We don’t often use the word ‘apologetics’ in our churches, or in ordinary conversation. Its meaning though is very important. ‘Apologetics’ simply comes from the Greek verb ‘to make a defence’.
It includes being able to give ‘a reason for the hope’ that we have as Christians, and ‘contending for the faith’ against all the alternatives to Christianity and answering the attacks made upon it.
Down through the centuries there have been believers who have spoken and written with great effect, ‘destroying strongholds and every lofty opinion against the knowledge of God’, explaining and exhibiting the truth.
An older generation was brought up at a time when large elements of the Christian faith were still part of British thought and culture. But now that the intellectual and cultural climate is altogether different, apologetics has become even more necessary.
As the second paragraph above illustrates, there are two forms of apologetics. There is responsive apologetics, that is, the rebuttal of arguments which are used against the Christian faith.
In his recent book The reason for God (Hodder and Stoughton, 2008) Timothy Keller spends the first half doing just this; taking real statements, such as ‘There can’t be just one true religion’ and answering them. People so often have wrong ideas about what Christians believe that this is very necessary.
It is, however, also important for Christians to take the initiative. In today’s climate, as so often throughout history, there is a need for affirmative apologetics, setting out the faith clearly, cogently, wisely and appropriately to hearers or readers.
Apologetics has long since fallen out of favour amongst those of a theologically liberal persuasion. There is a book with the same title as this article, whose introduction begins in this way: ‘In 1943 Christian apologetics was still a required course at Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1944 apologetics was no longer offered…
‘Except for sporadic references to it, apologetics ceased to be part of the seminary curriculum. Princeton was not alone in abandoning apologetics. Indeed, a person would be hard-pressed to find a denominational seminary that includes it today (i.e. 2001)’ (William A. Dembski & Jay Wesley Richards eds, Unapologetic apologetics, Paternoster Press, 2002; p.11).
It may be that apologetics does not have the place it ought to have amongst evangelicals either. A cursory glance at theological college web sites in the UK is not entirely reassuring.
The subject doubtless comes up under other headings, but I wonder if the older emphasis, on the vital importance of training pastors and missionaries in rational argument on behalf of the Christian faith, has become downgraded.
It would also be interesting to know how much genuine apologetics preaching there is in churches today. My own impression — and I have no other to go on — is that many congregations are quite unaware, for example, of the arguments for the genuineness, antiquity and reliability of New Testament literature and the Gospels in particular.
It is true that some believers are very suspicious of apologetics, and the rest of this article is concerned to respond to this.
Are we not talking about mere human reasoning, the argument goes, whereas we know that it is the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit that convicts and converts? Has it not always been a danger for the Christian church to rely on what is merely human and overlook the absolute need for the work of the Spirit?
The real question though is whether this is the either/or that it is presented to be. After all, preaching too is a human activity and, without the Spirit, accomplishes nothing of real spiritual value.
Consider this question in the light of the opening verses of the Acts of the Apostles. The second verse speaks of the apostles whom Jesus had chosen. These eleven (now minus Judas Iscariot) were men who had been with Jesus throughout the years of his earthly ministry. He himself had specifically chosen them (Luke 6:12-16).
After his resurrection, ‘he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days’ (v.3). Forty days is nearly six weeks, so there were many more appearances of the risen Jesus to the apostles than those specifically recorded.
They could be in no doubt about his resurrection. Moreover, when those days were concluded, he did not simply stop showing himself to them, leaving them to wonder what had happened. They saw him visibly taken up into heaven, demonstrating that he had returned to his Father, as he said he would.
To these men Jesus said, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’. A witness is someone who tells what he has seen and heard, and therefore knows.
These men were eyewitnesses of the acts and teaching of Jesus, of his sufferings, death and resurrection. All through Acts this is spelled out: ‘This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses’ (2:32); ‘God raised him from the dead. To this we are witnesses’ (3:15; 4:20, 33; etc.). Paul, too, in due time became a witness of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:8-11).
Of these eleven, Matthew and John each wrote a Gospel, while John also wrote letters and the book of Revelation. Mark’s Gospel is based on the oral teaching of Peter, who himself wrote two letters. Luke tells us that his Gospel is based on what ‘those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered to us’.
Throughout the centuries and across the world, the Christian faith has always been based on this witness of the apostles. What they saw and heard; what Jesus himself delivered to them, forms in the New Testament the historical and doctrinal foundation of Christianity.
Of course, it must always be remembered that Jesus did not just ensure an authenticated record of his earthly life and teaching. He said, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’.
The reason for this is simple and yet profound. Men and women need an accurate account of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that they will believe to the saving of their souls.
Thousands who have had no doubts about the historicity of Jesus Christ and all that the Bible says about him have yet not trusted in him themselves. True information is necessary. A new heart, however, is also essential if anyone is going to entrust themselves to Jesus.
We cannot trust in either apologetics or preaching, but we cannot do without them. However, someone may still say, ‘Shouldn’t we simply preach the gospel of Christ crucified, as Paul did at Corinth’ (1 Corinthians 2:2)?
It is true, of course, that apologetics can become unbalanced and theoretical; there are always dangers to beware of. Another recent book, Confident Christianity by Chris Sinkinson (IVP, 2012) has this brilliant subtitle, ‘Conversations that lead to the cross’.
That puts apologetics in its rightful place. You may be starting with the difficulties or arguments of unbelievers, but your ultimate aim must always be to bring them to cross of Christ.
Another point needs to be borne in mind. While reason itself cannot lead to God, reason is none the less a gift from God. Our minds are given by him to use, though in dependence upon him.
If sermons or talks are merely words thrown together, with no order and no direction of thought, they cannot convey a message. To use argument, to explain truth, to expose error, to counteract misleading information, to present a clear, reasoned case for the gospel, is just what the servants of Christ ought to be doing.
Some, of course, will be more gifted in this respect than others, and some of these have been gifted with an apologetic edge to their ministry. We are very thankful for men like John Blanchard who have given themselves to such speaking and writing (see Does God Believe in Atheists? and other booklets from Evangelical Press).
Part of the reason for engaging in apologetics is simply to put the case for the Christian faith into the public arena. People in general today have not read the Bible; they have a very hazy and most likely inaccurate understanding of what Christianity is all about.
They live in a culture that oscillates between a militant scientism, often atheistic, and a postmodern belief that there are no ultimate truths or standards and we can choose to live our lives just as we please.
The apologist wants to interject some Christian light into the darkness; a better, truer framework of thought. This also needs to be backed up by genuine Christian loving and living.
Paul E. Brown