Apologetics Part 2: The Non-Apologetics Passages of Scripture

[This is the second entry on apologetics. It would be wise to read the first entry before this one.]

In light of my discussion in the previous post of what apologetics ISN’T, I want to look over some of the passages of Scripture most central to the support of apologetics. My contention is that such passages do not actually support apologetics, but rather support one of the other items I delineated as being related to apologetics.

First, I would like to look at Paul’s speech before the Areopagus in Athens as recorded in Acts 17. This is often cited as the prime example of apologetics in Scripture. Paul stands up before a group of self-proclaimed intellectuals and supposedly defends his faith. I would say that Paul’s speech definitely is a great example of how to share the gospel with pagan intellectuals, but I see nothing in Paul’s speech that falls into the category of apologetics.

Paul opens his remarks by doing what I call “bridging.” He finds some area of similar belief between himself and his listeners. He commends them as being religious (v. 22). After all, they worship many gods. They are firm believers in the category of deity, and that this category of deity should be actively worshiped.

Then Paul bridges again by latching onto their altar to an unknown god. He seems to see this as an example of their superior religiosity, but he also says it demonstrates their ignorance (v. 23). In other words he shows how they themselves have some sense of the divine, but they themselves admit to being uncertain that they fully understand the divine. This altar to an unknown god is an admission that there is more to the divine/spiritual/numinous than they have direct knowledge of.

Paul then engages in differentiation and proclamation. In verses 24-26, Paul describes the biblical God. Paul even uses clear allusions to Old Testament passages. Paul is demonstrating how the monotheistic, biblical God is very different from the Greeks’ polytheism as practiced in Athens. Paul offers no proof that the biblical God is more true than the Greeks’ polytheism. He simply declares the biblical God to be the true God, and he shows that the biblical God is different from their view.

Next, Paul returns to bridging in verses 26-27. He connects with the audience’s own worldview by referencing an idea ingrained in their cultural consciousness. He quotes a Greek poet who says that all human beings are the offspring of the divine. Again Paul is appealing to their deep-rooted sense of the divine – the idea that the divine is within reach, and that the divine has somehow touched each and every one of us. In other words, the biblical omnipotent, omnipresent Creator-God fits with their own perception of the world.

Paul goes back to differentiation in verse 29. The Greeks had surmised that if human beings were touched by the divine, then it was reasonable to depict the gods in human form. Paul states that he comes to a different conclusion based on biblical truth. Again alluding to Old Testament passages, Paul explains that since we are God’s offspring, then God must be greater than we are. Therefore, he should not be depicted as an idol. In fact, God is greater than anything that can be depicted by the art and thought of man. This is not really a rational argument. Paul is explaining a very biblical idea of God and showing how it differs from the Greeks’ polytheism. He states that the biblical concept of God is correct, but he offers no actual proof of it.

Paul then moves into direct proclamation. In verses 30-31 Paul simply declares the gospel, highlighting the mercy of God, the future judgment by God, the sin of the audience, and their need for repentance. There is very little here that the Athenians could relate to from their own way of thinking. Paul is left to just state it as fact.

At last, in the closing phrase of Paul’s speech he provides the proof of all of the statements he has made before, especially of the statements regarding final judgment. The only proof that Paul gives in the entire passage is the proof of the resurrection. Apparently he does not try to prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead. He merely states that Jesus rose, and then he uses that fact to support everything else he has said previously. This is proclamation, perhaps combined with eyewitness testimony.

So Paul’s speech is not apologetics. The techniques he employs are outside of apologetics when apologetics is strictly defined. But Paul’s speech is not an example of apologetics for some additional reasons. Instead of treating his audience as equally rational human beings with some shared intellectual common ground, Paul twice declares his audience to be ignorant (verses 23,30). He declares their idolatry to be wrong and deserving of repentance (verses 29-30), and he declares that if they do not repent they will fall under the judgment of God (verse 31). This is more akin to fire and brimstone preaching than civil debate. Paul makes many statements without offering proof, and many of these statements are directly contradictory to the beliefs of his audience (verses 24-26,30-31). The only proof that Paul does offer in the passage is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But today the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the end goal of much of apologetics. Apologists spend more time trying to prove the resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than using it as proof of Christianity.

What Paul is actually doing here is a wise evangelistic technique. He is speaking to intellectuals, so instead of speaking to their heads, he speaks to their hearts. He exposes that they themselves feel unsettled about their own beliefs. They themselves feel that there is more to divinity than what they currently understand. Then he talks directly to that deep-rooted unease. Instead of waffling around with argument and debate, he confidently declares the truth to the spiritually confused. Without shame he grounds his entire speech on the one fact that they found most ridiculous: the resurrection of the dead (verses 31-32). So he identifies to the philosophers that they themselves know that they are theologically and spiritually confused, and as a cure to their confusion, he speaks with uncompromising clarity and directness. This is not apologetics of the mind. This is evangelism of the heart.

The second place that is turned to for support for apologetics is the group of Scriptures that make use of the Greek word group apologia from which we get the word apologetics. The verses cited as most clearly referring to apologetics are Philippians 1:7,16 and 1 Peter 3:15. The word group surrounding apologia was originally referring to a legal defense given in a courtroom setting. Already we see that we are on shaky ground here. The type of arguments given in a legal defense would actually have little in common with the types of arguments utilized in apologetics. For one thing in court there is a heavy reliance upon eyewitness testimony. I would think that would have been even more true in the Roman and Jewish courts before the days of high-tech crime scene investigation techniques. In a court room, one is required to call actual live eyewitnesses to give testimony under strict rules of conduct. This is impossible to replicate in an apologetic setting.

The question of legal argumentation aside, the idea that these passages support apologetics breaks down even further when the passages are examined in context. 1 Peter 3:15 is the most important biblical passage for apologetics. In context the verse is written to people suffering from severe persecution. Apparently this persecution was sanctioned or even perpetrated by the local government and/or justice system. Throughout the book of 1 Peter, the apostle Peter pleads with his readers to live an exemplary life so that no true charges can be brought against them. Peter wants them to be like Christ, who in order to be executed had to be falsely accused. So within this context Peter commands them to always be “ready to make a defense [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.”

Now what is Peter asking his readers to do? Is he asking them to give a set of rational arguments proving the truth of the claims of Christianity? This hardly seems to fit the tenor or the context of the letter. Instead, Peter is probably using a play on words here. To a group of believers who are facing the very real danger of courtroom prosecution, he says to prepare a “defense.” He tells them to defend the hope within them. He is not asking them to give rational arguments to defend an objective hope. He is telling them to give their personal reasons for the hope that is within their hearts. They are to give reasons for something subjective. In other words, here are Christians facing persecution, but instead of giving up hope, they continue to cling to that hope. Peter wants them to be ready for when people ask them why they still have hope in the face of hopelessness. In that context, do you think Peter is expecting them to come out with the ontological argument? No, I think he is probably just expecting them to give the gospel. Perhaps he is expecting them to give their personal testimony. I think it is pretty hard to see Peter as expecting more from his readers than what Peter did himself in the face of persecution in Acts 4:5-22; 5:21-42. Peter, when questioned, simply declared the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ from Scripture and boldly called his listeners to repentance. That was Peter’s apologia when brought before the highest Jewish court.

The passages in Philippians 1:7,16 are equally difficult to construe as supporting the modern concept of apologetics. Paul uses the word family of apologia in references to his own imprisonment. So Paul is literally in prison, and he will literally go before a court in which he will literally have to present an apologia. There is a chance that Paul is literally referring to his actual legal defense. However, it is more likely that we again have a play on words. After all he says that he is in jail for the “defense [apologia] of the gospel.” What does this mean? Does Paul think that he is being called upon to rationally defend the truth claims of the gospel against intellectual assault? Clearly this is highly unlikely. There is no record of Paul ever being imprisoned due to intellectual problems with his message. Instead, we see Paul arrested due to jealousy, theological/exegetical differences with the Jews, Jewish racism against Gentiles, etc. The case brought against him at the end of Acts is not based on intellectual argumentation, but rather the factually incorrect testimony of false witnesses.

How does Paul see himself called upon to defend the gospel? Perhaps Paul wants to defend the reputation of the faith from the scurrilously false accusations of the Jews (this was a debate over whether or not Paul defiled the temple, or whether or not the gospel was contradictory to the Jewish belief system – matters not within the boundaries of apologetics). Perhaps Paul sees himself as a representative of the gospel, so any legal case brought against him is tantamount to a legal case brought against the gospel itself. Perhaps Paul is not referring to any actual defense. Perhaps his play on words is merely a reference to his efforts to proclaim the gospel throughout the world.

The only times we see Paul giving an apologia are in the book of Acts after he is arrested in the temple. In Paul’s first apologia in Acts 22:6-21, Paul only gets as far as giving his personal testimony before he is cut off by the rioting crowd. In his second apologia before the Sanhedrin Paul is again quickly cut off. He only has time to declare himself to be a Pharisee and to assert his belief in the resurrection of the dead. In his third apologia before the Roman governor Felix, Paul does contradict the accusations made against himself personally. This is not apologetics. This is an actual legal defense made against legal accusations. In this apologia Paul also makes some statements concerning the gospel itself. He says that the gospel is in line with the teachings of the Law and the Prophets, and that the hope of the resurrection of the dead is an essential teaching of the gospel. Again, this is not apologetics. This is exegesis and theology. It is also differentiation. He is not trying to prove the truth of the gospel. He is just saying that the teachings of the gospel are different from the statements made by the Jews concerning the Way. In his fourth apologia before King Herod Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus, Paul again gives his personal testimony. He defends his personal reputation as a good Jew, probably in response to the accusations made against him by the Jews. He declares again his belief in the resurrection of the dead, offering no proof for it beyond an appeal to the omnipotence of God. Paul finishes by proclaiming the basic tenets of the gospel and by inviting King Herod to believe.

So at no point in Paul’s recorded imprisonment at the end of Acts or in all of the related courtroom drama, do we ever see Paul engaging in apologetics as understood today. So when Paul says he has been imprisoned for the defense of the gospel, it is hard to see how he could possibly be referring to apologetic argumentation. When Paul was on trial, he openly gave his testimony, he declared the truth of the gospel from Scripture, and he called his audience to faith and repentance. This idea of “defense” is not apologetics. It is evangelism – pure and simple.

And I could go on through the other more minor passages given in support of apologetics. They all boil down to practices and techniques that are other than apologetics. In the end we see that Scripture neither commands nor gives examples of apologetics strictly defined.

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