Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Lessons Learned from Great Apologists

Carl Olson

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” It is a thought applicable to the art of apologetics, for there are numerous and valuable lessons to be learned from those who have gone before us in defending the faith. What follows is a brief look at lessons learned from five great modern apologists.

John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890): The Lessons of History

John Henry Cardinal Newman is considered to have been both a religious and literary giant of the nineteenth century, and his story is one of great intellectual drama. A highly respected Anglican priest, Newman was a leader in the Oxford Movement during the 1830s and ’40s. The Oxford Movement sought to prove, from study of the Church Fathers, the historical and apostolic claims of Anglican church and to return to the pristine orthodoxy of the first centuries of Christianity. Newman and others in the movement were convinced the Catholic Church had corrupted and added to the early Church’s doctrines and had lost any claim to being the true Church.

Newman set out to write a definitive work that would cement the Anglican position and show the falsehood of Rome’s claims. But his intense studies revealed instead the unthinkable: The Catholic Church was the one, true Church of Christ. In 1845, having resigned his position in the Anglican church, Newman began writing The Development of Christian Doctrine, a masterful study of the teachings of the early Church during its first few centuries. In 1847 he was ordained a priest in the Catholic Church. His conversion caused a sensation throughout England, a country still deeply anti-Catholic at the time. He was attacked by many former friends and by the press. In particular, a certain anti-Catholic writer, Charles Kingsley, began to malign Newman. In 1864 Newman responded to Kingsley’s attacks by writing Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a towering apologetic of his conversion and of the Catholic faith.

In large part it was Newman’s study of history and the Church Fathers that convinced him of the Catholic Church’s rightful claim as the true Church. He wrote:

“History is not a creed or catechism; it gives lessons rather than rules. Still, no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of color rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete, but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain: Whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

“And Protestantism has ever felt it so. . . . This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: Men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. . . . Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages that lie between the councils of Nicea and Trent, except as offering one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophecies of St. Paul and St. John. . . . To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” (The Development of Christian Doctrine [Longmans, Green, and Co., Inc., 1949], 7).

The Catholic apologist need never fear the facts of history or the writings of the Church Fathers. They need to be embraced and studied and learned. They are allies who are like drops of water dripping into a vast reservoir of truth, available to those who take the time to carefully study and ponder what is there. That is one of many lessons to be learned from Cardinal Newman.

G. K. (Gilbert Keith) Chesterton (1874-1936): The Balance of Paradox

G. K. Chesterton was perhaps the most quotable, entertaining, and diverse Catholic writer of this century. Novelist, essayist, poet, playwright, literary critic, and mystery writer, Chesterton was also a powerful and original apologist. Many converts to the Church in this century owe a debt of gratitude to him.

Chesterton’s trademark-which his readers revel in and his detractors dislike-is his use of paradox. He had uncanny ability to turn the opponent’s argument or premise upside down and inside out, resulting in keen insights. In Orthodoxy, in a chapter titled “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” the unique and mysterious nature of Christianity is shown through the lens of its enemies’ contradictory criticisms:

“As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith . . . a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind: the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices that seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the West. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness” (Orthodoxy [Image Books, 1990], 84-85).

This radical balance of Christianity would be a reoccurring theme in Chesterton’s apologetic writings. While a heresy is the belief that a narrow portion of the truth is the whole truth (i.e., Arianism taught that Jesus was true man), orthodoxy is capable of holding seemingly opposing views in a paradoxical balance (i.e., Jesus is true man and true God). This feature of orthodoxy is a most helpful touchstone for the apologist in recognizing doctrinal error. Orthodoxy is always balanced despite the leanings and weaknesses of the era the Catholic lives in:

“This is the thrilling romance of orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: And to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistorical to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. . . . It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom-that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands” (Orthodoxy, 100-101).

Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957): The Necessity of Consistency

Fr. Ronald Knox was the son of the Anglican bishop of Manchester, and it appeared he would also have a successful life as an Anglican prelate. But in 1917, four years after being ordained in the Church of England, Knox became a Catholic; two years later he was ordained a priest.

Knox was a prose stylist of immense talent whose sharp wit and biting satire poked holes in the smug secularism of his day. In books such as Essays in Satire and Caliban in Grub Street he mocked the dogma-lite Christianity, shallow agnosticism, and glib atheism so popular among the elite classes of England. He also wrote murder mysteries (as did Chesterton), translated the Bible over a nine-year period (the Knox Version) and wrote Enthusiasm, a fascinating history of enthusiast movements (such as Montanism and Quietism) in Christianity.

Knox had a gift for distilling complex matters into understandable and compelling language, and his wry humor makes his writing that much more enjoyable. He pointed out the logical fallacies of Protestant assumptions and beliefs, something he knew of firsthand. In The Belief of Catholics, in a chapter titled “Where Protestantism Goes Wrong,” he demonstrated that how one views the Church will either make or break the basis of their view of Christ, the Bible, and authority:

“A proper notion of the Church is a necessary stage before we argue from the authority of Christ to any other theological doctrine whatever. The infallibility of the Church is, for us, the true induction from which all our theological conclusions are derived. The Protestant, stopping short of it, has to rest content with an induction of the false kind; and the vice of that false kind of induction is that all its conclusions are already contained in its premises. Perhaps formal logic is out of date; let me restate the point otherwise. We derive from our apprehension of the living Christ the apprehension of a living Church; it is from that living Church that we take our guidance. Protestantism claims to take its guidance immediately from the living Christ. But what is the guidance he gives us, and where are we to find it?” (The Belief of Catholics [Image, 1958], 104-105).

The Protestant claim that it is the Bible that guides them and provides the final say in matters of their faith is inconsistent and cannot stand in the face of reason:

“In fact . . . the Protestant had no conceivable right to base any arguments on the inspiration of the Bible, for the inspiration of the Bible was a doctrine that had been believed, before the Reformation, on the mere authority of the Church; it rested on exactly the same basis as the doctrine of transubstantiation. Protestantism repudiated transubstantiation and in doing so repudiated the authority of the Church; and then, without a shred of logic, calmly went on believing in the inspiration of the Bible, as if nothing had happened! Did they suppose that Biblical inspiration was a self-evident fact, like the axioms of Euclid?” (The Belief of Catholics, 106).

This is an important point to keep in mind when talking with those who believes in sola scriptura: Not only does the Bible itself not teach this doctrine, the doctrine itself ignores the historical facts as to how we got the Bible and by whose authority the canon has been set. The Catholic faith demands of a Bible believer all or nothing. If someone accepts the authority of Scripture, it can be shown that they must also accept the authority of the Church-anything else is inconsistent.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963): Seeing Christ Clearly

C. S. Lewis is undoubtedly the most widely read and best-known Christian author of this century. Like Chesterton, he was a writer with tremendous range, writing a best-selling children’s series-the chronicles of Narnia-plus books and essays about medieval literature, contemporary education, literary criticism, and apologetics.

One of Lewis’s many talents was an ability to powerfully convey the deeper truths of the Christian faith with uncommon clarity and in a lively style. He understood the thinking and objections of unbelievers and met them on their ground, using their standards of empirical proof and rational thinking in combating them.

Like Chesterton, Lewis was a self-described agnostic as a teenager. In his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy, Lewis remarked on the profound influence that Chesterton’s Everlasting Man had on him while he was still an agnostic. In reading it, Lewis wrote he “for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken” (Surprised By Joy [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956], 223).

After he entered the Anglican church in 1931, Lewis went on to write dozens of books and essays on Christianity, including the classic Mere Christianity. In it he put forth the argument that the man Jesus Christ could have been only one of three things: Lord, liar, or lunatic:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who is merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity [Touchstone, 1996], 56).

In dealing with a non-Christian, the topic must finally turn to the person of Jesus Christ; otherwise the apologist is arguing about peripherals and not the heart of the faith. Be assured that in speaking of Christ you will hear variations of the “Jesus was a great man, but . . .” argument that Lewis addressed so well. By showing people what Jesus really said and really did you can begin to undercut the “great teacher” stance, more popular today than ever. It also helps to deal with the common belief that Jesus is just one of many possible ways to heaven. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6). Either it was true, or he was lying, or he was insane. There are no other alternatives.

Frank J. Sheed (1897-1981): Sacraments Reflect the Incarnation

Frank Sheed was an Australian law student who, after moving to London in the 1920s, became one of the most famous Catholic apologists of the century. He was an outstanding street-corner speaker who popularized the Catholic Evidence Guild in both England and America (where he later resided). Along with his wife Maisie Ward he founded the well-known Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward.

Sheed wrote several books, the best known being Theology and Sanity, A Map of Life, Theology for Beginners, and To Know Christ Jesus. All of his writing possessed a rare erudition and comprehensive g.asp of Catholic doctrine. Theology and Sanity is a particularly helpful work for the apologist since every part of it had been, Sheed states, “tried out on forty or fifty outdoor audiences before I got it down on paper” (Theology and Sanity [Ignatius Press, orig. publish date 1946], 9). The result is an enjoyable and filling theological meal, served with the natural ease and clarity that mark Sheed’s writing.

One topic that Sheed repeatedly emphasized is the balanced perspective we need to have of the material and spiritual realm. This is particularly important in explaining the sacraments to non-Catholics and poorly catechized Catholics. Many people (i.e., Fundamentalists and New Agers) downplay or even condemn man’s physical nature, while others (secularists and hedonists) live as though their physical desires and impulses are of the utmost importance. But Catholic teaching claims the whole man is called to worship and to communion with God:

“Religion is the act of man-the whole man, soul and body. It is not the act of the soul only, for man is not only soul. . . . The supernatural does not ignore the natural or substitute something else for it. It is built upon or built into the natural. Sanctifying grace does not provide us with a new soul; it enters into the soul we already have. Nor does it give the soul new faculties but elevates the faculties that are already there, giving intellect and will new powers of operation. God-as-Sanctifier does not destroy or bypass the work of God-as-Creator. What God has created, God sanctifies” (Theology and Sanity, 300-301).

God uses material elements such as wine, bread, and water to convey supernatural life, or grace. He meets us where we are, as people composed of bodies and souls. “The sacramental principle, continually reminding man of his body, will keep his feet firmly planted upon the ground and destroy pride in its strongest root; sanctifying his body will make it the fit partner of a soul indwelt by God. The giving of supernatural life by way of sacrament, then, corresponds with the structure of man” (Theology and Sanity, 301).

The link between the Incarnation, our human nature, and the sacraments is critical in speaking with Protestants. By emphasizing that humans are not just disembodied spirits, but also flesh and blood-just as our Savior was also flesh and blood-we can begin to point them towards a fuller appreciation of all that God has done for us: He “emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant . . . being made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7).

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!