(This is excerpted, with permission from author Chad Ragsdale, from his article “Why Apologetics? Defending and Commending the Faith,” which appeared in Ozark Christian College’s magazine, The Ambassador [Summer 2021 issue], available here.)
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By Chad Ragsdale
I believe we can make at least two errors in practicing apologetics. The first error is when we forget the purpose of apologetics. Apologetics is a servant of evangelism and discipleship. It is therefore sensitive to the particular context and needs of people, people who may be wandering or wondering or outright rebelling against God. Apologetics listens before it speaks.
It is only by listening that we learn how to respond in an appropriate and effective way. For an apologetic response to be effective, it must have three characteristics:
1. It must correspond to reality. In other words, it must be true.
2. It must be coherent, which means that it must hold together under scrutiny.
3. It must be compelling.
This third element is often missed today. We construct fine-sounding arguments that are true and coherent, but they aren’t compelling. They fail to connect in a meaningful way to the very people they are supposed to reach. We miss our target because we have forgotten the purpose of our task. Apologetics isn’t about winning arguments or making smart arguments. Apologetics actually becomes counter-productive when practiced that way. Apologetics is about connecting people to the living God by removing as many obstacles to faith as possible.
This leads to the second error: We forget the limits of apologetics. Argumentation alone does not create faith, and reason alone cannot explain the wonders of an infinite God. Therefore, apologists must approach their task in the humility of faith. New Testament scholar Austin Farrer articulated the apologetic task well. “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.”
I like comparing apologetics to putting pebbles in shoes. A small pebble in your shoe is captivating. Even though it is small, it dominates your attention and demands to be dealt with. A good apologetic argument can work in the same way. I want to make people uncomfortable with their disbelief. I want to cause them to question their questions, to be skeptical about their skepticism. I want to lovingly put a pebble of doubt into their shoes. This doesn’t mean that I can or should harass people into believing. I simply want to create an environment where God can do his work on a stubborn heart.
For this reason, apologetics is a spiritual discipline when it is done well. Apologetics enlists us in spiritual warfare. It beckons us to prayer, and it cultivates spiritual fruit like patience, kindness, and self-control.
Since 2005, Dr. Chad Ragsdale has taught Christian apologetics, biblical interpretation, the book of Hebrews, and biblical Greek at Ozark Christian College. He becomes Ozark’s sixth academic dean this fall.