This article appeared in the January issue of our Thinking Matters journal. The author, Stuart McEwing, holds a Bachelor of Design and is currently studying theology at Laidlaw College in Henderson. For more articles from our journal, head to our Journal site.
When I was young, I delighted in being sure of my faith. I reasoned that if something were true it could stand up to being questioned. A lie would eventually fall and break on the hard rock of God’s truth. Christianity, it seemed to me, stood head and shoulders above all other religious points of view. Not only did it make sense internally, but it also made sense of the world, describing accurately all that I saw.
That was all until, at the age of fifteen, I was hit by an storm of doubt. I’ve always had two great desires: to find and to know the truth; and to live according to it. The attack that struck played to these strengths and turned them to weaknesses. It came in the form of the question what if…?
What if it’s all a lie? What if everyone is deceiving me, or they’re simply mistaken? What if I just happened to be born in a Christian home and raised in a Christian church? What if, up until now, I’ve living in a bubble, looking at the world through a distorted lens? What if God doesn’t exist? Would I have the courage to live according to that conviction?
The force of those questions spilled down and threatened to overwhelm me, but for a small voice whispering a gentle admonition. What about the fulfilled prophesies in the bible? What about all the self-authenticating proofs in the Word? These surely are solid justification for all that I believed. With these evidences, I was quietly reassured.
What is apologetics?
So when I came across the word “apologetics” years later, I immediately understood. I realized for the first time, that which assured me then was just a small part of an enormous, detailed and exciting arena where Christianity was shown to be true. I was intrigued, and began to find out more. Around each bend waited a new surprise, as I discovered new evidences and reasons to believe. When I heard my mentor say that he was called to an apologetics ministry, I felt again the excitement I felt that day when I was fifteen. Perhaps I am as well.
Still, I wasn’t certain until one of my friends told me that he had to “give in”, and embrace the absurdity of God. My heart despaired, for he was and is an extremely bright person, with all the quirks and eccentricities of a genius. He had accepted the Lord Jesus, and was in turn accepted by him, but to me he described how he had to suspend his mighty intellect before making the leap of faith. It hit me then—does it honor God to think that he is an absurdity? He is the logos, the underlying truth that pervades the world; “the rational principle that governs all things”.1 “The light of reason, as well as the life of sense, is derived from him, and depends upon him.”2
Unfortunately this attitude to faith is all too typical. For example, in the recent film The Bucket List, the characters of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are both facing death. Flying over the arctic they talk seriously for the first time about the possibility of an afterlife and the existence of God. Edward (Nicholson) expresses his wonder at how anyone could believe as Carter (Freeman) does. He equates God with “the sugar-plum fairy”, and asks Carter, “You’re not claiming you know something I don’t?” Carter shakes his head. “I just have faith.”
Belief in God is represented as groundless, infantile, and ultimately irrelevant. As Edward puts it, “we live, we die, and the wheels on the bus go round and round…and if I’m wrong, I win.” Disturbing also is that Carter lets the issue drop, reflecting for us how Christians today are perceived. With the man beside him knocking on Death’s door, all that matters is subjective belief—not objective truth. Carter grows quiet and stares out the window to contemplate the beauty of God’s creation, while Edward goes back to his reading.
But in your hearts set Christ apart as holy [and acknowledge Him] as Lord. Always be ready to give a logical defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you, but do it courteously and respectfully (1 Peter 3:15, Amplified Bible).
The Greek word for “defense” here is apologia. It means literally “to speak for”. It could be translated as the verb “reason” or “answer”, and was used in Greek law to refer to a forensic defense in court (as, for example, in Plato’s Apology). Thus we are commanded from Scripture to be gentle with people, to respect their beliefs, but at the same time to be ready to give a reasoned defense to anyone who asks why we believe what we believe.
Giving a defense involves both refuting objections raised against our faith, and offering positive evidence on its behalf. The Old Testament prophets practiced apologetics,3 as did the early church.4 The Bible commands it.5 Therefore, we should do likewise.
Apologetics is the task of providing proofs for Christian truth-claims. When one says “proof”, one need not have in mind mathematical certainty. This would be far too heavy a burden to bear. A proof is a well-reasoned argument with true premises (or premises at least more probable that their contradictories), and a conclusion that follows from them. The result is the verdict found in the courtroom: “beyond reasonable doubt”, and this is sufficient to uphold Christianity as rational.
The central truth-claims of Christianity include the existence of God, the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection, the Bible as the inspired and inerrant word of God, and so on. Truth-claims which surround this central core are too numerous to list, but a good rule of thumb for apologetics is that if the Bible says it, then it can be defended, and it is right to be defended; if the Bible disagrees with it, then it can be pulled down, and it is right to be pulled down.6
Sadly, people who set out to burn heretics rather than reflect Christ’s character have marred the image of apologetics. Polemics has a place in apologetics (see 2 Corinthians 10), but the Christian’s task is to persuade people because he loves both them and the truth. He is called to be not only persuasive, but to conduct himself in a manner worthy of Christ. As popular apologist Greg Pritchard says,
Apologetics is explicitly and fundamentally Christian. Apologetics is, or it should be, a form of Christian love […] We need to love them enough to listen to them, to ask them questions, to answer their questions, to challenge them to become genuine seekers of truth, to urge them to examine the claims of Christ […] Apologetics is an application of Christian leadership, which includes a biblical way of life.7
Apologetics is the art and science of Christian persuasion. It is not, itself, evangelism. Whereas apologetics removes intellectual stumbling blocks that prevent a person from accepting the gospel, evangelism makes the call for some kind of faith commitment. Obviously, these are closely related tasks: as all are called to evangelism, all are called to apologetics. Norman Geisler, influential Christian philosopher and prolific author, describes apologetics as pre-evangelism.
The scope of apologetics
Because of its nature apologetics is a wide and inter-disciplinary field, covering immense ground. It includes the history of the church, the history of Christian thought, and the theological framework for a biblical worldview. It responds to liberal higher criticism8 and form criticism.9. Like Christian philosophy, it employs logic, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, and the study of ethics and how we justify ethical beliefs.
Considering the breadth and diversity of the discipline, there are many different methods of defending the faith, and diverse areas of specialities:
This is a field which looks to empirical (scientific) evidences for the vindication of Christian truth-claims. It is broadly divided into two categories:
This method revolves around examining and proving the reliability and transmission of the Bible, presenting evidence for it as God’s word, for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and so on. It includes the field of archeology, and overlaps significantly with scientific apologetics.
If the Bible is true, then its author is also the author of science. Johannes Kepler, German astronomer and mathematician, said that he was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Isaac Newton, after writing Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) said he hoped it would “persuade thinking men to believe in a deity”. Notable Christian scientists today, such as William Dembski,10 Philip Johnson,11 Hugh Ross, and Russell Humphreys are all apologists making waves in the scientific community.
Like evidential methods, philosophical apologetics can be divided into two main methodologies:
This method appeals to general philosophical evidences for God’s existence. It includes, for example, the teleological and cosmological arguments, such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument propounded by William Lane Craig. It also involves defenses against philosophical objections, such as the problem of evil or how finite man can speak of an infinite God.
This is a form of philosophical apologetics, pioneered by Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, which denies any common ground between the believer and non-believer. Rather than arguing towards God from a pretense of neutrality, presuppositional apologetics presupposes God and his word, and argues from this foundation. Believing that there is no greater positive evidence for the existence of God than his own self-revelation, and refusing to grant the autonomy of human reason, it will instead focus on refuting non-Christian beliefs, demonstrating that only Christianity is capable of furnishing man with a cogent belief system which makes sense of the world.
As with the previous two branches, this can be subdivided into two related disciplines:
This method attempts to provide reasons for becoming a Christian apart from purely intellectual arguments. It is the methodology employed by Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French mathematician and philosopher, famous for developing his wager argument based on probability theory. It focuses on man’s search for meaning, the human condition, and speaks directly to the religiosity of man.
This is exemplified in The Confessions of St Augustine and is available readily to every believer. Often called the Final Apologetic, it is the evidence of the transformed life of the believer. Being constituted in subjective experience, it is philosophically unsophisticated—but often the most powerfully persuasive. Press reporter Henry M Stanley confessed himself to be the biggest swaggering atheist on the face of the earth—yet in four months of intimate acquaintance with David Livingstone, he knelt down on African soil to accept Christ as Lord. His two-volume biography Livingston of Africa states, “The Power of that Christ life was awesome, and I had to buckle in. I couldn’t hold out any longer.”
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), the Danish philosopher and theologian, reasoned that what mattered most was inward, subjective belief rather than outward objective reality. In his view, the important issue was not that Jesus rose from the dead, but that you passionately believe he did. Christianity should be believed, but not defended. In religious issues he argued what we need to do is to take a blind leap of faith into the non-rational realm. Kierkegaard was thus the opposite of an apologist, and so offered no reason for belief.
It is clear that Kierkegaard misunderstood the concept of faith.12 Though the internal, subjective aspect is certainly vital, he was wrong to de-emphasize the faculty of reason in Christian belief. His view disregarded the biblical commands and also opposed historic Christian orthodoxy, which included great thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas. These men believed the Christian faith was rational, founded on reason, and that it is irrational not to believe. Paul himself indicates that subjective belief is worthless if it is not based in objective reality.13
Despite this, many Christians today view apologetics as unnecessary, preferring instead a capitulation to mindlessness. Apologetics is seen as a pointless and fruitless enterprise; outdated and outmoded. Yielding their God-given faculty of intellect, they disregard the example of Daniel and his friends, who were proven faithful in their study—and in turn, were responsible for an international revival and the restoration of Israel to her homeland. Sadly, few laymen in New Zealand have ever heard of apologetics, and few institutions in New Zealand Christian academia emphasize its importance.