Author: Phillip Jensen
Apologetics is the giving of an answer. It is the art and study of giving defence for the gospel. Paul speaks in Philippians 1:7 of sharing in the confirmation and defence of the gospel. Peter (1 Peter 3:15) speaks of being prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
In the New Testament two lines of argument are used about apologetics. On the one hand, we see Jesus and the apostles giving defence for the gospel. Jesus in Mark 11 answers questions about: his relationship to the government; marriage in the resurrection; the importance of the law; and the person of Christ. Paul is recorded in the book of Acts as reasoning, explaining and proving (Acts 17:2-3). He is spoken of as trying to persuade Jews and Greeks by reasoning in the synagogue (Acts 18:4, 13). Apollos is said to have vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:28). However, the New Testament also has the strand of not using human reasoning but public proclamation. This is seen most clearly in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16. Here Paul protests that he did not use human wisdom or rhetoric but resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Faith was to rest not on men’s wisdom but on God’s power. Consistent with this view of reasoning is the Biblical teaching on the contaminating effects of sin. So in Romans 1:18 ff men’s wickedness suppressed the truth. In Romans 8 we are taught that the sinful mind is hostile to God and does not submit to God’s law. In Ephesians 4:17-18 we read that the pagan mind is darkened in its understanding because of an ignorance that is due to the hardening of hearts.
The division in New Testament teaching on the place and role of apologetics is reflected in the Schools of Apologists. Broadly speaking there are two schools of Apologist writing today. One emphasizes the limitation of human sinful minds. The other emphasizes the reasonable truth and factual basis of Christianity. The first School argues from presuppositions. A popular form is the book by Richard L. Pratt entitled Every Thought Captive. However, the writings of Francis A. Schaeffer, Os Guiness and James Sire, all reflect a presuppositionalist approach. The presuppositionalist perceives that the reason people do not accept the Christian message lies in their basic assumptions. Their worldview excludes the possibility of the facts of Christ. What needs to be demonstrated to them is not the factual basis of Christianity (seeing they will always reject that) but the presuppositional basis of their own philosophy. However, thinking in the mindset of the Hindu or the New Consciousness involves a different set of arguments.
The evidentialists (like Michael Green, F.F. Bruce, Paul E. Little) work within the realms of people’s agreed presuppositions. They argue from history, archeology and philosophy about the evidences for Christianity. They seek to show that it is reasonable to believe in the facts of Christianity. In fact, they would argue that it is more reasonable to believe that the Christian interpretation is true than to believe it is false.
Another group aligned to the evidentialists is the natural theologians. They also appeal to an agreed presuppositional basis. However, their emphasis lies in man’s understanding from nature rather than the special revelation of Scripture. So they argue from the traditional proofs for the existence of God such as design, first cause and ontology.
Apologists from all schools easily fall into the confusion of equating evangelism and apologetics. There is a tendency to believe that it is possible to reason people into the kingdom of God. Even amongst the presuppositionalists, who recognize the inadequacy of human reason, there is a tendency to overvalue reason as the means of evangelism. However, the gospel is a declaration from God. Faith comes from hearing the word of God. Both faith and repentance are the gift of God. It is the Lord who opens our eyes to see the truth of the word of God. Thus it is those whom God has ordained who will believe. To lose the supernatural, sovereign perspective on evangelism is to seriously misunderstand the gospel itself. This is illustrated in people who spend more time giving reasons for belief, than they ever give in explaining what it is to believe or what we are to believe in. Apologetics is the handmaiden of evangelism, but not the same thing as evangelism. The gospel is reasonable and true. It is right and proper for the confidence of Christians as well as the challenge to non-Christians that we are prepared to show the reasonableness of faith. It is right to seek to persuade people of the truth of the gospel. However, evangelism is to declare the gospel and results come from the supernatural work of the Spirit in the hearts of hearers.
Some years ago Paul E. Little in his book How to Give Away Your Faith pointed out that around the world the same seven questions kept being asked of him. To these questions he gave answers in that book and in a subsequent book called Know Why You Believe. They are questions that reflect the kind of presentation of the gospel that he gave. They are also questions that reflect the tradition of western thinking. Because we speak to many people about the gospel, we tend to think that all non-Christians have all these questions. However, usually people only have one or two. The questions most commonly asked were about the existence of God, the reliability of the New Testament documents, the problem of suffering and the problem of those who have never heard the gospel.
A more aggressive form of evangelism will create different questions; in fact can create ‘aggressive apologetics’ or rather “kategoria” meaning ‘accusation’. On the grounds that a strong offence is the best defence, it is possible to challenge the non-Christian worldview rather than always answering the questions non-Christians ask. The Christian does not only have to give answer to the questions thrown at Christianity, but also as a gospel preacher to throw challenging questions at the world. Jesus said that when the Spirit came he would accuse or convict the world of sin righteousness and judgement (John 16:8). It is possible to attack the inconsistencies of western materialism with its desire for values and its denial of absolutes. The mechanistic view that degenerates personality, responsibility, society and justice can be easily attacked. The malaise of meaninglessness about which existentialists wish to have meaningful conversations can be easily parodied.
Kategoria can be evidentialist – such as the attack on the Muslim claim that Jesus did not die. But more often it comes out of presuppositional apologetics – such as the question of the fideism of the Muslim’s acceptance of the Qur’an.
However, the real problem of apologetics lies in its distorting effect upon Christianity. As we seek to express the Christian gospel in the terms of outsiders we are unwittingly tempted to distort its teaching. Augustine could understand Christianity in Neo-Platonic terms, as Aquinas could in Aristotelian terms. The very activity of apologetics, even aggressive apologetics addresses the gospel to the mind rather than to the conscience. It assumes that people’s difficulty with Christianity is mental rather than moral. It easily gives the impression that we are to sit in judgment over God rather than he over us. Thus modern apologetics must attack the lifestyle of the pagan and not just the clever rationalizations that he uses. Giving answer to genuine enquiry is one thing. Treating the rationalization of immorality seriously is another.
A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.