- 2008 1 Jul
What is apologetics? Apologetics (from the Greek apologia: a defense) is that branch of Christian theology which seeks to provide a rational justification for the truth claims of the Christian faith. Apologetics is thus primarily a theoretical discipline, though it has a practical application. In addition to serving, like the rest of theology in general, as an expression of loving God with all our minds, apologetics specifically serves to show to unbelievers the truth of the Christian faith, to confirm that faith to believers, and to reveal and explore the connections between Christian doctrine and other truths. As a theoretical discipline, then, apologetics is not training in the art of answering questions, or debating, or evangelism, though all of these draw upon the science of apologetics and apply it practically. This implies that a course in apologetics is not for the purpose of teaching you, "If he says so-and-so, then you say such-and-such back." Apologetics, to repeat, is a theoretical discipline that tries to answer the question, What rational warrant can be given for the Christian faith? Therefore, most of our time must be spent in trying to answer this question.
Now this is bound to be disappointing to some. They're just not interested in the rational justification of Christianity. They want to know, "If someone says, ‘Look at all the hypocrites in the church!' what do I say?" There's nothing wrong with that question; but the fact remains that such practical matters are logically secondary to the theoretical issues and cannot in our limited space occupy the center of our attention. The use of apologetics in practice ought rather to be an integral part of courses and books on evangelism.
What Good Is Apologetics?
Some people depreciate the importance of apologetics as a theoretical discipline.
"Nobody comes to Christ through arguments," they'll tell you. "People aren't interested in what's true, but in what works for them. They don't want intellectual answers; they want to see Christianity lived out." I believe that the attitude expressed in these statements is both shortsighted and mistaken. Let me explain three vital roles which the discipline of apologetics plays today.
1) Shaping culture. Christians need to see beyond their immediate evangelistic contact to grasp a wider picture of Western thought and culture. In general Western culture is deeply post-Christian. It is the product of the Enlightenment, which introduced into European culture the leaven of secularism that has by now permeated the whole of Western society. The hallmark of the Enlightenment was "free thought," that is, the pursuit of knowledge by means of unfettered human reason alone. While it's by no means inevitable that such a pursuit must lead to non-Christian conclusions and while most of the original Enlightenment thinkers were themselves theists, it has been the overwhelming impact of the Enlightenment mentality that Western intellectuals do not consider theological knowledge to be possible. Theology is not a source of genuine knowledge and therefore is not a science (in German, a Wissenschaft). Reason and religion are thus at odds with each other. The deliverances of the physical sciences alone are taken as authoritative guides to our understanding of the world, and the confident assumption is that the picture of the world which emerges from the genuine sciences is a thoroughly naturalistic picture. The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or, at best, agnostic.
Why are these considerations of culture important? They're important simply because the gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieu in which one lives. A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the gospel which a person who is secularized will not. For the secular person you may as well tell him to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ! Or, to give a more realistic illustration, it is like our being approached on the street by a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement who invites us to believe in Krishna. Such an invitation strikes us as bizarre, freakish, even amusing. But to a person on the streets of Delhi, such an invitation would, I assume, appear quite reasonable and be serious cause for reflection. I fear that evangelicals appear almost as weird to persons on the streets of Bonn, Stockholm, or Paris as do the devotees of Krishna.
What awaits us in North America, should our slide into secularism continue unchecked, is already evident in Europe. Although the majority of Europeans retain a nominal affiliation with Christianity, only about 10 percent are practicing believers, and less than half of those are evangelical in theology. The most significant trend in European religious affiliation is the growth of those classed as "non-religious" from effectively 0 percent of the population in 1900 to over 22 percent today. As a result evangelism is immeasurably more difficult in Europe than in the United States. Having lived for thirteen years in Europe, where I spoke evangelistically on university campuses across the continent, I can personally testify to how hard the ground is. It's difficult for the gospel even to get a hearing.
The United States is following at some distance down this same road, with Canada somewhere in between. If the situation is not to degenerate further, it is imperative that we shape the intellectual climate of our nation in such a way that Christianity remains a live option for thinking men and women.
It is for that reason that Christians who depreciate the value of apologetics because "no one comes to Christ through arguments" are so shortsighted. For the value of apologetics extends far beyond one's immediate evangelistic contact. It is the broader task of Christian apologetics to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women.
In his article "Christianity and Culture," on the eve of the Fundamentalist Controversy, the great Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen solemnly warned,
"False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the Gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas which prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion."1
Unfortunately, Machen's warning went unheeded, and biblical Christianity retreated into the intellectual closet of Fundamentalism. Anti-intellectualism and second-rate scholarship became the norm.
Already in his day, Machen observed that "many would have the seminaries combat error by attacking it as it is taught by its popular exponents" instead of confusing students "with a lot of German names unknown outside the walls of the university." But to the contrary, Machen insisted, it is crucial that Christians be alert to the power of an idea before it reaches its popular expression. The scholarly method of proceeding, he said,
"is based simply upon a profound belief in the pervasiveness of ideas. What is to-day a matter of academic speculation begins to-morrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate. So as Christians we should try to mold the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity."2
In Europe we have seen the bitter fruit of secularization, which now threatens North America as well.
Fortunately, in the United States in recent decades a revitalized evangelicalism has emerged from the Fundamentalist closet and has begun to take up Machen's challenge in earnest. We are living at a time when Christian philosophy is experiencing a veritable renaissance, reinvigorating natural theology, at a time when science is more open to the existence of a transcendent Creator and Designer of the cosmos than at any time in recent memory, and at a time when biblical criticism has embarked upon a renewed quest of the historical Jesus which treats the Gospels seriously as valuable historical sources for the life of Jesus and has confirmed the main lines of the portrait of Jesus painted in the Gospels. We are well poised intellectually to help reshape our culture in such a way as to regain lost ground, so that the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking people. Huge doors of opportunity now stand open before us.
Now I can imagine some of you thinking, "But don't we live in a postmodern culture in which these appeals to traditional apologetic arguments are no longer effective? Since postmodernists reject the traditional canons of logic, rationality, and truth, rational arguments for the truth of Christianity no longer work! Rather in today's culture we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it."
In my opinion this sort of thinking could not be more mistaken. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. Nobody is a postmodernist when it comes to reading the labels on a medicine bottle versus a box of rat poison. If you've got a headache, you'd better believe that texts have objective meaning! People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they're relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But that's not postmodernism; that's modernism! That's just old-line Positivism and Verificationism, which held that anything you can't prove with your five senses is just a matter of individual taste and emotive expression. We live in a cultural milieu which remains deeply modernist. People who think that we live in a postmodern culture have thus seriously misread our cultural situation.
Indeed, I think that getting people to believe that we live in a postmodern culture is one of the craftiest deceptions that Satan has yet devised. "Modernism is passé," he tells us. "You needn't worry about it any longer. So forget about it! It's dead and buried." Meanwhile, modernism, pretending to be dead, comes around again in the fancy new dress of postmodernism, masquerading as a new challenger. "Your old arguments and apologetics are no longer effective against this new arrival," we're told. "Lay them aside; they're of no use. Just share your narrative!" Indeed, some, weary of the long battles with modernism, actually welcome the new visitor with relief. And so Satan deceives us into voluntarily laying aside our best weapons of logic and evidence, thereby ensuring unawares modernism's triumph over us. If we adopt this suicidal course of action, the consequences for the church in the next generation will be catastrophic. Christianity will be reduced to but another voice in a cacophony of competing voices, each sharing its own narrative and none commending itself as the objective truth about reality, while scientific naturalism shapes our culture's view of how the world really is.
Now, of course, it goes without saying that in doing apologetics we should be relational, humble, and invitational; but that's hardly an original insight of postmodernism. From the beginning Christian apologists have known that we should present the reasons for our hope "with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15-16). One needn't abandon the canons of logic, rationality, and truth in order to exemplify these biblical virtues.
Apologetics is therefore vital in fostering a cultural milieu in which the gospel can be heard as a viable option for thinking people. In most cases, it will not be arguments or evidence that bring a seeker to faith in Christ—that is the half-truth seen by detractors of apologetics—but nonetheless it will be apologetics which, by making the gospel a credible option for seeking people, gives them, as it were, the intellectual permission to believe. It is thus vitally important that we preserve a cultural milieu in which the gospel is heard as a living option for thinking people, and apologetics will be front and center in helping to bring about that result.
2) Strengthening believers. Not only is apologetics vital to shaping our culture, but it also plays a vital role in the lives of individual persons. One such role will be strengthening believers. Contemporary Christian worship tends to focus on fostering emotional intimacy with God. While this is a good thing, emotions will carry a person only so far, and then he's going to need something more substantive. Apologetics can help to provide some of that substance.
As I speak in churches around the country, I frequently meet parents who approach me after the service and say something like, "If only you'd been here two or three years ago! Our son [or our daughter] had questions about the faith which no one in the church could answer, and now he's lost his faith and is far from the Lord."
It just breaks my heart to meet parents like this. Unfortunately, their experience is not unusual. In high school and college Christian teenagers are intellectually assaulted with every manner of non-Christian worldview coupled with an overwhelming relativism. If parents are not intellectually engaged with their faith and do not have sound arguments for Christian theism and good answers to their children's questions, then we are in real danger of losing our youth. It's no longer enough to teach our children Bible stories; they need doctrine and apologetics. Frankly, I find it hard to understand how people today can risk parenthood without having studied apologetics.
Unfortunately, our churches have largely dropped the ball in this area. It's insufficient for youth groups and Sunday school classes to focus on entertainment and simpering devotional thoughts. We've got to train our kids for war. We dare not send them out to public high school and university armed with rubber swords and plastic armor. The time for playing games is past.
We need to have pastors who are schooled in apologetics and engaged intellectually with our culture so as to shepherd their flock amidst the wolves. For example, pastors need to know something about contemporary science. John La Shell, himself the pastor of a Baptist church, warns that "pastors can no longer afford to ignore the results and the speculations of modern physics. These ideas are percolating down into the common consciousness through magazines, popularized treatises, and even novels. If we do not familiarize ourselves with them we may find ourselves in an intellectual backwater, unable to deal with the well-read man across the street."3 The same goes for philosophy and for biblical criticism: what good does it do to preach on, say, Christian values when there is a large percentage of people, even Christians, who say that they don't believe in absolute truth? Or what good will it do simply to quote the Bible in your evangelistic Bible study when somebody in the group says that the Jesus Seminar has disproved the reliability of the Gospels? If pastors fail to do their homework in these areas, then there will remain a substantial portion of the population—unfortunately, the most intelligent and therefore most influential people in society, such as doctors, educators, journalists, lawyers, business executives, and so forth—who will remain untouched by their ministry.
As I travel, I've also had the experience of meeting other people who've told me of how they've been saved from apparent apostasy through reading an apologetic book or seeing a video of a debate. In their case apologetics has been the means by which God has brought about their perseverance in the faith. Now, of course, apologetics cannot guarantee perseverance, but it can help and in some cases may, in the providence of God, even be necessary. For example, after a lecture at Princeton University on arguments for the existence of God, I was approached by a young man who wanted to talk with me. Obviously trying to hold back the tears, he told me that a couple of years earlier he had been struggling with doubts and was on the brink of abandoning his faith. Someone then gave him a video of one of my debates. He said, "It saved me from losing my faith. I cannot thank you enough."
I said, "It was the Lord who saved you from falling."
"Yes," he replied, "but he used you. I can't thank you too much." I told him how thrilled I was for him and asked him about his future plans. "I'm graduating this year," he told me, "and I plan to go to seminary. I'm going into the pastorate." Praise God for the victory in this young man's life!
But Christian apologetics does much more than safeguard against lapses. The positive, upbuilding effects of apologetic training are even more evident. American churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. People who simply ride the roller coaster of emotional experience are cheating themselves out of a deeper and richer Christian faith by neglecting the intellectual side of that faith. They know little of the riches of deep understanding of Christian truth, of the confidence inspired by the discovery that one's faith is logical and fits the facts of experience, and of the stability brought to one's life by the conviction that one's faith is objectively true. One of the most gratifying results of the annual apologetics conferences held by the Evangelical Philosophical Society in local churches during the course of our annual conventions is to see the light come on in the minds of many laymen when they discover for the first time in their lives that there are good reasons to believe that Christianity is true and that there is a part of the body of Christ that they never knew existed that wrestles regularly with the intellectual content of the Christian faith.4
I also see the positive effects of apologetics when I debate on university campuses. Typically I'll be invited onto a campus to debate some professor who has a reputation of being especially abusive to Christian students in his classes. We'll have a public debate on, say, the existence of God, or Christianity versus humanism, or some such topic. Again and again I find that while most of these men are pretty good at beating up intellectually on an eighteen-year-old in one of their classes, they can't even hold their own when it comes to going toe-to-toe with one of their peers. John Stackhouse once remarked to me that these debates are really a Westernized version of what missiologists call a "power encounter." I think that's a perceptive analysis. Christian students come away from these encounters with a renewed confidence in their faith, their heads held high, proud to be Christians, and bolder in speaking out for Christ on their campus.
Many Christians do not share their faith with unbelievers simply out of fear. They're afraid that the non-Christian will ask them a question or raise an objection that they can't answer. And so they choose to remain silent and thus hide their light under a bushel, in disobedience to Christ's command. Apologetics training is a tremendous boost to evangelism, for nothing inspires confidence and boldness more than knowing that one has good reasons for what one believes and good answers to the typical questions and objections that the unbeliever may raise.
Sound training in apologetics is one of the keys to fearless evangelism. In this and many other ways apologetics helps to build up the body of Christ by strengthening individual believers.
3) Evangelizing unbelievers. Few people would disagree with me that apologetics strengthens the faith of Christian believers. But many will say that apologetics is not very useful in evangelism. As noted earlier, they claim that nobody comes to Christ through arguments. (I don't know how many times I've heard this said.)
Now this dismissive attitude toward apologetics' role in evangelism is certainly not the biblical view. As one reads the Acts of the Apostles, it's evident that it was the apostles' standard procedure to argue for the truth of the Christian worldview, both with Jews and pagans (e.g., Acts 17:2-3, 17; 19:8; 28:23-24). In dealing with Jewish audiences, the apostles appealed to fulfilled prophecy, Jesus' miracles, and especially Jesus' resurrection as evidence that he was the Messiah (Acts 2:22-32). When they confronted Gentile audiences who did not accept Jewish Scripture, the apostles appealed to God's handiwork in nature as evidence of the existence of the Creator (Acts 14:17). en appeal was made to the eyewitness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus to show specifically that God had revealed himself in Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30-31; 1 Cor. 15:3-8).
Frankly, I can't help but suspect that those who regard apologetics as futile in evangelism just don't do enough evangelism. I suspect that they've tried using apologetic arguments on occasion and found that the unbeliever remained unconvinced. They then draw a general conclusion that apologetics is ineffective in evangelism.
Now to a certain extent such persons are just victims of false expectations. When you reflect that only a minority of people who hear the gospel will accept it and that only a minority of those who accept it do so for intellectual reasons, we shouldn't be surprised that the number of people with whom apologetics is effective is relatively small. By the very nature of the case, we should expect that most unbelievers will remain unconvinced by our apologetic arguments, just as most remain unmoved by the preaching of the cross.
Well, then, why bother with that minority of a minority with whom apologetics is effective? First, because every person is precious to God, a person for whom Christ died. Like a missionary called to reach some obscure people group, the Christian apologist is burdened to reach that minority of persons who will respond to rational argument and evidence.
But, second—and here the case differs significantly from the case of the obscure people group—this people group, though relatively small in numbers, is huge in influence. One of these persons, for example, was C. S. Lewis. Think of the impact that one man's conversion continues to have! I find that the people who resonate most with my apologetic work tend to be engineers, people in medicine, and lawyers. Such persons are among the most influential in shaping our culture today. So reaching this minority of persons will yield a great harvest for the kingdom of God.
In any case, the general conclusion that apologetics is ineffective in evangelism is hasty. Lee Strobel recently remarked to me that he has lost count of the number of people who have come to Christ through his books The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. Speakers such as Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias have brought thousands to Christ through apologetically-oriented evangelism. Nor, if I may speak personally, has it been my experience that apologetics is ineffective in evangelism. We continually are thrilled to see people committing their lives to Christ through apologetically-oriented presentations of the gospel. After a talk on arguments for the existence of God or evidence for the resurrection of Jesus or a defense of Christian particularism, I'll sometimes conclude with a prayer of commitment to give one's life to Christ, and the comment cards indicate that students have registered such a commitment. I've even seen students come to Christ just through hearing a defense of the kalam cosmological argument!
It's been thrilling, too, to meet people who have come to Christ through reading something I've written. For example, when I was speaking in Moscow a few years ago I met a man from Minsk in Byelorussia. He told me that shortly after the fall of communism he had heard someone reading in Russian my book The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe over the radio in Minsk. By the end of the broadcast he had become convinced that God exists and yielded his life to Christ. He told me that today he is serving the Lord as an elder in a Baptist church in Minsk. Praise God! Recently, at Texas A&M University, I met a woman attending one of my talks. She told me with tears that for twenty-seven years she had been far away from God and was feeling hopeless and meaningless. Browsing in a Border's bookstore she ran across my book Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? which contains my debate with John Dominic Crossan, co-chairman of the radical Jesus Seminar, and bought a copy. She said that as she read it, it was as though the light just came on, and she gave her life to Christ. When I asked her what she does, she told me that she is a psychologist who works in a Texas prison for women. Just think of the Christian influence she can have in so desperate an environment!
Stories like these could be multiplied. So those who say that apologetics is not effective with unbelievers must be speaking out of their limited experience. When apologetics is persuasively presented and sensitively combined with a gospel presentation and a personal testimony, the Spirit of God condescends to use it in bringing certain people to himself.
So Christian apologetics is a vital part of the theological curriculum. Our focus in this book will be on the theoretical issues rather than on practical "how-tos." At the same time, I recognize that there remains the question of how to apply the theoretical material learned in this course. I've always thought that this problem was best left to each individual to work out according to the type of ministry to which he feels called. After all, I'm interested not only in training pastors but also systematic theologians, philosophers of religion, and church historians. But it has become clear to me that some people simply don't know how to translate theory into practice. Therefore, I've included a subsection on practical application after each major section of the course. I know the theoretical material is practical because I employ it often in evangelism and discipleship and see God use it.
Two Types of Apologetics
The field of apologetics may be broadly divided into two sorts: offensive (or positive) apologetics and defensive (or negative) apologetics. Offensive apologetics seeks to present a positive case for Christian truth claims. Defensive apologetics seeks to nullify objections to those claims. Offensive apologetics tends to subdivide into two categories: natural theology and Christian evidences. The burden of natural theology is to provide arguments and evidence in support of theism independent of authoritative, divine revelation. The ontological, cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments for the existence of God are classical examples of the arguments of natural theology. e goal of Christian evidences is to show why a specifically Christian theism is true. Typical Christian evidences include fulfilled prophecy, the radical personal claims of Christ, the historical reliability of the Gospels, and so forth. A similar subdivision exists within defensive apologetics. In the division corresponding to natural theology, defensive apologetics will address objections to theism. The alleged incoherence of the concept of God and the problem of evil would be the paramount issues here. Corresponding to Christian evidences will be a defense against objections to biblical theism. The objections posed by modern biblical criticism and by contemporary science to the biblical record dominate this field.
In actual practice, these two basic approaches—offensive and defensive—can blend together. For example, one way to offer a defense against the problem of evil would be to offer a positive moral argument for the existence of God precisely on the basis of moral evil in the world. Or again, in offering a positive case for the resurrection of Jesus, one may have to answer objections raised by biblical criticism to the historical credibility of the resurrection narratives. Nonetheless, the overall thrust of these two approaches remains quite distinct: the goal of offensive apologetics is to show that there is some good reason to think that Christianity is true, while the goal of defensive apologetics is to show that no good reason has been given to think that Christianity is false.
It is evident from a glance at the contents page that this book constitutes a course in offensive, rather than defensive, apologetics. Although I hope someday to write a book offering a course in defensive apologetics, I think that a first course in this discipline ought to be positive in nature. There are two related reasons undergirding this conviction. First, a purely negative apologetic only tells you what you ought not to believe, not what you should believe. Even if one could succeed in refuting all known objections to Christianity, one would still be left without any reason to think that it is true. In the pluralistic age in which we live, the need for a positive apologetic is especially urgent. Second, by having in hand a positive justification of the Christian faith, one automatically overwhelms all competing worldviews lacking an equally strong case. Thus, if you have a sound and persuasive case for Christianity, you don't have to become an expert in comparative religions and Christian cults so as to offer a refutation of every one of these counter-Christian views. If your positive apologetic is better than theirs, then you have done your job in showing Christianity to be true. Even if you're confronted with an objection which you can't answer, you can still commend your faith as more plausible than its competitors if the arguments and evidence in support of Christian truth claims are stronger than those supporting the unanswered objection. For these reasons, I have sought in this book to lay out a positive case for the Christian faith which, I hope, will be helpful to you in confirming and commending your faith.
For many readers much of this course material will be new and difficult. Nevertheless, all of it is important, and if you apply yourself diligently to mastering and interacting personally and critically with this material, you will, I am sure, find it as exciting as it is important.
1. J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," Princeton !eological Review 11 (1913): 7.
3. Critical notice of Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science, reviewed by John K. La Shell, Journal of the Evangelical !eological Society 36 (1993): 261.
4. For more information on these extraordinary lay conferences, go to www.epsociety.org.
Copyright © by William Lane Craig
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