So… let’s talk about apologetics. Christians seem to have very different responses to the idea of apologetics. Some think it is indispensable in the Christian’s life while others sincerely think it’s a bad thing (for various reasons, which we’ll consider further down). To be clear, I fall in the former category.
What is Apologetics?
It might be a good idea to clarify what we mean, exactly, when we talk about apologetics. Roughly speaking, the study of Scripture is understanding what we, as Christians, believe; Evangelism is the act of communicating, articulating or proclaiming what we believe; and Apologetics is the act of defending what we believe.
Apologetics, however, is much bigger than defending what we believe. We can split apologetics into two broad categories. Negative apologetics is where we defend Christianity against various objections. Positive apologetics is where we give a positive case for Christianity and a negative case against other worldviews.
Within the positive and negative categories we have two sub-categories. Natural Theology is theology (study of God) based off the world around us and our experiences. So positive natural theology would involve things like defending arguments for God’s existence, like the moral, cosmological and fine-tuning arguments, while negative natural theology would involve responding to arguments against God’s existence, like the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations and the argument from poor design. Christian Evidences aim to show that specifically Christianity is true. This usually involves dealing with the historical reliability of books in the Bible (usually the gospels specifically), Jesus’ self-understanding and resurrection. Positive Christian evidences would involve making a case for the historical reliability of the gospels (for example) or making the case that Jesus understood himself as the unique Son of God and then defending the historicity of his resurrection from the dead. Negative Christian evidences would involve defending various objections to the historical reliability of the Bible and arguing against other revelations (like Islam, Judaism, and so on). Because Christian evidences clearly focuses on the historicity of the Bible, a large part of it involves studying historical methodology and understanding the cultures in which the books were written (which usually sheds light on various issues raised).
Overarching all of apologetics is something we can call Worldview Considerations. Here we take great care to understand the distinctives of various worldviews of people we might encounter or people we might study (in the case of understanding ancient worldviews). This helps us to understand what people mean by certain words they use and where they’re coming from, so that our defence can be improved.
OK, so apologetics looks quite big, and quite intellectual. Why should Christians (who aren’t so inclined) be concerned with studying it? I have two reasons I want to share, one based on Scripture and one based on practicality (I don’t mean to imply that Scripture is impractical, mind you). First the reason based on practicality:
- There is theoretically, but not practically, a distinction between apologetics and the study of Scripture.
- There is theoretically, but not practically, a distinction between apologetics and evangelism.
- As Christians, we should study Scripture and evangelise as best we can.
- Therefore, as Christians, we should study apologetics.
Maybe I should clarify what I mean in the premises. Apologetics, evangelism and the study of Scripture are “theoretically” distinct in that they’re defined differently. They’re “practically” distinct if one can be done, in practice, without you having to do the other too.
What can be said by way of defence of the three premises? Well, premise 3 seems extremely easy to defend based on the teaching in Scripture. Consider the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20) as a reason why we should be evangelising and passages like 2 Timothy 2:15 (“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”, ESV. Admittedly Paul’s talking specifically to Timothy, but shouldn’t we also strive for the traits of a leader?) as a reason why we should be studying Scripture. I also mentioned other reasons for Christians to be studying doctrine in a previous post (along with more reasons to be studying apologetics too).
Premise 2 seems obviously true: can we really expect us to be able to just share the gospel with non-Christians without having to defend what we claim? To think otherwise would be arrogant (or ignorant). Furthermore, without a good understanding of worldviews (part of apologetics), Christians can actually do more damage to the gospel than good. An example of this is this: in modern western culture, many people are modernistic in their thinking, meaning they reduce a large part of life to relativism. One thing they put in this “upper story” (to borrow a term from Francis Schaeffer) is religion, meaning that religion is reduced to a personal taste. Now obviously any person who knows anything about the claims of Christianity will have a problem with this (since it makes historical claims that are either right or wrong) but that doesn’t change the fact that many western people think like this. How does this help with evangelism? Well, when Christians talk about what they believe, they might reinforce this erroneous relativistic thinking about religion unless they take great care to pick their words correctly so as not to be misinterpreted.
The converse of this premise is also obviously true: we can’t expect to defend a message we haven’t shared.
Premise 1 is probably the least obvious of the lot. However, if you’ve ever studied a book of the Bible you’ll know that understanding the relevant historical culture and literary structures can be quite helpful and sometimes indispensable. Knowledge of historical approaches to the gospels (such as Source, Redaction or Literary Criticism) can also be helpful in understanding them as well as the a large number of other historical considerations. These approaches [and considerations] would be studied when studying Christian evidences. Also, natural theology can be useful when developing a systematic theology and worldview considerations will help keep us from reading cultural presuppositions into the text. A number of other examples exist, but I think these suffice.
Again, the converse of this premise is also true. I’ve seen too many apologists fail to properly play their part because they don’t handle Scripture faithfully. They end up misrepresenting Scripture because they don’t understand the relevant parts properly. When this happens, they stop defending Christianity and start defending something else. This can hardly be called good apologetics.
So that’s the practical reason for apologetics. Because you can’t help but know apologetics when you study the books in the Bible faithfully and when you evangelise effectively, every Christian should study apologetics.
The second reason is based on the examples and commands given by the New Testament authors:
- Peter and Paul did apologetics which should serve as an example for us.
- Peter said that each should be ready to defend the hope they have.
- Therefore, as Christians, we should do (and thus study) apologetics.
As for Peter’s command to have a ready defence, see 1 Peter 3:14-17. I don’t know how much clearer he could have said it. As for the first premise, I wonder if anyone would consider the sermons in Acts as examples of apologetics? Maybe. Consider the opening sermon in Acts 2:5-41. If this were simply evangelism (as we use the word today) then all Peter needed to do was tell the Jews there what he believed. But what does he do? He makes a defencefor the claim that Jesus was the promised Christ (cf. v36) of their own Scriptures. A clearer example is when we see Paul reasoning with the Jews in synagogues and the Gentiles in Athens in Acts 17:16-33 and then again reasoning in (for two years!) in Acts 19:8-10. Now surely Paul, an apostle, stands as a good example for us as Christians to follow? I think it’s worth noting a few additional things about these passages. Firstly, it seems that Paul’s reasoning with the people was part of his “evangelism”. The two are so closely linked together that a distinction between them seems unwarranted. This is interesting especially in light of modern Christians’ readiness to separate the jobs of evangelism from apologetics, leaving the latter to the “intellectuals” while encouraging everyone to do the former (whether they’re equipped properly or not). Secondly, notice that when Paul reasons with the people in Athens, he seems to be acquainted (even if it’s just a little bit) with their literature and their worldview. I don’t know what closer analogy people could expect for the idea of worldview considerations. Now if we’re commanded to defend what we believe and the apostles thought it important enough to do so, surely all Christians should do (and thus study) apologetics. It seems rather obvious to me.
Common objections from Christians
I’ve mentioned two good reasons (I think) why all Christians should study apologetics. Now we move onto responding to two common (and, quite frankly, misguided and unbiblical) responses I’ve heard from a number of Christians.
Apologetics is only for intellectuals
Not everyone is an intellectual, it is objected, so we can’t expect everyone to do/study apologetics, since apologetics is an intellectual exercise. I think this misunderstands both (1) the broadness of apologetics and (2) the responsibility of the Christian. Let’s consider these in turn. (1) Like with anything, one can study apologetics at a number of levels. No-one is expecting every Christian to get a degree in metaphysics. There are a number of popular-level and introductory apologetics books that one can read. Who knows, you might find that the topics genuinely interest you. (2) With regard to the responsibility of the Christian, it’s just not good enough to shrug off something that requires one to think as “too intellectual”. A Christian is supposed to love God with all their heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37). The last category surely involves using one’s intellect (however big it is) to the glory of God. To not do so, or to refuse to do so, would be a sin. C.S. Lewis understood this when he said (as I love to quote):
God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you: you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all
And B.B. Warfield, one of the Princeton Theologians, once gave an address in which he said the following:
A minister must be learned, on pain of being utterly incompetent for his work. But before and above being learned, a minister must be godly. Nothing could be more fatal, however, than to set these things over against one another. Recruiting officers do not dispute whether it is better for soldiers to have a right leg or a left leg: soldiers should have both legs.
Admittedly he’s talking about ministers here. But why not include all Christians in that category? I see no reason why not to, especially in light of Matthew 22:37. Both B.B. Warfield and C.S. Lewis chose not to ignore the “and mind” part of that famous quote from Jesus. I don’t think any Christian should. Maybe less Christians would raise such a ridiculous objection to idea of defending Christianity.
You can’t argue someone into heaven
I’ve probably heard this objection the most. It’s grounded in the doctrine that someone coming to “saving faith” is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, not the evangelist/apologist. This objection misunderstands two things. Firstly, the goal of apologetics is to give a defence of Christianity, showing that it is rationally compelling. No-one ever said that the goal was to argue someone into heaven. Secondly, if God can use a conversation with a non-Christian to save them, then why couldn’t he use a well-reasoned (and lovingly delivered) argument? It seems naive to assume that just because God is the one that ultimately does the convincing, that we shouldn’t give the evidence and reason to be convinced in the first place. In other words, just because God is responsible, it doesn’t mean that the evangelist isn’t. Consider what Paul says in Romans 10:14-15:
How, then, 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? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
So another failed objection.
So we’ve seen two reasons why all Christians should do (and therefore study) apologetics and we’ve seen that the common objections aren’t any good. Besides being predicated on misunderstandings they fail to respond to either of the reasons given.
I think it’s safe to say, then, that Christians are called to do more than just share the gospel; they’re called to defend it.