Historical Apologetics: 1697-1893
An Introductory Bibliography
What follows is a highly selective bibliography in historical apologetics—the branch of apologetics dealing with the authenticity and credibility of the scriptures and particularly of the New Testament—from the late 17th century through the late 19th century. Although the progress of scholarship has raised new questions and provided additional lines of evidence, these older works are of more than merely historical interest. Most of the objections raised against Christianity today are variations on objections that go back hundreds of years, in some cases all the way back to Celsus and Porphyry. These objections were thoroughly discussed by some of the finest minds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their responses are as cogent now as when they were first printed. Unfortunately, there has been little guidance to this literature for interested Christian readers, and as a result some masterpieces are almost unknown even among seminary graduates and students of apologetics.
Since the purpose of this list is to make the literature available to a non-specialist audience, I have restricted it in three ways. First, all of the works listed here are in English. There are many excellent sources in other languages, particularly in German, French, and Latin. But these are of no use to the majority of American readers who have an interest in the subject but not a strong education in classical or modern European languages. Some of the works in this list make free use of quotations in Latin, Greek, and occasionally Hebrew. But context generally supplies sufficient information that a reader unfamiliar with those languages can still profit from the discussion.
The second restriction is that all of these works are devoted, in whole or in part, to the historical argument for the truth of Christianity. The authors come from various denominational and educational backgrounds and would not agree with each other on all points of theology. Some are profound works of research and scholarship and others are brief works addressed to a non-specialist audience. But each makes a distinctive contribution to the literature of historical apologetics.
The third restriction is that all of these works are in the public domain and are available for downloading online free of charge from one or more of four sources:
[A] Internet Archive, www.archive.org
[C] Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org
[G] Google Books, http://books.google.com/advanced_book_search
[CA] Classic Apologetics Archive, http://www.classicapologetics.com
Of these, [A] has the highest quality scans, with a searchable OCR-generated text layer. These are slightly larger than non-layered pdfs, but if you have the storage space they are the best ones to download. [C] has a limited range of material and requires registration, but what it does have is generally available in a searchable format (html or rtf). [G] has by far the widest range of general literature, and the texts of the documents are searchable online (though the pdf files available for downloading do not have a text layer). [CA] has a very large selection of apologetics works all in one place. The hyperlinks below are to the best available online editions, which are not always the first editions. There are also alternate links for a few works.
The works included are sorted into three levels, corresponding roughly to their length, ranging from gems of compression and clarity to detailed multi-volume works best used for reference.
Charles Leslie (1650-1722) was a nonjuror—an Anglican clergyman who refused to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary after the revolution in 1688 and, in consequence, lost his benefice. In this brief and vigorous work, Leslie proposes four tests for determining whether a reported event is an actual miracle:
1. That the matter of fact be such, that men’s outward senses, their eyes and ears may be judges of it.
2. That it be done publicly in the face of the world.
3. That not only public monuments be kept up in memory of it, but some outward actions be performed.
4. That such monuments, and such actions or observances be instituted, and do commence from the time, that the matter of fact was done.
The first two rules, Leslie explains, “make it impossible for any such matter of fact to be imposed upon men at the time, when such fact was said to be done, because every man’s eyes and senses would contradict it.” The latter two rules assure those of us who come after that the account was not invented subsequent to the time of the purported event. In a later work, Deism Refuted, Leslie supplemented these with four more marks in order to show how high a standard the evidence for the gospels met.
The Preface to the edition of the Short and Easy Method with the Deists (1815) linked above contains valuable material regarding both the origin and the influence of Leslie’s work. The story of its origin is worth quoting here:
It was the fortune of Mr. Leslie to be acquainted with the Duke of Leeds of that time; who observed to him that, although he was a believer of the Christian religion, he was not satisfied with the common methods of proving it; that the argument was long and complicated; so that some had neither leisure, nor patience to follow it, and others were not able to comprehend it; that, as it was the nature of all truth to be plain and simple, if Christianity were a truth, there must be some short way of showing it to be so; and he wished Mr. Leslie would think of it. Such a hint to such a man, in the space of three days, furnished a rough draught of the Short and Easy Method with the Deists; which he presented to the Duke; who looked it over, and then said, “I thought I was a Christian before, but I am sure of it now; and, as I am indebted to you for converting me, I shall henceforth look upon you, as my spiritual father.” And he acted accordingly; for he never came into his company afterward without asking his blessing.
Leslie’s Short and Easy Method produced a powerful effect and was instrumental in the conversion of the well-known deist Charles Gildon. The 8th edition is available here.
Thomas Sherlock (1678-1761) was an Anglican Bishop whose apologetic writings, in the tradition of John Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity [A], focus on the evidence for miracles and the use and intent of prophecy. The Trial of the Witnesses of the Resurrection is a charming response to the deist Thomas Woolston, who had attacked the Christian miracles in six pamphlets published in 1727-8. The question at issue is whether the original witnesses of the resurrection were deceivers, and Sherlock frames work as a discussion among some lawyers who find themselves on opposite sides of the question. They decide to have it determined by a mock trial complete with a jury in which the skeptical arguments of Woolston, Anthony Collins, and Matthew Tindal are vigorously advanced by the counsel for the prosecution and rebutted by the counsel for the defense.
The Trial was wildly popular and went through nearly a dozen printings in its first year. The edition linked to the title above also contains Sherlock’s Sequel to the Trial of the Witnesses, a valuable work in its own right, written in response to an attack on the Trial by Peter Annet. The mode of argument adopted in the Trial has been an influence on many subsequent apologetic writers, and it has been conjectured that Hume had the Trial in view when he published his famous attack on the rationality of belief in miracles in 1748.
William Adams (1706?-1789) was a
Fellow and Master of Pembroke College,
The 3rd edition of the work,
linked here, contains a particularly good discussion of the alleged miracles at
the tomb of the Abbé Paris to which Hume refers in the second part of “Of
An html version of this work is available here.
George Campbell (1719-1796) was a
Scottish Presbyterian theologian and professor and principal at
While scholars have tended to stress Campbell’s view of testimony as an autonomous source of knowledge, there is much else in the book worthy of at least as much notice, including a thorough discussion of Hume’s attempt to draw a parallel between pagan and popular miracle accounts and the gospel miracles. (Part II, sections IV and V)
The works of Adams, Campbell, and John Douglas, taken together, provide a thorough response to Hume’s essay; but it was Campbell to whom Hume was referring when he remarked to a friend that “the Scotch theologue” had beaten him.
God has neither in natural nor in revealed religion left himself without witness; but has in both given moral and external evidence, sufficient to convince the impartial, to silence the gainsayer, and to render inexcusable the atheist and the unbeliever. This evidence it is our duty to attend to, and candidly to examine. We must prove all things, as we are expressly enjoined in holy writ, if we would ever hope to hold fast that which is good.
Richard Watson (1737-1816), not to
be confused with the Methodist theologian of the same name, was an Anglican
theologian and scholar. He was a fellow of
The first of these two short books by Watson is a response to Edward Gibbon’s treatment of the rise of Christianity in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776); the second is a response to Thomas Paine’s coarse but popular attack on Christianity in The Age of Reason (1794-95). Both of Watson’s works combine considerable learning with graceful rhetoric. He treats Gibbon with the respect due to a scholar of high standing, a compliment that Gibbon appreciated and returned in some correspondence that passed between them in November of 1776. With Paine, Watson allows himself a more remonstrating tone.
Watson had a clear sense of the limitations of the genre in which he was writing, and in a note to the fifth (1791) edition of his Apology for Christianity he expresses “an earnest wish, that those who dislike not this little Book, will peruse larger ones on the same subject.” His six volume Collection of Theological Tracts (1785; 2nd ed. 1791) gives some indication of where he hoped his readers would go.
Richard Whately (1787-1863), the
Anglican Archbishop of
Thomas Cooper, The Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time (3rd ed, 1871)
There is a standard image of the
19th century as the era when educated Christians lost their faith. Thomas
Cooper (1805-1892), a self-educated cobbler with a prodigous thirst for
knowledge, was one of those Christians; having been prepared for the Methodist
ministry as a young man, he read David Strauss’s Life of Jesus and became a “freethinker.” But a few decades later,
he rethought the objections that had caused him to abandon Christianity
and returned to the faith. Cooper spent
the last three decades of his life traveling the length and breadth of
The Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time is a work born from those lectures, and it gives a good sense of Cooper’s lively lecture style, aimed at holding the attention of the working man. Cooper takes his audience on an idiosyncratic and entertaining tour, century by century, moving back from the nineteenth century to the first. Though he stops frequently to explore interesting byways, he always comes back to the main path with one question in mind: where did Christianity come from? Though the lectures are not deeply scholarly, they reveal Cooper’s intimate familiarity with the objections to Christian belief that he himself once thought decisive. In the opening paragraphs he expresses his hope that those who read his “light thoughts” may be motivated to take up a deeper study of the evidences for Christianity in the more scholarly works of Lardner, Paley, Horne, and Westcott.
The story of Cooper’s loss of faith and his subsequent reconversion is well told both in Cooper’s own autobiography, The Life of Thomas Cooper (1871; 4th ed. 1873), and in Timothy Larsen’s important historical study Crisis of Doubt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Edmund Bennett, The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint (1893)
In this brief book, Edmund Bennett (1824-1898), a probate judge in New York for over two decades and Dean of the School of Law at Boston University for 23 years, gives an overview of the peculiarities of each gospel, the confirmations of authenticity and veracity of the narratives by small details easily overlooked and not credibly the product of collusion, variations in the gospels, and alleged inconsistencies in the gospels. Though it is by no means a work of deep scholarship, it is a competent and very readable summary of some important points and a model of clear presentation for a nonspecialist audience.
There is a biographical sketch and appreciation of Dean Bennett in the first issue of the Simon Greenleaf Law Review (1981), where The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint is also reprinted. A searchable copy of Bennett’s work is available here [A].
There are few names more honored
in the history of the Anglican church than that of the theologian, apologist,
and philosopher Joseph Butler (1692-1752), Bishop of Durham. The Analogy of Religion has long been
recognized as one of the masterpieces of Christian apologetics. The deists, who
were a rising force in
Paley’s Evidences is one of the very best summaries of the historical case for Christianity, making good use of the work of his great predecessors Lardner and Douglas. In Part I, which is the heart of the book, Paley sets out to establish two propositions:
1. That there is satisfactory evidence that many professing to be original witnesses of the Christian miracles passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of those accounts; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct, and
2. That there is not satisfactory evidence that persons professing to be original witnesses of other miracles, in their nature as certain as these are, have ever acted in the same manner, in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and properly in consequence of their belief of those accounts.
In Part II he considers auxiliary evidences such as prophecy, the character of Christ, and the propagation of Christianity. In Part III he considers some popular objections to Christianity.
The edition linked at the title has notes by Richard Whately, which makes it even more valuable.
Thomas Chalmers, The Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation (1814; 4th ed. 1817) [A] [CA] [G]
This is an exceptionally clear and vigorous presentation of the historical argument for the resurrection, which Chalmers regards as the key argument for the truth of Christianity. Simon Greenleaf had read it and quotes several pages from the third chapter in a long footnote in his Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists (1846) [A].
The Evidence is also historically interesting as a methodological polemic in favor of a factual apologetic over what might (somewhat prejudicially) be called a sentimental one. Chalmers characterizes his own approach as “Baconian” and “inductive,” and this self-conscious empiricism shapes his work. From this standpoint he criticizes both those who put their trust in the internal evidences (the moral excellence of the gospel, for example) and those like Rousseau who think that they can overthrow the direct historical evidence by their subjective dislike of the doctrines of Christianity. We have, Chalmers argues, no external standpoint from which to judge the reasonableness of revealed doctrine, for outside of revelation we have no experience of God and therefore no independent standard by which to make a judgment regarding what God ought to do.
The Evidence was a young man’s work, written before Chalmers was 40, and at times he seems to overstate the case against the internal argument, though there is an important measure of truth in what he says. Later, in his Introductory Essay to The Christian’s Defense Against Infidelity (1829), he gives a more sympathetic account of the force of the internal evidence.
Charles Pettit McIlvaine, The Evidences of Christianity in their External Division (1833; revised ed. 1861) [A] [G]
Charles Pettit McIlvaine
(1799-1873), Episcopal Bishop of Ohio and president of
McIlvaine’s work is notable not only for the thoughtful arrangement of the divisions of the argument but also for his earnest discussion of the duty of all Christians who have the means to study the evidence for their faith and the spirit in which that study should be undertaken.
Simon Greenleaf, An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists (1846) [A] [G]
We are indebted to Simon Greenleaf
(1783-1853), professor of Law at
Brooke Foss Westcott, The Gospel of the Resurrection: Thoughts on its Relation to Reason and History (1866; 7th ed. 1891) [A] [G]
This popular work by the great 19th century textual scholar makes the argument for the resurrection in an interesting way. Westcott, who is well aware of (though not persuaded by) critical attacks on the authenticity of the texts of the gospels, builds his argument at first from information in the Pauline epistles, since he knows that even his most radical critics will find it difficult to cavil at this evidence. Only then does he turn to the gospels, arguing that the account we have in them is in perfect accordance with the account Paul gives in the opening verses of I Corinthians 15.
This late 19th century work by a prominent scholar provides a careful statement and defense of the supernaturalist position. Bruce frequently addresses the arguments of Strauss and Renan, Schleiermacher and Lessing, and provides both a critique of their positions and a defense of the orthodox position against their objections. With Westcott’s Gospel of the Resurrection, it is a useful supplement to the older work of writers like Paley and Chalmers since Bruce is able to take full account of work that became prominent only in the 19th century.
John Leland (1696-1766), an
English dissenting (Presbyterian) minister who settled in
Leland’s View is of much more than merely historical value; because it gives a minute account of numerous responses to the deists, it contains a comprehensive defense of Christianity against all of the objections that its most determined adversaries in the Enlightenment could raise. Leland’s own summary of the controversy shows that he understood both the magnitude of the issues and the nature of the achievement of the defenders of Christianity:
They [the deists] have appealed to the bar of reason; the advocates for Christianity have followed them to that bar, and have fairly shewn, that the evidences of revealed religion are such as approve themselves to impartial reason, and, if taken together, are fully sufficient to satisfy an honest and unprejudiced mind. (Letter 35)
Nathaniel Lardner, Credibility of the Gospel History, in Lardner’s Works (1727-55)
Nathaniel Lardner (1684-1768) was a dissenting minister who devoted his life to producing the apologetic masterpiece of the 18th century, the multi-volume Credibility of the Gospel History. Lardner’s objective may be explained in his own words:
The peculiar design of this work is to enable persons of ordinary capacities, who, for want of a learned education, or of sufficient leisure, are deprived of the advantage of reading over ancient writings, to judge for themselves concerning the external evidence of the facts related in the New Testament. . . .
The method taken in this work is to set down in the first place the representation, which the sacred writers have given of persons, facts, customs or principles; and then to produce passages of other ancient writers, which confirm or illustrate the account delivered in the New Testament.
Lardner executes his design with incredible thoroughness. The question of the census in Luke 2:1-2, for example, fills 86 pages (volume 1, pp. 260-345). Virtually every subsequent apologist who takes up the historical argument is explicitly indebted to him.
In a work of this scope, written this long ago, it is inevitable that there should be some places where modern scholarship diverges from Lardner’s opinions or where new discoveries shed a fuller light on issues he discusses. But when he errs, it is generally on the side of being overly critical of the evidence for his own case, as when he rejects the (then recently-discovered) first epistle of Clement of Rome, which is now widely acknowledged to be genuine. And in all cases his massive research remains an invaluable resource, a detailed and scrupulously honest map of all prior thinking on each topic he covers. No one who aspires to be a well-informed student of apologetics can neglect this monumental work, which fills the first four and a half volumes of Kippis’s 10 volume edition of Lardner’s Works.
Lardner’s christological views were not orthodox, though he stated publically that he was not an Arian. These issues, however, do not affect his historical work. Richard Watson included works by Lardner and several other dissenters in his Collection of Theological Tracts (2nd ed. 1791; see especially the Preface, p. xix).
Thomas Hartwell Horne (1780-1862) was a theologian and researcher whose Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures set a high standard for all future works on the subject. The work is most dated on textual matters, since many of the great discoveries of the nineteenth century occurred late in Horne’s life or after his death. A student of textual criticism will of course want to bring his knowledge up to date by a careful study of the work of scholars like Bruce Metzger. But a knowledge of the wealth of information contained in Horne (vol. 2, part 1, chs. 2 through 5) would be an excellent preparation for that study.
Students of apologetics will find much of interest in the first two volumes of Horne’s work. But the most important sections will probably be the chapters on non-Christian evidence for the credibility of the New Testament (vol. 1, ch 3, sec. 2), miracles (vol. 1, ch. 4, sec. 2), prophecy (vol. 1, ch. 4, sec. 3), and particularly on the apparent contradictions in Scripture (vol. 1, Book 2, ch. 7), which is especially thorough for a work not devoted solely to apologetics. Horne’s bibliographic obsession provides a diligent reader with numerous references to track down, making this work a virtual map of all previous literature on the subjects he touches.
Adam Storey Farrar (1826-1905),
fellow of Queen’s College,
The only modern work in English comparable in scope and execution to Farrar’s Critical History is William Lane Craig’s The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus During the Deist Controversy (1985). Anyone with a serious research interest in the history of apologetics needs to obtain these works.