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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Problem of Apologetics

I know some Christians who believe that our primary focus in sharing the Gospel with unbelievers ought to be Apologetics. You know ... that's the field of defending Christianity with logical and evidential support. I want to point out as I have many times in the past that such an endeavor is a good thing. The Bible calls for it. We are to be ready to give an answer, to contend for the faith. We are to be renewed in our minds. Good stuff, all. But when this exercise moves to the front of the line, eclipsing all other approaches, I think it becomes problematic.

My first reason for thinking this is that the Bible doesn't seem to support it. I mean, sure, there are lots of texts where people reasoned, but the Bible doesn't put claim that there is power in reasoning. The Bible puts power in the Word of God. Many in Apologetics aim specifically at defending the faith without using the Bible. That might be of some use, but when we set aside what God says is a powerful tool -- "sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4:12) -- in favor of human reasoning, well, it seems like we're willingly disarming ourselves, not to mention violating Scripture. Paul said, "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17).

The other reason that this approach is problematic is that it is premised on a false assumption. Here's the notion: If I give a coherent, logical presentation of the truth complete with suitable evidence and rational dialog, people will listen and be convinced. It sounds reasonable. It ignores reality. You see, it assumes the unbiased thinking processes of those who listen, and no such process exists in Natural Man.

The idea is that thinking is some kind of empirical approach. Give the proper information and the mind will see the light. The Bible doesn't see it that way. According to Scripture humans have a natural tendency to suppress the truth in favor of their own unrighteousness and ungodliness (Rom 1:18). Paul indicates that the outcome of this fact is "they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Rom 1:21). The problem, you see, is that humans are not typically thinking through things to arrive at unbiased results. They are thinking of the results. And, given that humans are hostile to God (Rom 8:7), arriving at the position that God is right and we need to repent is not an acceptable outcome.

Look at a biblical example of this kind of thinking. In Matt 21:23-27, the chief priests took Jesus to task. "By what authority are you doing these things?" Jesus responded with a counter question. "You answer my question, and I'll answer yours." His question was about the source of the baptism of John. Was it from God or man? Note the thinking process of these leaders. "'If we say, "From heaven," He will say to us, "Why then did you not believe him?" But if we say, "From man," we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.' So they answered Jesus, 'We do not know'" (Matt 21:25-27). Carefully reasoned, skillfully considered, and a completely nonsensical answer. Considering the question was not at the top of their agenda. Considering the outcome was.

The approach of Apologetics is good and even commanded. However, when it becomes the primary focus, the main message, the aim of the one sharing the Gospel, it is with a false impression. It forgets that the hearers are not only unbelievers, but they are moral agents. They are going to include their own morality in the deliberation. (We all do.) It is not simply the examination of facts and arguments. It is the presentation of facts and arguments to people who are blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), unable to understand the things of God (1 Cor 2:14), with futile minds set on the flesh (Eph 4:17; Col 1:21), minds set only on the earthly (Phil 3:19). In fact, given the biblical description of the thinking processes of Natural Man, the task is impossible. The answer is not found in a clear and cogent defense of the Gospel, but in the power of the Word of God and in the work of the Holy Spirit. That's the answer to the problem, not a better line of logic. Apologetics? Good. The Word of God? Better. The Holy Spirit at work? The ultimate answer. Let's not get that confused.


Craig said...

In our current climate, it seems that apologetics is needed more when dealing with Christians than with non-Christians.

Stan said...

That is my conviction as well.

Miklós said...

The book of Acts is full of debates and arguments though. I believe in the full rationality of God. I believe He is rational even if we do not see it. May be one nuance is that reasoning should be centered on the Cross and not on some minor detail, the Holy Spirit to be behind it testifying of its truth.
But it is true, that the Holy Spirit is No1. Taking my example, I started to read the Bible in my early 20s to get acquainted with stories and understand pieces of art better. The presence of the Holy Spirit gradually grown through the months as I was reading, and after a while I was reading for that presence and not for the stories. He testified with His presence that what I read is from God. I didn't understand anything at that time, may be today as well. : )) I didn't know what that presence was, where it came from, it was just good as nothing else in life.

Stan said...

As I said in the post, the Bible teaches that we are to always be ready to give a defense. I believe that in that defense God can work to call people to Himself. My primary concern is two-fold. First, some Christians believe that our primary method of bringing people to Christ ought to be in the rational defense of the faith. Second, many also believe that this rational defense ought specifically to avoid the use of the Bible. "You know, those unbelievers don't regard the Bible as authoritative, so we shouldn't use it." I disagree both with the idea that rational defense ought to be primary and that it ought to be done without Scripture.

Anonymous said...

"Apologetics normally aims at defending the faith without using the Bible."

I've never seen this definition of apologetics anywhere. Would you please substantiate that with credible sources? I could be wrong, but it seems that Sproul, Greg Koukl, Scott Oliphant, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, and many many others would completely and totally reject that as the "normative" definition. The only apologist that *may* hold that definition is WLC.

Upon what basis do you define that the normal aim?

What you might mean is that in practice many apologists don't fling Bible verses at unbelievers like rocks, and I can agree with that, but most apologists I am familiar with absolutely use the Bible, and I've never seen it defined as above.

Stan said...

No, it's not a definition. And you are right. Poor choice of words on my part. I changed it. There are many who argue that we shouldn't be using our Bibles to defend the faith since the world doesn't accept the Bible as a valid source document. It was those to whom I was referring. And since I myself believe in and practice Apologetics, it would be silly to claim that I "normally" aim at not using the Bible in my defense of the faith.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response.