Monday, January 16, 2017

Imaginative Apologetics, Part I - Situating Apologetics: A New Blogging Year!

Apologetics, Imagination, and Imaginative Apologetics

            A couple years ago, I had opportunity to write a review article for Trinity Journal,[1] a lengthy interaction with Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, edited by Andrew Davison.[2] I never took the opportunity to share some of those thoughts here – I now aim to rectify that!  I would like to resume somewhat-faithful blogging this year, so this is my first beginning on that road.
In the first couple of blog posts, I will survey the terrain of historical and contemporary Christian apologetics. In subsequent posts, we’ll look at the place of imagination in Christian scholarship and apologetics, focusing especially on Jamie Smith’s recent contributions. Down the road, I will interact with the various articles in Imaginative Apologetics.

Situating Apologetics: Scripture’s Mandate
Scripture commands all believers to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[3] The word translated “answer” is ἀπολογία (apologia), which often takes the context of a courtroom appeal.[4] It conveys the idea of providing evidence, building a case, responding to objections or questions, or defending against attack. Thus, many biblical translations supply the word “defense” (NASB, ESV) instead of “answer.” The Greek ἀπολογία and its cognates are the source of our English term apologetics, which conveys similar connotations to those discussed above.
What, then, is apologetics? In his helpful foreword to Imaginative Apologetics, John Milbank notes, “In the history of the English language, ‘apology’ initially meant defence; then it came to mean ‘excuse’; later still ‘acknowledgment of offence’ and finally, also, ‘a poor substitute.’”[5] Contemporary Christian philosophers and apologists supply various nuances to the term apologetics. Consider two brief examples: “Apologetics is the art of persuasion, the discipline which considers ways to commend and defend the living God to those without faith,”[6] and “Christian apologetics is the rational defense of the Christian worldview as objectively true, rationally compelling and existentially or subjectively engaging.”[7]
The various contributors to Imaginative Apologetics each give a varied nuance to apologetics. Again, two brief examples: “In apologetics we do not just want to convince people of the rationality of what we believe . . . we want to make them understand in a participatory way,”[8] and “I understand apologetics in a fairly wide sense, as the whole business of explaining the Christian faith attractively, in a way that engages respectfully with people’s insights and instincts, that welcomes home all that is valid in them, but also challenges them as appropriate. . . . Apologetics is more proactive than merely defending the Faith.”[9] Seeking a concise but descriptive definition, one might do well to settle on “the defense and explanation of the truth of the Christian faith.”[10]
The practice of apologetics, as the defense and explanation of Christianity’s truthfulness, has always had a central place in the Church. We see apologetic ministry both exhorted and modeled in Scripture. As already noted, 1 Peter 3:15 contains an imperative, a command—what one might call the Apologetic Mandate for the church—to give an answer persuasively and winsomely, to supply the reason for our Christian hope. Even in prison, Paul made it clear that his apostolic ministry involved the “defense of the gospel,”[11] such that being in jail had nonetheless “served to advance the gospel” since everyone was aware that his imprisonment was on account of Christ.[12] We also see that Paul made apologetic appeals and/or defenses in Acts 22 (before the Jewish mob) and Acts 25 (before Festus and Agrippa). Peter’s Pentecost sermon contained strong apologetic elements: Peter insisted that “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know”; “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact”; “Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”[13] Paul’s encounters in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens in Acts 17 are replete with apologetic arguments and appeals.[14]
In short, the Bible both commands and examples apologetic ministry.  It is not optional for us as believers: it is required.  As we will see, apologetics has also been amply practiced throughout church history.  Stay tuned!

[1] Tawa J. Anderson, “Apologetics, Imagination, and Imaginative Apologetics,” in Trinity Journal 34 (2013): 229-51.
[2] Andrew Davison, ed. Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012. 169 pp. $25.00.
[3] 1 Peter 3:15, NIV. Further Scriptural references are to the NIV translation unless otherwise noted.
[4] In Acts 22:1, for example, Paul appealed to the Jerusalem mob seeking to lynch him: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense [ἀπολογίας],” seeking to make his case before his accusers. The legal connotations are even stronger in Acts 25:16, where Festus insisted that “it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend [ἀπολογίας] himself against their charges.”
[5] John Milbank, “Foreword,” in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, edited by Andrew Davison (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), xviii.
[6] New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, ed. W. C. Campbell-Jack and Gavin McGrath (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 3.
[7] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 24.
[8] Alison Milbank, “Apologetics and the Imagination: Making Strange,” in Imaginative Apologetics, 32. Emphasis original.
[9] Richard Conrad, “Moments and Themes in the History of Apologetics,” in Imaginative Apologetics, 126. Emphasis original.
[10] My own definition.
[11] Philippians 1:16.
[12] Philippians 1:12-13.
[13] Acts 2:22, 32, 36.
[14] In Thessalonica, Paul “reasoned with [the Jews] from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” The Jews in Berea “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” In Athens, Paul cited Greek poets in his speech before Greek philosophers to establish common ground upon which he could build a case that “[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:2-3, 11, 31).