Christian apologetics is the strategy of setting forth the truthfulness of the Christian faith. Its concentration is upon the intellectual vindication of the gospel as (1) true, and (2) superior to every other intellectual system on the market. The best of evangelists may be praised for encouraging people to commit their lives and hearts to Jesus Christ as their sin-bearing Substitute, but for many hearers the skandalon of the Christian message (one cannot save oneself by works of law, but is in total need of some Grand Substitute who is able, in their place, to satisfy the awful demands of a completely holy God over him or her) is never gotten to. How so? These hearers are not convinced that the message of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 is true–however much it may appeal to their real human need for forgiveness and redemption. The message of law and gospel may be attractive, but it has in their minds not yet “passed the bar” of epistemology (the philosophical term for measuring what we legitimately know to be true).
The historical origin of apologetics is to be found in the legal procedures in ancient Athens. The plaintiff brought his accusation before the court. The accused had the right of making a reply (apologia) to that accusation. This reply was an effort to demonstrate the falsity of the accusation. Hence we have the verb apologesthai (to make reply, to give an answer, to legally defend oneself) and the noun apologia (the answer given, or the defense made).
The classical example of an apologia is, of course, the famous Apology of Socrates before the Athenian court of law. It is preserved for us in the Dialogues of Plato. (The social use of the noun “apology” or the verb “to apologize” in the sense of excusing oneself for some miscue or blunder or offense is secondary in classical Greek, although it is the popular meaning in contemporary English practice.)
Switching to the New Testament usage, both the verb and the noun occur, but are never rendered as “to make an apologetical defense” or “to make an apology.” Rather, our translations will translate “to make reply” or “to give an answer” or “to make one’s defense.”
And there is considerable apologetic activity recorded in the New Testament. For example, on numerous occasions Jesus was accused of some fault by the religious leaders of His day, and to this accusation our Lord made His defense (apologia)–even though it is not named as such. One thinks of Matthew 22 where three leading questions were asked of Jesus by the three leading Jewish sects of that day. In each instance, Jesus made reply (apologia). Or think of the Apostle Paul as his activity is described in the closing chapters of the Book of Acts. The Apostle defended himself before the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 22:1 ff.), before the Jewish council (Acts 23:1 ff.), before Felix (Acts 24:1 ff.), and before Festus and Agrippa (Acts 26:1 ff).
In the case of the apologists of the first two centuries, we see focus made especially on the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the Person and work of Jesus Christ and in the salvation He wrought by His death. And apologetics “comes of age” with the great St. Augustine. Augustine saw to the bottom of the issue, namely, that the fundamental issue is Christian defense of the Gospel where the truthfulness claim is made, and the reality of the possession of a true knowledge of God. There are apologetic elements in most of Augustine’s writings, but his masterpieces are The City of God and The Confessions. In wrestling with the problems of the truth of Christianity and the problem of true knowledge underlying Christian faith, Augustine laid the foundations of Christian apologetics.
You may have been a Christian for years. If so, God be praised for it. But I ask you to think back to before you were. Or, if that is for some reason impossible, walk with me for a moment or two in the moccasins of the contemporary pagan. Now by “pagan,” I am not referring to a person’s moral behavior. I simply mean what the Christian ancients understood by the word “pagan,” viz. someone who rejects the historic Christian Gospel of Christ. I use the term “pagan” in this sense only (and so, I think, should all of us). Moral evaluation has virtually no place in Christian apologetics for the simple reason that the Christian is a sinner before the Ten Commandments in the same sense that the pagan is a sinner before the Ten Commandments. To divide the world into the categories “sinners” and “Christians” without an understanding that the Christian’s righteousness is only the imputed righteousness of Christ is to witness not to Christ, but to our own self-righteousness, our Phariseeism, our “prissiness.” One critic has said that our century is characterized by the words “secular” and “pluralistic.” And so it is. We think not in Biblical categories today (as did people of a prior generation), but in secular ones–period. And our secularized culture is also characterized by the word “pluralistic.” That is, many religious positions exist side-by-side in our twentieth-century western world–positions which logically may all be false, but cannot all be true.
I asked you a moment ago to imagine what that would be like for you if you were uncommitted to any religious persuasion whatever. What would you make of it, if in the same morning on some California campus you were confronted by the Mormons, the Christians, the Hari Krishnas, the Atheist Student Fellowship and others? It makes one think of the movie Airplane, in which the pilot was trying to get to his plane, only to have to run the gauntlet of religious people on either side of the airport walkway. His answer was a relatively simple one. By use of his training in the martial arts, he simply kicked, punched and rolled all of them to a pulp!
Attractive as that sounds, it is not really a solution to the pagan’s problem. He legitimately wonders how he would be able to adjudicate that a given religion’s truth-claim was true vis-a-vis conflicting claims. How would you solve that problem? Would you try to judge according to esthetic standards, the most beautiful religion being the one to which you would commit yourself? But what guarantee do we have that beauty is the test for truth? Perhaps, if there is a God, he is worse than Descartes’ “evil genius”–not only planting confusion in our minds at every moment, but worse! Perhaps He is a cosmic sadist and the answer to the problem of evil is that cancer is for His amusement! If this is true, then choosing a religion because of its beauty would be worse than foolhardy.
But perhaps you could choose by religious experience, electing for that position which seemed to most easily offer inner ecstasy. (One could imagine choosing between representatives of the Trinity Broadcasting Network and today’s followers of Timothy Leary who would liturgically partake of Peyote!) How about that option? Blissful as it would be, it would hardly solve the epistemological question: Have I committed to a religion that accurately reflects the way things are in the universe? Pentecostal ecstasy and its secular equivalent (drug-induced bliss) finally both avoid the question of truth.
Or perhaps one would commit to a religion on the basis of its internal consistency (coherence). This option is certainly more philosophically sophisticated than those which we just considered, but still inadequate because of its naïveté. That is, one can arrive at, or even invent, consistent positions which are out of touch with the nature of the objective universe. One thinks of Christians such as the late Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Hadon Clark, or of comparable secularists like Lenin, Marx, or the Flat Earth Society. Consistency may be desirable, but as a primary test for truth it is hardly adequate. There are relatively coherent positions which are just weird, but others which approach the demonic!
To the amazement of many apologists, the most vigorous opposition to their work comes from the church! The nature of the objections varies, but objections they are!
From old liberalism we heard that science was the way to understand the world of fact and theology should just listen to science. Most liberals believed that Christianity is not basically a religion of propositional, objective truth, but a way of life focusing on feeling (Schleiermacher) and social action (the “social gospel”). To make matters worse, the old liberal believed that Christianity was not qualitatively different from the other religions of the world (“many roads leading to the same God”), and so, the Christian was not called upon to try to convince others of Christianity’s truth-claims.
What of the position that succeeded old liberalism, Barth’s neo-orthodoxy? Barth was the one largely responsible for the demise of old liberalism, but actively objected to the apologetic enterprise. He tried to maintain the objective, factual character of the saving events in Scripture, but also to “wall them off” from the possibility of secular examination. Using the category of “meta-history” or “supra-history,” Barth maintained that the miraculous events of Scripture were not subject to the canons of ordinary historical inquiry. In later years, he switched to saying that validation of the miraculous events of Scripture cannot be apart from prior belief in them. But both points of view arrive at the same point, anyway. Neither scripture nor the saving events recorded in scripture can be objects of “proof” to the unbeliever. Rather, “faith” is the way to know that the Bible is God’s word or that the resurrection took place.
But at least Barth tried to maintain the factual, objective character of such events as the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. With Protestant existentialism (R. Bultmann), saving events of scripture were removed even farther from the possibility of objective verification. For Bultmann, the “core” of Christian faith does not center in historical events at all. Rather the center is the existential experience of salvation in the present (a sort of Heideggerian message with lots of New Testament word studies to demonstrate that Heidegger’s atheistic existentialism and the New Testament writers were really saying the same thing). Verification is only by means of present experience of “encounter” with the so-called “Christ of faith.” Both Barth and Bultmann were convinced that objective, factual investigation of the Bible would destroy confidence in its truthfulness, so each (in his own way) removed Scripture from scrutiny.
What about the Christian pietists? Ironically, their position is similar to that of the radical critic, Bultmann! See if these words of piety sound familiar: “Christianity has to do with the heart and behavior–not with propositional truth and the mind.” “The key thing is experiencing Christ in a saving way.” “The primary hurdle to ‘getting saved’ is thinking too much.” “All of us seek to justify ourselves by use of our minds and by ‘head knowledge.'” Bultmann echoed all of these statements!
What about those who rock-ribbedly hold to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” who hate all forms of liberalism and any dilutions of the once-given faith? Surely, those who hold to a high view of Biblical inspiration and a Nicene Christology would always cheer the defense of the Gospel as true? Unfortunately, no. The so-called “orthodox” camp is often occupied by what are called “presuppositionalists” or “fideists.” Presuppositionalists (from the word “presupposition,” of course) hold that there is such a deep cleavage between the Christian and the non-Christian that it is dumb for the Christian to try to argue the truth of the Gospel with the non-Christian. Sin has blinded his mind so deeply that he cannot interpret revelational facts properly. Christian argumentation with the non-Christian is just so much wasted breath. Amazing as it sounds, some of these fellows go so far as to say that the non-Christian, from his non-Biblical viewpoint, cannot even rightly interpret secular facts (e.g., the chemical composition of water, or the materials stress factors necessary to build a safe bridge!).
The “fideist” (literally, one who has “faith in faith,” who holds that one must first blindly believe before one can know or rightly understand revelational truth) goes even farther: he says that it is not only dumb to attempt to defend the truth of the Gospel; it is unspiritual to do so–an insult to the Spirit of God and a substituting of human wisdom for the Spirit’s converting work (1 Cor. 1). God the Holy Spirit is the one who converts; we are called to simply preach the Gospel–anything more is unspiritual.
Where does one begin with these positions? First, it must be said that we all know better. Christian and non-Christian alike are capable of interpreting “secular” facts, and daily demonstrate this. We all can agree concerning the chemical makeup of water, or about the material stress coefficients necessary to build a safe bridge. These brethren (for all practical purposes) deny one of the basic tenets of the New Testament: the Incarnation of Christ. The eternal Logos (“Word”) became flesh at the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So-called “spiritual truth” is linked here with the ordinary, the empirical, the historical, the plain, etc. Any system which tries to divorce “revelational truth” from “ordinary” or “secular truth” is fundamentally misguided. The incarnation of Christ stands against all attempted splits. That is, if one cannot come to understand something of revelational truth by ordinary means, it is like saying that the fact of the incarnation is somehow different from “secular facts.” But that is exactly what John 1:1,14 denies! If God really became man in Jesus Christ, then His entrance into the human sphere is open to examination by non-Christian and Christian alike, and the honest doubter will find compelling evidence in support of Christ’s claims.
Luther, who was at his best with the theme of Christmas, put the matter of John 1 nicely in a hymn: “He whom all the universe cannot enclose, Doth now at Mary’s breast repose.” Or think of Luke who says that Jesus “made clear by many and manifest proofs His identity.” Again, the Apostle John reports Jesus once saying, “If you do not believe my words, believe me for the sake of the works that I do; they bear witness of me.” John’s use of the word semeion (signs) makes it perfectly clear that Jesus’ miraculous activity was there in order to convince those who did not yet believe that he was the promised supernatural Christ–not those who already did.
The Biblical basis of an evidential approach to the defense of the Gospel was just alluded to. But let us consider a few additional examples.
Think of Doubting Thomas. He had said to the other disciples, “Until I see the nail prints in his hands and thrust my finger into the wound in His side, I will not believe!” The Lord Christ would have had every right to chastise Thomas for this, but in fact did not. Instead, He graciously offered exactly what Thomas had demanded as concrete, empirical evidence for His deity. As Dr. Montgomery has described the matter,
Though Christ told Thomas that it would have been better for him to have believed without seeing (i.e., that he should have believed the testimony of his fellow disciples who had already seen the risen Lord), this rebuke was not given as a substitute for the proof Thomas needed. Rather, it followed both Jesus’ appearance to Thomas and Thomas’ affirmation of Jesus’ deity. Only after Jesus brought Thomas to faith through graciously giving him evidence of His resurrection did He point out to him where his faith had been lacking. (John Warwick Montgomery, Lutheranism and the Defense of the Christian Faith, p. 9).
Or think of the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. The paralytic’s friends had brought him to where Jesus was, hoping that He would heal their friend. But the crowds were so dense that they could not get through them while carrying a cot. They came up with the idea of going to the roof, taking off some of the tiles, and lowering their friend’s cot down into the room where Jesus was. Jesus spoke immediately to him: “Be of good cheer, My son. Your sins are forgiven.” The Jewish religious leaders in the back of the room grumbled, “Who can forgive sins but God?” [In this they were, of course, correct!] Jesus, knowing their question asked, “Which is easier to say? ‘Your sins be forgiven,’ or ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” Note that the question was not, “Which is easier to do?” but “Which is easier to say?” The answer is that it is easier to say, “Your sins be forgiven,” because that act is, by its very nature, invisible. But, our Lord went on, “…in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgiven sins, I say to you, ‘Rise, take up your bed and go home.’ And the man rose, took up his bed and returned home praising God.” Jesus linked the invisible and non-empirical (forgiveness of sins) with the empirical, concrete and testable (the healing of the paralytic’s body). There is no split here between the so-called “spiritual” and the empirical!
One of the ways that the apostles and the earliest Christians argued that Jesus was the Christ of Israel and the Savior of the world was by appeal to Old Testament prophecies which were fulfilled in him. The earliest Christians, in presenting the Gospel as true, spoke to their Jewish brethren in terms of Isaiah’s prophecies or of Psalm 22 being supernatural, predictive prophecies of what had just been fulfilled in Jerusalem (and in Bethlehem before that). They were arguing that Jesus was Israel’s promised Messiah, the One promised and spoken of by Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, etc. millennia prior to that time. And we need to do a little work on that one, too. It has always been a major arrow in the quiver of Christian presenters.
Another integral aspect on an evidential approach to the defense of the Gospel as true centers on miracle, particularly the miracles performed by our Lord, and, even more specifically, his bodily resurrection from the dead. And why is this such an integral part of the case? Very simply because He pointed to these events as the ultimate verification of the truth of His claims concerning Himself.
“If you do not believe My words, believe me on the basis of the works that I do. They bear witness of Me.”
“Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.”
“But just as Jonah was in the belly of the leviathan for three days, even so (kathos) shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days.”
The apostles made use of the argument from the resurrection of Christ with regularity. It was Peter who implored all of us to engage in apologetics when the non-Christian demands it: “But always be prepared to give a reasoned defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you…” (1 Pt. 3:15). And it was the same Peter who spoke of being an eyewitness to Christ’s majesty and His resurrection from the dead. Think of his words, “We have not followed cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” The key element in the apostles’ defense of the Gospel was miracle, and particularly Jesus’ resurrection; our defense should be no less centered on this.
And think of the practical advantages of this. As I mentioned, belief in Christ’s resurrection is central in Christian belief (1 Cor. 15 defines what the Gospel consists of; read it carefully and compare what you read there to what your pastor tells you the Gospel is!). In defending the truth of the Gospel from this vantage point, one is returning to one’s evangelistic task in defending the fact of Christ’s resurrection; there is no split between “evangelism” and “apologetics” here. Try to have that kind of clarity and connection with the ontological argument, or some other philosophically-based approach!
In the evidential case we are going to have to deal with the matter of the historical reliability of the gospels. It is unavoidable in an evidential case. But, we are lucky. Today, the smorgasbord of what is available and always increasing is evidence to the truth of the fact that the primary documents of Christianity were early written and there was not time to “fiddle” with them. Some have dated Mark in the mid-50’s. The earlier the dates of these books, the harder it would have been for the followers of Christ to tamper with them. It is one thing to say, “I don’t have to come to terms with the reports of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, because actually, Luke was written by a drunken French monk in A.D. 800.” You really could avoid the claim that way. Unfortunately for the non-Christian, he can’t escape through that route. The dating of these documents is integral to the case.
In doing this, notice, we must not fall prey to that which we are so easily seduced into–that is, extra-biblical evidences, whether it is the Shroud, Josephus, etc. First of all, we should build the case for the historical integrity and reliability of what is in the gospel accounts. This might take something so basic and simple that it almost embarrasses me to mention it in a group like this, but with the non-Christian it is important. We must ask him to imagine cutting the beautiful leather off his Bible, trimming the gold edges off, darkening the red letters of Jesus’ words, and tearing it into separate books. The non-Christian has it in mind that it is a “holy book,” and that one must not treat this as if it were a compilation of sources from the pens of Paul or Peter or the other Apostles. We must get him to imagine that these are historical reports, or letters, written very “early on in the game.” Also, we must evaluate them in the same way we would a manuscript of some other secular or antique work. We must help the non-Christian to see that we are not viewing the Bible as a gold edged, leather-bound book let down out of heaven on a string. Sometimes the orthodox high doctrine of inspiration can bite us in ways we do not expect. What we want to deal with is whether this particular letter, or this particular biography, is dated early, and whether it was written by people who were eyewitnesses of the events. This is done in the same way we would examine any other work coming to us from antiquity. Notice, we are not asking the non-Christian to employ a “religious method” in order to arrive at the answer to the religious truth question. What we are asking is for him to employ what he does in his ordinary life.
Most apologetic conversations center on one or two of about eight or nine questions. Paul Little summarizes these nicely in his book, Know Why You Believe. There is no high-level degree required to understand this material at all. Remember Peter’s words quoted earlier about always being ready to give a defense. This doesn’t take a master’s degree or doctorate work. It can be learned by the average layman without committing to years of study. The major problem is that since the same questions are answered over and over again, we simply “tune out.” The temptation is to leave the conversation, because we’ve answered this same question so many times before.
Another obvious advantage of approaching the defense of Christian truth through evidence is the connection with science. The possibility of empirical evidence is always attractive to a scientist. Most of you know that I spent three of my four baccalaureate years in pre-medical studies. That meant that I lost the advantage of many of you in the humanities–while many of you were learning the history of the West, I was inhaling formaldehyde fumes as I dissected another cat or dogfish. This sort of argumentation touches someone in the field of science because things of the past are legitimate sources of scientific inquiry. There was a big fight in the positivist movement over this. That is, some said, “Something is only science if it is repeatable.” Then, someone asked, “What about geology?” Brows furrowed, until finally the positivist relented, “All right, it’s in.” Then someone asked, “What about history?” And another fight ensued. But with geology in, there was no stopping history. That is, if you have dependable eyewitness accounts describing the macro-facts of what took place in front of them, and recorded them with any degree of accuracy, the one who is a true scientist will agree that this opens the door for him to evaluate the truth claims of the facts on the grounds of probability.
What about an evidential defense and the field of logic? Obviously, there are natural connections. There are Calvinism’s coherence-epistemology and presuppositionalism, and Lutheranism’s coherence-to-fact epistemology and evidentialism. The evidentialist yearns for more than correspondence to fact. Surely, he wants logical consistency, as well. When there is a “Y” in the road, which way does one move? Are the facts to be followed, even if we cannot fit the matter into a logical framework without some loose ends? Or, do we opt for formal, logical consistency and ride loose with the facts? Science had to make this decision when confronted with quantum theory. The experimental data gave hard data that seem to lead them in opposing directions. Some experiments showed that light exerted force. Other experiments showed that light behaved as waves. These two do not logically co-exist. So, did they follow a presuppositional scientist who said, “I know which side we can hold with logical consistency. Drop that side and we’ll hold to this side.” No, they did not. Instead, they affirmed that mathematically, both situations were true.
An evidential approach links “Christian” knowledge with knowledge as we have access to it in the rest of our lives (remember what it means that “…the Word became flesh”). This is no esoteric approach–what we are asking of the non-Christian here is to take the same approach that he would use to discover whether John Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 or whether he actually slipped on a banana peel in the town of Crankshaft, Oklahoma on Halloween Eve, 1974.
We need not, with an evidential approach, require that the non-Christian presuppose the truth of Christianity before we can discuss the matter together. That is actually, finally, what a presuppositionalist does! He really is saying to the non-Christian, “Well, since you are a non-Christian and your mind is totally fallen, we cannot even discuss the matter of the Gospel unless you first assume that there is a Triune God, that the Son became incarnate, that he died for the sin of the world, that he rose again for its justification, that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and that the best and most faithful exposition of the message of the Bible is John Calvin’s work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Presuppose these things and we can talk.”
Now, what is the upshot of all this? Obviously, the recommendation that we do evangelism in an evidential style. It will require some reading (it’s finite). Unlike apologists of a generation ago, who in America had only the works of C. S. Lewis (which came slow to America), Wilbur Smith’s Therefore Stand (still in print), and the new work of a Baptist, Bernard Ramm, and finally, the books of Edward John Carnell. We live in a day when we have a plethora of apologetic material in print, available at variegated levels.
The other upshot of all this is that we are the ones called to evangelize. We don’t get to say, “Let my pastor do it. He went to seminary.” Fortunately, apologetics does not require a degree of any sort. But we must start in our parishes, teaching our children, correcting their curricula, holding classes, etc. All this is do-able. We are not called to quit our jobs to begin reading the necessary materials. Much of this is very straightforward, and we are called to be ready to give a defense for what we believe. It is a finite task, and can be accomplished if we start in the context of Sunday Schools. I recommend it, to the evangelization of the world in our generation, and to the glory of the name of the saving Christ.