of secular thought in the Western world from the enlightenment to pluralism and postmodernism in order to highlight the development of apologetics since the enlightenment. Popular secular thought has morphed from a time when God’s Word was assumed to be true to a time when the same Word is not only thought to be irrelevant but even counterproductive to genuine societal development. In light of such a changing landscape, the editors give a handful of examples of how Christian apologists, in the last 300 years, have sought to handcraft their arguments to these specific secular objections. The intention of compiling such a collection of readings is best stated by the authors:

Reading these authors can give us fresh insight into the faith of our fathers; learn from past mistakes, and note strengths and weaknesses. The great apologists, in varying degrees and with various postures, found themselves using the language of the day without wanting to succumb to the basic systems behind that language….We hope in the end that the discovery of so many approaches will nurture and enhance our confidence in commending the faith at a time when so much is in flux on our planet (6). 

With a desire to let the texts speak for themselves, the authors give an introduction to each major historical section highlighting the setting of the work in order to contextualize the apologists’ arguments. In addition, the editors provide an introductory chapter to each of its featured authors highlighting any significant fact bearing on the person and the text. Finally, the editors provide diagnostic questions at the end of each text to prompt reflection or discussion.

Whenever a work of primary sources is collected around a particular theme (in this case Christian apologetics) there will always be criticism from some quarter complaining that certain authors weren’t included. The reviewer is certain that this work will not be an exception. Yet given the intention of the editors, primarily to provide primary source readings for their apologetics classes, the book is a valuable contribution to the field of Christian apologetics. Though the editors are known to subscribe to the “Presuppositional” school of apologetics, their methodology does not consciously come out in the introductory material to each author. And yet one might object that their methodology colored the way they chose apologists as seen in the incongruity displayed in the 102 pages given to Augustine as opposed to the 12 pages given to Thomas Aquinas. However, it is to be remembered that though Aquinas was a figure of immense proportions in the middle ages, he was able to say much of what he said as he stood on the shoulders of the pioneering work of Augustine, disagreements notwithstanding.

But minor quibbles aside, the editors have given the seminarian, pastor, layman and curious inquirer a feast of apologetic literature that will most certainly sharpen the mind, strengthen trust in the faith and warm the heart.

Joshua B. Henson
M.Div. candidate 

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