By Chad Ragsdale
While attacks abound on faith in general and Christianity in particular, some claim the time for apologetics is past.
But I say apologetics will always be relevant and essential for two reasons: the nature of our faith, and the nature of our call.
“Apologetics is a wonderful thing,” the guest speaker said. “If you live in the 1950s. And in Kansas.”
It was an awkward moment. And not just because the crowd included a large number of Kansas students sometimes sensitive about their home state being used as the universal standard for lameness. But also because it was the first session in an annual apologetics lectureship held at my school. And did I mention I had just begun teaching apologetics that same semester, and one of my first decisions was to invite this speaker to our campus?
As it turned out, both the speaker and the lectureship were very well received, but still, those opening words stung—and they prompt an important question. What is the place of apologetics in the life of the church today?
This is a strange time for the discipline of Christian apologetics. In some ways, apologetics has never been more popular or necessary. In recent years, we have seen the publication of wildly popular books ranging from The DaVinci Code to the equally fanciful work of the Jesus Seminar. We have been subjected to the biting criticism of popular Christians-turned-agnostics like Bart Ehrman and the collective works of the so-called New Atheists.
All of these challenges have called for a reasoned response, and apologists like William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, Alister McGrath, and others have never been as popular and in demand. As an illustration of the current level of interest, a recent debate between creationist Ken Ham and science educator Bill Nye was viewed by as many as 3 million people online.
But others would say that popularity alone is misleading. While not as widely read as popular books on apologetics, a recent stream of books challenges the appropriateness and effectiveness of Christian apologetics. The End of Apologetics by Myron Penner and Unapologetic Theology by William Placher are just two examples.
Some of the critiques are theological: God cannot be reduced to a cozy, manageable argument.
Some are more philosophical: Apologetics, it is claimed, was born out of modernity. It makes rationalistic assumptions about truth and knowledge that postmodernity has now rendered obsolete.
Some other critiques are more practical: Apologetics too often sets about answering the wrong questions and with the wrong spirit. The result is distraction. We might be better off just talking about Jesus. This was the critique offered by our speaker that day.
There is important truth in each of these criticisms. They remind us we should routinely rethink the methods and assumptions of our apologetics. But we would be foolish to abandon the apologetic task altogether because of such criticisms.
Apologetics will always be relevant and essential for at least two reasons. The first is because of the nature of the Christian faith. Ours is not a philosophical or mystical faith. That is not to say the Christian faith is opposed to philosophy or mystery. It is only to assert that at its foundation, the Christian faith is a historical faith. Our most important proclamations are about a person who existed in history, who died a real death, and experienced a real, embodied resurrection. Our God is a mysterious God, but he is also a God who has revealed himself in history.
Our faith is also an exclusive faith. This is not a popular sentiment today, but it remains true. To say Jesus is Lord is also to say that he alone is Lord. The nature of our faith as both historical and exclusive means that defending and commending our faith remains appropriate and, at least to certain limits, possible.
The second reason apologetics will always be relevant and essential is because of the nature of our call. We are not merely disciples—we are also called to make disciples. We are, and will always be, Great Commission people. Effective disciple makers must know not just the content of their belief, but also the reasons for their belief. As long as there are those who wonder why Christians believe what we believe, there will be a role for apologetics.
One of the things I drill into my students is that apologetics without evangelism quickly becomes nothing more than argumentation. Unfortunately, there are many self-styled apologists today who are more interested in winning an argument than disciples. But this is apologetics done poorly. The purpose of apologetics is always to point to Jesus and not to our own cleverness or even our own rightness. Apologetics is always a servant of evangelism.
But I must also add that evangelism without any attempt to answer real, thoughtful doubts and questions quickly deteriorates into either fundamentalism (“don’t think about it, just believe”) or emotionalism (“don’t think about it, just concentrate on how you feel”).
Which Comes First?
Connecting apologetics to disciple making leads to another important question, the timeless “chicken or egg” question of Christian belief. Which comes first, understanding or faith?
Some people argue faith must come before understanding. We seek to understand from within the framework of faith. Much could be said in favor of this position. One could argue that all knowledge is really “faith seeking understanding.”
Take science, for instance. Most assume that science is the completely objective search for truth. But scientific knowledge would be impossible without faith in such truths as the intelligibility of the universe, the reliability of the senses, and the effectiveness of the scientific method.
In the world of Christian theology, this was the position of such towering figures as Martin Luther, Anselm, and Augustine. In 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Paul himself offers support to this approach; verse 14 says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” The frantic father of a demon-possessed son in Mark 9 also illustrates this position: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v. 24). Apologetics, therefore, is a servant best suited not for the creation of faith, but for the confirmation of faith.
In the other camp are people who argue that right understanding leads to faith. This is the approach of men like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell. Put the claims of Christian belief to the test, and when all the evidence is heard, the verdict will be TRUE beyond any reasonable doubt.
Far from being just a modern invention, this approach has historic support. Men like Thomas Aquinas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen all made evidential and philosophical arguments for the truth of the Christian faith. In the New Testament, Peter exhorts us always to be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15). In Acts, Paul uses Hebrew Scripture, general revelation, and even pagan poetry to argue for the truth of Christ. Jesus used evidential arguments as testimony of his identity. He regularly appealed to his miracles and to fulfilled Scripture as his witnesses (see Luke 7:22 and 23, for example).
Therefore, apologetics is best suited to defend and commend the truth of the Christian faith to a skeptic. New Testament scholar Austin Farrer summarized it well in his 1965 article “Light on C.S. Lewis”:
For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.
Which position is correct? Does faith come first, or does understanding? I’ve always considered this a false choice. It oversimplifies what is usually a complex and personal process.
Consider marriage as an example. Marriage is an exercise in faith seeking understanding. We all know people who have said something like, “I’ll get married as soon as I get established. When I get a stable job, a healthy income, and a decent house, then I’ll know I’m ready to get married.”
Sadly, many who’ve said this have never married, because, as most of us know, a person is never completely ready to get married. On that day you share “I dos” with your spouse, it’s impossible to know exactly what you have said “I do” to. Every day is an exercise of faith seeking understanding as you continue to grow together and learn about each other.
Marriage, like faith, is never a purely rational decision. Philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
On the other hand, it is also true we don’t take this leap into marriage blindly. Marriage isn’t some mathematical calculation. But marriage and faith are not completely irrational either. Before a couple gets married, there are serious conversations with loved ones and friends concerning why you should (or should not under any circumstances!) marry this person. The couple navigates moments of conflict that inform the decision of whether or not to get married. Many couples go through premarital counseling as they move closer to their wedding day. In short, most every couple has (hopefully) made a series of important decisions based on thoughtful reflection and experience before ever saying, “I do.”
How does this help us understand the role of apologetics in the church today? It is best to think about apologetics not as an academic pursuit but as a wise counselor who enters into our lives whenever we are struggling with understanding. Apologetics is always contextual. It meets us wherever we are struggling to find our feet on the unsteady ground of doubt and skepticism. Yes, we should have answers for the skeptic, the non-Christian who is wrestling with serious questions about faith: How can I believe in God with so much evil and suffering in this world? How can I believe a dead man was raised back to life? Can I trust what I read in the Gospels? Aren’t all religions basically the same? There are many people who experience true intellectual problems with faith. Apologetics is useful to demonstrate that faith doesn’t require a disengagement of the brain. There are good reasons to believe.
But, I must emphatically add this. If a person is waiting until all of his questions about God are answered before he trusts him in faith, he will be waiting for a very long time. Faith requires that we trust in God though we do not have all of the answers to life’s mysteries. This kind of trust invites us into a life with a God who will sometimes shock us with his beauty and, at other times, frustrate us with his mystery.
As faith is seeking understanding, moments of doubt and uncertainty are inevitable. It is in these moments when apologetics, as the wise counselor, is helpful to affirm truth into the lives of the faithful.
This has been the experience of many Christians, including myself. In college, I was reeling from a family tragedy. I was also being exposed to ideas that were challenging my uninformed faith. I began to experience what I now see was a crisis of faith.
It was in this moment that a friend put C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity into my hands. It was a breath of fresh air! What I read helped to save my faith and gave me greater confidence than I’d ever had.
I’m simply saying that apologetics is a wonderful thing. Apologetics matters, no matter when or where you live. It matters whether you are a skeptic resisting faith or a doubter struggling with faith; whether you are seeking to understand so that you might believe or you believe and are trying to understand.
Apologetics matters because the gospel matters. As long as there are people asking questions about what we believe, there need to be those who are prepared to give a timely answer.
Chad Ragsdale serves as assistant academic dean and professor of New Testament with Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.