Apologetics for Everyone
What is Apologetics:
If you would like to see people start squirming in their seats, I invite you to simply mention the term Christian apologetics. Just watch how fast the room goes silent and cold. And the kicker is that it is not the atheists who are squirming; it is the Christians who are uncomfortable. But why? Why do so many Christians approach apologetics the way they might approach a landmine or an hippopotamus? Atheists would say that Christians have good reason to be nervous because Christianity is philosophically, morally, intellectually, and scientifically bankrupt. But is that the real reason that Christians in large numbers seem to avoid the topic of apologetics? I very much doubt it. In fact, Christian apologetics has experienced an intellectual and philosophical explosion within the last generation or so in academic institutions and places of higher learning. And, frankly, that might be part of the problem.
I would argue in part that one of the main reasons why Christians get nervous when confronted with the topic of apologetics is that apologetics has developed a bit of a reputation for being difficult, academic, dry, and completely unapproachable to all but the fussiest intellectuals. Names like Augustine and C.S. Lewis come to mind when we think of Christian apologists. We are quick to say, “I’m never going to measure up to this person or that person.” Or we say things like, “I don’t want to be one of those people that will nitpick every little thing.”
Related to the idea that apologetics is difficult is the view that apologetics is necessarily argumentative, combative, and polemical—the domain of those trained in debate or those given to verbal fisticuffs. Dr. William Lane Craig, for example, a person with two PhDs, a person who debates professionally in three languages (English, French, and German), and a person who is by the accounts of almost all of his debate opponents one of the great debaters of modern times, himself having rather handily dispatched with dozens of atheism’s sharpest minds (most notably the great Christopher Hitchens), could easily be taken to be the poster child for Christian apologetics. Very few people, indeed, have even the most casual desire let alone manifest ability to debate at an international level against the brightest atheist the world has to offer. And it is all too easy, therefore, for the average Christian to say, “I don’t even like arguing with my spouse over which movie to watch; clearly apologetics isn’t for me.”
However, the problem with unplugging from apologetics is that to do so is to capitulate not to the truth about apologetics but, rather, to the reputation of apologetics. In other words, when we retreat from the defense of our own faith and leave the defense in the hands of others, we have not actually understood at all what apologetics is; we have simply bought into the reputation which has been hoisted upon apologetics—that apologetics is hard or boring and tedious; or it is only for people with certain personalities, dispositions, or letters behind his or her name; or it is combative, in-your-face, and aggressive. It is our goal in this section of the article to strip away the mask on the face of apologetics and reveal it for what it actually is—a splendid and deeply personal, thoughtful, emotional, experiential, and ultimately loving expression of God’s work in our own lives.
Before we move too far, however, let’s briefly discuss what apologetics means. One of the most common, and not altogether incorrect, conceptions of apologetics is that it means to apologize for something. And, in fact, in a sense it does mean to apologize for something—but not necessarily for something we did wrong. The English word apology comes from the Greek word apologia, which means: a formal defense of one’s opinions or conduct. Originally, an apology was simply a defense for one’s thoughts or actions. The word apologetics comes from that same Greek word. So what are we as Christians doing when we practice the art of apologetics? Simply put, we are offering a defense for our Christian faith and Christian conduct. We are not apologizing for our faith in Christ the way a child apologizes to another boy or girl for taking a toy; rather, we are providing a reason for our faith.
Notice just how open-ended the definition of apologetics is: a defense of one’s thoughts or actions. This formal definition makes no mention of debate, peer-reviewed writing, knowledge of ancient languages, or even the requirement of certain credentials. It makes no mention of methodology either; it does not require a comprehension of formal logic, rhetorical devices, public speaking, or any other form of intellectual wonder-working. In fact, as it happens, it is the Christian faith itself which requires belief in the fact that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and was resurrected from the dead to satisfy the requirement of the law and that we, as bondservants of Jesus Christ, do surrender our will and actions to His divine will. We can assert, therefore, that the definition of apologetics does not even require any thoughts or actions, other than those which Christ Jesus has required of those who believe into Him. Consequently, the definition of Christian apologetics only requires one thing from us: a willingness to defend those thoughts and actions in whatever way the Spirit leads.
But this brings up a rather interesting point. The definition of apologetics seems to require a willingness to defend our beliefs and actions, but does the Bible itself require us to do so? The answer is an unequivocal, yes. Consider most famously, 1 Peter 3:13-15:
“13 Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? 14But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence…”
Focusing our attention on verse 15, we read that we must “always be ready to make a defense.” The word “defense” in this quote is the Greek word apologia. Simply put, we must be ready to engage in apologetics with everyone who asks us to give an account. Consider also this longer passage in Philippians 1:12-18:
“12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. 15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.”
Notice in verse 16 that Paul declares that “I am appointed for the defense [apologia] of the gospel.” And so are we all according to Mark 16:15:
“And He [Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
For Paul preaching Christ was a defense of the gospel, apologetics of the gospel. And we are all called to preach the gospel in all the world and to all creation. Apologetics is not a call to a few monks on a mountain top nor merely to intellectuals who wallpaper their offices with degrees. Apologetics is for everyone.
Some might contest the universality of apologetics saying, “Christ was our example, not Paul; we should do as Christ did.” To this we reply, “absolutely true!” Over and over again in the Gospels Jesus compelled and debated with the Hebrew people, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, using logic (Mark 3:1-3, Luke 13:15-17, John 9:14-16), using Scripture (Matthew 12:1-8), using parables (Matthew 13), using preaching and teaching (Matthew 5-7), and even using the righteousness of His own living (Luke 10:37, John 15:12-13 and 19:30). Christ was without question the perfect example. He did not shy away from controversy; He did not hide in the face of opposition; He did not run from disagreement or argumentation; and in all of this He did not cease day or night from loving everyone around Him—neither in thought nor action. For Jesus, living was compelling and defending, reasoning and debating, proclaiming the Father and loving everyone passionately. Jesus is the very face of apologetics.
Yet even in the life of Christ we see, as Peter declared in 1 Peter 3:15, that Jesus more than anything else spread hope and gave reason for the hope that was in Himself. The gospel is literally the “good news” and apologetics is the declaration and defense of that good news. Again, notice how open-ended this defense is. Can the defense be in the form of debate? Certainly. But it can also be in the form giving glory to God. Some months ago I was in the grocery store buying a few items. In front of me was an elderly woman who was trying to purchase a few necessities. It became clear to me that she did not have the money to pay for her items, and there was some talk of having left her money at home. I felt compelled to have her items and my items rung up together and then I would pay for her items along with my own. After doing so, the cashier said, “Wow, that was so nice of you.” The cashier then gave me the most inquisitive look, as though waiting for me to say something. I muttered, “it just seemed like the right thing to do.” It wasn’t until I was in the parking lot that it occurred to me that I had really missed a great opportunity. Sure, it did seem like the right thing to do, but the better thing to have said would have been, “it’s what Jesus did for me.” If I had said that, it would have been exactly 1 Peter 3:15, “always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.” In other words, if I would have been faithful to point to Christ, it would have been Christian apologetics in the form of mercy and giving glory to God.
We see in the life of Jesus Christ a willingness to say the hard words, give glory to the Father, debate the finer points, compel people to righteousness and faith, convince with logic and anecdotes those who opposed Him, live righteously openly and privately, show love to the world, and give hope to those in need. Jesus was a defender of the faith and a practitioner of whole-life apologetics. What, therefore, is apologetics to us as Christians? Simply this, we are practicing the art of Christian apologetics when we proclaim and defend the gospel with our whole lives—with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and all of our strength. This is Christian apologetics.
Some might take issue at this point with our rather casual interpretation of apologetics; some might argue that no mention at all has been made of the fact that apologetics is not merely a defense but, rather, a formal defense. It is this aspect of apologetics that we will now explore. The word formal, like the word apologetics, is a bit of a loaded term in modern western society. When we hear the word formal, we think of cumberbuns and precise diction and proper etiquette and, frankly, up-turned noses. The truth is that formal simply means that something has a form, figure, or shape. The form of something is its substance. We have no evidence in 1 Peter 3:15, for example, that Peter was implying that we should always be ready with a prepared speech or a dissertation to present to anyone who asks us about the reason for the hope that is in us. The sense in 1 Peter is more extemporaneous than that—it is that we should be ready to give a substantial reason to anyone who asks. A formal defense, therefore, is merely a defense with substance, with bones, with power.
But what is this form? What is the substance of our defense of the faith? The short answer is doctrine—the beliefs which Christians hold and teach. Besides knowing about Christ Himself, knowing Biblical doctrine serves us in three primary ways as it relates to apologetics:
First, Biblical doctrine allows us discern sound teaching from false teaching:
“ 6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”
Second, Biblical doctrine matures us both as Christians and as human beings.
“ 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ…”
Third, Biblical doctrine strengthens us to not merely defend but also tear down false doctrine.
“ …holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”
How does all of this talk of doctrine relate to an inclusive view of apologetics? In other words, if giving glory to God in my righteous living is a form of apologetics, what does sound-living have to do with doctrine?
When we read the pattern of Scripture carefully, we will see over and over again that first comes doctrine then comes righteous living. For example, in the book of Romans Paul spends eight chapters on sound doctrine; then in chapters 12 and 13 he shows the practical application of that doctrine. The same thing holds true for the epistle to the Ephesians. In chapters 1-3 of Ephesians, Paul lays out sound doctrine; then in chapter 4 we see the practical living which flows from sound doctrine. Furthermore, examine the book of Philippians. Chapters 1-3 are solely sound doctrine, but then in chapter 4 Paul shows the fruit of sound doctrine to be righteous living. For a more succinct proof of this, consider 1 Timothy 4:15-16:
“ 15 Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. 16 Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”
The truth is plainly before us: righteous living is only possible within the context of sound doctrine, for sound doctrine is the truth of Scripture, and without the light of truth all is darkness.
“But isn’t doctrine that place where pastors go to die?” Well, yes…and no. As critical as doctrine is, the Scriptures are also clear that doctrine apart from the Spirit of power is merely religion. In other words, if we adopt the notion that all we need is the doctrine of Christ and not Christ Himself, we will certainly find ourselves cut off from the source of life. Such was the case with Paul as he conveyed it to the Philippians in chapter 3 of that book:
Philippians 3:2-7 reads:
2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; 3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, 4 although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
Paul knew the teachings, the doctrines, of the Old Testament Scriptures. He knew them so well that according to the righteousness which is in the Law, he was found blameless. But whatever things were gain to him, those things he counted loss for the sake of Christ. We must come to the person of Jesus Christ, the Tree and Fountain of Life. It is not enough to know about Him, we must know Him personally.
It is for this reason that Jesus at His resurrection became a life-giving Spirit. It is for this reason that Jesus at His enthronement sent His Holy Spirit to us. Why? So that we might not toil any longer only with the righteousness which is in the law, but that we might have God Himself dwelling within us; so that we might not be merely hearers of the Word but doers also; so that we might be joined to Him and be His body on Earth, doing the will of the Head; so that we might be clothed with power and not be merely religious and drunk on doctrine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit and have the Law of the Spirit of Life written on the tablets of our heart; so that when we proclaim and defend the good news, the gospel of the Living God, it might not be us, but Christ who fills the space and electrifies the hearts of men.
What is effective apologetics, therefore? Simply this: effective apologetics is sound doctrine lived out according to the life and power of the Spirit of God.
The Purpose of Apologetics:
The traditional conception of apologetics is that it is a defense of one’s faith from attacks from outside the faith. Typically, we imagine ourselves or other Christians taking a stand against atheistic arguments or, perhaps, defending the tenants of Christianity from the theological claims of other religions. And while these perceptions are completely valid and applicable, the view that apologetics has only an external function misses much of what apologetics actually provides. In fact, in our view of apologetics, the external defense of the faith plays a relatively small role in the drama of apologetics.
In our view Christian apologetics hopes to strengthen the believer in at least five important ways.
Apologetics Strengthens Our Own Faith
First, perhaps most often neglected, and perhaps most important, is the plain fact that the process of discovering or strengthening the reasons—the logical, emotional, and experiential foundation for why we personally believe what we believe—has profound consequences on the way that we conduct ourselves in our families, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to the world. A Christian need not be a Christian for very long at all before he or she runs up against resistance—sometimes significant resistance, resistance for which he or she has no retort or reply.
In the face of this resistance people tend to react in all of the ways humans always react to resistance. Some tend to fight, some tend to shrink, some tend to retreat, some tend to stop talking, some tend to get angry, some quit altogether. My personal tendency is to say, “well, more research is clearly required here.” And I have personally found, quite by accident, that this attitude has served me relatively well. In fact, the more research, the more study I do, the more convinced I am of the reality of God, the truthfulness of the Scriptures, and the trustworthiness of my own faith in Christ.
Notice, however, that I am not saying that my faith is based upon the research. Rather, I am saying that research has helped to establish that my faith was and is well-founded. Therefore, we can say with some comfort that our faith is from God, but our knowledge, emotions, and experience aid in strengthening our faith.
Finally, however, we would be remiss if we failed to point out that there exists one thing better than turning to our intellect, emotions, and experience to strengthen our faith; we must not fail to mention the one thing which is the ultimate tool of the apologist—that is falling into the arms of our Heavenly Father and surrendering to His grace and mercy to help us overcome the resistance and incumbrances to our faith in Jesus Christ. Greater than any knowledge is the revelation of Christ by way of His Holy Spirit. Our Heavenly Father is the first and last line of defense.
Apologetics Strengthens our Families
As a father of three children (three bright and inquisitive children I might add), I can say unequivocally that children will not accept overly simplified answers to difficult questions for very long. In fact, at the time of the writing of this article, my eldest daughter is only nine-years-old, and yet I have repeatedly found myself on the receiving end of some very challenging theological questions—questions about the origin of sin before Adam, questions about higher dimensions and the nature of time, questions about how a perfect God can create world capable of imperfection, and the like. She is not interested in dismissive answers; she is not interested in pat answers; she is only interested in answers that satisfy all of the data points that she currently has.
I love this about people; human beings want the truth, they long for it. And not just our children. Our siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and stepparents and step-siblings. As the body of Christ, it is our job to give them Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. When we do give them the truth in Christ, the bond, the connection, the influence, the peace, and the holiness of the family is strengthened.
Apologetics Strengthens the Body of Believers
What can I say to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ other than, thank you! I can place no figures on just how much support, counsel, education, conversation, correction, and love I have personally received over the years from fellow Christians. Take a brief moment, each of you, and imagine what your Christian life would look like without your brothers and sisters in Christ. I will not say something overly dramatic, but I will say that I experience Christ Jesus in prayer, in His Word, and in His church. I would not, could not imagine my life without the body of believers.
So many times I have had difficult questions. So many times I have been tossed this way or that way. So many times I have been lost. So many times I have been blind. So many times I have been misguided or incomplete in my thinking. So many times I have needed direction. So many times my brothers and sisters have been there to provide support, resources, clear thinking, prayer, and strengthening.
In that way, my hope is to give to the body of believers as much as I have received, which is an extravagant amount. And one of the things which I hope to give to my brothers and sisters in Christ is strength in the defense of the faith.
Apologetics Strengthens our Confidence to Share our Faith
When we are strong in our faith, our families are strong in their faith, and our brothers and sisters in Christ are strong in their faith, a rather unsurprising thing happens: we begin sharing our faith with others with renewed and revitalized confidence. There’s almost nothing worse than feeling that you have no answers to really difficult questions. There’s almost nothing better than knowing that you have real and substantive answers to difficult questions. The study of apologetics sets us on the path to the latter rather than the former.
Apologetics Strengthens the Effectiveness of Our Witness to the World
Then related to our confidence is the plain fact that having real and substantive answers to the difficult questions actually increases the effectiveness of our witness to the world. Does this mean that every person you talk to will immediately become a convert? Absolutely not. However, I have seen many, many times a person become softer to the gospel after having had the intellectual, emotional, or experiential impediments to their belief in Jesus Christ torn down. Just watch an episode of any home remodelling show; you’ll see that often times demolition is the first step in remodelling.
Most people are just human. They have reasons for believing or not believing the way they do. Some of the reasons are good; some of the reasons are unsound. People want good reasons to believe in important things. Giving them good reasons to believe in God is a remarkably effective way to promote a belief in God. All we need are good reasons. Fortunately, there are many good, sound reasons for believing that God exists, that He is a personal God, that He loves us, and that He sent His Son to bring us into relationship with Him.
What is Required of Us?
So what does apologetics as a topic require from us? Apologetics itself, as we have mentioned, requires little more than what faith in Christ already requires. We engage in apologetics when we are willing to provide honest, thoughtful, substantive answers to everyone who asks us for the reason for the hope that is in us. But how do we do that?
Mark 12:30 reads:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind, and with all of your strength.”
It is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this article to thoroughly dissect and discuss Mark 12:30, but suffice it to say that it calls us to dedicate our whole being, our whole person, passionately to God. The Bible makes clear that the soul is made of three parts—the mind, the emotions, and the will. When we discover this truth, Mark 12:30 takes on a strange character. Why would Jesus say to love God with all of your soul and then tell us to love God with all of our mind? The mind is a part of the soul. If we dedicate our whole soul, and the mind is a part of the soul, then should not our mind be fully dedicated too? Yes. The word mind in Mark 12:30 is not the usual word for mind in the Greek New Testament, which is nous—or intellect. In Mark 12:30 the Greek word used is dianoias, which means the ability or capacity to understand. In other words, what Mark 12:30 is saying is that we are to love God with all of our mind and with all of our capacity to understand. In other words, we should not merely agree in our mind that we love God, but that the very capacity of our mind—our ability to understand—should be fully engaged and dedicated to loving God. Loving God is not only a decision we made once but a decision we make continually.
A similar characteristic holds true for loving God with all of our strength. It can be tempting to interpret Mark 12:30 to read that we should love God with the work of our hands, and it is true that we should. However, what Mark 12:30 is saying is that we should love God with all of our ability and capacity to work—that the work of our hands is dedicated to God only when our capacity to do work is thusly dedicated. In other words, we are to dedicate all of our ability to complete a task toward the love of God.
Seeing as though the soul is the mind, emotions, and will, we necessarily conclude that we must dedicate our mind and ability to think to God; we must dedicate our emotions and even the ability to feel to God; we must dedicate our will to work and ability to do the work to God out of a deep and abiding passion for Him and Him alone.
What does God promise to do? Romans 12:1-3 reads:
“ 1Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
When the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ gives us a revelation of our profound sin, separation, and spiritual destitution and we repent and believe into Him, our dead spirit is made alive, and, like the prodigal son, our spirits are clothed with garments of righteousness and inheritance. We are empowered in the spirit and given authority in the spirit, seated in the spirit in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus, and cleansed of all unrighteousness. But yet our minds, our emotions, and our will, in other words, our soul still has problems, still has issues to overcome. As we surrender still more God promises to transform our minds, to heal and balance our emotions, and over time to even conform our will to our spirit, which has been made one with the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
What must we do, therefore? Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, we must surrender. We must admit that in ourselves there is nothing of eternal value; we must admit that we cannot do it in ourselves; we must admit that Jesus Christ is the only way. When we do, our mind is prepared to think the thoughts of God, our emotions are prepared to feel the heart of God, and our will is prepared to do the will of God. Our faith is that Jesus came to earth to become nothing so that we could have everything. The only way to truly defend that faith is to live as He lived: we must become nothing so that He might be everything to us, to our families, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to a lost and dying world.
Where Do We Go From Here?
These previous paragraphs, as critical as they are, simply represent the starting point—they provide the reason why apologetics is so important. Now the journey begins in earnest. But with a world so big, with so many ideas, so many points of view, so many arguments, so many facets, where do we as Christians possibly begin to tackle such a monumental task? Hopefully the next fifteen articles will begin to answer that question.