An Apologetic for Apologetics: The Need for and Purposes of Christian Apologetics by Tawa Anderson
1 Peter 3:15 reads: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (NIV) The Greek apologia (here translated as ‘answer’) carries courtroom imagery, and conveys the idea of providing evidence, building a case, responding to questions, or defending against attack. Thus, many translations translate it as “defense” (NASB, ESV) instead of “answer”. Apologetics, or apologia, is thus the act of giving a defense, providing an answer, for the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Simply put, “Apologetics is the defense and explanation of the Christian faith.”. [MP3 | RSS | iTunes]
We find apologetic encounters, examples, and appeals throughout the New Testament –Luke 1:1-4, John 20:19-29, John 21:24-25, Acts 9:1-19, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. In Acts 17:2-4, Paul ‘reasons’ with the Thessalonians, ‘explaining and proving’ that the Messiah had to ‘suffer and rise from the dead’. His apologia ‘persuaded’ many Jews and God-fearing Greeks.
There are two fundamental goals or purposes of apologetics. First, offensive (or positive) apologetics gives people positive reasons to believe that Christianity is true. It provides historical, evidential, and logical arguments to support the truth of our faith. Second, defensive (or negative) apologetics gives people reasons not to disbelieve that Christianity is true. It responds to objections or attacks against our faith by providing historical, evidential, and logical arguments to support the truth of our faith. In a sense, defensive apologetics clears away the intellectual brush that obscures the path to faith in Christ. So apologetics either presents reasons to believe, or reasons not to disbelieve.
Similarly, there are two possible focuses or audiences of apologetics. Apologetics can be either evangelistic or devotional; that is, it is oriented either to those who are already Christians, or to those who are not yet Christians. Combining the purpose (offensive/defensive) and focus (evangelistic/devotional) of apologetics results in four types of apologetics ministry.
We all have non-Christian friends, some of whom actively oppose the tenets of our faith. Defensive evangelistic apologetics responds to their arguments or objections in order to remove intellectual obstacles to faith in Jesus Christ. I call this apologetics to “outspoken opponents”, and it seeks to give non-Christians reasons not to disbelieve. Sadly, when non-Christians raise objections, Christians are often ill-equipped to respond effectively. What impression does the opponent arrive at? “I ask these questions; they don’t answer them. There must not be rational, legitimate responses to the issues that I raise.” Their opposition to Christianity is reinforced. Furthermore, when others witness the inability of Christians to respond to these objections, it makes them question the truth of the faith as well.
Not all non-Christians are actively opposed to our faith. Positive evangelistic apologetics attempts to provide “seeking skeptics” with reasons to believe in Christianity. We see Paul engage in this type of apologetics throughout his ministry (e.g. Acts 17:16-34, 26:1-32), speaking what is ‘true and reasonable’ in the hope-filled prayer that his audience will “become what I am.” (Acts 26:19) Recall the apologetic mandate of 1 Peter 3:15. Seeking Skeptics will ask us why we believe what we believe. How do we know that there is a God? Why do we believe that the Bible is the Word of God? On what basis do we trust the New Testament as a historical record of Jesus’ life? In a modern age, how can we believe in supernatural miracles? How can we be so sure that Jesus believed He was God in the flesh? How do we know that there is such a thing as truth? How do we know that there is objective right and wrong? Seeking Skeptics ask these questions honestly and openly, and desire to hear a response which they can evaluate intellectually. Apologetics to “seeking skeptics” provides reasons that they ought to believe as we believe. Then we pray that the Holy Spirit will empower our words to bring our friend to a knowledge of Himself. The tragedy is that many Christians (ministers and laypeople) are ill-equipped to provide a rational defense for their faith. If we fail to provide those answers, we fail to obey the biblical apologetic mandate.
While evangelistic apologetics is aimed at those outside the church of Christ, devotional apologetics focuses on Christians. Defensive devotional apologetics aims to provide “besieged brothers” with reasons not to begin disbelieving. Many Christians feel as if their beliefs are under attack from friends, teachers, and culture at large. They hear others insist that belief in Jesus is irrational, that you have to ‘check your brains at the door’ if you’re a Christian. High school and college students are particularly susceptible to such attacks (and are often therefore specifically targeted for intellectual reprogrammning). Often, Christians who come under theological attack seek answers from their parents or pastors. To the shame of the contemporary church, they sometimes leave empty-handed. My brothers, this should not be. Just as Luke wrote with the intent to give his readers “certainty” that the Gospel they’d been taught is true (Luke 1:1-4), the task of Christian intellectual leaders is to provide responses to the rational or emotional attacks that are launched against our “besieged brothers”, assuring them of the truth of their faith.
Offensive devotional apologetics provides “doubting disciples” with reasons to continue believing by demonstrating the truth and rationality of the core historical claims and theological doctrines of biblical Christianity. In my opinion and experience, devotional apologetics (both defensive and offensive) is the most essential and valuable today—confirming Christians in the truth of their faith by responding to doubts and questions that they have. Christians, young and old, have deep and serious questions, or even grave doubts about elements of the Christian faith. Sometimes these doubts arise as a result of external opposition or attack; sometimes they arise from one’s own Scripture reading, philosophical reflection, or life experience.
A friend of mine pastors a little church in rural Georgia. He once asked members of his congregation what kinds of issues they would like him to address in future sermons and Bible studies. They responded with numerous apologetic questions. How old is the earth? What is the difference between the God Christians worship and the gods of other religions? Is God real? Is the story of creation a myth? Is the Bible really true? Is Jesus a man? Or is he God? My friends tell me that all religions lead to heaven – is that true? If God is a God of love, why would He send people to hell? If God is god, why is there evil? These questions are on the minds of the people in our pews. Sadly, they are frequently ignored or even condemned.
As a pastor and university chaplain, I talked to students who had approached parents or pastors with questions or doubts about their faith. Sometimes they were told: “Why do you ask these questions? Christians shouldn’t ask questions or have doubts like that!” Or: “You don’t need answers to those questions. You just need to have faith in Jesus. Don’t ask, just believe.”
When fellow Christians ask honest, searching, questions about the truthfulness of Christianity, it is not enough to say “don’t ask these questions – just believe!” It is our responsibility to engage questions and provide reasonable, thoughtful answers to them. The apologetic mandate of 1 Peter 3:15 does not allow us to avoid or ignore questions.
What happens when we do not give an answer for the hope we have to those who express doubts or ask tough questions? Numerous studies show that an alarmingly large proportion (60-80%) of children raised in Christian homes walk away from Christianity as students or young adults. Why? There are multiple causes, but a large part is that many youth are asking honest, genuine questions which are not being met with honest, rational answers. If parents and pastors are unable or unwilling to receive and respond, students will learn to keep doubts or questions to themselves. And one day, they will drift away and leave the church. An active apologetic ministry closes that back door to the church, and ensures that honest questions and doubts are given honest, thoughtful answers.
As Christians, we can not only know that our faith is true, but we can show others that our faith is true. We can not only defend our faith against attacks and objections, but we can positively set forth reasons for others to believe in Jesus Christ as well. We can not only present compelling reasons to believe evangelistically to those outside the church; we can also present apologetics devotionally, giving Christians a strong rational foundation on which to build their faith. The stakes are high, and the biblical imperative is clear. Let us love the Lord our God with all our mind, as well as our heart, soul, and strength, always being prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have.