The Incautious Apologist
Patrick Henry Reardon on Reticence & the Mysteries of Sin & Salvation
An important part of the proclamation of the Christian faith to the world is, of course, a proper defense of that faith. We are not surprised, therefore, that this defensive ministry, called “apologetics,” is very much in evidence in our records of the apostolic preaching to those outside the faith. The Apostle Paul, for instance, wrote of his “defense [apologia] and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7).
Paul illustrated such a defense when given opportunity to address a Jewish mob gathered near the temple. He began by declaring, “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense [apologia] before you now” (Acts 22:1; cf. 25:16), and then he went on to argue for the truth of the gospel.
This ministry of defending the faith to outsiders was not limited to the apostles, however. On this subject St. Peter gave a general exhortation to all Christians: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense [apologia] to everyone who asks you a reason [logos] for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
The discipline of apologetics allows considerable flexibility and even room for innovation, because its effective use is necessarily determined, in some measure, by the presuppositions of those to whom it is addressed. Indeed, the process can hardly begin unless the apologist shares at least some of those presuppositions with his audience. These suppositions may be of various kinds.
The Christian arguing with the Jew, for instance, shares a massive theological presupposition: the canonical authority of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, the apostles, when they argued in the synagogue, invariably commenced with the Old Testament. We find the identical pattern in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.
When arguing with pagans, on the other hand, Christian apologists often begin with a shared philosophical perspective. The earliest example of this approach may be St. Paul’s speech to the philosophers on Mars’ Hill in Acts 17. Again, Justin Martyr, who began the First Apology by recounting his youthful studies in philosophy, borrowed extensively from Stoicism in the course of his defense of the faith. He was addressing his work, after all, to the Antonine emperors, one of whom, he knew—Marcus Aurelius—was a Stoic.
In addition to theological and philosophical -presuppositions, zealous apologetics does not hesitate to examine literature and other cultural expressions to find some common ground on which to engage unbelievers. Tertullian, for instance, when he mentioned the bravery, sobriety, and self-control encouraged by the Christian faith, knew very well that these virtues were central to Rome’s ascetical tradition and military culture. Clement and Origen, arguing for the gospel in Alexandria, strove to express it in terms the local Neo-Platonists might find attractive. Augustine, in undertaking that vast historical apologia known as The City of God, demonstrated to contemporary pagans his ability to cite—and, more important, to appreciate—his Vergil and Varro with the best of them.
A Word of Caution
I speak of the necessary function of apologetics, however, as the preamble to a word of caution. Although it is an essential component of the Church’s kerygmatic mission, apologetics is sometimes troublesome—or worse—to theology. Indeed, as I reflect on the matter, I am not sure I can name a single heresy in Christian history that did not have some apologetic concern near its root.
Apologetics is burdened with a very difficult task: to discover theological, philosophical, literary, and cultural windows through which to cast the light of the gospel into the darkened minds of unbelievers. And yet the apologist is not entirely free to choose the size, shape, and position of those windows, because those choices are necessarily limited by the sympathies of those to whom the gospel is preached. That is to say, the mind of the pagan largely governs the very terms of the discourse, and the pagan is free, at any time, to close down the conversation.
Hence, it may happen that the gospel, when it is defended to the inquirer from outside, is intellectually compressed to fit a mere slit of a window, or its constitutive outline is adjusted to accommodate a cultural shape that may turn out, in the end, to be incompatible. Without the guidance of sound dogmatics, the incautious apologist may be unaware that he is leading theology itself in a different direction. It appears to me that this has happened in the case of soteriology: the theology of salvation.
The Measure of a Mystery
When it starts from apologetics, soteriology is somewhat compelled to commence outside itself—to begin with the state of not-being-saved. Apologetics obliges soteriology to inquire, “From what are we saved?” The biblical answer, of course, is “sin.”
Now if we inquire about sin from the perspective of apologetics—particularly if we ask exactly what sin is—the conditions of the inquiry force us to think about the subject from outside the light of revelation. The contractual terms of his craft oblige the apologist to abandon the single adequate foundation for interpreting sin: the life in Christ.
In other words, the nature of his discourse limits the apologist’s assessment of sin to what philosophy, psychology, and other non-theological disciplines are qualified to pronounce on the subject. That is to say, the apologist begins with a non-theological concept of sin. In order to speak coherently about sin to those outside the Christian faith, the apologist is prohibited from speaking of sin as a properly theological dilemma.
This is a very serious theological problem, because sin is a mystery—albeit a negative mystery—and mysteries cannot be measured except within the full light of divine revelation. Philosophy, psychology, and the behavioral sciences can hardly do more than describe some of the symptoms of sin. Apart from the revelation given in Christ, there can be no adequate theological assessment of sin.
I believe a major difference between St. Paul and many of his interpreters is related to this problem. Paul approaches sin—as all human experiences—from within the light of revelation. He writes of fallen man from the perspective of man in Christ. Thus, when he contrasts Christ and Adam, Paul starts with Christ, not Adam. Because of what God accomplished in Christ, Paul -understands the bondage imposed through Adam’s sin. For him, the Cross alone takes the full measure of the Fall, for the same reason that only the Resurrection illumines the ultimate meaning of death.
Anselm’s Thin Theory
My problem with the history of soteriology is an impression that much of it begins, not with Christ, but with Adam. That is to say, in order to defend the doctrine of our redemption on the Cross—to demonstrate to the unbeliever how the death of God’s Son was “both reasonable and necessary” (rationabilis et necessaria—says Anselm)—apologetics feels compelled to define sin in a manner intelligible to the unbeliever. The apologist is obliged to speak of the Fall, not from within a full theology of sin (that is, relying on the light of revelation), but along lines persuasive to those outside the faith. Unbelievers are permitted to determine the theological task!
Near the end of the eleventh century, a very significant theological effort was based on such an apologetic approach, when St. Anselm described sin as an offense against the honor due to God.
Now this was an easily understood way to speak of sin, and it required, by Anselm’s reasoning, not a scintilla of faith or special revelation. Anselm reasoned thus: On the hypothesis that God really exists (Anselm elsewhere offered an intriguing way to prove this hypothesis), God deserves the full loyalty and devotion of men. Hence, disobedience to God’s will is an affront to his honor, and this affront requires adequate satisfaction.
Anselm placed this very thin, non-theological understanding of sin at the base of his “satisfaction theory,” which became widespread, and sometimes dominant, in the history of soteriology.
Now, not for a minute do I challenge Anselm’s reasoning here. Much less do I consider it heretical. Indeed, Anselm’s theory was not repugnant to better theologians—among them St. Nicholas Cabasilas—whose soteriology was richer and more clearly biblical.
The Wrong Starting Point
My problem with Anselm’s theory is not his reasoning, but his starting point in apologetics, his resolve to begin the study of salvation remoto Christo, as he said, quasi numquam aliquid fuerat de Illo—“apart from Christ, as though there had been nothing of him.” This quasi—“as though”—is bothersome, because it does not embrace a truly theological assessment of sin.
To think of sin as an offense to God’s honor is clear and coherent without a grain of faith, but that, I think, is exactly the problem. Anselm removes the mystery from sin.
Unbelievers, in particular, can hardly begin to understand what is meant by sin. I would argue that no one can understand the nature of sin except by being set free from it. Remoto Christo, how is there an adequate assessment of sin? Sin is deeply mysterious. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “It remains a mystery of darkness, of night.”
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“The Incautious Apologist” first appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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