I love apologetics. In fact, I have taught a graduate course titled: “Apologetics for Postmodern Evangelism.” Christian apologetics is a pretty interesting discipline if you are a person of the mind who is called to explain and defend the faith well. But for all of my love for apologetics I do not love a lot of what is called apologetics by a growing number of evangelicals. Even more puzzling to me is the growth of a similar type of apologetics among some conservative Catholics. Let me explain.
From the earliest days of the church Christian apologetics has been an important part of the study of theology. It is a branch of thought that aims to present a reasoned defense for Christian faith. It does this by increasing both the knowledge of the faith and the knowledge of how the Christian faith can answer the basic questions critics use against it.
One could well say that interest in apologetics began with the Apostles Peter and Paul. Clearly, it was developed extensively by early Christian writers such as Origen and St. Augustine. The study and use of apologetics has developed extensively over the centuries (cf. Dulles, A History of Apologetics) and still merits serious study. Apologists have based their defense of Christianity on different approaches to historical evidence and philosophical arguments. There are several different types/schools of apologetics in Protestantism; e.g. pre-suppositionalism, evidentialism, Reformed epistemology, etc. There is also a variety of approaches in Catholicism but these differences do not seem to be as fiercely debated as among evangelicals.
The best overview of serious apologetics, from a historical perspective, is the late Cardinal Avery Dulles superb book, A History of Apologetics. It is a classic. All reasoned and reasonable discussion about the work of apologetics ought to begin here, with two feet solidly planted in classical Christianity. Dulles was a most excellent writer and a great ecumenist scholar as well. The best popular twentieth century apologist was probably C. S. Lewis. Interesting, Lewis was a layman, at least in terms of his training. This demonstrates that great writing about the faith can be done by non-professional theologians.
The most frequently cited biblical text for the work of apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15. The apostle says: “And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain (apologia: defend) it” (NLT). Put alongside of Paul’s words to “let God transform you into a new person by the way you think” (Romans 12:2, NLT) we have in these two texts a powerfully clear call to use your mind to glorify God and explain and defend the faith as best you can. Apologetics, contrary to some misconceptions, is not about being defensive but rather about clearly explaining the faith to those who ask and question the believer. Real apologetics has great value but I am not convinced that it has supreme value, at least not in the light of the three great virtues of faith, hope and love. There is no better argument for faith than these, as 1 Peter makes plain as well. Philip Yancey, in Rumors of Another World, adds, “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument.” I know of one possible exception to this but in this instance it led to the convert becoming a rather mean-spirited apologist.
Over the course of my lifetime a “new” kind of apologetics has emerged in many conservative circles. This defense has often become a cover for attacking the faith of other Christians. It began with books on the cults and then expanded to include a number of sects and Christian groups that are not cults in any normal sense of that term at all. Worse still, it has now become a cover for exposing the mistakes of others on the Internet. I think this type of thinking is actually behind the controversy I wrote about (July 26-30) regarding the lies and deception of Ergun Caner. There is a particular kind of personality that seems to love this type of debate and feeds off of it. Combine this with a story that draws such attention and some people have all they need to fight a great battle for the faith. What I am suggesting is that there is actually a “personality type” that embraces this kind of “apologetic ministry.” This can then become an excuse for a poorly formed character that simply loves the whole nature of debate about words. People buy this and promote it. It works. I actually had someone try to convince me some years ago that I would never draw the kind of financial support I could use to build my mission unless I was willing to engage in this kind of debate. I marveled in private and have honestly never been seriously tempted since. I am sure I owe that to the grace of God. I know I was not wise enough to know better at that time in my life.
I do not deny that lies from Christian leaders should be exposed or that false teachers should be opposed in the right way. I do deny that we do this well in modern instances. Much of this tough work is done in close quarters by those who have been given an ecclesial responsibility to deal with such issues. Since evangelicals do not have an ecclesial structure that deals with these matters well people tend to pick and choose their swords and battles. This is democracy at its worst, especially when it gets connected to so-called apologetics. In the modern context of radio, television and the Internet a full-blown cottage industry has grown up around this type of apologetics. This ministry has little or nothing to do with convincing unbelievers of the “hope” that Christian faith brings to those who embrace it.
I went back to 1 Peter recently and read the whole context around the 1 Peter 3;15 verse that is cited by apologists. It intrigues me that the context in Peter’s letter is about Christians living such good lives that unbelievers will see “your honorable behavior” and “give honor to God” (1 Peter 2:12). And in 1 Peter 3 the context is one of Christians being told to do good in the midst of suffering. The idea here clearly does not seem to be that we should talk and talk in negative and aggressive ways. It is just the opposite. We should live quiet, good and godly lives of service and dignity, In this context we should be prepared to give our apologia for the faith.
This all intrigues me profoundly. I think this underscores what I was getting at in July when scores of “apologists” responded to my attempts (not all that well framed I concluded at the end) to address the dangers of Internet gossip and slander.
The present apologetics debates have invited angular and angry people to use various means to promote their brand of defending the faith by attacking others, even other Christians in many cases. Take the way some evangelical apologists spend so much time attacking Catholics. (There is a place for clearly explaining the doctrinal differences between Catholic and non-Catholic beliefs. This can be done in a context of mutual respect that actually helps Christians grasp why we differ and what it means.) Then you can hear the same response from certain Catholic apologists. They spend untold time and dollars writing and speaking against evangelicals for their false teaching. (I have a little more sympathy with this since some evangelicals have so badly misrepresented Catholic beliefs and then torn families apart in the process. The opposite is true for sure but I have more first-hand experience with people who left the Catholic Church and then became fierce in their opposition to their birth church!)
I have gained a great deal of good from Catholic radio over the last ten years but when they start explaining evangelicals I have to turn it off. Why? The presentation provokes me to a response I do not like in me. I wish the programmers would simply promote the edifying and truthful insights of Catholic faith in all its richness. The truth is that this type of apologetics (against evangelicals) raises donations on their side as well. Again, I would love to be invited to a dialogue with some of these Catholic brothers and sisters and let people see how we can agree, and disagree, but still live in the love of Christ without stereotyping our "opponents."
I am often provoked, in mostly positive ways, by the writer Anne Lamott. She is hard going for some sensitive folks but she forces me to think more deeply and struggle in ways I should. Lamott says, in her book Grace (Eventually): “You can tell that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” That about sums it up.