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Apologetics: Is There a Lutheran Approach?

Apologetics: Is There a Lutheran Approach?


Last week I mulled over why Lutherans don't seem to do apologetics. In this post I'd like to imagine what a distinctly Lutheran approach to the defense of the Christian faith looks like. I figure that if our Reformed brothers and sisters can have their own subdivision of the discipline (Reformed Apologetics) that embodies their theological commitments, then why not the Lutherans? This is really just a rough sketch. I'd eventually like to go into more depth, detail, and footnotes with this question. However, for now, here's what I think.

The Starting Point

A lot of disagreement exists about the exact nature of apologetics. At the most basic level it's a defense of the Christian faith. How apologetics fits within the various subdivisions of theology (exegetical, systematic, etc.) is not as clear. Is apologetics "pre-theology?" Is it evangelism? Or some kind of Christian philosophy? I don't think it's any of these. Rather, apologetics is what happens when the church's theology—whether at the basic level of Creed and Catechism or the more advanced level of dogmatics textbooks—comes into collision with other worldviews. In other words, when our talk about God and everything else in light of him (theology) intersects with the world's various approaches to God and everything else, apologetics is the response we give to the cognitive dissonance created by such intersections. To borrow from a major figure in the Reformed camp, Christian apologetics "is the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life." Given that Lutherans—while still sharing the heart of the Christian faith with their brothers and sisters of other traditions—have their own unique approach to the "Christian philosophy of life," how does this approach play out in our practice of apologetics?

A Christ-Centered Apologetic

Luther recognized that apart from Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen from the dead, God isn't good news to us. We can know much about God from the traces he has left in creation. However, this limited knowledge ends up veiling God more than revealing him. For this reason, the reformer placed great emphasis on "God preached" rather than the mysterious Deus absconditus (the hidden God).

Often apologists will make a case for God before making a case for Christ. While we can feel free to use classical arguments about the existence of God (Lutheran theologians after Luther did), we must make sure we're always painting the face of God as the Word made flesh, who was crucified and raised from the dead. All of Lutheran theology is stubbornly oriented toward Christ. Ought not the same be true of our apologetics as well? Too often apologetic arguments are really just arguments for a generic deity as a step toward the Triune God. An apologetic that is distinctly Lutheran will make a defense for God by making a defense for the person in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Colossians 1:19). As John Warwick Montgomery writes about Luther's theology in relation to apologetics:

"Luther is not anti-apologetic; he is, rather, exceedingly careful in his starting point. The point de départ must be Christ; in methodology one must "begin at the bottom" with the incarnation."

A Law and Gospel Apologetic

God makes us into new creatures by killing us and making us alive. He puts an end to our delusions of grandeur and idolatrous projects by speaking his law into our hearts. The myriad of worldviews with which we converse in apologetic discussions are very sophisticated forms of running away from God and living in an alternate reality. Call it what you want—atheism, agnosticism, spiritual but not religious, whatever—all of these ways of seeing the world are really just fancy constructs meant to shield us from the inescapable reality of God. What we need is an intervention.

In Luther's day, and even up until recently, this intervention occurred when the all-encompassing demand of God's commandments rumbled from the pulpit and into the hearts and minds of the listeners. The reality of God's law cut to the heart and caused sinners to thirst for the free mercy of God offered in Christ. Human beings have always excelled at the art of avoiding God's call, however, recently our pluralistic and relativistic society has turned this art into a science. If we cannot escape God's law, we can redefine who God is, who we are, what it means to be human; we may even ignore God altogether. The age in which we live provides a buffet of worldviews options that offer hiding places from our Creator. In such an age, the proclamation of the law must be more creative. It must work to compassionately undermine the worldview foundations upon which our collective flee from God is founded. As Mark Mattes points out in his excellent article A Lutheran Case For Apologetics, "We are to raise the hard questions: Is your secularism really consistent with reality as you believe it to be?" Patient questions and answers over time often lead to the crumbling of once confident worldview convictions, or the realization that one's worldview is fractured and inconsistent. However, doing so is never meant to leave someone in despair, but rather to prepare for a better foundation—the Gospel.

For those who are broken by their sin and the realization that their worldview is faulty, the apologetic task is then to proclaim the Gospel. Apologetics is not the Gospel. However, apologetics does aim to draw a firm connection between the proclamation of good news and the reality of good news as a historical event. At this point the evidential method of apologetics, which focuses on the historical evidences for the Christian faith, is particularly useful. Our Christian faith is not some blind leap into the existential unknown. It is rather, as a certain Lutheran apologist titled one of his books, "Faith Founded on Fact." As Montgomery argues in his essay The Apologetic Thrust of Lutheran Theology, the whole of our Christ-centered proclamation rests upon real events that have taken place within time and space. When we proclaim the Gospel, we ought to claim it as reality—just as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15.

This element must be emphasized, especially given that so many who claim Luther's heritage as their own have slipped into the subjectivity of experience at the expense of historical evidence. Take, for instance, the skepticism of Rudolph Bultmann and his method of "demythologizing" the key events of the Apostles' Creed (which in retrospect looks suspect in comparison to the scholarship of minds like Wright, Hurtado, and Bauckham); or the existential theology of so many in European Lutheranism. I have a feeling this is why the exhaustive volume on apologetics by Boa and Bauman has listed Luther under the category of "fideism" (the leap of faith on the basis of experience at the expense of reason). I'm guessing they read Luther through the lens of Kierkegaard instead of theologians like Chemnitz, Gerhard, Andreae, and Quenstedt.

A Theology of the Cross Apologetic

Very often the questions we're called to answer as apologists will begin with, "Why would God?" Some discrepancy exists between one's expectation of how life should be or how God should act in relation to us, and from this place of frustration the questions ensue. For example, after tragedies wrought by human nature or mother nature, or as we live within the daily grind of disappointment with life, we ask our questions. "Why would God allow this? How could a good God exist?"

Since these questions often get straight to the heart of our affections (namely, what we fear, love, and trust), they offer great apologetic opportunity. Nevertheless, such questions also invite apologetic infidelity. It is here that our theology will take the lead, for better or for worse. What I mean is this: Our "why" questions often invite speculation about God rather than straight answers about God that are based on what God has revealed about himself. Put simply, we want an answer that resolves the tension we feel in a world that so often feels void of God. God does answer us, not with the power or wisdom we would love to dole out as confident apologists, but rather with the weakness and foolishness of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18-31). Here enters a key Lutheran contribution to the faithful practice of Christian apologetics—Luther's theology of the cross.

In Luther's 1518 Heidelberg Disputation he writes the following terse statements:

Thesis 19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

Thesis 20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

In other words, Luther is saying that we miss the mark when we try to figure things out about God and his will by looking at the natural world or God's works within the world. We end up speculating about why God allowed this or that tragedy, and by doing so we miss the place God has spoken—the cross of Christ. Contrasting Luther's "theology of the cross" with our inborn tendency toward a "theology of glory," Dr. Kolb explains:

"Theologies of glory must write a new script for God on the basis of human observations about the world around them. Human reason must penetrate nature and history in order to perceive the invisible things of God. From these observations and experiences, human beings can draw universal conclusions about God, thereby putting human epistemology in charge of divine revelation... Theologians of glory want assurance that God acts in predictable ways... God becomes domesticated... In the process of constructing our own theologies, we refuse to let God be God."

The "apologist of the cross" must avoid becoming an "apologist of glory" by trying to answer questions that cannot be answered, venturing to guess about things God has not revealed, and the perennial temptation to make the message of the cross more convincing by stripping it of the divine power present in its offensive weakness and the divine wisdom that exists under its apparent foolishness. The countless "Why would God?" questions must always defer to what God has done, and not what he might do or why he allowed something to happen or not happen. This way of doing apologetics isn't sexy at all. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered. However, it does let God be God. In our desire to make the Gospel attractive we must never compromise the Gospel by dressing it up in the garb of human wisdom and power, which often comes in the form of pat and palpable answers that make sense to fallen reason.

A Vocation-Oriented Apologetic

Vocation is central to Lutheran theology. Christians are called to be "masks of God" through which the Creator serves his creation in covert fashion. A Lutheran approach to apologetics will recognize that our defense of the faith is also an act of service to our neighbor. As I mentioned before, our approach to apologetics must always be Christ-centered. With that said, we are also called as Christians to defend those elements of our faith which can also be shared by non-Christians. I'm speaking here of natural law, and the structure of creation and what it means to live fully human lives, all of which are outlined in the commandments. In recent days, it has become all the more important that Christians function as apologists for the law within the public square. This does not mean we do away with the separation of church and state. What is does mean is that Christians are pro-human and pro-society, and for that reason our faith will press us into the vocational sphere of the public square, where we will, for the sake of our neighbor—especially our weakest and most vulnerable neighbors—bear witness to the law of God that is written on the human heart, but also so often suppressed by sin.

Reflecting on the work of the late Robert Jenson, Kolb explains:

"Christians must contend for the value and nature of various social structures of life as of intrinsic value to the community, by which God sustains the community... Christians will need to bring natural law into bold relief by stating the obvious. They may have to unmask the idolatries of culture and debunk the mythologies and ideologies of a society by stating what is morally obvious."

For example, out of love for society and human flourishing, the Christian apologist will serve as a faithful citizen by always being prepared to give a defense of human life, marriage, justice, care for the poor and voiceless, and any other point at which the image of God is insulted.

A Catechetical Apologetic

I would argue that next to the Bible, Luther's Small Catechism is the best tool we have for teaching and practicing apologetics. We use the catechism to shape hearts, minds, and habits according to Christian truth. The truth is that our worldviews shape our hearts, minds, and habits, and Luther's Small Catechism is a brief expression of the Christian worldview. It sets our course in apologetic thinking and discussions.

I was awoken to this idea not by a Lutheran, but rather by a Reformed Baptist—Voddie Baucham. As a confessional Baptist, he has the following to say about creeds, confessions, and catechisms and how they shape our approach to apologetics:

"Ancient creeds are the wellspring of apologetic thought for at least three reasons. First, they were and are apologetic in nature. They are statements of belief by early believers written in response to heresy and/or opposition to biblical truth. They are reasoned responses to those questioning “the hope within us.” Second, they are summaries of the gospel. They are statements designed to convey not only what the gospel is, but what the gospel is not. Third, these creeds are almost poetic in nature, and, therefore, easier to remember."

Building on Buacham's observations, what would it look like if we used Luther's Small Catechism—the narrative of the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer—to teach Christian apologetics in comparison with other worldviews? Or as Harold Senkbeil has asked in his essay Engaging Culture Faithfully:

"Do you see the possibilities? What would happen if we used the Catechism and the Creed not just to prepare people for communion, but also to train young and old for life-long baptismal living, to give them words to confess the faith to those who ask the reason for the hope that is within them?"

Exactly! For too long we have scrounged for apologetic resources outside of our own tradition (some of these helpful, some of them not), and applied them outside the context of catechesis, when all along we had the best resources for apologetics in our hands and on our lips—in the Catechism! I believe that a distinctly Lutheran approach to apologetics will be catechetical in nature. How does that work? That's a good question. This is the topic of my current D.Min. project, and I hope to get that finished up soon.

Putting it into Practice

In an age where apologetics is needed more than ever, and also in an age where so many Christians are disillusions by the cultural conformity and malnutrition offered by popular American Evangelicalism, and in an age where so many of said Christians are looking for a confessional, historical, and biblical place where they can confess and defend the faith "once delivered to the saint," the Lutheran theological tradition offers a solid, sustainable, and relevant option. With that said, my prayer is that we won't drop the ball by keeping our theology safe and insulated behind the parochial walls of our synod—far removed from the public square, where theology meets people and ideas, and also finds opportunity to offer a defense. Mongomery poses the same question about Lutherans and apologetics:

Our age is indeed in ideological and societal agony, grasping at anything and everything that can conceivably offer the ecstasy of a cosmic relationship or of a comprehensive Weltanschauung. Will Lutherans, having perhaps the strongest theological and apologetic resources in Christendom, continue to hide behind our traditions, and our ecclesiastical structures, fearing the world of intellectual unbelief, or will we yield to the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of truth - who can overcome our inertia and bring us into the agoras of our time, there to establish by "many infallible proofs" the true character and message of the Unknown God?

Pastor John Rasmussen—Our Savior Lutheran Church—South Windsor, CT

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