Apologetics By The Number, Part I
Apologetics By The Number, Part I
By C.A. Smith
Most people seem to have one of two reactions to apologetics training. Some people throw up their hands in despair. “Again?” they ask. “We’re going to study apologetics again? Why don’t we study something more practical?” Other people get excited. “Yeah,” they say, “let’s study apologetics! What could be more practical? Christians don’t get nearly enough of this stuff!”
Of course, there’s that other group in between that really has no idea what apologetics training is in the first place. On the off chance that you’re one of those people, let me explain: Christian apologetics is the study of why we believe what we believe. It’s less about the content of our faith – which is really theology – than it is about the reasons that we know our faith is reliable.
There’s a small pond not far from my house in Castle Rock. Here in Colorado, we often get some very cold evenings in early October and sometimes that little pond ices over a bit. Suppose I stand at the edge of that pond, covered by a 1/10th inch layer of ice, and say to myself “I believe with all of my heart that I can stand on that ice.” Assuming that I really believe that, will my faith keep me from getting very cold and wet? Of course not. Now suppose that I’m standing at the edge of that pond in late February after a month of consecutive below-zero nights. The ice is over two feet thick, but I’ve had a bad experience already, so my faith in that ice is pretty weak. What will happen when I diffidently slide out onto the slick surface? Will I go through because my faith is weak? Of course not. Two feet of ice is going to hold me up regardless of how much or how little I trust it.
See, the issue isn’t how much faith we have, but what we have faith in. In that sense, knowing why we trust something, or have faith in it, isn’t nearly as important as trusting the right thing in the first place. However, if we don’t know why something is trustworthy, we might never be able to commit ourselves to trusting it. Suppose that I just couldn’t bring myself to slide out onto that pond. What would help? Well, if someone came along with some facts and figures and engineering studies showing that two feet of ice was capable of supporting over 1,250 pounds per square inch, then I might just be able to get over my hesitancy.
That’s the essence of apologetics: helping people understand why their faith in Jesus Christ and in the Bible is well-placed.
The classic Biblical command regarding the study of apologetics comes from 1 Peter 3:15:
But in your heart, set apart Christ as Lord, ever ready at all times to give a defense to all who ask concerning the hope that is in you.
The Biblical mandate to be prepared to defend the reasons for our faith is clear. Unfortunately, even those who enjoy the study of apologetics often fall short of fulfilling it. Both those who enjoy this sort of study and those who dread it often suffer from the same misconceptions about what the discipline of apologetics can and cannot accomplish.
Apologetics cannot provide arguments that will win an unbeliever to faith in Christ. No one is ever argued into faith. No one ever looks at an apologist and says “You, know, I’ve never even believed God exists, but now that you’ve laid out the cosmological argument with all its attendant epistemic and epistemological implications, I see that I have no choice but to trust in Jesus!”
People are enabled to place their faith in Christ because God is drawing them. Period (John 6:44). So, why study apologetics at all, then?
Because there are three things that apologetics can do which are of great importance:
1. Apologetics can strengthen the faith of the apologist: Though Christians often treat doubt as though it were the opposite of faith, this is not the case. The opposite of faith is unbelief. Doubt is neither positive nor negative, in and of itself. It can move us either deeper into faith or further from it, depending entirely on how we deal with it.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith, nor is it the enemy of faith. We need not fear doubt. In any event, doubt is unavoidable. C.S. Lewis put it this way in his book, Mere Christianity:
Now Faith…is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable… That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods where they get off, you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.
When I was in college, my freshman English colloquium teacher used a study of the book of John to try to show that the Christian faith was inconsistent and incoherent. His lectures raised some doubts in my mind.
Rather than dwell on the doubt itself, however, I began to do research to see if my professor’s assertions were true. Turns out he had almost no idea what he was talking about. The historical and archaeological evidence I encountered not only assuaged my initial doubts, but served to strengthen my own belief and boldness considerably.
In other words, studying apologetics strengthened my own faith.
2. Apologetics can strengthen the faith of other believers: Oh what I wouldn’t give to be able to go back to that college English class! Oh, to politely interrupt my professor’s anti-Christian tirades with some strategic observations and well-supported facts! I saw many a good church-kid lose their zeal for the things of God in that class because they were bowled over by the professor’s supposed “knowledge.” By the time I had sorted out what I believed and why I was sure that it was true, the class was over. I am convinced that, had I been “ready…to give a defense” others around me would have been strengthened in their convictions and not spirited so easily off the path.
I have lost track of the number of times I have spoken or lectured on some apologetic topic and had several people come up to me afterwards to tell me how relieved they were; they were struggling with some aspect of Christianity that had been addressed that day and God had used my words to strengthen their faith.
Often, when I am on the road speaking, I offer conference attendees a seminar I call Tough Questions.
Basically, I just entertain questions from the floor on just about any topic related to the Christian faith. I don’t promise to have all the answers, of course, but I do promise to help them figure out how to begin thinking towards the answer and I try to point them to some resources that will help. However, and I offer this in all humility, the truth is that I often have the answer to most of the questions that are asked. This is not because I have that many answers but because so many of the questions are so very basic. I am continually unnerved by how little the average Christian knows about his or her faith and why he or she believes it. Apologetics can serve as a much needed corrective against this weakness in the church today.
3. Apologetics can be used by God to remove stumbling blocks from a person’s path to Him: We cannot argue anyone into faith, but we can be used by God to smooth the way. To be perfectly honest, I have never known anyone who had what I could characterize as a genuine intellectual objection to the Christian faith. That’s not to say that I haven’t heard plenty of intellectual objections, but they have always struck me ultimately as intellectual justifications for a rejection that is founded on entirely different grounds. A few months ago I was flying from Newark to Denver and the young man I was talking to suddenly announced, “By the way, I’m gay.” I was a little disconcerted. “Okay,” I said, trying to figure out where that had come from, “I’m straight.” Later he told me that he didn’t believe that God existed, but wondered why I did. I laid out my reasons why I believed that God exists and we had a very lively conversation. In the end, he wasn’t convinced, but I do not believe it was because my reasons weren’t clear or that my reasoning wasn’t valid. Rather, as we talked, it was quite clear that he couldn’t accept the idea of God primarily because he understood that his choice of lifestyles was at stake, and this wasn’t a choice he was willing to change.
Having said that, I have known situations in which it was abundantly clear that the Holy Spirit was drawing someone to faith, and yet they were stumbling and faltering over some half-remembered lie or intellectual objection. In such cases, apologetics has often been used by God to remove the stumbling block and smooth the path to faith that the Holy Spirit has put them on. There is no greater joy than being used by God for this purpose, and to be able to place in His service the fruits of our apologetic study is a tremendous privilege.
I believe these are the three things that apologetics can hope to accomplish. Certainly apologetics is no panacea to all that ails the church or every believer, but it’s an important tool in our shed. Without a good grounding in why we believe what we do, Christians are left exposed to the shifting winds of public opinion and cultural trends. This is unacceptable and unnecessary.
Once we have a handle on the three things apologetic study can legitimately be expected to accomplish, it’s time to look at the three broad types of apologetics: theistic, biblical and Christian worldview. We’ll turn our attention to these categories in the next issue of Deep & Wide.