What follows are some thoughts I have had on my mind lately about the academic legitimacy of Apologetics.
A few months ago I was in conversation with a professor of mine, and the topic of Apologetic programs came up. By Apologetic programs here I mean academic programs offered sometimes in the United States, for instance at Biola University where students can learn Apologetics. The program at Biola deserves special mention, as it is both particularly noteworthy, and also unique. Though one can imagine that studying under Cornelius Van Til, for example, would probably have given one a well rounded introduction to the field of Apologetics in general, this program at Biola is not dictated by the thought of one Apologist or even approach to apologetics. It is flexible enough even to allow its students to specialize in this or that area of Apologetics, and it lets them major in Apologetics. Though it is typical for a degree in Theological Studies to include (and require) a course in Christian Apologetics, this is not done in secular institutions of higher learning. This professor of mine, with whom I was talking, suggested that it was a little ridiculous that Biola was offering a major in Apologetics, and I had heard the same sentiment being expressed by other professors in our department at Concordia as well. I defended the program by pointing to the students who have come out of that program, and arguing that, in many respects, they are better educated Theologically (by a significant margin) than are the students who graduate from Concordia or other similar institutions. I also pointed out that, especially in a religious country like the United States, but also more and more throughout the world where debates over the existence of God and/or truth of the Christian faith along with the popularity of the New Atheist movement are increasingly significant issues, having a major in Apologetics is easily as marketable a skill as is having a degree in Theological Studies from a secular institution. Thus, both practically and theoretically it seems justifiable that some universities offer that kind of Apologetic program. This professor responded at the time by agreeing that the graduates of Biola may often be impressively capable, but that they ought to call the program what it really is: philosophical theology.
At the time I felt it was a fair point, but upon further reflection I have come to reconsider. Clearly, it seems to me, apologetics is going to trespass the boundaries of strictly philosophical theology in order to discuss issues of systematic theology, and even issues in Biblical studies. As such it seems as though labeling it philosophical theology would just be to mis-label it. However, I think that underlying the disdain that some professors have expressed with respect to an institution of learning offering a degree in Apologetics, is a deeply secular conviction about the academic spirit. First, it is presumed that the more sectarian is an education, the less authentically it can be called a real education. That is to say, the less freedom one has academically to explore and defend ideas which run contrary to any construal of academic orthodoxy, let alone religious orthodoxy, the less one’s intellectual formation has been appropriately balanced. Second, the secular ideal behind academia itself, involves learning for the love of learning, rather than for some practical purpose (such as pastoral work). Alternatively, the secular ideal is violently opposed to religious particularism, and instead promotes relativism in regards to religious, as well as ethical, matters. To take either Theology, or even Ethics, to be dealing with concrete facts in the same way as Physics or Psychology deal with concrete facts is practically unthinkable for the thoroughgoing secularist.
Quite apart from any critique I as a Christian thinker might readily offer against secularism, at least it should be obvious to anyone that whatever kind of secular ideal lies latent in secular universities which have Theological Studies departments, it isn’t a thoroughgoing secularism. Instead it must be a tame secularism which promotes academic freedom even when and where it directly challenges secularism (at least if we take secularism to be the ideological offspring of a ‘naturalism’ of the enlightenment variety). It stands to reason, then, that this tame secularism should not take issue with the academic pursuit of Christian apologetics. After all, promoting secularism as though it were academic orthodoxy would just be to offer a sectarian education. The pursuit of Christian apologetics, far from inhibiting academic or intellectual freedom, is an expression of academic and intellectual freedom. Whether one should pursue apologetics for pastoral reasons, or just for the intellectual play of it, is not determinative of the value or legitimacy of apologetics as an academic pursuit. Finally, to say that neither Theology nor Ethics are concerned with facts about the world is just to beg the question against those disciplines which those disciplines have, as part of their task, to determine.
Apologetics is classically understood to be one of the academic tasks of the Christian Theologian. Apologetics is a field of Theology which is distinct from other fields of Theology, such as Biblical Studies, Systematic Theology, or even Philosophical Theology. The Apologetic enterprise, or at any rate the Christian Apologetic enterprise, is concerned with gathering up and presenting all of the arguments which Christianity has to recommend itself to thinking persons. The legitimacy, from a Christian perspective, of the Apologetic enterprise, is a given, and goes hand in hand with the discipline of Theology itself.
Could apologetics be done in a non-sectarian way; a way which would allow it to fit within a secular syllabus? I think it probably could, in just the same way systematic theology, hermeneutics, and even philosophical theology are allowed in to the secular curriculum, so too could Apologetics. All one would have to do is present an overview and examination of arguments offered in defense of the Christian faith. Construed as a survey of arguments, this course-plan would have both historical and philosophical benefits as well as theological.
Moreover, the benefits for the life of the Church of promoting such a program would be practically immeasurable. Not only would the common Catholic problem of Catechetics be curtailed, but even the Catechists would know and appreciate their faith much more (after all, it is no secret that the main problem with Catechesis in general is Catechists in particular). Apologetics has the effect of inspiring confidence in faith, and promoting a reasoned and balanced approach to deeply significant questions about faith and worldview issues.
In the end, I have become increasingly convinced that Apologetics is just another organ of Theological Studies and that no good reason can be found which argues against its inclusion in the secular syllabus adopted by secular Theology departments. I realize that those are some bold and roughly outlined thoughts, but it seems that the more thought I put into the issue the more clearly it seems to me that Apologetics is academically legitimate.