Apologetics – the What and the Why

The Reason for God. What then is the nature of apologetics and why do we participate in an apologetic task at all?

In my last post, I said that as an academic teaching religion, I should not consider that my role as a teacher is apologetic in its nature. And by that I mean that I can teach religious systems (in my case Catholic theology) as religious systems without feeling like I have a responsibility to point out where these religious systems do not agree with the basic tenets of Christianity or with my own position as an evangelical Protestant. But this raises the question, what then is the nature of apologetics and why do we participate in an apologetic task at all?

What is Apologetics

Taken at its most basic level, apologetics is a defense of the Christian faith against certain claims that are made against it. This has a long history in the Christian tradition, going back to the early 2nd century with philosophers who became Christians. The most famous example is Justin Martyr, who authored two different defenses of the Christian faith against charges that Christians were cannibals (eating flesh and drinking blood) and that they wanted to over-throw the Roman governmental system (Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord). In many ways, Augustine’s The City of God is an apologetic in this same vein. Some were claiming that Rome fell because it had turned Christian, and Augustine argues that Christianity had actually saved the Empire from earlier destruction and was carrying the Roman heritage forward.

In the modern sense in which we use apologetics, it is most often a defense of a theistic, supernatural philosophical system against the challenges of rival philosophical systems. Norman Geisler‘s classic Christian Apologetics is a prime example of this. In Christian Apologetics, Geisler exams the major philosophical truth claims of various philosophical systems to show that they cannot account for truth and that Christianity better answers these problems. In the preface, he says that the Christian apologist has to establish an adequate test for truth as a “methodological prerequisite to establishing theism.” In the more recent (and much larger!) Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case of Biblical Faith, Doug Groothuis approaches apologetics in a similar manner, but he frames his approach around worldviews or fundamental belief systems. There are many other examples that could be provided which are more philosophical and academic (e.g. Alvin Plantinga) to more popular (e.g. Ravi Zacharias) to somewhere in between (e.g. William Lane Craig).

However, I want to change our thinking just a bit, and think about apologetics from the perspective of discipleship. A book (originally it was published as two books) which I do not think gets enough attention anymore is Paul Little’s Why and What Book, which was written in the context of campus ministry. While there is a sense in which Little does have in mind a non-believing audience, I think Little is really focusing his attention on Christian college students to help them know why they believe and what they believe, which is reflected in the titles of the original books. In that sense, apologetics is really about discipleship, not about answering philosophical questions. It is not that these philosophical questions are unimportant or even unnecessary. I strongly believe they are. However, most of us will not become philosophers, and we are already believers who are trying to make sense of Christianity in light of the questions which we encounter in our interactions with people. Apologetics then is not just for unbelievers, but for believers as well. It is both evangelism and discipleship, because both audiences have the same questions. And from the lens of discipleship we should understand apologetics to be as much about strengthening existing faith as it is about evangelism.

Why Do Apologetics with Christians

As someone who has grown up in the Church, I can tell you from personal experience that apologetics has been very beneficial in not just strengthening my faith, but helping me to grow intellectually in my faith. I have learned that the Christian faith is larger and deeper and more varied than I knew in my younger years. The last thing that we want to tell Christian students/young people is that the questions which they have are not valid or valuable. They are interacting with a wide-variety of people and ideas from an early age and we have a responsibility to help them answer their questions in a thoughtful, intellectually satisfying way. Discipleship is not about boundary maintenance; it is about growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ – with our hearts and our minds.

Apologetics as discipleship is the reason why campus groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and others like it are so important. And it is also why faculty members need to help support these groups and why senior Christian faculty should mentor junior faculty members.

Apologetics as discipleship then is really just part of what St. Anselm coined in his famous phrase: fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding. Understood in this context, apologetics is really connected to theology, as Little points to in his book – it is not just what, but why. Christians do not check their brains at the door, and therefore we must recognize that Christians will have questions. This is especially true of college students who are introduced to a wealth of new ideas in the course of their studies. We need to answer these questions because it is an important part of discipleship. There is no question that should be “off-the-table” because we are not afraid of the truth. The search may challenge views on some issues, which is why some people are afraid of the questions. But if faith really does seek understanding, understanding can do nothing but strengthen faith. Apologetics in this sense is really about making disciples.

Apologetics as discipleship is the reason why campus groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and others like it are so important. And it is also why faculty members need to help support these groups and why senior Christian faculty should mentor junior faculty members. This is why I am so glad to be a part of the Emerging Scholars Network. It is really about this same idea – discipleship. Without these things, we fail to fulfill the great commission.

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Michael J. Stell, MATS

I am a PhD student in theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I am studying the theology of John Williamson Nevin, who taught in the seminary of the German Reformed Church in America in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also the president of Franklin and Marshall College and a friend to James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States. I am currently a teaching fellow at CUA, teaching undergraduate theology and Church History classes. My goal is to teach at a college or university after completing my degree program. I am also the current vice-president of the graduate student association at CUA. Before life as a grad student (if that were an acronym it would be BLaaGS) I was a teacher and principal in secondary education at various Christian schools in the Northeast. My family and I currently live in Hagerstown, MD.

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  • David Eric Carlson commented on February 26, 2014 Reply

    Apologists need to use their ears before their mouths. I like the approach of Curtis Chang in “Engaging Unbelief” of entering the realm of the other person(s) first, finind your place there, and then when you have won an audience, bringing your point forward. He uses Augustine (City of God) and Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles) as case studies. I have not heard this book reviewed or discussed but it is quite good.

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on February 26, 2014 Reply

    Good point David. You’re inspiring me to create a “to be reviewed for ESN list” and place Engaging Unbelief (https://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2266) on it. In the mean time, The Center for Parent and Youth Understanding (CPYU), which is just down the street from me, has a review posted at http://www.cpyu.org/Page.aspx?id=76815.

  • mikstell@gmail.com'
    mikstelltheolog commented on February 26, 2014 Reply

    David – thanks for your comment, and I agree. I have always been skeptical of apologetical systems because they really do not seem to answer the real questions which people have. I am not familiar with Chang’s book, but I find his use of City of God and the Summa Contra Gentiles an interesting one because they are ‘really’ not written to engage unbelievers. I know that on some level they appear to, but you always end up questioning who is there really for them to engage. Augustine you could possibly make the case for, but Thomas seems to have written the Summa Contra Gentiles with no real audience in mind (most 13th century medievals tended to view Muslim as something more than straight pagans). Not that it doesn’t have apologetic value, but it seems to be more a philosophical exercise, hence the title “sum of ideas against unbelievers.” But not having read the book, I might be missing his point.

    I have always found Lindbeck’s “occasional apologetics” a compelling way to think about apologetics and I think that might be what you have in mind. I don’t know if you are familiar with Lindbeck. He never really develops it as part of his “Nature of Doctrine” instead it is more that he mentions it as part of his overall understanding of the way in which doctrine functions. I don’t see Lindbeck working on it now and I don’t know if any of his students have developed it more. But I like the concept.

    Obviously my point was that apologetics is not just geared toward unbelievers, but has a catechetical function as well. I think your point is valid there as well. It is less about protection of boundaries, and more about formation in this sense. Formation always happens best in a discipleship model in my mind.

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