Is the Christian worldview true and rational? Is it worth believing and living out? Within these questions resides the discipline of Christian apologetics. It offers answers based on rational arguments, yet these arguments can never be divorced from the apologist’s personal character. Therefore, apologetics is necessarily both theoretical and personal, both intellectual and relational. Along with the method of the apologetic argument comes the manner of the apologist himself. Both are equally vital, as we will see.
The task in this chapter is to tighten up our understanding of apologetics
by explaining its basis in Scripture. After these basics are battened down and the course charted, we can launch out into intellectual adventures argument by argument in the chapters that follow.
Th e Meaning of Apologetic s and Its Biblica l Basis
The word apologetics is often used today in a derogatory way to mean a
biased and belligerent advocacy of an indefensible position. Yet the idea of
presenting a credible “apology” for a legitimate position or viewpoint has a
long and rich history. For example, the American founders presented an
apology (or apologetic) for what would become the American form of government in The Federalist Papers. These learned and eloquent apologists
explained and rationally defended a political perspective in the face of objections. An apologist, then, is a defender and an advocate for a particular
position. There are apologists aplenty for all manner of religion and irreligion.
The position is not reserved for Christians or other religionists. Richard Dawkins, for example, is a tireless apologist for atheistic Darwinism and, as such, an equally tireless opponent of all religion, but particularly of Christianity.1 While apologists may resort to propaganda or even coercion in order to win approval for their positions, they need not do so. Of course, the Christian, following Christ’s example, must never do so. Christian apologetics is the rational defense of the Christian worldview as objectively true, rationally compelling and existentially or subjectively engaging. The word apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which can be translated as “defense” or “vindication.” In the days of the New Testament “an apologia was a formal courtroom defense of something (2 Timothy 4:16).”(L. G. Whitlock Jr., “Apologetics,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), p. 68.) The word, in either the noun form apologia or the verb form apologeomai, appears eight times in the New Testament (Acts 22:1; 25:16; 1 Corinthians 9:3; 2 Corinthians 7:11; Philippians 1:7, 16; 2 Timothy 4:16; 1 Peter 3:15). The term is used specifically for a rational defense of the gospel in three texts: Philippians 1:7, 16, and most famously in 1 Peter 3:15-16.3 (Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005), p. 2.)
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an
answer [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope
that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Peter writes to strengthen Christians who are suffering for their faith.
The reason they can endure and even find hope in suffering is Jesus himself.
But simply saying “Jesus” when someone asks why you have hope in
times of suffering is to fail to give a full apologetic. Although this passage
does not directly address the whole scope of apologetics, it does
encourage believers to articulate the reason for their Christian confidence.
In light of this, we should also explain why we believe in Jesus in
the first place; that is, why Jesus is our sufficient comfort and inspiration
for difficult conditions.4James Sire says concerning this passage that “it is important to see that the core notion of apologetics—the defense of the Christian faith—is not the focus of this passage” (A Little Primer for Humble Apologetics [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006], p. 16). His point
is well taken, but the apologetic enterprise is a valid extension of the basic point Peter makes.)
Apologetics defends the defining Christian truth claims against various
challenges from unbelievers. This definition of apologetics
invokes both rational legitimacy (objective truth) and emotional appeal
(subjective attractiveness). As such, it harks back to Pascal’s programmatic
comment on his own never-finished apologetic project.(Pascal’s apologetic efforts, see Douglas Groothuis, “The Character and Plan of the Pensées,” in On Pascal (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2003).
Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure
for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of
reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were
true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.(Blaise Pascal, Pensées 12/187, ed. and trans. Alban Krailshaimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), p.34.)
Many people are, at least initially, wary or even resentful of Christianity—
its demand for faith, humility, submission to divine authority, willingness
to sacrifice for the Christian cause, repentance (meaning the end of indifference and hedonism) and so on. They fear that if it is true, they are on the hook, and if they submit to its terms, their lives will get worse. But if it is true and they fail to submit, God will get them in the end.The antidote to this conundrum is to defend Christianity’s core claims rationally in order to show that Christianity is indeed objectively true. But more than this, apologetics needs to demonstrate that Christian truth is winsome because it explains who we are and how we can flourish as creatures in this life and beyond, if we are reconciled to our Creator.
But apologetics is offered not only in response to the doubts and denials
of non-Christians.(Os Guinness, God in the Dark (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2006)).It also fortifies believers in their faith, whether they are wrestling with doubts and questions or simply seeking a deeper grounding for their biblical beliefs. When John the Baptist was in prison and wondering whether Jesus was truly the Messiah, as John had previously proclaimed, Jesus provided evidence of his identity as the Messiah. Jesus did not rebuke John’s questions but answered him by listing his unique credentials as the Messiah who supernaturally fulfilled prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures (Matthew 11:1-11). One reason Christianity has failed to exert much influence on the major intellectual institutions of America is that too many Christians hold their beliefs in an uninformed and precarious fashion. Instead of pursuing answers to the toughest questions an unbelieving world can marshal, they attempt to preserve
certainty through ignorance and isolation, relying on platitudes rather
Near the end of his noteworthy apologetics book The God Who Is There,
Francis Schaeffer chides and challenges his Christian readers:
When we understand our calling, it is not only true, but beautiful—and it
should be exciting. It is hard to understand how an orthodox, evangelical,
Bible-believing Christian can fail to be excited. The answers in the realm
of the intellect should make us overwhelmingly excited. But more than this,
we are returned to a personal relationship with the God who is there. If we
are unexcited Christians, we should go back and see what is wrong.(Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 30th anniv. ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 190).
Enthusiasm at the prospect of knowing and advocating Christian truth
does not exclude rational rigor. The apologist, in fact, cannot substitute
bare emotional fervor for intellectual acumen and hard study. Rather, they
should work hand in hand.
Apologetics’ Relationship to Theology and Philosophy
Apologetics is an aspect of the philosophy of religion (broadly understood),
which is the rational investigation of religious truth claims. Certainly, one
may engage in the philosophy of religion as a critic of Christianity (such as
William Rowe or Michael Martin) or as an advocate of the Buddhist or
Islamic worldviews. However, the Christian apologist employs the tools of
the philosophy of religion in service of the Christian worldview. John Warwick Montgomery, “Apologetics in the 21st Century,” in Reasons for Faith: Making a
Case for Christian Faith, ed. Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007), pp. 43-44.)
Apologetics is linked to theology, philosophy and evangelism, but it is not reducible to any one of these disciplines. The conceptual content of
apologetics depends on theology, the goal of which is to systematically
and coherently articulate the truth claims of the Bible according to various
topics, such as the doctrine of God, salvation and Christ. The apologist
who has a strong commitment to the truth of Scripture endeavors to defend what Scripture teaches, and nothing less. Therefore, the discipline of apologetics requires skill in reading the Bible aright, since one would not want to defend something not warranted by Scripture, which is the ultimate authority when properly interpreted by the principles of logic and hermeneutics.(Craig L. Blomberg, William Klein and Robert Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004)).Defending a straw man is just as fallacious as attacking one.
While apologetics in one sense may be considered a branch of theology,
it also walks arm in arm with philosophy. The definition of philosophy is not easy to stuff into a nutshell, but I suggest that philosophy, whatever else it might be, is the investigation of significant truth claims through rational analysis.12 In that light, the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a philosopher (whether good or bad, major or minor, employed or unemployed) are a strong and lived-out inclination to pursue truth about philosophical matters through the rigorous use of human reasoning and to do so with some intellectual facility.
A Christian-qua-apologist, then, must be a good philosopher (even if not a professional philosopher). This is nonnegotiable and indispensable. As a logical and persuasive discipline, the connection of apologetics to philosophy is vital. Those who do not yet believe the Bible typically are not interested in expositions of biblical doctrine per se. Of more pertinence to the unbeliever is whether the arguments under consideration are rationally compelling.