The term apologetics is based on the Greek roots apo- (“from”) and logos (“a word, an account, a speech”). To give an apology (Greek, apologia) thus came to mean to give a speech or an account of one’s own position—in other words, to defend it.
The term apology was established in Greek before the New Testament was written. Thus, one of Plato’s most famous works is The Apology. It is an account of the defense that Socrates made when he was put on trial in 399 B.C. for disbelief in the gods and corrupting the youths of Athens with his ideas.
The term apologia appears a number of times in the New Testament, where it is commonly translated “defense.” For example, St. Paul tells the citizens of Jerusalem, “Brethren and fathers, hear the defense which I now make before you” (Acts 22:1). Subsequently, the study of how to make a defense came to be known as apologetics. By the 1700s, this term was used in English to refer to the branch of theology that defends the Christian faith.
The term also became used for the defense of any position, whether religious or not. Thus today pundits may refer to “apologists” for political parties or for candidates and their positions. When the term is used in this sense, it often has a negative ring. Use of the term is complicated by the fact that “an apology” also came to mean an expression of regret for wrongdoing (e.g., “Please accept my apology for what I did”). This is the most familiar use of the term for English speakers today, and it causes confusion when they first encounter the field of apologetics.
Since apologetics involves defending the Faith rather than expressing regret, many have asked whether a better term can be found for the field, and some have made proposals (e.g., “defend-ology”). However, no such term has gained acceptance, though in some scholarly circles the term “fundamental theology” has been used.
Christian apologetics has two principle tasks. The first is positive: it offers evidence in favor of the Faith (e.g., arguments for the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ). The second is negative: it provides answers to objections to the Faith (e.g., responses to arguments against the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ).
Catholic apologetics has the same two tasks—a positive one offering evidence for the Catholic understanding of the Christian faith (e.g., arguments that Peter was the first pope) and a negative one responding to objections to it (e.g., responses to arguments that Peter was not the first pope).
Although the term apologetics hasn’t always existed, the practice has always been with us, because humans have always had a need to defend their beliefs. Thus, we find the authors of the Bible practicing apologetics in various ways.
In the Old Testament, the biblical authors point to God’s mighty deeds as evidence for why the Israelites should remain faithful to him, and they offer critiques, both subtle and overt, of pagan belief and practice, as when they point out the limitations of idols (“They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths,” Psa. 135:16-17).
In the New Testament, the biblical authors point to the miracles of Christ, especially his resurrection, as proof of the Christian message. They also point to fulfilled messianic prophecies from the Old Testament, and they answer objections raised to the Christian faith, especially from non-Christian Jews (e.g., the author of Hebrews explains how Jesus can be the Christian high priest when he wasn’t from the Jewish priestly tribe of Levi, cf. Heb. 7).
Apologetic engagement with the pagan world came to prominence in the second century, which saw the emergence of major apologists such as St. Justin Martyr, who defended Christianity to Greco-Roman audiences.
A diversification of beliefs among those professing to be Christians also led to the development of apologetics to deal with specific sects. Early heresiologists such as second-century St. Irenaeus of Lyons developed apologetics for dealing with heretics such as the Gnostics.
In every age, new forms of apologetics have developed as the Church has had to meet new challenges. For example, following the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, many new works were written to answer challenges posed by different groups of Protestants.
Our own century is likely to be remembered as a fruitful time for apologetics. A key reason is the development of the Internet, which allows all religious and non-religious perspectives to interact in a way previously not possible, leading to the development of many new apologetic arguments and approaches.
Because the purpose of Christian apologetics is to help draw people to Christ, every apologist must maintain a fundamental attitude of service to others. As St. Peter tells his readers, “Always be prepared to make a defense (apologia) to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).