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Defending Apologetics

Graham Veale
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Despite a recent surge in popularity, “apologetics” remains relatively low on the local churches list of priorities. It is not difficult to see why. Music, counselling and evangelism seem to be the natural outcomes of a vibrant faith; yet the very term “apologetics” seems academic and abstruse. The Christian faith is not an abstract set of concepts to be believed but a life to be embraced, a life that includes all of the person – head, heart and hands, reason, emotion and will. The Christian idea of salvation involves a transformative relationship with the creator of the universe. It is not merely about one’s beliefs, because even the devil can affirm important theological truths.

Yet every person has a mind that God claims for himself. Our ideas and beliefs must be converted along with our emotions and will. “Apologetics” may be an unfortunate term because it has the whiff of academia and intellectualism about it. Yet, to steal a phrase from Chesterton, it is as practical as potatoes. Apologetics can be done well or poorly, faithfully or thoughtlessly, but every Christian will inevitably engage in it. Thankfully, three recent books not only demonstrate that every Christian is called to apologetics – each shows how that call should be answered.

In Thinking About Christian Apologetics: What It Is and Why We Do It James K. Beilby points out that apologetics is, at root, simply “commending and defending” the faith, an unavoidable part of Christian living. Just as theology flows naturally from worship and confession, apologetics is the natural outcome of evangelism. At some point in every evangelistic encounter, the unbeliever will soon ask “why should I believe that any of this is true?” At this point, the Christian moves from proclaiming the Gospel to persuading the unbeliever; from evangelism to apologetics. The Christian will have to state some reason for the hope that is within him; so his answer had better be good.

Beilby is also keenly aware of the limits of rational argument. We might convince a person that the Christian faith is true and that it the decision to have faith in Christ is of momentous importance. However, saving faith only occurs when a person acts, committing herself to Christ. Even when someone is fully aware of the rational course of action, selfishness and pride can motivate a profoundly irrational decision. Yet, if a person cannot be argued into faith, they cannot be “preached” or “witnessed” into the Kingdom either. Apologetics is no less advantaged than any other aspect of evangelism.

Anti-apologists have made much of 1 Corinthians 2v4-5, where Paul says that “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power”. But Paul was not critiquing apologetics in this passage; his target was the Corinthians’ love of rhetoric. As Beilby points out

 The point of 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 is that Pail did not want to present the gospel in the language of the trained orator who applied very specific and formal rhetorical skills and devices in order to persuade his audience. Such rhetorical devices were common among both the Jewish rabbis and the Greek philosophers. He didn’t want to win a battle of rhetoric and impress people with his argumentative skills….So there is nothing in this passage that suggests that using thoughtful, logical arguments in the service of defending and commending the faith is inappropriate.”

It is true that without the work of the Holy Spirit saving faith is impossible; but we must acknowledge that the Holy Spirit reasons with unbelief through Scripture. For example Paul opens his chief theological statement, the book of Romans, with a critique of idolatry and polytheism. The creator’s eternal power is revealed through the natural world; the author of this creation must be far greater than anything in the created realm. Therefore idolatry is irrational. If Paul’s example is normative, when we proclaim the Gospel we are obliged to argue for it also.

The Biblical warrant for apologetics is crystal. Famously, we have the command of 1 Peter 3 verse 15 and Paul’s example on Mars Hill. What we often fail to notice is the example set by Paul elsewhere in Acts (e.g. 17v2, 18v4, 19v8-9 and 20v7) where he is described as “reasoning” (dialegomai) with unbelievers. In his letters, Paul did not simply repeat the claims of the Gospel and pronounce that the Judaisers would be damned. Paul advanced powerful arguments for his message and he was not afraid to use reason to dissect unbelief.

In “10 Answers for Sceptics” Alex McFarland shows that apologetics is so much more than giving abstract answers to erudite questions about contingency or possible worlds. Instead, McFarland would have us direct arguments at the sceptics motives – their deep, personal reasons for rejecting Christ. He describes ten types of sceptic and generally gives sound advice for dealing with each. For example, anyone who has spent time with internet infidels will know the “Educated Sceptic”. He is a graduate, proud of his new, liberating knowledge, and keen to demonstrate his freedom from the yoke of the evangelical sub-culture. Unfortunately, he stopped learning about Christianity in Sunday School, and does not understand the depth of the faith that he is criticising!

McFarland also gives good advice for dealing with “Sensual Sceptics”, hedonists who see God as a threat to their lifestyles. He makes the important (and often overlooked) point that not every hedonist has a wild appetite. “There is a more subtle form, too: the person who enjoys his life just as it is and doesn’t want to give it up.” Shopaholics, workaholics, the career driven man or woman – all are sensual sceptics, and suffer from a more common form of hedonism than the riotous living of  Larry Flynt or Mickey Cohen.

The sensual sceptic justifies their hedonism by arguing that each person should be free to decide on her own ethical values. McFarland responds that this is a life of slavery. Without God, we are left only with appetites that can become our masters and destroy us. There is more to our life than our flesh; by living in harmony with God’s desires we free ourselves to enjoy his creation to the fullest. McFarland also gives good advice for dealing with Proud Sceptics, Wounded Sceptics, Tolerant Sceptics and others.

It was the overall theme of this book that most impressed me. This is “the importance of becoming friends with non-Christians, even with no expectation of return. Because the whole of the gospel – and the tool that God uses whenever a human heart is penetrated – is love. Pure, unconditional, reciprocal love.” So we are discouraged from treating sceptics as “projects” to be won over to our way of thinking, or as opponents to be defeated in a battle of wits. In McFarland’s experience, we should simply love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus’ command to love our neighbour is as much about mission as it is about ethics.

Finally, consider Andrew Wilson’s If God Then What: Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins & Redemption  a small, likeable and profound book that does not seek to bludgeon the lost into submission. Wilson prefers to call them back to God with a twitch upon the thread. The book is short – it would be ideal for Kindle – and its style is conversational. This has been described as “quirky”, but it is a clever rhetorical tactic. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, for example, casually chats with readers about his conversations with Nobel Laureates.

In contrast Wilson discusses the DVDs he has viewed recently, his favourite authors, his school days and his holidays. In both cases the reader is taken into the author’s confidence. Dawkins always seems like an academic talking down to lesser mortals. Wilson talks to us as our equal; he is as puzzled and awestruck by the universe as we are. Unlike Dawkins, he has stumbled upon his answers, and feels no need to boast about the discovery.

People are growing tired with the certitude of the New Atheists, and their shrill denunciations of feeble minded believers. Wilson begins his book with a warning: beware of groups so confident in their own opinions that they refuse to listen to anyone else’s. He doesn’t explicitly say that he is referring to the New Atheists at this point, but they certainly meet his description. Unlike the New Atheists Wilson doesn’t lecture or bully his readers towards his conclusions. He offers evidence and a plausible interpretation of that evidence. The rest is up to us.

And as Wilson outlines the evidence for God from our “finely tuned” universe, for example, or the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, we are left wondering why secularists find Christianity so implausible. Principled disagreement is one thing, but in Britain at least, secular elites just seem sure that Christian orthodoxy is a privileged superstition. Have they listened to the evidence? It seems unlikely. This book will not argue the sceptical reader into faith, but they will not be able to dismiss Christians as mindless dogmatists afterwards.

At the heart of the book is an argument about hope. This universe is doomed if there is no-one beyond it sustaining it. “Amen”, nods the nominal Christian, “we must hope in heaven.” But Wilson points out that this is cold comfort. The message that we should do our best so that God may reward us in the life hereafter is a counsel of despair. If that is all God can offer, then evil has won on Earth. Death will swallow the human race, then all life, and then the very stars. Furthermore, when we “do our best” we are abject failures; the gap between who we ought to be and who we are is unbridgeable.

Ah, but what if someone can make a bridge for us? What if someone could atone for our failures? And what if that same person rose physically from the dead, to show that one day God would restore this physical universe to endless life? Wilson argues that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is essential for true hope, for above all, there is strong evidence that this Gospel is true.

Martyn Lloyd Jones famously described preaching “logic on fire” and “eloquent reason”. If that is the case, each of these books shows that every preacher should practice apologetics. Each shows that the Gospel can be presented as a compelling argument, as a persuasive reason, to turn to the Lord to be saved. And if every Christian life is to be a sermon to a watching world, we all ought to consider the reasons for the hope that is within us.

Each of these reviews first appeared in more detailed form on Apologetics315.com