Christian apologetics seems to suffer from an identity crisis. For some , it is a catalogue of evidences (historical and scientific) for the validity of the Christian faith. For others, it is the Christian faith clothed in the austere and pure garb of reason and logic. For yet others, it is biblicism with a philosophical twist.
It may be this confused identity and purpose that earns it its scorn among some: pseudo-science, a concession to rationalism, philosophy trumping Scripture, circular argumentation, and so forth. But its enemies may be as numerous as its fans, so apologetics is here to stay.
Should we see apologetics as defending the faith? Philosophical theology? Worldview critique? Much of the problem begins with the term, apologetics, derived from apologia (“defense”-1 Peter 3:15.) Christianity needs to be defended about as much as a lion needs defending. You don’t defend a lion, you set it free. But since we are stuck with the term, we should probably think of apologetics both narrowly and broadly defined.
Narrowly defined, apologetics is vindicating the faith of a Christian: what a Christian believes, the significance of those beliefs, and the faith and reason that led the Christian to regard those beliefs as true. This corresponds to 1 Peter 3:15 – a Christian explaining to an unbeliever why he is a Christian. It is giving an account for one’s faith, and the meaning of that faith, whether or not it persuades the unbeliever. In short, it is setting forth the Christian interpretation of Reality to one who asks.
What some mean by apologetics is something broader than vindicating one’s faith to oneself and others. They mean something like, “Persuading unbelievers that Christianity is plausible, and offering it as the Truth to be embraced.” This definition encompasses much more than explaining to the curious why you are a believer. Leaving aside the fact that darkened hearts suppress truth and will not find the faith plausible until enlightened, persuasion of this sort will involve several very different, but related actions:
- Setting forth Christian ideas, wisdom, and beauty through ordinate worship, serious art, and the well-lived vocations of Christians. Providing a compelling incarnation of the Christian imagination and providing the transcendent, Christian alternative to the spirit of the age.
- Vindicating the faith held by Christians by both cogent explanation and winsome living.
- Demonstrating that the beliefs and worldview of the unbeliever are incoherent and contradictory, and fail by their own standards. Demolishing his plausible idols.
- Teaching the gospel, and showing that God’s Son alone is the prophet, priest, and king that man needs.
Each of these is contingent on the Holy Spirit’s working in the human heart. I would add though, that I think all four are essential, and if one is missing, Christianity fails to persuade. And it’s my contention that the first action on that list is last, or non-existent for most churches today.