The art of Christian apologetics
Apologetics is the art of defending the gospel against attack, criticism and misunderstanding by means of clear rational argument.
Paul in his letter to the Philippians 1:7 says, "I have every reason to think favourably of you all; for the remembrance is ever in my heart, how you - yes, all of you - have tendered me your aid and love, whether in bearing the sorrows of my captivity or in actively defending (apologia) and promoting the gospel". It is clear that Paul did more than just proclaim the gospel, he drove the message home through argumentation, defence and explanation, Acts 19:9-10. Peter in 1 Peter 3:15-16 actually encourages the Christian to embark on apologetics. "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."
So there is more to evangelism than just proclamation (ie telling a person the gospel message). Thus the Christian must be willing and able to explain, defend and answer anything that arises out of discussion on the gospel.
1. Some hold the position that any form of argumentation or discussion on the gospel is of little value. They claim that the gospel has power of itself to convict and convert, and that anything other than its clear presentation only clouds the issue. For those who hold this position, the gospel is a miraculous instrument that will break down any barrier so as to draw out those who have been touched by God's Spirit.
2. On the other hand some see apologetics as an essential step in evangelism. God works within normal human limitations and therefore account has to be taken of a person's mental state prior to evangelism. Since a person has to hear and understand the gospel before making a decision on it, the evangelist must deal with the numerous mental blockages that hinder a person's understanding of the message. Thus apologetics deals with the 'hang-ups' hindering a proper understanding of the gospel.
At first glance these two positions seem opposite and are held as such by many Christians. In fact on this issue there is a range of varying positions. The problem of course goes back to a key issue in evangelism - God's sovereign will and human free will (or responsibility!!). It is best to recognize both the power of the gospel and human limitations.
Biblical view of salvation
God acts as a sovereign Lord to save some from a world doomed to destruction. The way and means of salvation is of his making. He provides access into the Kingdom of God as a gift of grace made possible through the perfect sacrifice of Christ, Eph.1:3-14. The mechanism of salvation is the preaching and hearing of the gospel. The gospel we preach is the word of the Shepherd, John 10:1-18.
Although salvation is entirely God's work, in no way does this override our responsibility. The hearer is responsible to listen, understand and respond to the gospel. The evangelist is responsible to declare the gospel accurately and make the message understandable.
God achieves his will through the natural created order, this is so with salvation as with all that God does within this world. Such a statement does not deny the possibility of God acting "unnaturally." He has done so in the past, and will do so in the future.
The mechanics of apologetics
The way apologetics operates in the evangelistic situation is something like the following:
i] The gospel is proclaimed and in so doing the "seeker" is drawn out. As for the majority who hear but do not act on the message, their response is illustrated in the parable of the sower - they are the seed that falls on the pathway etc.. The gospel must be proclaimed:
Accurately (ie. it is the gospel);
Simply (ie. in an understandable form).
Contextually (ie. relevant to the social situation).
ii] There is usually confusion in the hearer who has seen something in the message, but has trouble accepting its truth because of certain problems that have emerged. The hearer then seeks clarification in a question or statement or criticism etc.
iii] The hearers' problems are dealt with to enable a proper understanding of the message.
iv] The gospel is again explained.
The planned answer
It is clear then that we must become practised in clear reasoned arguments in defence of the gospel. This is not really very hard because the number of issues raised by people are limited and so it is quite possible to learn and practice planned arguments or answers. Of course, it is not wise to know off an answer by rote. Rote answers, as with rote gospel presentations, leave an intelligent hearer cold. Most people are particularly suspicious of the rote sales pitch. The crucial thing is to know how the argument runs.
There are a number of common factors that should be present in each argument used:
i] It should be truthful. Winning an argument or answering a question through deceit has little merit. It certainly doesn't win God's favour nor does it do the hearer much good. They sooner or later sees through it.
ii] It should be loving. Every answer must take into consideration the person it is directed to. Human interchange requires more than a string of unfeeling, cold, hard facts.
iii] It should be simple and precise. We live in the era of fast answers. Our "friendly" TV interviewer has conditioned us this way, so we must be able to give the quick answer - "the one line grab".
iv] It should be based on knowledge. The simple, quick answer is fine if we can elaborate when called on to do so. Thus we must continually advance our knowledge in our faith, otherwise our answers will be superficial and obviously so.
v] It should answer the real question. Many times there is something more to a question or statement than meets the eye. For example, 'Why does God allow suffering?" Such a question may well hide the real question, "why did God let my son die of cancer?" The question, "aren't all good people Christians?" may well hide the belief that "all good people go to heaven, and I'm a good person?"
vi] It should be gospel orientated. A mere intellectual game will prove little. The aim is to clarify some problem that has arisen from the gospel in such a way as to end up at the gospel again. The classic examples of this are questions concerning the existence of God or science and Christianity. To get caught up in evolution is a "no-no"! Our answers should conclude on an examination of the person of Jesus.
vii] It should be real. We must tell it the way it is. There is little value in defending the obvious failings of Christians and the church. We can only admit these failings and marvel at God's great love in forgiving such a foolish and weak people. We may well have to admit that some people and organizations that claim to be Christian fall far short of what is really meant by the title Christian (ie a Christ-follower). For example, the so-called Protestant and Catholic Christians in Northern Ireland who continually murder each other. You can't be a follower of Christ and go around murdering people because they belong to a different Christian denomination.
viii] It should give glory to God. We are not out to prove our tremendous intellectual ability or our great wisdom in being a Christian. We are really out to prove God's great mercy toward mankind and how clearly rational that is.
The changing face of apologetics
Each generation seems to develop it's own "blocks" to the gospel. For this reason, the answers appropriate for one generation are not necessarily the answers that will suit another generation. So for example, questions on the existence of God are no longer on the "top ten" as we move into the new millennium. In Western societies it's "whatever turns you on". It's very hard to argue for a particular "way" when the "folk" believe in many ways. Even the perennial primary/junior school question "who made God?" is on the decline. As belief in God fades so the classic questions begin to recede, eg. "How can a loving God allow terrible things to happen in his world?" You have to believe there is a God to ask such a question. Only a theist, like C.S. Lewis, would bother trying to come to grips with the problem of evil. Even the producers of the film "Shadowlands" admitted that the story line was more important than the theological issues concerning pain and the existence of God that intellectually burdened Lewis in his final years.
It's hard to identify any particular strand of reasoning in the West. Even marketers like Coca Cola can no longer run just one advertisement for the market. At the present moment they have 16 marketing styles. On one hand we have a swing back to basics, to the past, by the children of the baby boomers (the middle-class). Then we have the extremes of the techno-crazy "yuppies" and video kids. Authenticity is most likely the only unifying apologetic, and that has to do more with the way we function as individuals and as a congregation, than with what we say.
Texts for study (a bit dated)
"How to give away your faith", by Paul E. Little
"Know what you believe", by Paul E. Little
Index of studies. Resource file.
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons