It was probably the book Ready With An Answer, jointly authored by John Ankerberg and John Weldon, which first exposed me to the genre of Christian writing known as apologetics. I had grown up and come to Christ in an environment that had no room for doctrine, theology, or creeds, let alone apologetics. My Christian faith was held with just a sprinkling of logic.
We believe in God. We believe the Bible. And we also believe the gospel. But we hardly knew why, and there was no reason to bother. So such topics as the theistic arguments, inspiration and reliability of scripture, the person of Jesus Christ, and other related themes simply never came to my mind.
As I read, however, and explored other writings and resources online, I realized that the Christian faith was not only powerful and spiritual. It was rationally coherent, and this could be clearly demonstrated.
What is Apologetics?
Apologetics may be described as the rational examination of the grounds of the Christian worldview. Rational indicates that we are considering the logical reasons for holding to the Christian position.
According to Douglas Groothuis, a Christian scholar and philosophy professor at the Denver Seminary in the USA, ‘Christian apologetics is the rational defense of the Christian worldview as objectively true, rationally compelling and existentially or subjectively engaging.’ (Christian Apologetics, p.24) Far from being merely an enterprise for convincing unbelievers of the truth of the Christian worldview, apologetics fortifies believers in their faith. And when done right, apologetics aims to persuade people of the truth and beauty of the gospel and not merely convince them intellectually. True apologetics seeks to win people not arguments.
The great American theologian, B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) has a somewhat different view of apologetics when he insists that it “undertakes not the defense, not even the vindication, but the establishment , not strictly speaking, of Christianity, but rather of that knowledge of God which Christianity professes to embody and and seeks to make efficient in the world” (‘Apologetics’ in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, p.233). This largely academic view thus considers apologetics as mainly establishing the truth of God, religion, and revelation. Once these are assured, it then moves on to discuss the truth of Christianity and the Bible.
Holly Ordway, an apologetics professor and writer, describes it thus:
Despite the name, ‘apologetics’ doesn’t mean apologizing for one’s faith; it comes from the Greek word apologia, which means ‘to make a defense for’: in short, to explain why what we believe is true.Apologetics: What It Is and Isn’t and Why It Matters
Scriptural indication of defending the gospel is found in Philippians 1:7,16 and 1 Peter 3:15. God frequently proclaims the falsehood of idols on the basis of what they cannot do (Judges 10:14; Psalm 96:4, 5; Isaiah 44:9-20; 45:10). We also find Jesus countering the attacks of his opponents through arguments (e.g. Matthew 12:9-14; 22: 24-34), which is a form of apologetics . We also find a classic example in Paul’s engagement of the Greek thinkers on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:22-34).
There have been a wide variety of attitudes to apologetics. Some have ignored it and held that it is pointless, others have been too eager to rationally prove every doctrine. Even among those who recognize the immense need to provide reasons for our faith, there have been differences in approach. For instance, while both R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) and Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) are in agreement on the understanding of the work of redemption and how it relates to every sphere of life, they differ in how this faith is to be established or defended. They differ in apologetic method.
Why it Matters
Having looked at what apologetics is, we can consider why it matters to both the believer and the unconvinced:
The Christian faith is objectively true
Christians believe that God actually exists. We believe that Jesus truly lived at a particular point in time, that he lived a holy life and went around teaching and healing people. We believe that he really died and rose from the dead. We believe the Bible is really God’s word to us. What apologetics seeks to do is express to us and the world why these all make sense. In other words, it shows this faith to be reasonable and not merely sentimental.
Writing in his book on Conversion, Paul Helm notes:
The truth of God is objective truth and like all objective truth it stands whatever our own attitude towards it may be. The truths of divine revelation do not depend for their truth upon our upbringing, our culture or our vote.The Beginnings: Word and Spirit in Conversion
Only an objective Jesus can give an objectively true salvation. Jesus did not die for my sins in my imagination; he died in reality. A merely subjective faith can be temporarily comforting. A faith which is rooted in nothing but my own experience or intuition can provide some benefits, but it can hardly stand up under severe trials.
What is worse, such a ‘faith’ cannot be offered to others. For the proclamation of the Apostles is that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and the Saviour of the world. They were convinced that this was a fact for everybody and therefore an obligation for everyone to accept. It was not mere personal intuition.
The faith we are called to is one grounded in reality, and it is our task to understand it. As Holly Ordway again reminds us, “we are called to child-like, trusting faith, not child-ish, ignorant faith.”
As Warfield also remarked,
Though faith is the gift of God, it does not in the least follow that the faith which God gives is an irrational faith, that is, a faith without cognizable ground in right reason. We believe in Christ because it is rational to believe in Him, not even though it be irrational. Of course mere reasoning cannot make a Christian; but that is not because faith is not the result of evidence, but because a dead soul cannot respond to evidence.‘Apologetics’ in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, p.237
And it is the aim of apologetics to demonstrate this.
The Christian worldview makes sense of the world
The Christian worldview, which apologetics ultimately seeks to uphold, applies to every sphere of life. It touches on politics, business, arts, media, and education. The Christian worldview reveals how each aspect of creation is part of God’s design for the universe, how each one has been defaced by sin, and how the work of redemption offers hope and opportunity for renewal in each area. In view of this, we must be certain of the basis of this Christian perspective.
Is it just a thought from the minds of Christian writers and thinkers, or is this really how the universe is? Is theism a truer account of reality than other perspectives like naturalism or pantheism? What is the basis for such a view?
The significance of the Christian understanding of life is huge and wide ranging. We want to be certain that its presuppositions are true. And for this apologetics does matter.
Our internal assurance of faith can falter
On this side of eternity, we will not always have the internal evidence of faith. Therefore to rest solely on our feelings or experience is a mistake.
According to B.B. Warfield, apologetics is not first about persuading others, but assuring oneself of the truth. While our ultimate conviction of the truth of the Christian worldview lies in the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, it does not follow that other sources of conviction are not important.
As anyone who has walked the Christian path for a while will admit, we will have seasons when we may not sense God’s presence. There will be times of doubt and spiritual isolation when the internal witness may be hazy. These are times of desertion, as Puritan writers describe it. And at such times, you do have to depend on objective grounds for the faith you hold.
How do we proceed?
The goal of apologetics must never be to stuff our heads with arguments and data. Mere knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1). Our ultimate goal is to know Christ (John 17:3; Philippians 3:8-10) and become like him (Ephesians 2:4-6; 1 John 3:2-3).
Apologetics should lead us to cultivate a deeper and broader walk with Christ. Therefore we should give attention to the following:
Through prayer and meditation on God’s word, grow in your knowledge of Jesus Christ. Deepen your walk with him. Apologetics defends a faith which is both true and living. A dead faith would not be worth the effort.
Study diligently the evidence and grounds of the Christian worldview. Here are some helpful books to help get you started:
- Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) remains a classic discussion of the subject.
- Lee Strobel has written a helpful series of books defending the Christian worldview. They include The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. Other titles in the series examine Heaven, Miracles, and Creation.
- As mentioned above, Ready with an Answer, by John Ankerberg and John Weldon was probably the first apologetics book I read and remains quite helpful.
- Douglas Groothuis has a large but worthwhile textbook on the subject titled Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith.
Humbly and prayerfully share your convictions with family and friends. Peter’s admonition (1 Peter 3:15) is for us to present the reasons for our faith with gentleness and respect. We are never to compel anyone to receive the gospel; it must always be as the Holy Spirit convicts and persuades them. But we must be willing to have the discussion.
Apologetics never stands alone. It is just an aspect of the Christian life, though a crucial one.
Apologetics does not replace the need for prayer, missions or worship. We must nurture the study and application of Biblical theology. None of these is invalidated by apologetics. In fact, apologetics harmonizes with all other aspects of the Christian life to make us whole believers. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, if the Bible is unreliable, or if miracles are a scam, then the Christian worldview collapses. As Paul affirmed, if the resurrection can be shown to be a hoax, then it’s all a lie (1 Corinthians 15:14).
However, the Christian faith can be held with the firmest assurance. Not only have generations of believers witnessed to the truth about Jesus with their lives, we have a multitude of logical reasons to make us confident of this faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
As Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6), his followers can rest and walk in the truth of his message and the worldview it proclaims.