Have you, or someone you know, ever caught the apologetics bug?
As a young Christian, I discovered apologetics. Like many others, each new YouTube video or article would whet my intellectual appetite and spurred me on to try and become like my apologist heroes.
I longed to be able to come up with quick-fire answers to stump atheists and win converts to faith in Christ by brilliant and witty argumentation. Apologetics gave confidence that I was following a sensible and logical belief system.
Apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia and means an answer or a defence. In Christian circles, it has come to mean a reasoned, often philosophical, defence of the Christian faith.
However, as I have grown and matured as a believer, I have become convinced that we place too much emphasis on apologetics as an intellectual study of the reasons for belief.
Apologetics: two common Christian reactions
I served in campus ministry for four years. From that experience, I have noticed that the word “apologetics” commonly inspires two reactions.
First reaction: People shrink back. It’s intimidating. It’s too hard. Because apologetics is seen as both esoteric and confrontational — witnessing is best left to the experts.
Second reaction: People dive in. Indeed, for a certain type of person, apologetics is a breath of fresh air and its study is an incredibly exciting affair. Oftentimes, they cannot wait to get into a philosophical or evangelistic conversation to test their mettle.
I sympathise with both these responses. But both make the mistake of viewing apologetics as something integral to witnessing and the Christian life. In contrast, the Bible talks very little about apologetics as effective intellectual persuasion, rather, biblical apologetics is all about sincere gospel proclamation regardless of whether it is convincing to its hearers or not!
But what about always being ready to make a defence?
For apologetics aficionados, 1 Peter chapter 3, verse 15 would likely be a familiar verse. It reads:
But in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
While the focus is often on the clause “always being prepared to make a defence” (the actual Greek word here is apologia), the context (see the verse before) is on how to suffer as a Christian.
Continuing from the sentence started in the previous verse, 1 Peter chapter 3, verse 15 starts with the exhortation to honour Christ as lord in our hearts. The defence the verse is telling us to give is the reason for the hope that we have, and that hope that we have is Christ, especially in times of trouble and persecution.
Unlike what is commonly presumed, this verse is not about debates, the kalam cosmological argument, or the latest YouTube clip of a question and answer session; instead, it is about proclaiming Christ: our hope through trial.
So, what is New Testament apologetics?
While I will save the Greek word study for another time, there is one story of Paul making an apologetic which I think encapsulates what is meant by the word in the New Testament.
In Acts chapter 21 - 22, we read the story of Paul’s defence, his apologia, to a riotous crowd in Jerusalem.
Imagine the scene. A hot-blooded crowd gathers; people were shouting, making threats, and possibly carrying weapons. And there was Paul; chained, protected by soldiers, beaten and bloodied.
Asking for permission to speak, Paul addresses them in their own language and a sudden silence quashed the tumult of the mob as they strain their ears to hear what he would say.
Although the effect of his speech was to further enrage the crowd, the defence that he gives is simply his powerful personal testimony of how Jesus saved and commissioned him.
Yes, it is true that none of this takes away from the wonderful cerebral nature of our faith — it is indeed logical, reasoned, and intellectually satisfying…
… But New Testament apologetics is not about winning arguments. Rather, it is about proclaiming the gospel even in times of extreme stress.
Apologetics and faith
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with liking a well-crafted answer to a gnarly question about faith. The concern is when we make our modern conception of apologetics integral to our faith, life, and witness.
Instead, our faith, life, and witness must be built on the hope of the gospel, the message of Jesus raised from the dead, and the surety of God’s promises in his Word. While apologetics, as commonly defined, has its place, we can have too much of it. It should only be an optional supplement to our great privilege to proclaim Jesus our Saviour.
Based in Christchurch, Joshua is married to Jacinda and enjoys writing as a way of keeping his thoughts in order. He also freelances. You can contact him via the bird site (Twitter) @I_do_words