According to Avery Cardinal Dulles’ fine work A History of Apologetics (Ignatius 1999), the earliest apologetic works outside of Scripture can be divided into two categories–religious apologies designed to win new converts and political apologies intended to earn civil tolerance from the Roman Empire. Indeed two of the most important Christian works of the second century were apologetic works by Aristides and Justin Martyr. Aristides addressed his Apology to the emperor Hadrian (76-138) and Justin addressed his First Apology to the emperor Antonius Pius (86-161) and his adopted son. Both were intended to show the powers that be that they should refrain from attempting to eliminate the church or even drive it underground. Most of the early defenders of the faith followed in their wake until Constantine granted Christianity toleration in 313. Early apologists did not rest in ivory academic towers but were on the ground attempting to save lives.
There is a myth held by many Christians that the early church welcomed persecution with closed lipped smiles. Many today hold a romantic view that the church needs persecution to truly grow. Yet, the facts are not so neat. The church has actually grown during times of peace (see Acts 9:31 and the two Great Awakenings) and times of persecution (see China today). But in either setting there have been apologists who stood up to defend the faith in order to win converts and/or rescue their fellow Christians from imprisonment or death.
Today, in the west, Christians are facing loss of freedoms as the left has successfully lobbied the culture into believing that sexual expression trumps Constitutional rights. The faith once and for all delivered to the saints has also slowly slid into cultural irrelevance in the west and now faces the risk of being viewed as a dangerous cult.
Apologists today are largely consumed with responding to the New Atheists who have fought to make it acceptable to belittle Christians and proudly proclaim lack of faith in the public square. Yet, as important as countering the New Atheists, apologists need to understand that we now need to go back to the starting line. The simple fact is that we have temporarily lost the battle over the control of our influential cultural institutions. Also, because of a naive push for attendance over discipleship, most Christians cannot even tell you what the faith is about and certainly cannot defend it. Thus, we need to clearly define what Christianity is about (i.e., the Gospel as defined by Scriptures like 2 Cor. 5:21), why it is good for individuals and societies as well as why it is a more reasonable worldview than that proposed by atheism.
Once upon a time, apologists rose to the challenge to defend the faith in order to save lives. Today, apologists must rise to define the faith, demonstrate the benefits of the faith and defend the faith all at the same time. If not, the cultural slide will continue and apologists will have to once again defend the very lives of Christians. If we truly love our neighbors, including our brothers and sisters in Christ, this would be a tragedy.