Christian Apologetics in NZ

This article appeared in the January issue of our Thinking Matters journal. The author, Dr Steve Kumar, has been involved in apologetics in NZ for over thirty years and is  a sought-after speaker in academic and church settings around the world. He has debated several notable skeptics and atheists, including the head of the philosophy departments at the University of Waikato and Sydney University, and has authored the popular ‘Christianity for Skeptics’. For more articles from our journal, head to our Journal site.

The church has encountered many challenges throughout its history. For prominent Church historian Mark Noll, the response of the Christian community to these moments of crisis can be distilled into two tendencies: Christians, he contends, commonly react by either mounting a campaign of hollow political action, or by retreating into isolated communities of personal piety. As we observe the profound intellectual and cultural changes occurring in our nation, and seek to avoid the twin dangers that Noll delineates, I believe we must recognise the value of a commitment to the intellectual life of our congregations. We must recognise that to neglect this important aspect of Christian discipleship would be to compromise the health and mission of the church here in New Zealand. I take it, therefore, as a pleasure and privilege to be able to commend the essays of this journal as a part of an effort to ensure the vitality of apologetics in our country.

Apologetics—the art of demonstrating the truth of the Christian faith—has had a short but strong history in New Zealand. We were, in many respects, a country that led the world in the area of apologetic ministry. We were the first nation to originate an organized body of associated persons together for the single purpose of apologetics. New Zealand also was the first country to hold conferences directly addressing apologetics training and themes. Today, it is encouraging to see more Christians engaged in apologetics than ever before.

The enterprise today is significantly different than when I first began teaching, almost thirty years ago. At that time, Christianity was still very much a part of the fabric of the New Zealand society. The language, tradition and norms of the church still seemed to shape Kiwi life; yet this presence was almost singularly cultural. A deep intellectual crisis had occurred, and was beginning to be felt. Secularism had triumphed, and the church consequently had abdicated the public square. In many assemblies, doctrinal atrophy and a theological capsize to modernism had allowed neo-orthodoxy and existentialism to take root.1 An uncritical experientialism2 and irrational fideism3 abounded. This had severely affected the witness of many Christian communities. Cultural engagement was minimal, often confined to evangelistic crusades and outreach programs that were unwilling to go beyond expositing Scriptural passages.

Into this milieu, the introduction of apologetics was treated with suspicion, ignorance, and on some occasions naked hostility. Defending Christian beliefs with rational arguments was considered to be excessive intellectualism; obscurantist, unspiritual, too American, and wholly peripheral to the work and worship of the church. I remember clearly the response of one congregation, adamant in their contention that apologetics was some manifestation of a Christian cult (I’m glad to say that this same assembly now regularly hosts apologetic events). At many of our theological colleges, the reigning paradigm of Barthianism4 meant natural theology and therefore apologetics was viewed with deep skepticism. Those colleges that were evangelically conservative had programs dedicated to equipping believers for overseas missions, but none that were directed to engaging the secular humanism5 that was threatening our own shores. Philosophy and the intellectual defense of Christianity were considered corrosive and unhelpful to faith. I remember when this resistance and criticism came to a head in 1979, with Lloyd Geering speaking out against a series of apologetic seminars that apologist Terry Hill and I were doing throughout the North Island.

Yet against this background of indifference and hostility from some quarters, there was equally a remarkable level of interest both inside the church and out. Many Christians were open to a faith grounded by sound, accessible arguments. Many believers saw that they could face their intellectual doubts squarely and with confidence with the philosophical tools of apologetics. As this interest in apologetics grew, God brought together a group with a vision to enhance the apologetic witness of the church, and to forestall the Christian concession of the public domain to secularism. In 1980, united by this common purpose, a number of Christians including Ray Brooking, Frank MacDonald, Keith Wilson, John Bottomly, Ross Sutherland, Wayne Laurence, myself, and others formed the New Zealand Evangelical Apologetics Society. The mission of the society was multiform, and included an apologetics print journal, Apologia, and regular organized camps in Hamilton, Rotorua and other parts of the North Island. Our chief aim, however, was to expose Christians to the teaching of the foremost apologists at that time, and it was therefore our privilege to set up a forum for guest speakers. We were humbled to be able to host John Warwick Montgomery and Norman Geisler on regular occasions. The initial response was overwhelming and it was established as an annual event throughout the eighties and early nineties. We broached themes from God’s existence, the problem of evil, and the reliability of the Bible to the New Age Movement—with guests that included some the seminal apologists of evangelicalism at the time: Josh McDowell, A W Wilder Smith, Harold Lindsell, Walter Martin, Ron Carson, Dave Hunt, Dwayne Gish, Ravi Zacharias (before he would come to think of himself as an apologist) and former guru and Yogi, Rabi Maharaj. The society was also able to establish connections with our Australian counterparts, and we set up many events with evangelical scholars from that country, including John Heininger.

One of the significant needs that we saw urgently requiring attention was the lack of apologetic-focused programs at our theological colleges. In 1985, we therefore opened the first apologetic school in Howick, principled by Dr Tony Hanne. The school had a focus on discipleship and basic apologetic training, with a view to furnishing believers with greater intellectual depth and precision. We saw it as important that Christians seek to value the history of ideas and see philosophical acuity as bound up with their calling. It is enormously encouraging to know that many of those who attended are now involved in ministry in New Zealand, and benefited from this training.

But our mission went beyond the church. We wanted to reach the greater secular audiences and to increase the vitality and influence of Christian truth in the marketplace of ideas. This included a significant commitment to working alongside campus ministries and presenting a Christian counterposition to the broad philosophical approaches to life prevalent at that time: existentialism6 and a waning but still alive logical positivism7. In an effort to engage other intellectual arenas, we also endeavored to maintain a presence in the media, on both television and the secular broadcasting networks, via informal debates, and in providing international guests for interviews. We also were able to organize several local debates with prominent New Zealand and Australian skeptics—ranging from members of the humanist societies to the heads of philosophy departments—such as Alistair Gunn and Bill Cooke.

By the early nineties apologetics had become much more recognized as integral to the witness of the church. In both local churches, and in many settings of formal theological education, the mindset towards philosophy and apologetics had softened. Other organizations, such as the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society, were founded. Grassroot church programs that took advantage of apologetics in evangelism, such as the Alpha course, were set up. Many colleges and theological institutions throughout New Zealand began to start addressing the deficiency of apologetics programs, including apologetics training as part of their missions curriculum.

Several trends have even furthered the advancement of the enterprise today. Both the work of Christian philosophers in the West and the increased strength of evangelical scholarship has greatly aided in providing an undercurrent of intellectual respectability for belief in God. The explosion of technology cannot be underestimated: personal computers, the internet, blogging, and a vast proliferation of books on the subject have also contributed to the popularity of the discipline in this country.

Amidst these encouraging signs, however, there are also many causes for deep alarm. Despite the increase of Christians willing to defend the intellectual superiority of biblical truth-claims, vast ignorance of apologetics still pervades many congregations. Biblical illiteracy has become endemic not only in our society, but sadly in many of our churches as well. In our places of learning, modernism may have been vanquished but in its place has arisen a new specter that is equally hostile to the gospel. Whatever insights we may concede to this new intellectual mood, it has many claims that are detrimental not only to the church, but for anyone who cherishes objective truth and morality.

The trends of our political climate are equally unsettling. The fraying of moral norms and institutions such as marriage and the family are a particular source for concern. Even more fundamental than this is the demonization of those who wish to bring their religious sentiments into public life. As our nation abandons its Christian heritage, we must realize all the more that a philosophy of life will always shape the principles behind legislative enactments and political judgments. If Christians allow the influence of biblical claims to be negated, secular humanism will fill this vacuum.

Just as it was for the early church, from the first apostles to Justyn Martyr and Greek polemicist Origen, the enterprise of apologetics remains an indispensable resource for the church to face these new challenges today. Inaction or accommodation will not suffice, for nothing less than the soul of our nation is at stake. If we are to avoid the perils that Mark Noll delineates—superficial political activism on the one hand and cultural withdrawal on the other—we must continue to see the importance of renewed minds as much as renovated hearts. We must be aware also of our spiritual vulnerabilities, and undertake to have our apologetic efforts molded and maintained by the Holy Spirit. For our society will never want our answers if it does not see our own lives as evidence of a God who restores and transforms. Let us not neglect this glorious calling we have been given, and let us further seek the raising of future generations willing to invest not only semantics, but their lives and souls in apologetic witness to the Christ who exerts His claim as the King and Lord of ours and every nation.