The Problem with Popular Apologetics
The word "evangelism" can conjure up uncomfortable thoughts in the minds of many Christians in the church today. For many Christians, they see evangelism as 2 hours of aimless wandering around on a Tuesday evening hunting down people who may have visited the church in order to share a canned gospel presentation with them. Or perhaps evangelism is hassling people at a laundry mat or in the mall with gospel tracts. Whatever the case, Christians often struggle with thoughts of guilt, because they don't "witness" enough, or they aren't the "soul winners" like others they may know at church.
Additionally, the idea of apologetics is foreign to many Christians. Apologetics is something only qualified seminary students do, or those folks who have specialized ministries dealing with cult groups and other false religions.
These are two common misconceptions Christians have about evangelism and apologetics, and it will be my endeavor with these series of posts to dispel the uncomfortableness experienced by Christians when they are in a position to evangelize. Moreover, I wish to shore up a Christian's thinking as to the best approach we should take when we defend our faith.
Now, before I begin, it may be helpful to briefly define the words evangelism and apologetics as they pertain to the Bible. Evangelism is translated from the Greek word evangelion, which simply means "good news" or "glad tiding." We see this word used for instance in Romans 10:15 where Paul speaks of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things. Christians could rightly be called "good news messengers," because we proclaim the good tidings of Christ's death, burial and Resurrection.
Apologetics is derived from the Greek word, apologia, translated as a defense in 1 Peter 3:15. Our modern word apology is derived from apologia, but the word means much more than just saying "I am sorry." It is a legal term that has the idea of removing misconceptions and answering objections. Thus, when a Christian engages a person in an apologetic encounter he attempts to remove the misconceptions the unbeliever may have about the Christian faith and answer any objections.
Now, with those two definitions in mind, allow me to dismiss two "myths" about Christians, apologetics, and evangelism:
First, all Bible-believing Christians must be prepared to offer a response to those non-Christians who may have questions or criticisms concerning our faith. This is clearly taught in 1 Peter 3:15-17. I will develop some practical applications from this text in a later article, but suffice it to say, Peter's words are emphatic that developing a gospel strategy entailing both apologetics and evangelism is not a duty solely undertaken by pastors or seminary graduates. It is a responsibility that is to be undertaken by all Christians from all walks of life regardless of education, age, sex, race or denomination. In a manner of speaking, apologetic evangelism is an equal opportunity for everyone who names Christ. Offering an apologetic in defense of our faith is for all men and women who name Christ. Defending the faith is technically called apologetics.
Secondly, apologetics is a vital part of evangelizing the unbeliever with the gospel. Some Christians separate apologetics and evangelism as if they are two entirely different disciplines. They even define apologetics as pre-evangelism and evangelism as giving the gospel presentation. This is really an artificial dichotomy, because no where in scripture do we see what would be called apologetics separated from evangelism. When it comes down to it, apologetics and evangelism are two sides of one coin and work in cooperation to present the gospel to the unbeliever.
So, with all of that as foundation, the issue under debate as far as Christians are concerned is to determine the most profitable method of approach to apologetic evangelism. Or put another way, what exactly is the best way to defend the faith and present the gospel?
The most popular approach with apologetic methodology, and the one most familiar to the average church going Christian, is the utilization of specific lines of evidence or philosophical argumentation during an encounter with an unbeliever. This is the approach that is advocated by the majority of Christian parachurch apologetic ministries that dot the evangelical landscape. Christian radio programs like Hank Hanegraff's Bible Answer Man and authors like Josh McDowell in his classic work, Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Lee Strobel and his recent books, The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, and The Case for a Creator, and many of the proponents of Intelligent Design theory, for example.
Basically, in an apologetic encounter, the Christian will present to the unbeliever specific proofs, or lines of evidence, that supposedly authenticate the truth claims of the Christian faith. The evidence could be anything from the traditional proofs for the existence of God, evidence for the reliability of the Bible, and proofs for the claims of Christ's Deity and Lordship. It is assumed by the apologist that the evidence presented in defense of his faith is self-evident and self-authenticating and that it appeals to the reason of the unbeliever.
For example, if a Christian is attempting to demonstrate the infallibility of the NT documents, he may appeal to the many thousands of copies of NT manuscript evidence available for scholars to consider. He may point out how the manuscripts supporting the NT books are more numerous and go back to within generations of the original authors more so than any other manuscripts of any other historical documents in ancient antiquity. The Christian will use this proof as evidence demonstrating the general reliability of the NT. "A book with thousands of copies which are relatively the same in content and are just a generation removed from the original authors shows forth a book that is accurate in what it records," or so it is argued.
Take another example: Suppose the Christian is attempting to prove the historicity of Christ's Resurrection to an non-Christian who believes Jesus never really died, but merely fainted, was mistaken as being dead by those who crucified him and those who saw his crucifixion, but later revived in the cool tomb where the soldier put him. The Christian can appeal to the historical secular evidence for the brutal nature of a crucifixion. For instance, the terrible scourging, the physical nailing of the hands and feet to the wood with large spikes, the inability due to great pain the person on the cross has just to lift himself up to gasp for air. All of these proofs are meant to show that Jesus really died, and didn't just pass out from the stress and pain only to be rejuvenated later in a cool cave.
In addition to appealing to lines of evidence, the Christian may also employ philosophical arguments that are viewed as logically compelling to the unbeliever. For example, in order to demonstrate the existence of God to a skeptical unbeliever, the Christian may point out the complexity of the human body and appeal to the idea that such a complex organism like the human body could not develop without a sufficient cause. The Christian would then move to show how it is only logical to accept the truth that all created things must have a cause, and because every effect must have a cause, eventually, there must be an uncaused cause and the only likely candidate for ultimate causality is God, specifically, the God of the Bible.
The Christian presents these proofs and arguments in such a way that both the Christian and the non-Christian can evaluate them on equal footing, or in other words, from a position of unbiased neutrality. The proofs and arguments are put in the middle of the table, as it were, and both the Christian and the non-Christian evaluate the significance of each proof as to its value in proving the Christian faith. The Christian apologist generally does not appeal to the Bible at this point, nor does he present the gospel. In fact, appeals to the Bible to evaluate the so-called proof or evidence under consideration, or to anchor the arguments being used, is viewed as being possibly detrimental to the apologetic encounter.
At this point, the Christian is appealing to the unbeliever's reason and the reasonableness of the evidence presented, and he merely wishes to demonstrate to the unbeliever that certain evidences and philosophical arguments can show the reliability of the Christian truth claims. Once the unbeliever agrees with the Christian that the evidence presented shows forth the plausibility of the existence of God, or the truthfulness of Christ's claims to deity, or the factuality of the Resurrection, or the reliability of the Christian scriptures, then the Christian can take the unbeliever to some specific Bible verses and present the gospel.
Even though this is the approach advocated by popular level Christian apologists, I do not believe it is sufficiently grounded in the scripture and contains some foundational flaws.
I say that for at least 3 reasons:
1) In the end, after the Christian and non-Christian finish their discussion, all that was really accomplished was the haggling over the "authoritative" nature of the evidence presented or the arguments outlined. What the Christian believes is compelling proof for the truth claims of his faith may be unimpressive to the non-Christian. Also, there is no true, neutral evidence everyone will agree upon. As we will see later, all men evalutate the evidence in their world through what could be termed a worldview filter. In other words, everyone has some starting presuppositions framed by their foundational, personal biases that bring them to draw the conclusions about interpreting evidence in the way they do.
2) After all the evidence is presented to the unbeliever, the conclusion is one of probability. "if this evidence X is reasonable then it is possible the truth claim of Y may be true." The Christian faith is not about possibility but certainty in an historical event as revealed in Scripture: The coming of God in human flesh, living among His people for 33 years, giving His life on the cross for the atonement for sin, and resurrecting from the dead to demonstrate the certainty of our justification and removal of sin. The possibility of this happening also means the possibility of it not happening. In one sense, this apologetic method smacks of postmodern relativity, because it pushes certainty and absolute truth into the realm of uncertainty as far as a discussion with an unbeliever is concerned.
3) The Christian is forced to lay aside the one source of authority, the Word of God. Contrary to the popular view of apologetics and evangelism which holds off talking about the Bible until the Christian can "arm wrestle" the non-Christian into coming around to thinking like him, the only standard by which a Christian can even begin to present a reasonable apologetic presentation is one that is framed by an understanding of scripture as God's revelation to man. Proofs for the existence of God and certain lines of evidence may be helpful when speaking with a non-Christian, but they are only truly helpful if they are understood in the context of a biblical worldview, with a Christian explaining reality through the prism of scripture.
Those three points will lead us into a more efficient way to engage apologetics. That is what I will take up with these series of articles.
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