This article was published in the first issue of Thinking Matters Journal as “The Broader Task of Apologetics” and appeared on the 16 February 2010 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz. Updated: May 16, 2019
Aside from the biblical injunctions to refute objections to our faith (2 Corinthians 10:5) and be ready to give a reasoned defence for it (1 Peter 3:15), there other excellent reasons for all Christians to get involved in apologetics. A strong emphasis on apologetics yields enormous benefits both to Christians personally, for the church generally, and for society at large.
So then, what are some of the benefits of apologetics? Here are three:
1. It encourages believers
Apologetics enhances the boldness and self-image of the Christian community. John G Hager writes of the early church,Whether or not the apologists persuaded pagan critics to revise their view of Christians as illiterate fools, they succeeded in projecting for the group as a whole a favourable image of itself as the embodiment of true wisdom and piety […] Whatever we may say about the expressed purpose of these apologies, their latent function was not so much to change the pagan image of Christians as to prevent that image from being internalised by Christians themselves.
Historically, theology was the crowning glory of a university education. The first universities in Europe and America were all Christian institutions, founded by Christians on biblical principles for the express purpose of honouring God. Thus the interface between Christianity and secular society was one of rich philosophical sophistication. Today, theology—the queen of the sciences—has been cast from court. As a result, the church has progressively become culturally insular.
However, the queen is not without her allies. Philosophy is her handmaid; and as a second-order discipline which discovers the presuppositions and ramifications of every other discipline, it is uniquely positioned to act in her stead while she is exiled from western universities. Philosophy’s sub-disciplines include logic (principles of right reasoning), epistemology (the study of knowledge), metaphysics (the study of reality) and value theory (ethics and aesthetics), which can all aid in fostering an environment where Christianity can once again be held in high esteem. The self-image of Christians in a philosophically sophisticated environment will be enhanced, and the relationship between the church and society elevated.It is well known that a group, especially one in the minority, will be vital and active only if it feels good about itself in comparison with outsiders. Further, there will be more tolerance of internal group differences, and thus more harmony, when a group feels comfortable with outsiders.
If Christianity has a self-image problem today, the solution is clear. It is time for seminaries and Bible colleges to offer more than a mere paper, here or there, on philosophy or apologetics. It is time for churches to foster the intellectual lives of their people, and offer more than simpering devotional thoughts.
Confidence in personal witnessing
The greatest hindrance to evangelism is fear of disgracing the faith. We dread not knowing what to say, or being unable to answer some objection. The study of apologetics is training in not merely overcoming this problem, but in tackling it with confidence and enthusiasm. It is therefore a valuable tool for evangelism.
Answers in personal intellectual struggles
A growing faith is an enquiring faith. A Christian enlarged by his commitment to study is the beneficiary of a faith that is built on solid rock. Christianity is not meant to be brain-dead or vapid, but alive and engaging with the world of ideas.
In fact, the Christian faith is a unique religion—the only one truly unafraid of questions. Jesus said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6), and surely God’s truth is larger than our small doubts. We are encouraged to ask questions, to subject the received word to intellectual rigor (see Acts 17:11), and to study profoundly. This is a way to obey the greatest commandment, loving the Lord with all our minds (Mark 12:30). As Christian philosophers and apologists William Lane Craig and J P Moreland put it,Study is itself a spiritual discipline, and the very act of study can change the self. One who undergoes the discipline of study lives through certain types of experiences where certain skills are developed through habitual study: framing an issue, solving problems, learning how to weigh evidence and eliminate irrelevant factors, cultivating the ability to see important distinctions instead of blurring them, and so on. The discipline of study also aids in the development of certain virtues and values; for example, a desire for the truth, honesty with data, an openness to criticism, self-reflection and an ability to get along non-defensively with those who differ with one.”
Assurance in times of trouble
[The seed that fell] on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away (Luke 8:13, NIV).
When tragedy strikes, what is it that keeps a believer believing? What is it that keeps a tree unmoved in a gale? The answer is the same for both: roots.
Apologetics is one way a person can develop a strong root system. Such a person is not easily swayed by the arguments of others or the winds of doubt. They have developed an assurance and deep source of nourishment that was hard won out of persistence and dedication to study.
2. It vindicates Christianity in the world
From these personal factors in the lives of believers, apologetics works as a force which can shape and maintain a cultural milieu in which Christianity can be heard as an intellectually viable option. It is clear that the most influential culture shaping institution in today’s western world is no longer the church. In New Zealand the university and the media stand out as the prominent cultural movers. Unless Christians rise up and become the deans and professors, the executive producers and directors, these institutions will lead society into a deeply entrenched secularism.
Why does this matter? Because the gospel is never heard in isolation, but always against the backdrop of the cultural milieu in which it is proclaimed. The eminent Princeton theologian J Gresham Machen says:God usually exerts [his regenerative] power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favourable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervour of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas which prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.
It is the broader task of apologetics to accomplish this.
There’s an anecdotal account of several secular humanists who met in a backyard in the 1970s. These promising young talents were to become the movers and the shakers in later decades. Together, with warm fruit punch in hand, they discussed how they might rid America of Christianity. They outlined a plan that included politics, education, and media; then outlined objectives for ten years, then twenty, then thirty. Meanwhile, over the fence, a group of Christians met together for a Bible study.
Today we live in a culture that is the result of that meeting. Whether true or not, the story serves as powerful warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The illustration points out the detrimental effects of being so culturally insular one is unaware of, and unable to respond to, those “over the fence.” While there is nothing with holding a Bible study, the Christians here should have also been strategising as to how they might win the culture for Christ.
It is our responsibility to think well, hard and deep about this issue. Any effective strategy will be long-term, multi-faceted and collaborative. Lord, help us in this most important task!
3. It provides double-warrant for belief
Christianity is chiefly an experiential faith. One feels the Spirit of God within, and senses His prompting and the deep inner peace that only he can give. We intuitively recognise when the drive for transcendence is completely satisfied by Christ. This existential need and fulfilment comprises sufficient warrant for belief.
However, there are many other religions and people—even atheists—who claim similar conversion experiences sufficient to warrant their beliefs as well. It may be these are due to psychological and physiological factors. Radical changes in lifestyles and well-being can be attributed to sociological factors, and association with new people.
Now, these experiences and sociological factors do not invalidate the Christian’s own spiritual experience. A believer in Christ still has sufficient warrant to justify his belief on experience alone. But what these similar claims do accomplish is to give a seeming parity of warrant for other beliefs, making it hard to argue against them. For example, a Mormon will claim a “burning in the bosom”—Mormon experiences and Christian experiences, from an external point of view, are matched equally. There is a deadlock in determining which beliefs are true.
Enter apologetics. The subjective experience, when resting upon other objectively truthful propositions, will tower over other rival worldviews, casting a shadow of doubt upon them. This second justification, or double-warrant, provides clear comparative superiority for Christian truth-claims. Apologetics makes the step up to double warrant possible by giving good reasons to believe the Bible, and good reasons to not believe opposing points of view.
The emotions and the intellect can and should be united in the purpose of confirming and recommending the faith. Failure to integrate the emotional and experiential aspects of Christianity with the rational and intellectual apprehension of the truth of Scripture will lead to falling away from that truth. When I was fifteen I knew at once and for sure that I was right to believe that Christianity was good and true. A familiar quiet whisper: the sound of the God’s voice, confirmed it to me. But I also came to realise then, and was gratified to learn later, that there are certain facts of the world that stand out as clear evidence for Christianity’s truth-claims apart from my own internal experiences.
Apologetics is a strong arm for the church. It is commanded in scripture, and as seen above it is useful for the encouragement and self-image of the church, to shape and maintain a cultural milieu so that Christianity can be heard as an intellectually viable option, and to provide a double-warrant for belief. It is time for Christians to rise up and become familiar with apologetics. Can we afford otherwise?