Apologetics for everyone: Some notes on defending the faithWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“But in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
This is the classic text that lies at the heart of apologetics, the art of defending the Christian faith. In fact, the word “defence” here is a translation of the Greek “apologia,” from which we derive “apologetics.” The sense of the original Greek word is to present a compelling case in defence of a belief or a position.
For some 21st-century Christians, however, apologetics might come across as a loaded term. To younger ears, it may sound confrontational or argumentative, like a relic of an older generation’s approach to evangelism. To others, it may suggest a dry, academic discipline, a task for pastors and theologians, beyond the skill set or interest of the average churchgoer.
But the Apostle Peter is clear that apologetics is for everyone. And he’s not alone. The New Testament contains many similar injunctions to defend the faith, as well as examples of believers doing so. Jesus himself is the prime example, frequently engaging questions from his disciples as well as his enemies.
Every follower of Jesus is thus called to do apologetics, in whatever circles God has placed us. But where to begin? Here are a few notes that may help us pursue this calling with enthusiasm and joy.
Loving God with all of the mind
This portion of the Great Commandment, as defined by Jesus, is indispensable to doing apologetics. Loving God with all of the mind isn’t limited to thinking good thoughts about God or memorizing a few choice Bible verses, important as those are. It requires a working understanding of the storyline of Scripture, its parts and genres and how they fit together to reveal God. It means basking in the truths of God’s Word, meditating on their implications about his power and character with worshipful awe.
Beyond that, loving God with the mind also entails loving the world of ideas, pursuing the various forms of knowledge – scientific, historical, philosophical – that God has woven into his created order. Furthermore, to do apologetics well, a believer needs to be familiar with the ideas of the surrounding culture, not just to pinpoint their weaknesses but also to appreciate their strengths, recognizing that all truth is God’s truth, regardless of its source.
Real answers to tough questions
The Christian faith is the most robust, comprehensive and intellectually satisfying belief system the world has ever known. More than any other, it can bear up under the most severe challenges of critics, and has done so throughout history. Christians need not feel defensive or afraid of such challenges. Rather than ducking tough questions, we should welcome them, whether from skeptics, fellow believers, or even our own kids.
At the same time, Christianity doesn’t claim to offer exhaustive information on every topic. The Scripture itself attests that the secret things belong to God while the things revealed belong to us (Deuteronomy 29:29). Now as always, there remain difficult questions: How can you claim Jesus is the only way to God? Hasn’t science disproven the Bible? Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women? What about the existence of suffering and evil?
Intelligent, conscientious people of every faith and no faith have grappled with these questions, and others like them, over the centuries. It won’t do to dismiss them with glib answers and a few proof texts. Christianity does indeed offer compelling answers, but not necessarily easy ones. When faced with such challenges, it’s fine to admit if we don’t have an answer and to direct the inquirer to a resource that might help. Better yet, we might offer to explore the question together with them.
Knowing your audience
There isn’t a one size fits all approach to doing apologetics. We all recognize this. No one would answer a small child the same as a teen struggling with their faith or a co-worker who’s hostile to Christianity. But our sensitivity to our audience needs to go deeper than that. We need to be aware of the cultural assumptions, spiritual commitments and Biblical literacy of our hearers, which often divide along ethnic, racial and generational lines.
The book of Acts is instructive here. When the apostles spoke to the Jewish leaders, they appealed to familiar Scriptures to show how Jesus fulfilled prophecy. But when Paul addressed the Athenians who knew nothing of the Old Testament, he never quoted Scripture directly. Instead, he spoke in everyday language about biblical concepts such as God’s sovereignty over creation, alluding to popular pagan writers to support his point, before driving home the truth of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 17:16-34).
Paul’s approach at Athens illustrates his general principle of being all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). In our own post-Christian culture, where we can no longer assume the average person has any scriptural knowledge or shared religious context with us, chances are we’ll need to adopt the Apostle’s Athenian strategy more often than not, in order to be heard.
Gentleness and respect
While focusing on the Apostle Peter’s injunction to defend the faith, it’s easy to overlook his proviso that we do it with gentleness and respect. At minimum, this requires us to listen to the questions of our opponents with care, taking their objections seriously, not just waiting for them to stop talking so we can hit them with our argument. Instead of reducing their position to a straw-man caricature, we should be able to restate it in a way that accurately represents their beliefs, to their satisfaction.
The Golden Rule needs to frame how we do apologetics. Would we want others to treat us as ignorant people with superficial ideas that can be dismissed with a few clever words? Or would we want them to treat us and our opinions with dignity, fairness and respect? If our approach to defending the faith can be summed up as “you’re wrong and I’ll tell you why,” people will pick up on that and it’s not likely they’ll be persuaded by our position.
The hope that is in you
Apologetics is not about being right or winning an argument. It’s about sharing the hope we have in Jesus, and why we have it. According to Peter, the prerequisite for all apologetics is to honour Christ in our hearts as holy. This is crucial. The entire point of the exercise is to represent our Lord in a winsome and loving manner, with humility, intelligence and grace.
At its core, the Gospel is a simple message of Jesus crucified, risen and reigning, and apologetics shouldn’t be confused with that. But for people struggling with questions and objections to the Christian faith, apologetics can lay the groundwork for them to receive the Gospel. As a first step, apologetics may lead such a person, who doesn’t believe Christianity to be true, to at least wish that it were true.
Part of a rich tradition
To engage in apologetics is to be part of a rich tradition that stretches back to the New Testament. Jesus welcomed questions from his followers and enemies alike, for the express purpose that they might be saved. The book of Acts showcases diverse believers – Peter and the twelve, Stephen, Philip, Paul, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila – refuting opponents, demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah, and correcting faulty understandings of the Gospel. Paul’s letters are a masterclass in contending for the faith, perhaps nowhere more eloquent than in his defense of Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).
Christians over the past two millennia – from Justin Martyr and Origen, to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, to Blaise Pascal, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and many others – have taken up the challenge of defending the faith in the context of their times. Such men and women are a gift to the church who offer inspiration and resources for the rest of us in our apologetics efforts. For 21st-century believers in particular, C.S. Lewis, Timothy Keller and Rebecca McLaughlin are some exemplary models for doing apologetics in an intelligent, accessible style that attracts Christians and non-Christians alike.
In a splintered culture growing ever more hostile toward Christianity, the need for good apologetics is as pressing as ever. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to walk in the footsteps of our Lord, welcoming the questions of everyone – curious kids, wavering believers, honest seekers or hardened antagonists. And as our brothers and sisters who’ve gone before us have found, when we defend our faith, we invariably wind up strengthening it.
Sources and further reading
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Dutton, 2008.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperOne, 2015.
Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Crossway, 2019.
There are of course many other apologetics resources by many other authors, available online or in print. While readers are encouraged to explore further, the trio of works cited above provide an excellent core library of apologetics.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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