Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Reasonable Faith: The Need for and Purposes of Apologetics

A. Introduction: What is Apologetics?
1 Peter 3:15 reads: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The Greek word translated “answer” is απολογια, which often takes the context of a courtroom appeal. It conveys the idea of providing evidence, building a case, responding to questions, or defending against attack. Thus, many translations supply the word “defense” (NASB, ESV) instead of “answer”.

The New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics defines apologetics like this: “Apologetics is the art of persuasion, the discipline which considers ways to commend and defend the living God to those without faith.”[1] With one objection which will become clear as we proceed this morning, I think this is a good working definition of apologetics. The simpler definition which I usually use is: “Apologetics is the defense and explanation of the Christian faith.”

B. Why Is Apologetics Necessary? (The Need for Apologetics)
We need to acknowledge first that conversion is a work of God, which is often accomplished apart from apologetics. Apologetics is not necessary for Christian conversion; nor is it necessary for knowing that Christianity is true.

William Lane Craig writes: “How does a Christian believer know that Christianity is true? . . . The inner witness of the Holy Spirit gives us an immediate and [true] assurance of the truth of our Christian faith. . . . such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know . . . with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God. . . . It is the witness of God’s Spirit with our spirit that gives us the assurance that we are God’s children. . . . When it comes to knowing one’s faith to be true, therefore, the Christian will not rely primarily on argument and evidence but on the gracious witness of God himself given to all his children by the indwelling Holy Spirit.”[2]

While knowing that our faith is true is a work of the Holy Spirit, remaining convinced of the truth of Christianity is often the work of apologetics. Dr. James Parker at Southern Seminary shared a conversation he had with a non-Christian friend. In response to questions, Dr. Parker was sharing traditional arguments for the existence of God. His friend then asked, “Are these kinds of reasons and answers really the reason that you became a Christian?” Dr. Parker responded, “No. They had nothing to do with me becoming a Christian. But they had everything to do with me remaining a Christian.” As a child, Parker believed Christianity was true, and embraced it. Growing older, he had questions and doubts. Apologetics answered those questions and doubts and enabled him to remain a convinced, rational, believing Christian.

Many Christians never doubt their faith, never question whether what they believe is true. They do not need apologetics to know that they are a Christian and that what they believe is true. However, there is a difference between knowing that your faith is real, and being able to show that your faith is true. Knowing that your faith is true is sufficient to be a full member of God’s family. Apologetics takes us beyond knowing, into being able to show to other people that Christianity is true.

Why is showing the truth so important? Why is apologetics necessary?

1. The Biblical Imperative for Apologetics
What does the Bible say about the necessity of not just knowing, but also showing, that our faith is true? What do each of the following passages say about the importance of apologetics?

1 Peter 3:15 – “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” People will ask us what we believe, and why we believe it. We are to answer them, to provide a reasoned and reasonable defense for our faith – that is apologetics.

Luke 1:1-4 – “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to be to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke wants his readers to what? To know with certainty the things they have been taught about Jesus. How? By providing them a written account – evidence, if you will – of Jesus’ life. This is apologetics.

John 20:30-31 – “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Matthew 22:37-38 – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” In the 1900s, Christians in North America strayed away from loving God with their minds. The focus was on heart and soul, and sometimes emotion and feeling. Apologetics seeks to reclaim a rational Christianity, a faith which goes beyond mere feeling and emotion, and loves God with mind as well as heart and soul.

2. The Need for Apologetics in Christian Life & Ministry
I want to share the story of five individuals who each need to develop apologetics in their Christian life and ministry.

Gary grew up in a strong Christian family. His parents had been members of their Baptist church since they were married. Gary accepted Jesus as his Savior and Lord when he was nine years old, and was active in Sunday School and youth group throughout middle school and high school. However, when Gary was finishing high school and then entering college, he began to have doubts about the truth of Christianity. He noticed that some things in the Gospels simply did not add up. Matthew and Luke had quite different genealogies for Jesus. The details surrounding who visited Jesus’ empty tomb were different – how many women were there? Were there angels or men at the tomb? How many of them? He also questioned the character of the God presented in parts of the Old Testament. Why did God hate Esau? How could a loving God order the annihilation and extermination of entire people groups in the Promised Land? And how can God be both three and one?

Scott grew up in a nominal Christian family. Until their divorce, his parents attended their local Lutheran church off and on. After their divorce, Scott regularly attended a Unitarian Church with his mother, who had become a convinced Unitarian Universalist. When he was 20, Scott began attending a local Baptist church with a friend, and soon became a follower of Christ and was baptized. Scott wanted to share Christ with his non-Christian family and friends, but struggled to begin. How could he make any impact upon convinced universalists? Would they listen to him? How could he show them that their belief system was wrong and needed to be adjusted to match God’s truth?

John was a pastor to youth and adults in a university town. John had significant contact with non-Christians through a local college ministry that he served with regularly. A number of foreign students seemed to be spiritually seeking and open to the Gospel of Christ, but would not consider Christianity without seeing and hearing compelling reasons to believe that it was true. They wanted to be convinced that Christianity made sense and was rationally defensible before they would dive in.

Jill became a Christian in junior high school after her single mother started going to church and getting involved in fellowships and Sunday school classes. Joy was baptized during high school and emerged as a vibrant, budding believer. A popular and outgoing young woman, Joy was surrounded by numerous friends who were involved with other religions. Many of her friends launched specific objections against Christianity, and challenged Joy to see the truth of their beliefs. Joy wanted to see her friends come to know Christ, but felt pressured and attacked. She often didn’t know how to respond to the attacks her friends presented to Christianity.

Peter was a minister of small groups and discipleship in a mid-size Baptist church. He became increasingly concerned that many college-age students were dropping out of church. When he asked some of them why they had stopped attending, a number of them cited growing doubts about the truth of their faith. Their college professors taught them that God was a fiction of our imagination, and that man is a product of undirected, random, atheistic evolution. They simply could not reconcile the faith of their parents’ church with what they were being taught at college. They weren’t about to drop out of college, so they dropped out of church instead.

The reality is that people have questions and doubts. A friend of mine pastors in rural Georgia. He once asked members of his congregation what kinds of issues they would like him to address in future sermons and Bible studies. They responded with many great questions, the majority of which were apologetically oriented. For example: "How old is the earth?" "What about the Bible and scientific teaching?" "If people believe in Scientology, can they be saved?" "What is the difference between the God Christians worship and the gods of other religions?" "Is God real?" "Is the story of creation a myth?" "Is the Bible really true?" "Many say the Bible has errors in it. Is this true?" "Is Jesus a man? Or is he God?" "My friends tell me that all religions lead to heaven. Is this true?" "If God is a God of love, why would He send people to hell?" "If God is god, why is there evil?"

These questions are on the minds of youth, young adults, and often older adults as well. Apologetics is the process of responding to these questions and doubts. What happens when apologetics is neglected, and those questions go unanswered?

Surveys and studies show that an alarmingly large proportion of children raised in Christian homes walk away from Christianity as students or young adults. Most recent statistics in the United States suggest that up to 80% of “Christian kids” reject Christianity during college. This ought to concern you. Why is this happening? Honest, genuine answers need honest, genuine responses, and often these youth are not getting such answers.

Carol Anway did an extensive study of American women who converted to Islam. She writes: “Three of the women, prior to converting to Islam, were hoping to convert their [Muslim] husband to Christianity by agreeing to study Islam if the husband would consider Christianity. One woman started asking questions of ministers and theologians to help her prove the superiority of Christianity to her husband. She said, ‘I wanted it so badly; I cried to several of them to help me and most of them said, “I’m sorry—I don’t know” or “I’ll write to you,” but I never heard from them.’ . . . Nine of the women expressed problems with the belief in Jesus as God, Jesus as the Son of God, or the concept of the Trinity. Five others said they had major questions about Christianity that no one had satisfactorily answered.”[3]

Occasionally I hear about kids who come to parents/pastors with questions or doubts about the Christian faith. They are, sadly, sometimes met with one of two responses: either “Why do you have to ask these kinds of questions? Christians shouldn’t be asking questions like that or having doubts like that!” Or they are told: “You don’t need answers to questions like that. You just need to have faith in Jesus. Don’t ask. Just believe.”

When our children or friends or parishioners are asking honest, searching, deep questions about the truthfulness of Christianity, it is not enough for us to say, “don’t ask these questions – just believe!” It is not enough to minimize or deny the validity of the questions. It is our responsibility to engage with the questions, and provide reasonable, thoughtful answers to them.

Our son Mataeo is constantly asking apologetic questions: “Where does God live?” “If God made the universe, then who made God?” He has learned from a young age that he can ask the questions, and we will TRY to respond to them. We won’t always have the answers – none of us do. But we will honestly respond as best we can. Most importantly, we always encourage the questions—faith seeking understanding. Kids will learn from a very young age whether their parents or pastors are open to them asking questions or raising doubts that they have. If that freedom of curiosity and seeking is not there, they will begin keeping doubts or questions to themselves. And one day, they will slip out the back door of the church. We might not even “see” the warning signs, it might take us totally by surprise. But an atmosphere that stunts, downplays, or ridicules questions or doubts will drive them further away. The back door of the church will be well-used.

C. Offensive vs. Defensive Apologetics (The Purpose of Apologetics)
I want to turn now to what I call the “Apologetics Matrix,” a little chart that displays the purpose and focus of apologetics. I have not yet learned how to insert tables and graphs into blogs, so ... you are going to have to use your visual imagination and picture a matrix with two axes - two columns and two rows. Four cells inside the matrix altogether. The left-hand (y-axis) side is the purpose of apologetics; the bottom (x-axis) is the focus of apologetics. Inside the matrix are four cells with the combination of the purpose and the focus.

1. Offensive (Positive) Apologetics
Offensive apologetics gives people positive reasons why we believe (and they ought to believe) that Christianity is true. It provides historical, evidential, and logical arguments to support the truth of our faith.

2. Defensive (Negative) Apologetics
Defensive apologetics gives people reasons not to disbelieve that Christianity is true. It responds to objections to or attacks against, providing historical, evidential, and logical arguments to support the truth of our faith in the face of the strongest objections of Christianity’s detractors. In a sense, you could see defensive apologetics as clearing away the intellectual brush that obscures the path to faith in Christ.

D. Evangelistic vs. Devotional Apologetics (The Focus of Apologetics)
Combining the purposes of apologetics (offensive and defensive) with the two focuses or audiences of apologetics allows us to fill in the four cells of the apologetics matrix. As we fill in each cell, I want you think of and provide biblical examples of this type of apologetics in action.

1. Evangelistic Apologetics
Evangelistic apologetics is oriented towards those who are not yet Christians.
a) Defensively – to respond to arguments or objections made by non-Christians, in order to clear the brush away, to remove obstacles to them believing in Jesus Christ. This is apologetics to “antagonistic atheists”.
E.g. Acts 4:5-12; Acts 6:8-8:1

b) Offensively – to present positive reasons for non-Christians to embrace the truth of the Christian faith. This is apologetics to “seeking skeptics”.
E.g. Acts 25:13-26:32; Jesus and Nicodemus (Jn. 3)

2. Devotional Apologetics
Devotional apologetics is directed towards those within the Christian Church. It aims to confirm believers in their faith, to give them assurance that what they believe is really real!
a) Defensively – to respond to questions or doubts that they might have. This is apologetics to “beleaguered brethren”. It could be responding to doubts created by their own Bible reading – is God a cruel, unloving God? (because of the Old Testament wars). Or questions caused by their own reflection (if God made everything, who made God?). Or doubts caused by interaction with non-Christians (my teacher says that we evolved from worms, and life arose randomly on earth; my good friend is a Muslim, and they’re really nice – will they go to heaven?).
E.g. Exodus 5:22-6:1; 1 Peter 4:12-19; 1 John 1:1-4

b) Offensively – to present positive reasons for continuing to believe. This is apologetics to “doubting disciples”. For example, seeking to demonstrate the truth of the core historical claims of biblical Christianity – particularly the miracles and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or showing the logical coherence of difficult Christian doctrines like the incarnation, the atonement, and the Trinity.
E.g. Luke 24:13-48; John 20:19-29; Exodus 3-4.

Folks may differ, and I certainly do not claim to have the final word. But in my opinion and experience, the most important purpose and focus of apologetics is defensive devotional apologetics. Confirming Christians in the truth of their faith by responding to doubts and questions that they have. There are two reasons I say this:
1. The huge problem of the back door.
2. It is easier to help an existing Christian deal with questions and doubts than it is to do the same with someone who has rejected or walked away from Christianity.

E. SUMMARY of the Need for and Purposes of Apologetics
As Christians, we can not only know that our faith is true, but we can learn to be able to show to others that our faith is true. We can not only defend our faith against attacks and objections, but we can positively set forth reasons for others to believe in Jesus Christ as well. Finally, we can not only present compelling reasons to believe evangelistically to those outside the church; we can also present apologetics devotionally, giving Christians a strong rational foundation on which to build their faith.

The first and greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:38) Apologetics is a pursuit of the greatest commandment – seeking to love God with all of our being, including our mind.

[1] New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, ed. W. C. Campbell-Jack and Gavin McGrath (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 3.
[2] William Lane Craig, “Classical Apologetics,” in Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Steven Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 28-30, 36.
[3] Carol Anway, “American Women Choosing Islam,” in Muslims on the Americanization Path? Ed. Yvonne Haddad and John Esposito (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 150.

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