Note on Apologetics II

I’ve been thinking about apologetics and its role in theology for a little while now. It has a long and distinguished history – from the early church onwards. But what exactly is it?

The basic definition is ‘a reasoned defense’ of something. The word ‘apologia’ was more of a legal term in New Testament times, used to denote the defense one would give of oneself at court. In more modern terms, specifically in Christian terms, it basically means giving the reasons for your Christian belief. This typically involves evidence from history, philosophy, science, etc etc. There are lots of different approaches, though, some which eschew the use of evidence.

NT examples of apologetics: most famously, Paul’s address to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Early church example: Justin Martyr and his use of the concept of ‘logos’ (which was used in the Gospel of John, but really fleshed out by Justin). Modern examples: William Lane Craig.

So why apologetics? To give a reason, or a reasoned defense, for the hope within. Often, however, (at least this is what I’ve noticed) apologetics means defending, in an almost military fashion, the Christian faith or aspects of it. It’s seen as necessary to establish the rationality (whatever that may mean) of the faith.

Things that come to mind: I don’t really see the Christian faith some something that needs to be defended in this manner. The Gospel is a proclamation – how does one defend a proclamation? Does one need to? Does, for example, the resurrection of Jesus need to be established as ‘rational’? (It should be noted that I do in fact think that the Gospel is rational, but in the classical metaphysical sense of the word – like how David Bentley Hart argues in ‘The Experience of God’). The Gospel is a proclamation of the ruler-ship of Jesus. When a king conquers another king, he doesn’t send out messengers to establish the rationality of his kingship to his new subjects, though his kingship is no doubt ‘rational’.

Now this isn’t to say that the Christian picture of the world doesn’t have things like good argument in its favour – it certainly does. But these arguments can’t function as foundational-istic data upon which one bases their belief in the Christian message. The truth of the Christian message isn’t a matter of the discovery of data by infallible method.

What this does mean, though, is that a lot of pop-apologetics isn’t really doing anything helpful. One thinks of the many books in which the Resurrection is ‘proved’ – things like the trustworthiness of the documents, eyewitness accounts, etc, typically come into play. This does little good. Apologetics which seek to ‘prove’ the ‘rationality’ of various tenets of Christianity (resurrection, ascension, etc) are misguided not because these events aren’t ‘rational’ (in a very deep sense, they are) but because it seeks to establish the rationality of faith based on these events conforming to a certain kind of ‘rationality’ so as to serve reasons to believe – the reason for the hope within. The reason for the hope within the Christian is not the demonstration of the ‘rationality’ of particular events in the narrative of Scripture but the crucified and risen Messiah.

7 thoughts on “Note on Apologetics II

  1. Kevin Davis February 14, 2014 / 10:32 am

    Here are my summary thoughts: Apologetics can, at best, help by way of a negative defense. It can help to show that something is not irrational, without having to demonstrate that it is “rational” in the more narrow sense of Enlightenment expectations or even perhaps in the broader Platonist sense. There is still a danger here of having a criteria of “irrationality” that can be just as restricting as “rationality,” but it seems unavoidable that the Christian faith assumes a certain basic philosophical logic (not even Barth denied that), at least the minimum to make language intelligible and to underwrite the basic reliability of sense experience.


    • whitefrozen February 14, 2014 / 10:46 am

      The more I read Hart, the more I like the classical Platonic viewpoint RE rationality. But yeah, no one can deny that the faith does assume a basic logic or grammar (Torrance may have called it a theo-logic) in the sense you said. Obviously it has to, to make any kind of sense. But in terms of ‘proofs’, even though I used to be all about that kind of thing, I don’t see much use. Best case scenario is that ‘proofs’ provide a pointer to a deeper underlying rationality, again like Hart argues.


      • Kevin Davis February 14, 2014 / 11:17 am

        Yes, and I also went through my “apologetics” phase, though thankfully it was relatively short-lived. It is probably a good phase to pass through, and I do not know any guy or gal who has not passed through it (or remaining in it) who is interested in theology. It can awaken otherwise slumbering intellects. And if its deficiencies are ultimately revealed, I find that this leads to a greater trust and awe in the miracle of the gospel.

        I may like those aspects of Hart’s presentation. They resonate with the Newman and Balthasar stuff that I devoured years ago and which still influences me profoundly.


  2. Joel February 14, 2014 / 1:06 pm

    The Christian Humanist (excellent podcast) did an episode on apologetics a few years ago. They pointed out that most apologetics through history, from Justin to Aquinas to Lewis, was primarily about showing how Christianity was rational and viable within the context of the intellectual climate of their time. Going for definitive logical proof like Ken Ham or Josh McDowell or even WL Craig is a much more recent development.


    • Joel February 14, 2014 / 1:06 pm

      Or perhaps I should say “not irrational.”


    • whitefrozen February 15, 2014 / 12:25 pm

      Right, it’s not about proofs in the sense of ‘ha! i proved it!’ Chesterton’s ‘The Everlasting Man’, is a good example of good apologetics.


  3. zguinn February 16, 2014 / 5:30 pm

    WLC has stated several times that his goal is not a definitive proof of the existence of God. He argues that arguments for the existence of God show that there is some evidence for the existence of God, and that can help show that Christianity can be an ‘intellectually viable option’, and that the holder of Christianity is not ‘doomed to irrationality’.
    He has also stated that no one comes to the faith through arguments. But that the Gospel is heard in the cultural milieu of the time, and that apologetics can be helpful in shaping that milieu. (As Aquinas reformed Aristotle, and Augustine reformed Plato, modern philosophical apologists have to work with the method of the time, using Analytic philosophy to help do this.)
    On the other hand I do want emphasize with you that the Gospel is a proclamation and that it doesn’t need rational proof. Just as a king doesn’t need rational proof. If it did, then the illiterate and uneducated all over the world have no hope. God doesn’t exclude people by accident of education or free time. If someone doesn’t have the free time to work out their rationale, are they doomed. Of course not. A rational apologetic can help inform a young believer who is venturing into the academic world stand firm against his professors in a loving way. (I always addressed them with questions in class and then handled their arguments in my papers) but it can also help a Christian learn to see God in everything, and to be discerning against false philosophies that Paul warns us about in Col 2:8 to beware of false philosophy that is rooted in the traditions of man and not in Christ. Be aware of them, that we are not taken captive by them. If you do not recognize a robber as a threat, you cannot defend yourself against them. It is why Satan comes as an angel of light.


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