I have a confession to make: despite the fact that I write and speak on apologetics, there are times when I question whether apologetics is really any good.
There are two main reasons for my doubts. Firstly, I sometimes find apologists more than a little intimidating. On one hand they generally seem incredibly clever and, on the other hand, they sometimes seem excessively aggressive, more concerned with winning arguments than winning hearts. Of course, some of what I interpret as 'aggression' may actually simply be passion, but nonetheless I think there is more than a hint of truth in the claim that apologists and their disciples (by which I mean Christians who are passionate about apologetics) aren't always renowned for their grace and compassion. I should know – I am one!
Secondly, I sometimes wonder what difference apologetics makes. What occupies the attention of most people most of the time is not deep existential questions about life and faith but the ordinary stuff of daily life. The majority of people do not reject Christian faith because they are convinced through argument of the truth of an alternative worldview but either because they simply don't perceive it to be relevant to their lives or because they seldom pause long enough to think about it. Furthermore, many people do not read; not because they cannot but because they choose not to, have no inclination towards books or simply do not have the time. Yet apologists are invariably bookish people and generate thousands of words in speech and print (again I accept my share of the blame!!!)
This, then, is my confession. Yet, despite my doubts, I still persist in apologetics. Having tested my heart to make sure that I'm not motivated entirely by my own desire to win arguments or my internal compulsion to write, I have concluded that the real problem is not with the idea of apologetics but with bad apologetics or apologetics done badly. I here offer seven reasons why apologetics might actually be good, or rather seven guides to what makes for good apologetics.
1. Good apologetics isn't just for nerds
When churches arrange a meeting on an apologetics topic they commonly bring in an 'expert' in the field, often with an impressive set of credentials and more letters after their name than in their name. I have no desire to malign the work that such expert apologists do and I am deeply grateful for their contribution. We need some people of the highest calibre to engage in apologetics at the highest intellectual and social levels. What concerns me, however, is that many Christians end up leaving such events thinking, "That was impressive, but I could never do it". Although the speaker may have intended to empower God's people to defend their faith, the actual result may have been quite the opposite. Apologetics is not merely a pursuit for the highly educated or bookish person. Every Christian ought to be prayerfully seeking opportunities to explain their faith, and any explanation of faith is, in the broadest sense of the word, apologetics.
Apologetics is not merely a pursuit for the highly educated
Any Christian who has sought to share the gospel or explain why they believe to non-believing people will almost certainly have been faced with questions in response. Why do you believe that? Does that really make sense? Do you really think Jesus rose from the dead? How do you know God exists? What about people who have never heard about Jesus? Why would a good God allow such terrible suffering?
As soon as we begin to answer these questions and a host of others we are engaging in the task of apologetics, whether we recognise the word or not. Good apologetics is a resource for God's people as they engage in real conversations about real life. It seeks to help real people see why their 'real life' may not be so real after all, to understand why their explanations of their experience are inadequate and to see that there is a deeper reality which makes sense of their lives. We need to develop skills to explain our faith at a level appropriate to ourselves and to those to whom we speak. We need apologetics.
2. Good apologetics doesn't tame the Bible
One of the most frequent objections to apologetics is the idea, commonly attributed to Charles Spurgeon, that trying to defend the Bible is like trying to defend a lion. The Bible is powerful (Hebrews 4:12 serves as proof) and can speak for itself. The lion is quite capable of making itself heard and its powerful roar testifies to its inherent authority. I have a great deal of sympathy with this perspective and both experience and the testimony of Scripture provide ample evidence that Scripture is indeed powerful. It is the God-breathed, authoritative record of the gospel word, which is God's power that brings salvation (Romans 1:16). The gospel is the God-given message about His Son, the Saviour, Jesus Christ who is Himself the living Word (John 1:1). The problem, however, is that Scripture and the gospel can only impact the lives of those who hear it or, more precisely, those who listen.
Apologetics is part of the process of helping people to hear the gospel
The Bible, and the gospel which it declares, is powerful to change attitudes and lives, but it must be proclaimed, declared and explained for "How … can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Romans 10:14). Apologetics is part of the process of helping people to hear the gospel. By removing obstacles to listening to Scripture and making a case for considering its claims, apologetics can help to 'unleash the lion'. Apologetics does not arise from a lack of confidence in Scripture but from a conviction that the message of Scripture is too important for people to miss it.
3. Good apologetics doesn't replace faith with reason
Apologetics makes reasoned arguments for Christianity or against alternative belief systems. This process depends on human reason or logic. Some claim that this is a fundamental flaw in apologetics. Surely human beings cannot understand God's truth without the help of His Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14) and human wisdom cannot accept the foolishness of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:21). After all, sinful human beings are incapable of knowing God. We cannot enter at this point into a consideration of the degree to which sin has affected the human mind (what theologians call the noetic effects of sin) – different schools of apologetics stem from different perspectives on that question – but it is important that we don't reject logic outright. If we define reason simply as the process through which we become intellectually convinced of truths and logic as the principles by which we do this, then we realise that we all engage in logical reasoning (and a great deal of illogical reasoning) every day. The question becomes not whether logic and reason are acceptable but what principles of logic we follow and how honest our reasoning is.
Christians certainly ought not to allow confidence in human reason to supplant the need for faith or to exclude the spiritual, and this is a challenge in an intellectual world still largely shaped by Enlightenment thinking that deified human reason, but biblical faith does not preclude reason and Christianity is not irrational. The idea that faith is irrational is popular with some prominent atheists, but it simply is not how the Bible describes faith. Faith, without which we cannot please God (Hebrews 11:6), is placing confidence in something or someone. Everyone is fundamentally a person of faith – we all trust some story about who we are and what life is all about. Some people have thought their story through more than others have and different people have different capacities for reasoning, but although there may be some irrational and thoughtless Christians there are also many who are thoughtful and rational. Scripture expects that Christians will think through their faith to whatever level they are able. It calls us to love God with all our mind as part of our whole being (Matthew 22:37) and the way in which biblical authors build reasoned arguments shows that logic is inherently good. There is knowledge about God that can be known through human reason. Paul alludes to this in Romans 1:18-20 and says that this universally-accessible knowledge, though limited, is sufficient to leave all human beings condemned for their rejection of it.
It is not, of course, sufficient alone for us to know God intellectually – there is also an experiential dimension of knowledge which encompasses love and surrender – but to claim that reason necessarily conflicts with faith is akin to a husband telling his wife that she shouldn't be annoyed that he bought her an unsuitable gift because, after all, loving and trusting someone means that you shouldn't try to think when choosing a present! The point that Paul makes in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians is not that non-believers cannot comprehend the internal logic of the gospel but that they refuse to accept it because it does not fit with their preconceived beliefs. Their worldview does not allow for the logic of the cross and so they reject it outright. It is not that they cannot understand the gospel but that they will not accept it (the Greek word dekomai, translated 'accept' in 1 Corinthians 2:14, literally means 'welcome'). Underlying this rejection is, of course, a spiritual problem. They need to be enlightened by the Spirit of God, but Scripture consistently shows that this enlightening happens as the gospel is explained.
Apologetics ... instils a degree of humility that makes room for the gospel to be heard on its own terms
Apologetics clears away some of the rubble that obscures the gospel from clear view, breaks down some of the confidence in alternative ideas, and instils a degree of humility that makes room for the gospel to be heard on its own terms. It expands the field of logical possibilities in the minds of those who have narrowed it excessively (e.g., the naturalistic atheist) and narrows the field of logical possibilities in the minds of those who have expanded it too broadly (e.g., the pantheist). Apologetics uses the tools of logic and reason to do this work. It is both a product of and reaction to the Enlightenment, a necessary approach in a world that values reason, but good apologetics does not fall into the error of making human reason ultimate. In fact, it exposes the limits of human reason and opens the hearer to the possibility of worlds beyond the world they have inhabited and dimensions of life that they have not yet experienced. The good apologist, then, offers him or herself to God as the tool through which His Spirit may enlighten the hearts of unbelieving people. In doing so he or she follows the example of Paul, who presented his gospel clearly to people, which included making a reasoned case for faith (see his speech in Athens as recorded in Acts 17 for example), knowing that it would be veiled until God made His light shine in their hearts (2 Corinthians 4:1-6).
4. Good apologetics sets a positive agenda
Another potential concern with apologetics is that it sometimes seems to follow an agenda set by those who reject Christianity. Seminars are organised in response to the latest book by a celebrity atheist and articles are written to show why other faiths are false. Some apologetics-sceptics protest at this approach. Didn't Jesus refuse to do miracles for wicked people (Matthew 12:39)? Why should we constantly be reacting to what those who reject Jesus say? This objection to apologetics provides a helpful corrective, reminding us that we must present a positive case for the gospel rather than simply critiquing alternatives. It also helps us realise that theories, celebrities and books will come and go and that to set our agenda in response to the latest headline grabber may cause our message to seem dated in due time. Still, we only need to look to the pages of Scripture to see that the miracles of Jesus were presented both by Him (Matthew 11:4-5; Mark 2:10-11; John 14:11) and by His apostles (Acts 2:22, 32) as evidence of the reality that Jesus was the Christ and that some people believed in Him as a result of this evidence (John 3:2).
Good apologetics ... engages thoughtfully with the ideas, beliefs and worldviews of others but it does not allow these to distract from the central issue
Good apologetics, then, engages thoughtfully with the ideas, beliefs and worldviews of others but it does not allow these to distract from the central issue, namely the person of Jesus Christ. He is the core agenda of all good apologetics, indeed of all that is truly Christian. Good apologetics knows how to avoid the mistake of answering a fool according to his folly while at the same time knowing when to answer another fool according to his folly (see Proverbs 26:5-6). It will engage in dialogue and debate where this is wise and not when it is likely to descend into fruitless arguments. We need some apologists who can engage sufficiently with alternative theories to speak with authority on them but their approach should not be caustic or abrasive but hopeful and gracious.
5. Good apologetics doesn't generate 'one size fits all' answers
Bad apologetics answers the questions no one is asking or answers the right questions in the wrong way. It is frequently oblivious to the feelings of people – for example speaking about the problem of suffering without acknowledging the pain some in the audience may be experiencing. At its worst it is, or is perceived to be, insensitive and arrogant. It is, however, possible to do apologetics in a way that is aware of and listens to the audience. The good apologist does approach the task with confidence rooted in the conviction that the gospel is God's truth, but this confidence is kept from arrogance by the addition of compassion.
Good apologetics is an exercise in contextualisation
Training and resourcing for apologetics should never be presented as a catalogue of answers to be memorised for the moment when the correct question comes along. Instead the apologist must learn to connect God's truth with needy people in a way that is appropriate for them. Good apologetics is an exercise in contextualisation – making universal truths intelligible to individuals within their culture and circumstances. It listens carefully and answers thoughtfully with gentleness (1 Peter 3:15).
6. Good apologetics serves the gospel
Apologetics should never be an end in itself. The apologist does not aim merely to convince people intellectually that Christianity makes sense; he or she wants to see them come to faith in Jesus. Apologetics, therefore, is a servant of the gospel. Apologetics should not be divorced from evangelism or relegated simply to being 'pre-evangelism'. The skilful apologist knows how to explain the gospel and is constantly seeking to move people on from the case for Christ to the good news about Christ to an encounter with the living Christ.
Apologetics ... is a servant of the gospel
The objection to apologetics that suggests that efforts should be concentrated on evangelism rather than apologetics makes sense only if a false dichotomy is created between the two. In an increasingly pluralistic and secular culture, evangelism will increasingly require apologetics, as people will share less of our assumptions about life. Good evangelism is aware of how people think and the barriers they have towards faith. Good apologetics is aware of the gospel and how it speaks to people's questions.
7. Good apologetics requires godly apologists
The need for godly character in the apologist has been implicit in much of what has been said above, but it is an important point on which to finish this article. I have sympathy with those who have been put off by apologists whose character does not reflect Christ. They may speak convincingly, but they show little evidence of love, joy, peace, gentleness, self-control and the other dimensions of the Spirit's fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). The deficiencies of some (and, in the final analysis, all) apologists should not, however, cause us to object to apologetics in principle any more than the deficiencies of some evangelists should cause us to reject evangelism. It may, rather, challenge us to rise to the task of engaging in Spirit-filled apologetics. We do this, as Paul did, as part of our spiritual warfare, recognising that arguments set against the knowledge of God reflect spiritual strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Apologetics is not inherently unbiblical and ungodly. We need more godly believers who will engage thoughtfully in a biblically informed way with other worldviews, who will graciously make the positive case for faith and who will be ready to share the gospel with people who need to know Christ.
© 2013 Paul B Coulter