Thursday, February 26, 2009

What is apologetics?

I find that many people have an extraordinarily academic definition of apologetics. I think that this helps to explain the popularity of conferences, seminars, classes, bible studies, and other Christian education in and out of churches on the topic of apologetics. Many people seem to think that doing apologetics requires some high degree of familiarity with the history of philosophy and debate over esoteric points, the ability to recite archaeological facts and dates, or perhaps training in the natural sciences to debate the relative merits of evolutionism and creationism. Many of us are out of our element when it comes to these sorts of topics and so we go and do whatever we can to at least get a list of facts or arguments that we can memorize and recite. As a consequence a lot of us have probably had very awkward apologetic encounters where we find ourselves unable to truly respond to what the unbeliever says as both of us talk past each other without really engaging.

We should take comfort from the fact that this is not how Scripture defines the way that we are to do apologetics. In his book The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending our Faith, Scott Oliphint offers this biblical definition of apologetics:

Since Christ is the Lord, and the battle is his, we must always be ready (1 Pet. 3:15-17) to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). We must use the weapons, not of this world, but of the Lord (Eph. 6:10-17). We must take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ as we demolish the arguments, with gentleness and reverence (2 Cor 10:3-5), of those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, worshiping created things, rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever (Rom. 1:16-32). Amen.[1]
Apologetics is not limited to philosophical arguing, presentation of archaeological facts, or debate over scientific hypotheses. Apologetics is your answer to the question, “Why are you a Christian?” This is what Peter means when he commands us to always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks a reason for the hope that is within us. This should remind us that apologetics often means doing evangelism. It is to present the gospel in a reasonable and winsome manner.

I think that this definition means confidence and gentleness in our apologetic encounters. When you engage a friend in an apologetic conversation you may be confident that you have the whole truth of the sovereign God on your side. Christians often seem to think that when they talk with unbelievers they should use Scripture in evangelism and taking someone through the “Roman road” but not in apologetics. This is false. The Bible is the word of the Lord and contains both the message of and the reason for the gospel. When we defend the faith we defend the faith that is contained in the Scriptures that were once for all delivered to the saints. We ought not to be ashamed of our faith that Scripture is the word of God as if it were anti-intellectual. It is instead a reasoned position that gives coherence to our entire worldview.

So I would counsel that rather than memorizing arguments and facts our apologetic encounters ought to be much more natural conversations. Remember that you are asserting that the Christian faith is reasonable and then you are trying to persuade the unbeliever, praying for the Holy Spirit to enlighten their heart, to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as he is freely offered to them in the gospel. Listen to their objections and respond in a loving and gentle manner.

Now as I conclude I should offer two qualifications. The first is that I don’t want to tell people not to study things or prepare in advance of apologetic conversations. None of this is to say that arguments and facts are worthless. They are very useful in these conversations. My point is that those arguments and facts should be presented within the context of the conversation rather than reciting them and trying to flatten our conversation partner like we had a steamroller, which leads to a frustrated unbeliever who doesn’t think they are being listened to and a frustrated Christian who don’t understand why the unbeliever doesn’t understand and doesn’t know what to say next. Sometimes an apologetic conversation will be in the context of whether or not something is absolutely wrong and being familiar with moral arguments for Christianity will be helpful. Sometimes a friend may explain their reason to reject Christianity as being a doubt that Scripture accurately reports history and it will be helpful to know some of the ways that archaeology has found evidence support the biblical accounts. An atheist friend may use faith in evolution as a reason to reject Christianity and it is helpful to know some of the science involved in the debate. Yet the goal of knowing these things is not to rattle them off but rather to show that they do not have a valid reason to reject God’s command to repent and believe. To do this we need to listen and respond to make sure that we answer the question that is actually being asked or the objection being raised.

Second, while I would say that most apologetic conversations are to offer a reason, or reasons, for our faith it does need to be acknowledged that sometimes believers are called to “shut the mouth of the fool” who blasphemes against the revelation and knowledge of God. I will only say that these situations tend to come up much less often then we act as if they do and Christians should only go on an attack with the goal to silence someone after thought and prayer since Scripture is filled with admonitions that the norm is to engage someone with gentleness.

In future posts we will explore methods for engaging in these apologetic conversations.

[1] K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003), 5. Scripture references added.

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