Getting a grip on apologetics: definitions and clarity, part 1

by Johnathan Pritchett
Graduate Student, Biola University
SBCToday contributing writer

While it may appear to many who surf the Internet for popular evangelical websites and blogs that apologetical material is everywhere, graduate programs for it are popping up at seminaries, and more and more evangelical apologists are making the rounds at conferences, it remains the case that apologetics is relatively unknown in the majority of Southern Baptist churches. Where it is known, there seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding what apologetics is and isn’t, and it even receives its share of criticism from the scholars and pastors within the SBC who are unfamiliar with the apologetical enterprise, but sadly, speak as if they know all about it.

A former pastor of mine told me when I first began studying apologetics that, while the discipline is primarily a function for the church in defense of the faith, a big task for the modern apologist, especially in Southern Baptist circles, is to be an apologist to the church, defending and contending for the faith to our congregations. While this may seem odd to hear for some, I think it is largely correct. There is much misinformation and misunderstanding in Southern Baptist circles on what apologetics is, isn’t, and how it operates. That, combined with a slipping grasp of knowledge in even the most fundamental doctrines happening in our pews, the urgency is heightened now more than ever. The intent here is to provide an overview of Christian apologetics, and then in part 2, debunk some common myths about apologetics.

First, some definitions: Apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia. This word means, “defense.” It is a word found in Scripture. 1 Peter 3:15 states, “… but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense (Gk. apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (HCSB). It is important to note that this is an imperative given to the church. Apologetics isn’t simply an academic discipline to study in seminary and then make a career of it somehow. Rather, it is a function of the church, for the church, and it is for everyone who confesses Jesus is Lord. It is also important to note that this biblical instruction of giving a defense of the hope within us as believers is linked to the honoring the Messiah as Lord in our hearts. Hence, the outcome of setting the Messiah as Lord in our hearts is our readiness to give the defense. Our Lord Jesus commanded us to love God with our minds (Luke 10:27), and that is part of the greatest commandment in Scripture. Thus, when discussing apologetics, it is important from the outset to understand apologetics, and do so with a view to Scripture.

Apologetics comes in a variety of flavors, all of which are found in Scripture.

First, we have doctrinal apologetics. The book of Galatians is an excellent example of this. In this epistle, Paul defends the true Gospel of Christ against the Judaizers. Paul presents his defense of the Gospel in the context of those who would bring the people of Galatia under the yoke of Old Testament law to add to what Christ has accomplished. Here we find a breathtaking defense of the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. Defending biblical doctrines prepares us to combat false teaching and false teachers in the Church.

The next kind of apologetics we find in Scripture is evidentialism. Here, evidences for the Christian claims are presented. Furthermore, this form of apologetics is found in the preaching of the Gospel throughout the book of Acts. For example, in Acts 2, Peter presents the Gospel to the people of Israel. What we do not find here is Peter’s personal testimony of how his life was “changed” or anything like that. What we do find in his presentation of the Gospel is four lines of evidence to substantiate his claims. First, in verse 22, Peter appeals to the miracles that Jesus performed to confirm Jesus’ identity. Second, he appeals to Scripture in verses 25-28, and 31. Third, Peter appeals to the resurrection in verses 31-32. The final piece of evidence in verse 33 is the appeal to the work of the Holy Spirit going on right in front of them. Contrary to popular opinion, apologetics doesn’t simply defend these sorts of evidential claims; it also goes on the offensive and presents them in the Gospel as evidences for its truth.

Another kind of apologetics found in Scripture is presuppositionalism. Romans 1:18-32 is an example of this. Here, Paul presupposes that God exists, and that everyone knows this to be true. Paul begins with the presuppositions that God exists and that Christianity is true (Romans 1:1-17), that God is necessary for everything else to exist because He created it, has made His existence known, and that humans are without excuse because they know it, too. This passage also presupposes a doctrine he mentions in Romans 3:23 and will expound later in Romans 5:12-21. This doctrine being that all people are sinners, who, despite knowing the truth of God and their guilt before Him, actively suppress the truth in unrighteousness. He is not arguing that this is all true based on other kinds of evidence. He presupposes all this is true, and thus builds his case that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin, wrath, and judgment, and that faith in Christ is the only means of salvation based on those presuppositions. Presuppositional apologetics is presupposing not only that the Triune God exists and that Christianity is true, but also the further claim that this truth is a necessary precondition for everything else to be known, understood, or even discussed.

Last is cultural apologetics. This is the famous sermon given by Paul in Acts 17 at the Areopagus. Contrary to popular opinion, cultural apologetics is not, nor is this sermon about, “engaging culture” by finding common ground as a way to connect with an audience in order for the Gospel to be received more warmly. While verse 17 tells us that Paul “reasoned” (Gk. dialegomai) with the Jews in the synagogue and others in the marketplace, he “argued” (Gk. symballo,) with the philosophers in verse 18. Some translations use the softer word “conversed,” but the tone of their comments in 18b demonstrates this was a contentious debate. The results of the whole ordeal to which Luke informs us in verses 32-34 tells us plenty about whether this approach was warm and fuzzy. Some ridiculed, some wanted to hear more, and some believed. This is about confrontation. It is confronting culture. This can be confirmed by Luke’s unflattering comment about Athens in verse 21, Paul’s negative assessment of the culture in verse 16, and his opening salvo at the Areopagus we read in verse 22, which wasn’t a compliment or a “bridge-building” statement in any sense whatsoever. If that isn’t enough, the confrontational dimension to this cultural apologetic is found in the full-throated statement concerning judgment in verses 30-31 (with some evidentialism tossed in). Here, cultural apologetics, done rightly anyway, is using the falsehoods or distorted truth found in pagan culture as signposts, which point to the truth of the Gospel. Paul boldly gives the altar to the Unknown God biblical content. Far from being merely “engaging” with the popular culture of Athens, Paul’s cultural-apologetical approach, by citing their poets and philosophers, and giving this content to the unknown God, renders all other idols on all other altars absolutely meaningless. Paul doesn’t grab from pagan culture some sort of way to simply connect to his audience; no, he uses the things in pagan culture to demonstrate the truth of the Gospel through confrontation of that very culture. He does this by demonstrating that, all truth is God’s truth; it points back to Him, it is clear and non-negotiable, and they all know it deep down somewhere as well (Paul’s presuppositionalism in Acts 17:28-29), despite wallowing in ignorance (Acts 17:23).

There are plenty of other examples in Scripture, and other forms of apologetics that are offshoots or combinations of the above four kinds. While apologists differ on methodology, sometimes needlessly, what we find in Scripture are various combinations of each being pressed into service for the work of the Kingdom in both the proclamation and defense of the Gospel.

Again, in part 2, I hope to debunk some common misunderstandings and myths surrounding apologetics. It is important to get apologetics right, and this for two reasons: 1) Apologetics isn’t optional for the Christian. Whether involved at the layman level, the scholarly level, or somewhere in-between, that which falls under the rubric of apologetics is mandated by God to all Christians. Jude (v.1-3) writes to all who are called and loved by God the Father, kept by Jesus Christ, and who have a common salvation, that we must contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints; 2) apologetics is vital in combating the rapid secularization of Western culture. People are leaving the church, and worse, those outside the church are becoming more familiar with the criticisms of Christianity than the Church is familiar with the defenses of Christianity. This will not do if the Church has any interest in effective, long-term evangelicalism. Southern Baptist churches in particular still have a deficit when it comes to apologetics. This needs to change, and change quickly.

By God’s grace, we have the tools and resources to both preach and defend the Gospel, contending for the faith and giving a defense for the hope within us. It is past time we learn to use them and press them into service at all levels throughout our beloved denomination.
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(Ed.’s note: Part 2 later this week.)