More than sharing the gospel

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.

Why Apologetics?

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:

  1. There is theoretically, but not practically, a distinction between apologetics and the study of Scripture.
  2. There is theoretically, but not practically, a distinction between apologetics and evangelism.
  3. As Christians, we should study Scripture and evangelise as best we can.
  4. 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. Read More »

A Read to Remember: An Exhortation to Christians

I can’t help but get the overwhelming impression that many Christians aren’t taking the time to think/read/learn about Christian doctrine or apologetics. Now I’m not expecting everyone to go out and get PhDs in theology or something, but rather to take an interest in learning both what we as Christians believe and how to communicate those beliefs (doctrine) and how to defend those beliefs (apologetics).

Before we continue, consider this quote from CS. Lewis:

God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.  If you are thinking of being a Christian, I warn you: you are embarking on something that is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.

CS. Lewis understood that being a Christian means more than just living like a Christian: it’s also about thinking like a Christian. It requires us to understand our beliefs.

Now I can imagine that some might reply by trying to label this as too intellectual and in doing so deem it irrelevant. Others might say that they don’t have enough time. Still, others might be quick to remind us that we can’t just focus on head knowledge, but also on the spiritual things, like our relationship with God and application of what the Bible teaches. I’ll attempt to respond to these objections in reverse order.

Firstly, no-one says that we must focus solely on head knowledge, rather this is an exhortation to include head knowledge at all. We are too strongly tempted to say that we can’t just focus on this learning and then solve this problem by doing the exact opposite, and equally damaging, thing: just focusing on spiritual things. Rather I call for both to be included and neither ignored.

Secondly for those who say they have no time, either we literally have no time for anything, learning doctrine/apologetics included, or we mean we do have time, just not time for learning doctrine/apologetics. The second option, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as the next objection so I won’t deal with it here. The first option is relatively easy to solve. Most people read books or watch TV, so why not (say, once a week) replace that with reading a bit of a Christian book? That doesn’t seem to be too difficult. If you don’t even have time for that, then I think you either need to rethink your schedule or just make the time.

Thirdly, we have the irrelevance objection, where we’re going to spend most of our time. To this objection, I respond with a few reasons why we should be learning doctrine and apologetics. Hopefully they’ll show that learning about doctrine and culture isn’t just some abstract exercise for intellectuals only, but is practical and for every Christian (All but the first reason either come directly from or are based on reasons William Lane Craig gave for studying doctrine and apologetics in his “Foundations of Christian Doctrine” talks, here and here, in his Defenders 2 Podcasts).

  1. Consistency: Many of us study or work in the secular world. If we really think God is the most important thing in existence, why do we spend so much time thinking about his creation and not him? Learning doctrine can help us to understand God and what he’s revealed to us in his word.
  2. Maturity: In Ephesians [4:11ff] Paul says that God placed some people to be teachers to help us to mature, so that “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men n their deceitful scheming” So part of how we mature as Christians is by furthering our understanding of our faith and about God so that we don’t get lead astray. Paul shows that having correct understanding is very important when he says [Galatians 1:9] that anyone who preaches a gospel other than the true one should be condemned forever. Now learning doctrine and how to read the bible can help us to further our understanding of the teaching of the Bible and in doing so, mature.
  3. Right living presupposes right thinking: This is because you can’t live out certain teachings if you first know the teachings first. We see this come through in many of the letters Paul writes. Often he will spend the first bit of a letter explaining doctrine and teaching the readers. Then in the second half, he goes on to apply this teaching to our lives. Now Christian books can help correct us and teach us about God and aid us in studying his word.
  4. Learning about God is an expression of loving God with all our minds: In Matthew [22:37-38] Jesus says, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’, this is the first and greatest commandment” Now part of loving God with our minds is trying to understand him and his interactions with his world. Again, Christian doctrine helps.
  5. Evangelism: Christians need to share the gospel with their non-Christian friends. This means explaining and defending what Christians believe. But how are we going to explain and defend these things if we don’t know how? If a friend asks you about how Christians explain the evil and suffering in the world, how should you answer them? If a Muslim friend asks you about the Trinity, how should you respond? If a friend asks about the reliability of the New Testament what are you going to say? If a friend asks how a loving God can send people to hell, what should you say? These questions have a number of answers and learning doctrine and apologetics helps us to think through these issues more deeply. (Also, we mustn’t think that defending Christianity is just for evangelism with specific people. Nancy Pearcey talks about “Redeeming Cultures” as well as people. If we show that Christianity is rational we help our culture to take the gospel seriously and consider it a viable option.)
  6. Encouragement: Christians need to help one another to mature and grow in Christ. This means strengthening one another and correcting false thinking. But how are we going to correct one another if we don’t have a firm grasp of what the Bible teaches? Also, knowing some apologetics helps us strengthen one another’s faith. Again, reading apologetics and doctrine can help us to encourage and correct.

So learning doctrine and apologetics helps us to live consistently, grow in our maturity, correct our thinking so that we can live correctly, love God with our minds, share and defend the gospel with our non-Christian friends and encourage and correct our Christian friends. I hardly think it’s irrelevant.