Seven Apologetics Fails to Avoid
The need for apologetics in our culture is growing. More and more the public square will provide Christians with the opportunity to give a reason for their hope in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). When Christians defend their faith with intelligence, integrity, humility, and love, the practice of apologetics glorifies God and serves our neighbor. However, as with with preaching and evangelism, there are some pitfalls we need to avoid so that we don't end up doing more harm than good. Here are what I consider some less than helpful approaches, as well as some thoughts about how we can do better.
1. Appeals to Pseudo Science.
My Greek professor in college once warned our class, "A little bit of knowledge in Greek can be very dangerous." I think the same goes for science. Yet, so often Christians will appeal to science that is not really, or even "proof" (that's a tricky word with lots of epistemological baggage!) that God exists, or that God's word is reliable. I do think recent scientific consensus poses more difficult questions for atheism than it does for Christianity. However, we need to be careful not to jump on board with websites or parachurch organizations that treat the Bible as a science textbook. It's embarrassing and potentially damaging to our witness.
A Better Approach: By confessing "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth," we're under no obligation to sort out scientific details. Not even naturalism can do this. Apologists are better stewards of science when they work with larger questions - the kind that pose real problems for the materialist worldview, as well as point to the order and purpose that comes from a Creator. For example, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin and nature of human consciousness allow for conversations that strongly suggest a Creator. To be specific, I would stay miles away from groups like "Answers in Genesis," and instead invest in books like Stephen P. Meyer's The Signature in the Cell - which even atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has called "a careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem" (the origin of life).
2. Assuming Christian Truth is Obvious.
I often hear apologetics expressed at the popular level as evidence that any rational person will accept. In other words, if non Christians just have access to the right information, they will naturally bow the knee to Christ. It's a whole lot more complicated than that. When Jesus raised Lazarus, some who saw the sign believed. Others did not - in fact, they went and reported what Jesus did to the authorities, who tried all the more to have him arrested (John 11:45-53). Even hard evidence like a dead guy walking out of the tomb does not always lead to conversion. This is what Luther was getting at in The Bondage of the Will. Sin is irrational, such that even the existence of God - which Paul says is plain and obvious to all - is suppressed like a beach ball underwater (Romans 1:18-23).
A Better Approach: Have patience, pray, ask questions, and listen. After reading Voddie Baucham's book Expository Apologetics, I'm convinced that we do apologetics best when we avoid information dumps and instead engage in long term discussions where we listen more than speak. There will be a time to speak. But the more we ask questions about the worldviews others assume, the more the truth of those worldviews will become less obvious - perhaps even less reasonable. This opens up a door for the gospel.
3. Focusing More on the Head than the Heart.
Sometimes apologetic discussions turn into an all out intellectual throw down between both sides. When this happens, the discussion becomes open to pride, as well as the illusion that mere information changes hearts. Have we really done anything worthwhile if our apologetic discussions lead people to intellectually assent to the existence of God, but their hearts are still insulated against the crisis of his demand for every square inch of their allegiance? What good have I done if someone admits that it's almost historically certain that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that person is still dead in his sins and trespasses?
A Better Approach: We must always get to the heart of the matter. Deep down every human being knows that God exists. Underneath every layer of denial, his law is written upon every heart. We do best when we direct every question back to what the person is guarding behind the unbelief. An excellent question we can never exhaust in our discussions is what I call the "Dr. Kolb classic" (Concordia St. Louis grads will most likely know this one) - "Why do you want to know?" Skeptics may ask, "Why would God allow suffering?!" We drop the ball when we go straight to explanations about the sovereignty of God, or human free will, or any other kind of theodicy. We do better when we ask questions that get to the heart of the matter.
4. Failing to be Christ-Centered.
Have we really accomplished anything at all if someone moves from atheism to theism, but does not make the confession "Jesus is Lord?" No. All this means is that someone who was once spiritually dead in their atheism is now spiritually dead in their theism. A belief in God does not save. This is why I'm not a big fan of the two-step apologetic method in which one presents evidences that God exists, and then from there makes the move to Jesus. We're called to give a reason for our hope, and apart from Jesus not even the word "God" is good news.
A Better Approach: Peter tells us to always be ready to give a reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). What, or rather who is our hope? Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. All of our conversations about apologetic topics - be it the existence of God, suffering, moral issues, or whatever - should revolve around the cross of Christ and his empty tomb. This is our hope, and nothing less will do.
5. Trying to Answer Every Question.
Sometimes the worst thing we can do is try to give explanations for questions we don't understand, or aren't equipped or qualified to answer. In fact, some questions don't even have answers. For example, when it comes the varied questions that begin with "Why would God...????" I think we often sell people short by trying to answer these questions with pat answers. We move from the realm of defending our hope to the realm of speculation (which is a nice shortcut to heresy, by the way). Or, we move from what God has revealed about himself in Christ to the dark abode of what he has not revealed. We ought to avoid crossing these boundaries.
A Better Approach: When it comes to God "as he is", he is mostly hidden from us. His revelation in creation and in Christ is enough, and anything beyond that is speculative. So, "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer. That response may mean you've got some homework to do in preparation for further discussion, or you may still admit that you're an agnostic on the matter. If our conversation partner is honest, she will have her own areas where she'll have to admit ignorance. Even Richard Dawkins admits that he has no real answer to the question of how life began (except, of course, that it had to have been the result of some natural process). In the end, I think people appreciate honesty, even when that means we honestly don't know.
6. Getting Stuck on Peripheral Questions.
We're doing things out of order if we try to persuade someone on details (some of which are debatable among Christians, others are clearly not) without persuading someone about Jesus. Very often people will pose questions in our apologetic discussions that avoid the main point. For example, given that sexual ethics is a touchy issue in our culture (no pun intended at all), conversations about God will often veer off into questions about what marriage is, sexual freedom, etc. These are important questions, and to some degree we may defend the Christian perspective solely for the benefit of society. However, when conversations about our Christian faith go in this direction, we err if we don't try to avoid getting stuck there. At the very least we must use the peripheral issue (at least peripheral in comparison to Jesus) as a stepping stone to arrive at the need for Christ. Whatever issue comes up that is not Jesus is always to be a means to an end -Jesus.
A Better Approach: We need to pause and reorient the discussion toward Christ. In words of the coffee meme, we must say, "OK, but first Jesus." The ultimate goal of apologetics is conversion. Conversion only takes place through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit as one comes under the convicting work of God's law and the liberating word of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, with that said, we aim to establish Christ first, and from there we can address any other question which, while important, lies on the outer circle of importance in comparison with Christ. Dr. Timothy Paul Jones made an excellent point in a recent lecture that has stuck with me. If we want to convince someone of our stance on sexual ethics, we ought to use the resurrection of Christ, as well as the resurrection of our own bodies as the dwelling place of God's Spirit as our anchor. When we do this, we're taking important issues and rooting them in the most important thing - the hope we have in Christ crucified and risen.
7. Being a Total Jerk.
I think this last point speaks for itself. Don't be that guy. When we don't do apologetics with winsome patience and humble compassion, we're really defending ourselves instead of defending the gospel. Because apologetics often delves deep into intellectual questions, opportunities for pride abound.
A Better Approach: Voddie Baucham sums it up well: "It is not enough to turn the tables and gloat over a 'gotcha' moment. Our goal is the gospel. Our great joy is not in showing people their error, but in God showing them his mercy as they flee to Christ." We are called to humility, patience, and compassion, for as Paul wrote long ago, "We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures... but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us" (Titus 3:3-5).
Keep Working at It!
I'm not claiming I have this all figured out. And I certainly have respect for some apologists who are guilty of one or more of these "fails." In fact, I think one of the reasons I wrote this post is because these are some of my own fumbles in the past. Overall, the main thing is that we have these conversations. If you're like me, you'll always walk away from an apologetics conversation wishing you had said something different. That's inevitable. What matters is that we stay in the game and work hard to hone our skills so that our conversations are truly for the glory of God and the benefit of those with whom we converse.
The question I have now is, "Why don't Lutherans do apologetics?" But that will have to wait for another post.
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT