Apologetics Part 1: What Apologetics Cannot Be (So What Is Left?)

[I apologize for this series of entries on apologetics. They are overly long, and they are a subject I wanted to get into on my blog. However, I needed these entries for a course I am taking.]

One of the main difficulties in conversations about apologetics is the issue of disagreement about the definition of and scope of apologetics itself. It is my contention that the field of apologetics gains much of its support by claiming for itself areas of evangelism and theology that do not belong to it. I would like to list out some things that are not rightly included in apologetics proper. They may be related to apologetics, but they are not apologetics.


First, apologetics is not systematic theology. Systematic theology is the attempt to lay out biblical truth in an internally coherent system. A lot of apologetics centers around whether or not worldviews are internally coherent, but when Christians attempt to construct an internally coherent system, this is not apologetics. It is systematic theology.


Second, apologetics is not biblical exegesis. Exegesis is the careful study of Scripture following solid hermeneutical principles (principles of common sense interpretation and reading comprehension). The ability to read the Bible and to accurately understand and communicate what it says is not apologetics. It is exegesis and exposition.


Third, apologetics is not proclamation. Apologetics is not the declaration of biblical truth to believers. That is preaching. Apologetics is not the declaration of biblical truth to unbelievers. That is evangelism. Any time someone is simply proclaiming the truth, they are not engaging in apologetics.


Fourth, apologetics is not the refutation of heresy. When false teachers arise claiming to be Christians but misrepresenting the truth, we do not use apologetics to refute them. We use exegesis, systematic theology, and proclamation. We refute heresy by pointing out how the false teachers have misunderstood Scripture. We refute heresy by showing how the false teachers violate universally accepted Christian orthodoxy (as it solidly rests upon Scripture). And then we boldly proclaim the accurate truth.


Fifth, apologetics is not the presentation of personal testimony or witness. When you share your personal testimony, you are not engaging in apologetics, you are using one of the earliest methods of evangelism on record. Paul shared his personal testimony on multiple occasions. And it is not just personal conversion experiences. Much of the New Testament is based on the eyewitness accounts of those who met Jesus. The reason your personal testimony does not qualify as apologetics is that your personal experience is hardly rationally convincing to another person. You could be lying or mistaken or deceived. The reason the eyewitness testimonies in the New Testament do not qualify as apologetics is that now they are only recorded in the New Testament. An unbeliever will hardly accept the New Testament accounts as authoritative in any kind of intellectual discussion. Presenting your testimony or the eyewitness accounts of Scripture directly and without any additional defense is just one form of proclamation.


Sixth, apologetics is not appealing to miraculous signs. If you appeal to a miraculous sign that the other person has not seen, then you are again providing eyewitness testimony. For instance, if you tell about an answer to prayer in your life, this is personal testimony. If you talk about Christ’s resurrection, this is the eyewitness testimony of the New Testament. If the unbeliever witnesses a miraculous sign themselves, then they become the eyewitness testifying to themselves. Miraculous signs cannot be treated as absolute proof. The Bible in both the Old and New Testaments speaks of how people can be deceived by miraculous signs. For these and other reasons, miraculous signs do not properly fall into the arena of apologetics.


Seventh, along with these last two points, apologetics is not proving to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. In any discussion of apologetics, proponents of apologetics will support their ideas of apologetics by referencing the multiple occasions in which Paul reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue proving that Jesus was the Messiah. However, this does not qualify as apologetics. Paul is combining the last three points. He is using Scripture (Old Testament prophecies, etc.), theology, and proclamation combined with eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ life. He looks at the Old Testament and interprets it in light of the coming of Christ, and then he tells the facts of Jesus’ life to show how those facts match with the Old Testament rightly interpreted. This is not apologetics. This is a combination of exegesis and testimony.


Eighth, apologetics is not differentiation. This is the big one. I spend most of my “apologetic” discussions with unbelievers doing what I call differentiation. What I mean by differentiation is any attempt to distinguish between biblical truth and some other worldview. I find myself engaging in three main types of differentiation. Of course I will sometimes be called upon to explain how what I believe is different from some other worldview out there (or even some other major form of Christianity). More frequently I find myself explaining how what I believe is different from what the person I am speaking with believes. But most often, I find that I have to explain how what I believe is different from what the person thinks I believe. Usually I find that most unbelievers present all kinds of intellectual arguments and doubts that prevent them from believing in Christianity, but I find that those arguments and doubts are against a straw man. They are arguing against something that I do not believe. I spend a lot of time saying, “That’s not what the Bible teaches. Let me explain to you what the Bible teaches…” This is not apologetics. This is exegesis, systematic theology, and proclamation conducted in a way in which the unbeliever can clearly see the differences between biblical truth and some other view.


Ninth, apologetics is not bridging or contextualization. What I mean is that there are a host of evangelistic techniques whereby you connect with the unbeliever’s perspective on the world. You can do this by finding some kind of limited common ground. For instance, Paul in his famous speech before the Areopagus in Acts 17 does a lot of bridging. He references the altar of the unknown god. He references quotes from Greek poets. He makes these references in ways that clearly show what he means by those ideas is very different from what the Athenians might have understood by them. However, he is using those ideas in hopes that they will provide an entrance point for the truth. He starts with something the Athenians might understand to lead them to ideas that might be more foreign to them. Along with this technique of bridging is the technique of contextualization. This is “translating” the truth of Scripture into language and terms that the audience will understand. Of course this means speaking in the actual language of the audience, but it also might be using examples from the audience’s own culture. The most oft-cited example of contextualization is Don Richardson’s Peace Child. This is not apologetics, this is merely proclamation in terms that the audience will understand.


Tenth, apologetics is not adorning the gospel. Sometimes Christians will talk about the apologetic of a consistent Christian lifestyle. By Christians consistently living according to the teachings of Scripture, they provide evidence of the truth and beauty of those teachings. However, the Bible nowhere speaks of Christian example in those terms. In Titus 2:10 Paul says that a consistent Christian lifestyle will “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” However, from the context of Titus 2:7, it seems that Paul is less focusing on the positive impact of a consistent Christian lifestyle and more on avoiding the negative impact of an inconsistent Christian lifestyle. Being a “good” Christian will not necessarily convince anyone of the truth of the gospel, but if you are a “bad” Christian, you will certainly damage Christianity’s credibility. So really by living a consistent Christian lifestyle, the best that can be said is that you are avoiding doing damage to the credibility of Christianity. This is not apologetics. This is obedience. This is bringing glory to God in every area of your life.


Eleventh, apologetics is not passionate appeal. When presenting the truth of Scripture to unbelievers, it is a good evangelistic practice to be allow your passion and love for the truth to come to the surface. When you share the gospel, you may give reasons why someone should trust in Christ. These are not intellectual reasons. You may speak of the love of God in glowing terms. You may speak of the marvels of heaven and the horrors of hell. You may speak of the glories of Christ and the cross. This is not apologetics. This is proclamation. The truth is reality. It carries with it emotion and wonder. When you express those things, you are merely declaring the truth as it is.


Twelfth, apologetics is not wisdom. Wisdom is a category of thinking well-represented in Scripture. One way of understanding wisdom is that it is an attempt to reconcile the truth of Scripture with reality and in so doing to better understand both reality and Scripture. The biggest question in wisdom literature is the problem of pain and suffering. The entirety of the book of Job and much of Psalms and Ecclesiastes are devoted to the question of how God can allow someone to suffer. This is oddly enough one of the biggest issues tackled by apologetics, so how is wisdom not apologetics? There are multiple reasons why wisdom is not apologetics. For example, wisdom is not as much interested in the general intellectual question as to why a generically good God could allow suffering in general. Wisdom is interested in why I myself am suffering, why the God of the Bible (YHWH) might allow that suffering, why the God who makes specific promises does not appear to be fulfilling those promises, etc. Wisdom assumes that evil people (as defined by Scripture) should suffer, so it deals only with the question of the suffering of the righteous (as defined by Scripture). Most of the time the wisdom literature is not dealing with doubts as to God’s existence or goodness, but rather it is just seeking to understand the reasons why a good God would allow this particular circumstance to occur and then to continue. Wisdom’s methods of reasoning are not the methods one would expect from apologetics. Wisdom sometimes just accepts the goodness of God on faith. Wisdom uses more of a common sense approach to the world, rather than a rational-intellectual approach. Wisdom observes the world as is, but makes those observations through the lens of a biblical worldview. And many or even all of the conclusions of wisdom would be unpalatable to the intellectual unbeliever. For instance, on the question of pain and suffering, wisdom would simply tell the unbeliever that they are suffering because they are an unbeliever. People who do not fear God deserve to suffer. Furthermore, God’s response to Job at the end of the book can in many ways be boiled down to a declaration that God does not have to answer to us. He created us, so he can do what he wants with us. If he wants to make us suffer, he has every right to do so, and we have no right to question his goodness based on our suffering. This would make for horrible apologetics!


Thirteenth, apologetics is not responding to the doubts of believers. Certainly we cannot think that apologetics is something to be conducted with believers. Even if you use similar arguments with a believer as what you use with an unbeliever, you are not doing apologetics when you speak with a believer. A believer is already a believer. Apologetics is by definition something external to the faith. Furthermore, what you would say to a doubting believer would hopefully be far different from an apologetic argument used with an unbeliever. With a doubting believer you might use exegesis, or systematic theology, or even personal testimony. Probably the best tactic is to use wisdom. If someone has already accepted Christ as Lord, why go backwards to some kind of rational argumentation? Just continue to demonstrate how the truth of the Bible (exegesis) is internally coherent (systematic theology) and makes sense of reality as experienced by the believer (wisdom). And keep affirming that truth without reservation (proclamation) and demonstrating how you have seen that truth in your own life (personal testimony). There is no need for anything else.


Finally, apologetics is not answering biblical questions. Some so-called apologetic questions are merely glorified Bible trivia. One of the most common “apologetic” questions I have received is “Where did Cain and Seth get their wives?” This is not a matter of rational argumentation. This is merely consulting a few Bible passages to give the most likely answer. “Cain and Seth married their sisters” is the correct response. The reply then is “Isn’t that incest? And doesn’t the Bible say that incest is wrong?” Then the response is a more detailed explanation of the progress of divine revelation – making the point that something that was declared to be wrong in Exodus and Deuteronomy might not have been wrong before. This is not apologetics. This is exegesis.


So then, if all of this is not apologetics, what is apologetics? Apologetics is the presentation of some kind of rational argument to an unbeliever using some agreed upon rules of epistemology, logical argumentation, and/or evidence to convince the unbeliever of the truth of the biblical worldview in whole or in part.


At its core apologetics is an argument or a debate. This is not to say that apologetics is argumentative, but rather that in apologetics ideas are set in conflict. The apologist is defending Christianity against arguments levied against its truthfulness, or the apologist is attacking other points of view, or the apologist is attempting to prove that Christianity is superior to other points of view.


These arguments must be rational. Irrational or subjective arguments cannot properly be called apologetics. There is no way irrational or subjective arguments can be refereed in the marketplace of ideas. In a debate how can you declare one subjective argument to be the winner over against another subjective argument? Apologetics must be limited to rational arguments only.


This means that the two sides of the debate must agree upon some standard of judging the truthfulness or reasonableness of the claims being debated. Just as a courtroom has rules of evidence, a debate must have an agreed upon common ground of epistemology, logical argumentation, and/or evidence. If there is no such common ground, the debate is fruitless, worthless, and pointless. The two sides talk past each other.


Finally, in apologetics the goal is to convince the unbeliever of the truth of the biblical worldview in whole or in part. Most if not all apologists agree that apologetics cannot get a believer to actually believe the truth, but the idea is that apologetics should at least bring the unbeliever to the point of acknowledging the essential reasonableness of the claims of the Christian worldview or even the absolute truthfulness of those claims. Apologetics may be a debate on a single issue, or it could tackle the entirety of the Christian worldview as a whole. Apologetics has to be pointed at a particular audience. Apologists do not debate for the sake of debate. They are trying to win people over.


There is one area of discussion with unbelievers that I find difficult to discern whether it rightfully belongs to apologetics or not. More and more I find myself being confronted by unbelievers with completely falsified facts. This has become more prevalent since Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Brown makes statements of so-called “facts” in his books and interviews that are wildly untrue. Even scholars who think that the claims of Christianity are false find much within Brown’s books that is non-factual. I have to confess that I am uncertain as to how to deal with this. Normally one thinks of apologetics as arguing about the interpretation of mutually accepted facts. For instance, no one argues what the New Testament says, but people will argue as to whether or not the New Testament is trustworthy. No one argues against the fact that there are thousands of manuscript copies of the New Testament, but people will argue as to whether or not the existence of those copies means that we can trust the current text of the New Testament. The problem is now that skeptics are putting forward as evidence things that are just blatantly not true. For example, Brown’s description of the teachings of the gnostic gospels does not at all jive with what you actually would find if you read the gnostic gospels. It is hard to know how to deal with that. That level of poor argument and spiritual blindness may indicate the total fruitlessness of arguing with such a person.

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