Apologetics and Why the Church Needs it


It is amazing to see how years of looking at the Christian faith with a view of exposing the church as a fraud, have left me with an apologetic basis that can be drawn upon for the greater good. For those of you not familiar with the term I refer to 1 Peter 3:15, 16 which is can be used as the biblical rationale for apologetics:

“… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15,16)

There are many definitions when it comes to what is to be understood as apologetics. In very short terms it could be described as the reasoned defence for what you hold to be the truth. Other descriptions I have come across relate to both the content and function of apologetics. Lane Craige, a well known apologetic himself, speaks for instance of “rational justification.” R.C. Sproul explains it as “helping Christians know what they believe and why they believe it” and “providing intellectual defence for the truth claim” which is the Christian truth claim. J. Moreland explains it as “overcoming intellectual obstacles” for a Christian faith.  You could see apologetics as a Christian theological exercise that addresses the intellectual obstacles that keep people from taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ serious. Apologetics addresses amongst others the common known objections hear against the Christian faith such as:

  • Why does evil exist?
  • Has the Christian faith not been proven wrong by science?
  • How do we know Christianity is true in light of the existence of other world religions that also make claims to ultimate truth?
  • Why is homosexuality or abortion bad?
  • Sex outside of marriage?

There appears to be this conception that apologetics is something for a select minority; the inquisitive minds, the intellectual elite. The fact that some universities now offer a major and degree in apologetics may have contributed to this fact as well as the association o apologetics with such brilliant minds as C.S. Lewis whom once wrote:

“To be ignorant is simple now – not able to meet our enemies on their own ground – would be to throw down our weapons, and betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us, against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. “ C.S. Lewis

While it may hold some truth that apologetics is associated with sharp minds such as C.S. Lewis, serving God with the mind has always been part of the life of the church. Look at some of the trinity creeds and the precision with which words were entrusted to paper. They are a perfect example of how God can be served with the mind the intellect. Lack of answers has been a contributing factor in people leaving the churches. People will need to be enabled or to use a popular self-help catch phrase, empowered, by the church to reconcile the worldly in which they live with the spiritual. It is my simple belief that the heart cannot follow what the mind cannot conceive or justify. It is also my belief that it is and has been for that very reason that we have seen secularism and even atheism grow in such enormous popularity. If there is one thing that may be said about the church and the church losing the game from atheists like for instance Dawkins or Hitchens, it is not because their ideas and arguments are necessarily more compelling but because we never entered the arena. Most importantly, it seems to me that as Christians we let ourselves be pushed into an area of “defence” where actually I would like to see a more pro-active approach to apologetics that is closely aligned with ministerial, missionary and evangelistic activities of the church.

Western culture and society are now considered to be a post-Christian culture and society in which secularism is the dominant philosophy at least on a state organisational and legal level.  Even when I was a sceptic it seemed apparent that a lot of the problems and issues Europe, the US, New Zealand and Australia are dealing with have to do with the secularisation of society and more importantly the associated denial of our own past and identity that comes with that. Biblical thinking has been at the very foundations of western culture whether we like it or not. With secularisation came an ongoing emphasis on what could be described as individualism and with that an ongoing process of moral and cultural relativism. ‘Old’ values such as the family and community as cornerstones of society have been replaced by isolation. “Communities” is something that may sound good coming from policy makers but that’s as far as it often goes and most certainly it is far from a physical reality in many places. Many of us would not even know the name of our immediate neighbour, or recognize them as such in an encounter somewhere else. How can one love one’s neighbour if you don’t bother getting to know them, reach out to them. Look at most western societies and find a very similar picture emerging of self-centered individualism. Plagued by greed and self-interest, lust for power and status, we have seen the emergence of a world in crisis: politically, economically, spiritually, philosophically, and environmentally.  I hear people complain about the Islamisation of the Netherlands and Europe. Quite frankly I think most of it has to do with finding oneself confronted with the identity-crisis of one’s own western culture. But this is a subject of another article maybe.

Biblical Thinking as a Shaping Factor

Biblical thinking has been at the foundations of western culture and gave rise to modern sciences and technology. The Bible gave rise to and a foundation for human rights. As humans we are created in God’s image and while many may claim that we are all equally worth as much or as little as we are, it seems to me that only the Christian worldview provides a solid and consistent philosophical basis for such a claim. No matter how you look at it, while we may want to make this claim, the simple reality is that we do not enter the world equal. The only way we can objectively as well as rationally make a claim for equality is if we depart from a view on humans as being created in the image of God. Not just the principle of equality but also other human rights depart from the premise that there are simply some “inalienable rights” that apparently exist outside of any human authority. The Preamble of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 words it like this:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world

Where, one could ask, could these rights come from other than God? It is equally the same with science and technology. Johannes Kepler, one of the key figures in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century advised us that:

The chief aim of all investigations of the external world (author: the essence of science) should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he has revealed to us in the language of mathematics.

From a worldly point of view I guess it is good to remember our Christian heritage as part of our identity. There used to be an advertisement on television in New Zealand which basically promoted that we should understand our past to prepare for the future.  The ongoing process of secularisation of western societies and all the problems it is currently facing illustrate what happens if we do not have an appropriate amount of attention for our past or even (as for instance is happening in the UK) deny our past. And all this time churches have stood by and watched it happen. Apologetics are absolutely crucial in any church for both health of it and the witness. Unless we understand the gospel at a worldview level, it’s impact on those who accept the gospel as well as its power to fundamentally impact on and change society, it will always be short of God’s best for His people. However in order to understand the Gospel at the worldview level we need apologetics.

Light of the World

Simply put, in my opinion there is a duty on the church to think through the relevant issues so that it can anticipate and answer questions that people have. As a church you have a role to play as light in this world and that role should be taken more seriously. Apologetics are needed to help people answer increasing amounts of increasingly complex answers. If we want a future for the church and Christians to be at the heart of our society, it is of paramount importance that we teach our people and people to come. Churches in my view, have a responsibility to make apologetics part of the teaching and training of their flocks especially where it comes to the how to respond to the questions of faith and compassion for those that have developed false worldviews or religious believes.

There are several good reasons to engage the Christian community in apologetics. For starters: the Bible demands from us that we defend our faith and provides examples thereof. From a Christian mission point of view: the removal of intellectual barriers aids or assists unbelievers or non-Christians to embrace the gospel. For believers apologetics assists in strengthening their faith on an intellectual level and as such encourages spiritual growth. From a societal perspective it contributes to cultural health at large.

Spiritual Warfare

The Bible has a great deal to say about such warfare. The devil also known as Satan is a real adversary that you must reckon with. Initially a high-ranking angel in heaven who rebelled, he was was cast out of heaven.

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18)

Ever since, Satan has been in total opposition to God. It was Satan who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3:4). In John 10 we see Jesus describe Satan as:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10)

It was that Satan challenged Jesus at every turn, from His infancy through His death. Yet Jesus was undeterred from His mission to completely defeat His ancient foe. Satan is a schemer using smart tactics and while defeated for a while he continues to have a substantial amount of influence on earth. He is still behind every form of evil, perhaps with increasing intensity, sensing (correctly) the day is coming when he will be completely destroyed. Peter advises us that Satan “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8) and tells us to “resist him, steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:.9). Paul offers similar advice:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6:10,11).

Off all the tactics and tools Satan may try and use in this battle against God, ideas are probably the most effective in the toolkit of Satan. In essence the battle is one for our minds initially.

“The God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so they cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:4)

In Isaiah we see this blindness depicted as “the sheet that covers all nations” (Isaiah 25:7).

When Christians think of conversion and rebirth in Christ, a renewed mind is at all times part of the equation. On a personal/individual level; these ideas come in the form of temptation. On a collective level, it can be explained ironically enough using a theory that is very popular with atheist, universal Darwinist scholars: the meme theory.

The most compelling example of how Satan used ideas to win over God’s own is the story of Adam and Eve. Satan was able to drive them away from God by one thing only: planting an idea in their minds. Since that moment mankind has been buying in to the idea that we can actually be as God, that we do not need God because we can be God. In memetic terms, Satan planted a very good meme right at the start and so far it seems to be surviving and reproducing beautifully.

God gave us an ability to choose, to make real decisions with real consequences. In exercising our freedom to choose we actually affirm our true humanity. At the same time, and as a result of the work of Satan, we end up choosing against God so often; the God that created us to be up close and personal with Him. Where we end up turning away from Him, we basically dethrone God and with that the essence of our humanity. False ideas were at the basis of our initial move away from God ((original) sin in the broadest sense), and has continued to be a prime influence on us. This applies all despite the fact that deep down inside, we know that we function at our best when we are properly related to God; individually and as mankind. The mind is a battlefield that is as simple as it is. As Christians we are called to engage in this battle for the mind using our minds:

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
(2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

Probably one of the best examples of how this battle for the mind (and by the mind) is fought is to have a close look at University campuses. I think we can all come up with one or more examples of people that enrolled at University as a Christian to leave it a few years down the line as an agnostic or an Atheist even. Biblical thinking has become something that is considered to be irrational and not in touch with reality on the marketplace of ideas. And that should be a priority. Biblical thinking should regain its respectability, it needs to regain its recognition as a legitimate option in the marketplace of ideas and for that we need apologetics. Apologetics are the prime instrument to make a case for Christ and Christianity.  At all times this will be a hard fought battle, as we will see. Ideas that are powerful enough have a habit of sticking, up to a point where they may well end up being almost part of our genetic imprint: memes.

Apologetics in my view is a shared responsibility for the churches of all denominations. Since we are to function as one body, it should not be something elitist, no-one should be left out. That doesn’t mean that everyone should be an apologist, the pastor included. The churches should just open their doors for those that are willing to use their minds to serve God. Local churches could consider raising up and training people who serve as apologists for their congregations. Both the apologetic pursuit and the spiritual transformation of lives depend heavily on guidance by the Holy Spirit so as to prevent faith from becoming a merely intellectual exercise.

Rethinking the Agenda

Besides the apparent need for apologetics, I think it is important that we have a good look at the current apologetic agenda. Apologetics appears to slowly become into a discipline that is occupied with ‘defending the reason for our faith and hope” yet this has worked out in many instances as a ‘reactive’ approach.
In my view a pro-active approach could well form part of the new apologetic agenda.  Defending in a pro-active sense is in my view only one side of the coin. In fact: defence against ‘outside attacks’ manoeuvres you in a position where the other may up determining the ‘battlefield.’ In my view there is a good argument to be made to have apologetics positioned not just as a ‘defence force’ but more importantly as part of the evangelist and missionary function of the church.

I think it is fair to say that we are living in a post-Christian secular society in which pluralism is the norm. We are so well reminded of that in the logo of the United States: “E Pluribus Unum” which translates as “out of many one.” Since colonial times the United States has been a safe haven for those seeking freedom of religious expression. At the time the time it primarily referred to the European settlers that all practiced Christianity but came from a wide range of denominations, traditions which quickly expanded to a wider range of other religions and belief systems with the influx of immigrants from other parts of the world.

Recipient Orientation

Cross cultural ministries and missionaries were well aware of the need to communicate the Gospel in an appropriate way within the different cultural contexts. Perfect examples of how this works out in practice can be found in the letters and actions of Paul. Of course we humans would not be humans if we did not come up with some cool sounding multi syllable word for it: “contextualisation.”
When considering apologetics, similar to evangelism and mission, we should be looking at getting contextualisation on the agenda. Without a doubt the gospel transcends all cultures but apologetic styles may need to be adapted to the specific cultural context in which the Gospel is being communicated as well as the reasons for our faith. Moreover I think that apologetics in particular may well be of at least equally great importance as the defence discipline when it is approached as part of the evangelist or mission function of the church. Apologetics is thus seen as an ancillary discipline not just occupied with countering attacks but more importantly with supporting evangelism in that it anticipates barriers the evangelist or missionary may encounter and prepares them for that in a contextually relevant way. This means that apologetics should get involved in research and investigation of the different cultural contexts and settings so as to identify pro-actively the barriers: questions, objections and spiritual ‘issues’ of the other (sub-)culture. The apologist can’t afford to be an armchair intellectual (armed with a pipe), a distant observer, an ivory tower inhabitant.
The apologist will need to be out there, with or even ahead of the evangelist or the missionary, as an observer of how the other (sub)culture lives, thinks and practices and applies their belief systems (evangelic or missionary reconnaissance). In a sense apologetics thus becomes somewhat of the reconnaissance or intelligence function for the church. By direct observation the apologetic fieldworker identifies the relevant apologetic questions, and for that matter not just in faraway exotic places and cultures but equally important, in our own post-Christian secular and pluralist post-modern western societies. Looking at the current state of society, an argument could be made that cross-cultural ministry could tke place in your own backyard/hood in most-western societies. Apologetics thus becomes an addressee or recipient orientated discipline.

Globalisation Requires Being Globally Informed

Apologetics, if properly construed and ancillary to evangelism and mission becomes as a result unavoidable in the effective proclamation of the good news. Thus far we have talked about the different (sub)cultural contexts that may require a rethinking of the apologetic agenda. Equally important as a development is the trend towards globalisation and apologetics will therefore need to adapt, especially where communicating in non-western contexts such as the Asian, the Latin American, the African and Arabian. Globalisation has seen substantial movements of people to and through different cultural settings and as an immigrant myself I am well aware that immigrant populations themselves have a habit of deriving a subculture mixing culture of the homeland with that of the new environment.

In addition to this more and more non-Christian worldviews are seen within the western societies: old pagan believes and philosophies like Wicca and Reiki, more modern movements such as New Age, Scientology, and to my great astonishment by now some geographical areas in the world officially recognize Jedi-ism, or Jedi as a religion (In fact I see this as one of the more serious insider threats in some churches but that is something for another post).  From a personal perspective, it cannot be seen as anything else than that there is an apparent need for the spiritual and that people are seeking. From an apologetic and following that the evangelist or missionary perspective it means that the challenge to be an effective bridge builder has enhanced and will need to embrace all these different subcultures as well as the global culture.

Apologetics as an Ancillary Discipline

Perhaps as a result of definitions in the past, apologetics is (in my view) too often seen as a ‘counter culture” or discipline, as standing up against false doctrines and teachers, and in all fairness, whilst it is by now hard not to notice attacks by militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and others. At the same time, the defensive manoeuvres of the apologetic defence force seem to be hardening up as well especially in the Atheism v Christianity, Evolution v Creation debates. At the same time, evangelists and missionaries have never seen their work as on the defence and debunking false doctrines. It is good to remember that apologetics is not a means in itself. I prefer an approach that would enhance the focus of the apologetic discipline from addressing ‘heresies’ or false doctrines to assisting proactively in proclaiming the Gospel in a contextually relevant way so as to make new disciples: pro-active apologetics used in frontline evangelism and missionary work to reach the unreached people in different (sub) cultures and alternative spiritualities. Missionary work involves understanding the other’s culture, beliefs, practices, questions, answers, and issues and problems. Love and compassion are the leading drivers for any such missionary work and in my view the same applies to apologetics: debunking false doctrines as the prime focus limits the potential and scope of apologetics. In order to be relevant, apologetics need to embrace the principles of cross-cultural ministry. Dealing with doctrinal objections thus becomes part of a larger picture. There is a saying that “the heart cannot follow what the mind does not accept”: apologetics has the potential to assist in reaching the hearts of the not-yet Christian neighbours by clearing the mind in a contextually relevant way.

Diversity

John 3 and probably even more so John 4 where Jesus has an encounter with the Samaritan at the well we see a Jesus that goes well beyond rationality or the rational argument. The Samaritan woman’s imagination is engaged.  I can’t help thinking that we should consider how besides logic the minds and hearts of others may be stirred through for instance poetry, literature, narrative, parables, visual arts, music, dance, theatre, movies and other forms of creative works. A well known function of the arts is and always has been to open the door to what I like to call ‘hyper reality’ or ‘super reality’. The modern day apologist may need to consider the arts as part of the apologetic toolbox. Missionaries and evangelists for instance understand all too well the value of music and visual arts (probably equally well as marketeers). In the earlier days of the church, visual arts formed an important part of how the Gospel was communicated in a basically illiterate world. The modern day apologist, looking closely at the power of the creative disciplines, may need to include the artist in his or her self-conception as part of the need for contextual relevancy.

Humbleness and Fair Play

More than once I have seen how apologetics have turned into a crusade, even up to a point where it is, in my view at least, no longer serving Christianity. Where humbleness is lost, apologetics may well end up standing in the way of genuine love for the “not yet Christian” neighbour and the effective communication therewith.  No matter how convinced you are of the importance and correctness of the Gospel, it is good to remember that classifications like respect, integrity, goodwill are to be earned rather than to be claimed.

What may potentially be more damaging than not being humble, is the use of false arguments or not playing fair by leaving important information out that does not support your case. This is a practice I have seen all too often in the creation v evolution debates and for the record, not just on Atheist sides but most certainly also on the part of creationists.
In the end it does not help anyone. Atheist scientists like Dawkins, asking for scientific evidence deliberately ask for what cannot be delivered in their context. Science as by definition and practice limits itself to the natural and therefore the supernatural is per definition excluded. Likewise, all too often I see how creationists are trying to make us believe that evolution as a whole is a myth by pointing out the flaws in macro-evolution theory. Moreover while there may be holes in the macro-evolution theory, pointing out the holes or gaps is not the same as providing evidence for God. Both camps would do well in remembering that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Finally

In a culturally and religiously pluralistic post modern society the importance of apologetics is as high as ever. In the shift from modernism to post modernism, rationality still plays an important role but a different one where truth and experience go hand in hand. Post-modernists look for a reconciliation of the rational and the experiential and it is up to apologetics to pick up that challenge. In addition pluralism makes it a requirement to actively research/investigate different sub-cultures of society so as to enable more effective and contextually relevant communication. Apologetics needs to become a frontline discipline and can no longer afford to be an armchair discipline, focussed not just on countering the attack but more importantly on reaching the unreached and strengthening the weak. Apologetics may thus serve the missionary encounter with both non-western cultures and the post-modern, post Christian secular and pagan west (in essence our own neighbourhood) as well as spiritual growth within our communities.  The importance of contextualisation can be found throughout the Bible. Paul says it beautifully in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings.

And just look at the story of Jesus. In essence they are the story of a creator seeking reconciliation with his creation came from his divine realm amongst us as one of us, with all the human limitations that brought. A challenge is waiting to be picked up I guess.

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