It’s not about saying sorry. Joel Furches says making an intellectual defence for Christian faith has a long history
A history of apologetics
The word ‘Apologetics’ comes from the Greek word ‘Apologia’, meaning “answer back” or “respond”. Yes, ‘apologia’ is the root word from which the modern word ‘apologise’ is derived: an apology is technically a kind of response to some wrong which was done.
The word apologia is used once in the New Testament, in 1 Peter 3:15, wherein the author asks his readers to be prepared to give a response to people who ask about their Christian beliefs. The word ‘apologetics’ came into popular use in the Christian world in the early 2nd Century, when a Christian philosopher named Justin Martyr wrote several ‘Apologies’ – books written to a Roman audience defending the virtue of the Christian life to the hostile culture surrounding them.
Other early Christian writers followed suit and for a season Christian apologetics flourished in the ancient world. Since Martyr’s popularising of the term, the field of Christian apologetics has become a very specific school of theology focused on defending Christian beliefs against outside objections.
Apologetics as a discipline was largely reserved for seminaries and history books until the 20th Century. Up until then, Christians generally relied on personal experience as the foundation of their beliefs – sharing personal testimonies with others as a way of reinforcing the beliefs of fellow Christians and as a way of evangelising non-Christians.
The rise of modern apologetics began in earnest in the 1970s and 80s when people like Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel began to speak and publish books that did something novel for a popular audience: instead of sharing personal testimony or scriptural analysis, they used evidence and reasoning to support the truth of Christianity. This sort of rhetoric came as a breath of fresh air to a segment of the Christian world.
As the 20th Century had progressed, the numinous and spiritualistic focus which was the bread and butter of the Church began to fall into conflict with the modern world. Institutions of learning were beginning to secularise, and spiritualistic beliefs were becoming a bit of a faux pas in polite company. A kind of Christianity which leaned more heavily on things like science, philosophy and scholarship was appealing to a modern Christian audience. In addition to reading new publications such as Evidence which Demands a Verdict and The Case for Christ, modern Christians began to rediscover the works of thinkers such as CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, who had carried the torch of Justin Martyr just a bit prior to these modern writers.
As well-read as Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Mere Christianity were becoming, apologetics still had something of a niche audience for decades. Evidential reasons for Christian beliefs had not worked their way into the pulpit on any significant scale, and the average pew-occupier was happy hearing testimonials and taking the Bible as inerrant on its face. In fact, there was a substantial resistance to apologetics in the Church.
The resistance to apologetics
The mediaeval Church had once been a haven to intellectuals such as philosophers, logicians, scholars and scientists, most of whom made frequent reference to their religious beliefs as the underpinnings of their intellectual work. Universities, hospitals and schools had once been founded and funded by the Church. However, while the intellectual life of the Church was flourishing, so was its political power.
The intermingling of church and state in Europe led to a number of dissidents who separated from both church and state and used the growing colonial movement to relocate geographically in an effort to escape both entities and gain some ideological freedom. With the growing public distaste for the political games being played by the Church came an intellectual separation from the Church. The Enlightenment movement – as much political as it was intellectual - attempted to edge religious ideas out of the academy in favour of a more empirical approach to science and philosophy.
The Church, however, made a comeback during the revivalist movements of the 18th Century, the hallmark of which was an appeal to conscience, emotion, numinous experience and an implicit rejection of the intellectual sphere, now firmly the domain of academic institutions.
This mutual distrust which had developed between church and academy made the idea of bringing scholarly and intellectual elements into the everyday life of a churchgoer a bit suspect in the eyes of church leaders. The idea that ‘faith’ was at odds with ‘reason’ had been adopted by factions of both sides. The academy largely saw the Church as an antiquated curiosity at best, and a threat to progress at worse. The Church, likewise, saw the academy as a distraction from piety at best, and an indoctrination machine at worst.
Opponents of apologetics saw the discipline as an effort to score rhetorical points against secular elites, while undermining the sole authority of scripture. This resulted in slogans like “you can’t argue someone into the kingdom” and “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it”.
The turning point came in the year 2001 when an act of terrorism shook the world and drastically changed politics, academics, popular culture and religious discourse. The attack on the World Trade centre on September 11th of 2001 was allegedly connected to the Islamic religion. This provided the perfect opportunity for an almost invisible subculture of anti-religious individuals to harness the shock and disgust of the Western world and channel it towards a disdain toward religion in general. Books like God is Not Great, The God Delusion, and Letters to a Christian Nation shot to the top of best-seller lists, and the authors of these books formed a coalition of speakers and popularizers spreading a species of atheism which was novel to the modern world.
While the event that initiated this ;New Atheism’ was connected to Islam, the majority of the books and talks that erupted thereafter were aimed very specifically at Christianity. This presented a very sudden and shocking challenge to the Church. It was at this point that the largely dormant practice of apologetics suddenly activated and advanced to defend Christendom from this unexpected threat.
Much like the mediaeval Church before it, the modern Western Church has become overtly entangled in politics, in the public mind if not in actuality, and this aggressive scepticism was as much a result of the perceived political threat as it was to the intellectual one.
As the 21st Century wore on, the so-called New Atheism lost some of its initial momentum, but the anti-Christian sentiment it brought persisted. Twenty years after 9/11, apologetics had finally made it from the subculture of the Church into the mainstream, and was beginning to appear in both pen and pulpit. But those who had grown up in this cultural soup of New Atheists versus apologists began a new trend which became another novel threat to Christianity: the Deconstruction Movement.
This new movement, in many ways the spiritual successor of New Atheism, saw young Christians very visibly and publicly denouncing their former Christian beliefs and joining the ranks of the atheists, standing in intellectual and political opposition to the Church. At the writing of this article, this is where things stand in the Western world. As these challenges have arisen and evolved, what has apologetics become, and how do we best approach it?
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Should we use apologetics?
Even though apologetics was not officially recognised as a theological discipline until the 2nd Century, it has been present with us since the beginning. In the Bible, there are four biographies of Jesus’ life. While Mark and Luke look very much like ancient biographies, documenting events in the style of the time, the books of Matthew and John are anomalous. Whereas Matthew recounts the same material as Mark and Luke, he does so in a uniquely Jewish manner, and is clearly writing to a Jewish audience.
Matthew makes regular call-backs to Old Testament passages with the formula “thus the prophecy was fulfilled…” Matthew focuses on how Jesus scolded the Jewish leaders for their poor treatment of the Jewish people, and argues strongly that Jesus was the foretold Messiah. In the book of Acts, the reader sees the Apostle Paul travelling from city to city, entering the local synagogues, and using the Old Testament scriptures to argue that Jesus was, indeed, the foretold Messiah using the same line of reasoning as Matthew. In other words, these men were using the evidence and rhetoric of the people they were approaching to argue for the truth of Christianity.
One might say: “Yes, but they were arguing from scripture, not from science or philosophy.” However, Paul never stopped at just the synagogues. Paul would then travel to public forums or stand before pagan leaders and he changed his rhetorical style. He began to cite the Grecian poets and argue in the style of Grecian philosophers.
Paul was not the only New Testament writer who moulded his tactics to his audience. The book of John stands out as an anomaly among the Gospels. It starts with the breath-taking preface: “In the beginning was the Word.” It tells different stories and frames Jesus’ words in different ways. Instead of “I tell you the truth”, Jesus suddenly prefixed his sayings with “truly, truly”. John has Pilot ask a question particular to the Greek philosophers, “What is truth?” and has Jesus announce: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
More than just taking a far more philosophical bent on Jesus’ life and words, John stresses the eyewitness nature of his accounts, pausing regularly to announce in his Gospel that he was the one who had seen and heard the things he was writing about. John also includes the account of ‘doubting Thomas’, wherein the man’s scepticism was resolved by not simply witnessing the risen Christ, but by touching him and feeling his scars.
Apologetics is threaded into the warp and woof of scripture, and gives Christians permission and precedent to use it themselves.
How to use apologetics
In the passage where Peter exhorts his reader to be ready with a defence of their beliefs, he immediately follows by saying “but do it with gentleness and respect”. Peter was not saying this in the context of a gentle and respectful culture, but rather within a culture very hostile to Christians. He was telling his audience to differentiate themselves from the world around them by acting gently and respectfully.
As the Church currently stands in the midst of a Deconstruction Movement, wherein young people are dissenting from their beliefs and adopting an antagonistic attitude toward the Church, this attitude of gentleness and respect has never been more essential. But this raises a second point: Apologetics should first and foremost be directed inward, to the Church itself.
Much like the Jews and Romans of Paul’s time, people in the modern world think and act like the culture around them. Christians need reasons to believe that their religion is consistent and sustainable regardless of the cultural context. If Christianity really is true, it should not fear scrutiny from within or without, and training the Church in apologetics gives those within both reasons to continue believing that Christianity is true and tools to counter the challenges and scepticism from outside the Church.
Studies show that sceptics reject Christianity for two primary reasons: they find Christian people unpalatable and they find religious ideas inconsistent with rationality. Christianity is superstitious and “magical thinking” and doesn’t hold up in the real world.
The first challenge may be overcome simply by forming good relationships with those non-Christians. This applies equally to people who have never been religious and to those who have left religion. It is possible to both disagree and remain respectful, listening to them as much as talking to them. Studies show that this removes the first obstacle to belief: when the sceptic realises that Christians aren’t the intolerant dimwits they imagined.
The second challenge may be overcome by the second of Peter’s suggestions: giving a reason for the hope that is within you. Christianity, if true, works in all contexts: spiritually, scientifically, philosophically and historically. It is impractical to think you can know every answer to every question. But with the boom in apologetics of the last 20 years, it is almost certain that these questions have been addressed. Exercise patience and the willingness to admit you don’t know the answers but will investigate for yourself. This sets the precedent for the audience to do their own investigation as well.
Apologetics has always been relevant to the Church, but never so relevant as it currently is. While the New Atheism followed by the Deconstructionists may paint a dismal picture for the Christian, it has had the hidden benefit of advancing the field of apologetics more than ever before, and the Church has been the beneficiary thereof.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA
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