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.