Getting a Grip on Apologetics, Part 2: Debunking Myths and Misunderstandings
by Johnathan Pritchett
Graduate Student, Biola University
SBCToday contributing writer
In Part 1, Christian apologetics was defined and explained in the context of its biblical use, purpose, and warrant. Moreover, it was pointed out that apologetics is both a mandate and a function of the Church and for the Church. Here in Part 2, in some coherent order, several myths and misunderstandings regarding apologetics will be addressed.
1. Apologetics is more interested in philosophy than theology.
The common perception that apologetics is more preoccupied with philosophy than theology is incorrect and without merit. The primary concern of apologetics is defending biblical doctrines from attack. Atheists attack the Doctrine of God, creation ex nihilo, miracles, and so forth, but atheists aren’t the only people attacking the faith. The apologetic enterprise includes defending orthodox biblical doctrines against heretical cults like Mormonism, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, liberal theologians, and other heretical groups. When engaging these groups, a firm understanding of all the biblical doctrines and theology are primary. But opponents also include people of other religions like Islam, Wicca, Judaism, and so on. Apologetics is about contending for the faith, not philosophy or philosophical arguments.
While it is the case that some of the more popular professional apologists in evangelical circles are Christian philosophers, one thing that must be understood: many have multiple degrees, with one being in some area of New Testament Studies or theology. Indeed, many who have their Ph.D. in philosophy usually have some theological degree at the masters level at the very least, if not multiple doctorates. However, the majority of scholars and laypersons involved in the field of apologetics are not philosophers at all. Furthermore, all seminary professors who write biblical commentaries engage in apologetics on some level particularly when defending the early dates or traditional authorship of the biblical books.
As an aside, and as of late, what once were the claims of Open Theists, theological liberals, Oneness Pentecostals, and other fringe or heretical groups, more and more often in evangelical circles is the claim that “Greek Philosophy” (whatever that means) is the evil boogie man at whose feet all the supposed ills of Western Theology (i.e., a biblical doctrine someone or some group happens to dislike) can be laid. This, of course, is nonsense. The categories, concepts, and patterns of thought that came out of “Greek Philosophy” or “Greek thought,” made the clarity, precision and articulation of New Testament theology possible.
Consider the following:
A. Matthew, a Gospel clearly with a Jewish audience in view, was written in Greek, as is the entire New Testament. Greek thought cannot be separated from the language.
B. Jesus’ arrival was providentially given in a certain time and place in history (Gal. 4:4), and it so happens that the Greek thought and philosophical categories, concepts, etc., were firmly in place by that time in and around the Roman Empire, including in Israel.
C. The New Testament authors used the Septuagint (LXX), which was translated by Alexandrian Neo-Platonists.
None of this means that the Jewish culture of Second Temple Judaism affirmed all the Greek norms, morals (or lack thereof), pagan idols, etc., or that there was no more distinctively Hebrew thought left at all, but it does mean that they had knowledge of it, and those concepts, categories of thought, and so forth that came out of the Greek Philosophical enterprise was an integrated part of their thinking by that time period. This is evidenced throughout the New Testament especially in the structure and argumentation found in the Epistles.
In Acts 7: 54-60, Stephen gives a sermon that resulted in his death by stoning. He said that Jesus was exalted to the right hand of God. This was a claim to the deity of Jesus, and the Jewish audience knew what Stephen meant, and in their rage, murdered him. Saying something that way to convey that claim about Jesus probably wouldn’t always work for a Gentile audience. Paul’s presentation in Acts 17 at the Areopagus is a sermon suited to its audience, and has little in common with Stephen’s sermon except the centrality of the Gospel itself. If an apostle said to a Gentile audience that Jesus was standing at the right hand of the Father, they would not first think “Jesus is divine” like Jewish people would. Rather, they would think “So, does the Father have a right arm like Zeus?” See? It takes different categories to communicate biblical truth to different cultures.
Finally, regarding this matter, all theology in the New Testament, and the Old Testament seen through the lens of the New Testament, is dependent upon philosophical categories, concepts, and so forth that had originated with the Greeks. If we are talking hypostatic union regarding the two natures of Christ, the categorical distinctions between persons and being in explanations of the Trinity, the sufficiency versus efficacy of the atonement, divine determinism, compatiblism, libertarianism, or any of those things; please don’t try to tell me we aren’t talking philosophy in discussing these theological issues. Philosophy, or “Greek Philosophy” (again, whatever that means) is a tool to aid the theological enterprise in order for the theologian to articulate a biblical doctrine with precision and clarity for the purpose of teaching it to others. Whether they will admit this, it is still the case. Apologetics simply takes this reality further and uses philosophical categories and reasoning to present logical arguments in the defense of these doctrines.
2. Apologetics is not evangelism.
This is probably the most bogus myth of them all. Apologetics is just another tool for those obedient to the Great Commission. Again, apologetics is replete in the Gospel presentations found in Acts, in one form or another. The sad reality of today is that the many pastors and seminary professors I have heard make this claim do not proclaim the Gospel outside of safe environments that are more suited to Christian audiences with a few unbelieving onlookers. At least, not with any regularity. By that I mean they mainly stick to venues such as churches, college chapels, Christian conferences, etc. It was interesting, and refreshing, that they were challenged at the Pastor’s Conference 2013 in Houston to get out of the building and start preaching in the streets.
These comfort zones are hardly similar to what we find the Apostles primarily doing in Acts. Ask any evangelist on the streets, or missionary who is on the streets or in the rural areas of foreign nations, and they will tell you that apologetics is a must in the toolkit. Note that Paul reasoned and argued with people throughout his ministry. This is the defense of his claims regarding Christ and the truth of the Gospel.
Quite the contrary to this myth, and contrary to the usual speaking and preaching activities of those who perpetuate it, apologists, whether professional or laypersons, are typically engaging in the proclamation and defense of the Gospel and biblical doctrines in the most hostile environments to Christianity. These venues include secular college campuses, on the streets where sin and secularism are rampant, in the face of people of other religions, etc. I have never heard a formal debate by a professional apologist, or heard of some activity on the street-level by apologists, where the purpose of defending the truths of Christianity, namely, the centrality of the Gospel, is not clearly proclaimed. Apologetics does not occur in a vacuum, and is not separated from the task of the evangelistic proclamation of the Gospel.
3. Apologetics is more about winning arguments than winning souls, and/or, You can’t argue someone into repentance and faith.
This may at first glace seem tied to the misunderstanding above. However, it needs to be addressed separately. Apologetics is concerned with both, and apologetics is successful in winning souls. Being about both doesn’t make winning arguments more important than winning souls. It does mean that winning arguments is important and a good thing, though. Also, winning arguments is a biblical thing. In 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, Paul writes, “…the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to obey Christ.” This passage states that we demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God. That presupposes that the knowledge of God has the capacity to destroy those arguments and high-minded things raised up against the knowledge of God. If this is so, then we should use the knowledge of God to destroy arguments against it. Destroying arguments and high-minded things raised up against the knowledge of God is called WINNING.
Given that, because it is the case that we are to win arguments, it follows that this demolishing arguments is a means by which the Holy Spirit brings people to Christ. Apologetics has a good track record at winning souls. Yes, the Holy Spirit uses “winning arguments” to win people to Christ, including, on occasion, the one with whom the apologist is arguing. Arguments for the defense of our claims are important for another reason though. Christian laypersons in the Church are encouraged when Christianity is publicly proclaimed, defended, and done convincingly because the arguments are devastating to those who oppose the Christian faith. Not only does it win souls, it strengthens and confirms the faith of those who already believe, but who, on the occasion of the adversary’s attack, have these same arguments and high-minded things creep up inside them as well.
4. Apologetics is hard to learn.
The way to know this is false is to know that I, Johnathan Pritchett, am an apologist. If a dumb hillbilly from Arkansas like me can learn this stuff, anyone can. Seriously though, learning anything new is only as hard as one makes it. Learning biblical doctrine is not any easier, but sadly, too many Christians don’t bother learning that either. The solution is not dumbing it all down. The solution is loving God with all our minds, and this results in being obedient in learning. We must learn the revealed revelation in Scripture, and go even further and learn how to defend it. The God who has saved us has spoken to us. What reason do we have for not digging in as deep as we are capable? However, there is something else we have. We have the Holy Spirit. With effort and patience, anyone can learn this stuff at the level and capacity God has given each of us to learn it for the purposes of our witness.
5. Apologetics is contrary to faith.
This notion is popular among the folks in the pews. For some reason, it is often said that reason and evidences somehow take away from a simple faith. This is a myth because it presupposes an un-biblical understanding of faith. Now, I must be frank. This bad understanding of faith that has led to this myth about apologetics is to be blamed on pastors for not teaching what biblical faith is and is not. I know Hebrews 11:1 is floating around, and there is a misunderstanding that this verse somehow means something similar to what Kierkegaard or Mark Twain meant by faith: Believing what you can’t prove, or in Twain’s vernacular “believin’ what you know ain’t so.” However, this is not the proper biblical understanding of faith. Hebrews 11:1 may be a “rhetorical” definition of faith, but it is not an actual, lexical definition of faith. By that I mean, Hebrews 11:1 is more a description or statement about an objective faith rather than lexical definition of what faith means in and of itself. Having a biblical faith is a reasonable and evidenced faith. It means a loyalty and firm commitment of trust in the object of faith based on the performance of that object of faith. In this case, the Triune God of the Bible is the object of our Christian faith.
Since God is a worthy object of faith with a great track record in history, we can see that faith gives the grounding and certainty of the things hoped for, and the evidence of things not yet seen because of what has gone on in the past, going back to Creation. Beginning in verse 11:3, the author of Hebrews then gives the “roll call” of people who had commendable faith. They weren’t taking blind leaps, they had a faithful dependence on God because of who God is and what He already had done, and thus could trust entirely in Him for the things to come that hadn’t yet come to them. Each person commended in the “roll call of faith” of Hebrews 11 had the acts of God in human history before he existed to give reason and evidence for trusting in God for the things hoped for but not yet seen. That is the point. We can have confidence and loyalty to God because He always delivers. That is the point of Hebrews 11, and how a proper, biblical definition of faith both aids in understanding that particular verse and chapter and put us on the right footing to see that this myth is totally misguided, altogether.
The Bible knows nothing of a “blind leap of faith,” or a “blind belief” that certain things are true without any reason or evidence for believing them. Faith involves God, what He has done, is doing, and will do. It is also not simply affirming propositions about God. Because of God’s actions in human history that are verified by reason and evidence, we can be confident in our loyalty to Him and that He can deliver what He has told in His word. You had better have faith in the person Jesus, and that His completed work on the cross can save you, and not simply a “blind faith” in the proposition that “Jesus died on a cross for sinners and rose again” is a true proposition. Our object of faith is in the Triune God, and not just the propositions and claims about Him, though these propositions are included in a proper and biblical faith.
6. Apologetics is always combative.
This is false. There are as many approaches to apologetics as is necessary given the circumstances. It is true that it can be combative, but it isn’t always. In fact, I would say that it is more often non-combative than combative. Christians and non-Christians are perfectly capable of having civil conversations or formal debates on these matters, and do so. Learning apologetics inside the church is non-combative. Often times, using apologetics when witnessing isn’t always combative. On the other hand, it should be combative when necessary. Christians are not to be doormats when some hothead presents arguments against the knowledge of God. Sometimes, you need to swing the hammer, and it is even loving to do so.
In summary, apologetics is nothing new. It is rooted (and commanded to be done) in Scripture, and has been done since the time of the apostles. Often, people are doing apologetics in some cases on some topics and don’t even realize it. Apologetics is flexible to the variety of tasks and circumstances believers may find themselves. It is vital to having a reasoned and evidenced faith, which is having a true, properly understood, biblical one. So, with clarity in meaning and purpose, and with bogus criticism put to rest, it is time to get on with the apologetical task in our churches, in our sermons, in our discipleship training and church education programs, in our evangelism and witness, and in our personal spiritual formation.