The Place of Apologetics in Relation to Word Ministry
Note to readers: TWW will be publishing a series of apologetics posts. This article serves to set such posts in their proper context by setting out the place of apologetics in relation to word ministry.
What is the place of apologetics in relation to word ministry?
Many Christians are split on this question. Some are suspicious of and opposed to apologetics. They argue that apologetics is mere human reasoning; therefore since no one can ever be argued into Christianity, we should stop wasting time on apologetics and just preach the gospel. On the other hand, there are those who elevate and practice apologetics to such an exclusive extent, that the gospel itself gets snuffed out from their presentation of the Christian message.
In this article, we suggest that the correct view lies between these two positions. Apologetics is not a vice to be avoided. It is one very useful tool that God has given us for the task of evangelism; in fact, there is even biblical precedence for its use. Nevertheless, it ultimately remains as a tool that is subservient to gospel preaching.
Definitions: What is apologetics
We should start off with definitions. What is apologetics? The flagship verse for apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15. Here Peter says, “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The Greek word that Peter uses for “defense” is apologia, from which we get the word apologetics. Apologetics therefore traces its foundations to the biblical command to be prepared to make a defense for the gospel hope Christians have.
Strictly speaking, all Christians are called to make a defense for the gospel. This is not contentious since it is an explicit biblical command. However contention arises when we look at a particular brand of apologetics. This is a brand of apologetics that seeks to provide non-scriptural arguments and reasons for the truth and validity of Christianity or theism.
These arguments could come from the realms of:
Logic (the Ontological Argument);
Science (the Fine-Tuning Argument);
Morality (the argument from Objective Morality);
Nature (the Design Argument); and
History (the historical evidence for the Resurrection and the historical reliability of the bible).
It is with such non-scriptural apologetics that some Christians pick a bone with; arguing that it does not lie within the ambit of 1 Peter 3:15. It is therefore such non-scriptural apologetics that this article addresses.
Apologetics in this article refers to the task of providing non-scriptural arguments and reasons for the truth and validity of Christianity or theism.
Biblical precedence for apologetics
Some Christians reason that apologetics is not found in the bible; therefore apologetics is unbiblical and should not be used. However, is this accurate?
While it is true that the bible does not contain the detailed arguments used in modern day apologetics — it was written in a pre-modern world after all— this does not mean that the bible is against apologetics. In fact, Jesus and the bible writers’ themselves often utilised creative ways of employing apologetics as a precursor to gospel preaching. Therefore, the bible provides precedents for the task of apologetics.
Turning first to Jesus, we see that one kind of apologetic He often used was the subversive methodology of asking an insightful question in order to challenge and undermine false beliefs. For example, when questioned by the Pharisees about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus asked for a denarius and said, “whose likeness and inscription is this?” (Mark 12:15-16) Jesus’ question was calculated to expose the Pharisees’ devious plot to trap Jesus and at the same time demonstrate that they failed to render to God the authority that He had. Here, we observe how Jesus uses both logical reasoning and subversive questioning to great effect; increasing the penetrative power of His gospel message.
We also observe apologetic reasoning in Old Testament Scripture. In Psalms 19:1-6, the Psalmist directs our attention to nature, showing us that without saying a word, the heavens — and by extrapolation all of creation — declares the majesty of the Creator. “Day to day” and “night to night” nature reveals that God exists and that He is glorious. In verses 4b-6, the psalmist poetically describes how even the ubiquitous warmth of the sun demonstrates the glory of God. Therefore, in Psalms 19:1-6, nature is an apologetic witness to a God who creates and who is glorious.
The New Testament writers also utilised eyewitness testimony as a powerful apologetic to validate their gospel claims. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul asserts that Jesus appeared after his resurrection to “Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep, then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Here, it is as if Paul is saying, “the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection abounds! Fact check with these eye-witnesses if you don’t believe me.”
Why did Paul put his case up for challenge in this manner? He could have stuck to the safer method of simply restating the gospel. Surely, it must be that Paul himself recognised that this is a powerful apologetic strategy that could be used for the gospel.
Perhaps one of the clearest accounts of apologetics being used in the New Testament is in Paul’s speech to the Athenians in the Areopagus (Acts 17). Here, Paul — while still preaching the same gospel — calibrates his approach to suit his audience. Athens was the intellectual capital of the empire; it was the Oxford University of its day. Typically, when speaking with the Jews, Paul would reason from the scriptures. In this instance however, he did not do that. His starting point was not the scriptures; as it was not an authority that his audience recognised. Instead, drawing on his own knowledge of their culture, philosophy and literature, Paul engaged deeply with Greek thought as a way of leading in to his eventual proclamation of the gospel to them. Paul first points to the religiosity of the Athenians; telling them that he perceives that in every way they are very religious and that he even found an altar with the inscription, “to the unknown god.” (Acts 17:22-23)
Paul’s purpose is to show that they are right to be religious but this inner yearning was given for a different purpose — that they might seek after the true God and personally come to know Him (verse 27). Paul then quotes from two of the Greeks’ own poets. One of whom says that, “for we are indeed his offspring.” (verse 28) These quotations may have had pantheistic meaning for the Greeks, but Paul nevertheless utilises them for his own purposes — inverting their meaning to drive home his point that, contrary to the Athenians’ man-made gods, we are God’s offspring (not the other way around). It was only upon establishing common ground with his audience that Paul subsequently proceeded to speak about judgment, the resurrection and repentance (verses 29-34).
Therefore, in the Aeropagus address of Acts 17, we find Paul calibrating his approach. First, instead of appealing to scripture as the authoritative starting point, he appealed to the moral intuitions of his audience. Second, he engaged them on common ground — seeking to begin where they were at in order to demonstrate the reasons for the Christian faith. Finally, only after he had established common ground did Paul proceed to preach the gospel.
The bible is therefore not anti-apologetics. In fact, Jesus and the bible writers were not advocates of simply ramrodding the gospel into their hearers. They were sensitive to the particular evangelistic context they were in; always finding the best way to present the gospel to people and being open to different strategies that enabled them to do so. Even though the bible may not contain the same detailed arguments used in modern apologetics, it provides clear precedents for the task of apologetics. In other words, apologetics today continues patterns found in scripture.
Apologetics is subservient to gospel preaching
Apologetics is one of the tools in our shed — and it needs to be a sharp one. Wielded properly, apologetics can help people remove both intellectual and emotional objections to the existence of God, the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus and the goodness of God; to name a few. For certain individuals, these are precisely the obstacles that need to be overcome before the gospel can receive a proper hearing.
Nevertheless, let’s be clear on one thing: apologetics is not the power of God to salvation; the gospel is! (Romans 1:16) A person could be intellectually convinced of the validity of theism or even truth of the Christian faith but still not be a Christian. This is why it is important to recognise the proper place of apologetics and disallow it from usurping the place exclusively reserved for the gospel.
In all of the examples we have looked at in this post, apologetics always led to the gospel. Take Acts 17 for instance, the aim of Paul bridging common ground with the Greeks was so he could preach to them about the resurrection and the need for repentance. Therefore Apologetics was never done — and should never be done — as an end in itself.
In one of his sermons from 1886, preacher Charles Spurgeon writes the following quote that we think strikes the correct balance between apologetics and the gospel:
A great many learned men are defending the gospel; no doubt it is a very proper and right thing to do, yet I always notice that, when there are most books of that kind, it is because the gospel itself is not being preached. Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion, a full-grown king of beasts! There he is in the cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I should suggest to them, if they would not object, and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out!
Some Christians take this to mean that Spurgeon was opposed to defending the gospel. He was not. He says, “it is a very proper and right thing to do.” His concern, rather, was when apologetics was used in replacement of the proclamation of the gospel. Spurgeon points out the foolishness of not preaching the gospel. It is akin to muzzling a ferocious and powerful lion when it should instead be unleashed against the enemy.
We must seek to lead people to the message of the cross, and the implications that it has on their lives. The gospel is what saves, and apologetics is the servant of the gospel message.
Sim Wei-Loong is a lay preacher and bible study leader at Bethesda Church Bukit Arang. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.
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