As I mentioned in a recent post, I was asked to do a series of lectures on “Cults and Apologetics” for the Church Birthing Matrix. This has me thinking about apologetics and its proper role in the Christian church and its witness.
What Is Apologetics?
The word “apologetics” comes from the ancient Greek word “apologia”, meaning “a verbal defense” (Phil 1:7; 1 Peter 3:15). Apologetics is the branch of study that seeks to make a defense of the Christian faith against objections. This involves properly explaining what the Christian faith actually asserts, against false portrayals. It also involves giving reasons why the Christian faith is credible, specifically in response to attacks from its critics.
Apologetics as Boundary Maintenance
The Bible warns about false teachers and emphasizes the importance of testing truth claims (Matt 7:15; 1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2; 1 Tim 4:1-3; Jude). Christian leaders are called to protect God’s people from false teachers (Acts 20:28-30) and to instruct those who oppose the truth (2 Tim 2:25-26). In light of this, apologetics is addressed not only to those who attack the Christian faith, but also to those who might be swayed from their faith by such attacks. Apologetics helps us determine who is legitimately part of the Christian family and who is not, in order to help discern whose message to hear and whose to reject – and why.
Apologetics as an Aid to Evangelism
Apologetics is not evangelism. Evangelism is declaring the good news of the offer of God’s gracious salvation in Jesus Christ. A defense of the faith is not the same as sharing the faith. Yet apologetics assists in the presentation of the good news by giving answers to honest questions. It can help the person considering the Christian message to understand the reasonableness of embracing the Christian faith.
Apologetics as an Attack
Apologetics often crosses the line into polemics, as arguments are mustered not only to defend and explain the faith, but to attack the faith of others. I call this “negative apologetics.” In the strictest sense, apologetics is about giving reasons why we believe. It is a response to attacks of others. When Christians go on the offensive against the beliefs of others, this goes beyond the biblical use of the word “apologia.” Yet there is a fine line. The biblical writers often attack false teachers. Peter calls them “unthinking animals” and “a disgrace and a stain” (2 Peter 2:12-13) – although he seems to be referring to a general type and doesn’t name any particular people. Also, to protect God’s people from false teachers seems to require that we point out specific flaws and problems of those teachings. Since Mormonism, for example, aggressively targets members of existing Christian churches for conversion, it makes sense to offer our church members a specific critique of LDS truth claims.
Evangelism / Apologetics / Polemic? A Biblical Pattern
I find it informative to see how the apostle Paul shared the good news of Jesus. Consider three examples from Acts 13-17. To a Jewish audience in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13), Paul appealed to the Jewish scriptures, to show how they were fulfilled in Jesus as the Messiah. He did not attack the prevalent Jewish understanding of the Bible to make his case. To a rural pagan audience in Lystra (Acts 14), Paul appealed to the common goodness of God as Creator. He did refer to the local worship customs as “worthless”, not as an insult but in the sense of “unable to save.” But his predominant message was that they could know the living God. Then, to a sophisticated pagan audience in Athens (Acts 17), Paul appealed to their inherent religious interest, and started with their “unknown God” to explain the general goodness of the true Creator. He quoted one of their own poets, leading to a declaration of Jesus’ resurrection. Again, Paul did not attack the beliefs of his audience even though many of them responded with open contempt.
We see more in Acts 19. In Ephesus, many people came to Christ in an experience of powerful divine transformation. The effect on the city was so radical that it threatened the economic status quo. The silversmiths, who created images of the gods, found their income threatened, so they began a riot against the Christians. But it was recognized by one of the city’s prominent leaders, in quelling the riot: “they have not spoken against our goddess” (Acts 19:35-37). Ephesus was the world center of Artemis worship. Devotion to Artemis was central to the entire cultural experience of the city. Clearly the worship of Artemis was contrary to God’s revealed truth. But whatever Paul said and did, somehow it was possible for the word of God to spread powerfully in Ephesus without a direct attack on the city’s most important deity.
Apologetics is important. We need to provide sound answers for spiritual seekers, as well as to protect our own people from falsehood. So there is a place to evaluate the truth claims of other faith groups. But Paul’s example strongly suggests that if we want to offer the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to those outside the faith, negative apologetics (polemics) is not the way to do it.