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Apologetics and evangelism

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13 minutes to read In this post, I interact with some thoughtful criticisms of apologetics forwarded by my friend Darryl Burling. I argue that they are well-intentioned but misplaced, and that apologetics is indeed vital to successfully fulfilling the great commission.

Darryl Burling recently posted a thought-provoking article titled ‘Apologetics and evangelism’. The summary is that he is concerned that we cater too much to the rationalism of the modern age when we conduct apologetics. As he says—

Rather than confronting sin and rebellion with the news that our debt was nailed to the cross (Col 2:14) and if we believe we will be saved (Rom 10:9), we too try to accommodate reason and rationality by tearing apart world views at an intellectual, philosophical and scientific level – which incidentally does not convert people, but generally just sets them more firmly against our views. In other words we try to fight them on their (our?) level, rather than taking the discussion to their soul and letting the word of God do its work through the spirit of God.

Not only this, but to do this, we must spend time taking in the information to be able to do this effectively (which it can never be anyway) rather than spending our time in prayer and reading the word to prepare us to share the simple gospel of Christ.

As well as responding in the combox of the article, I felt it worthwhile to reply here.

Darryl, while I agree with the general sentiment you’ve expressed, there are some scriptural principles, examples, and commands which warrant consideration, and which somewhat counter-balance your arguments.

In 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:13, Paul speaks of the “ministry of reconciliation”, which is the preaching of the gospel. He describes us as “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. ‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God'” (2 Cor 5:21,22). However, Paul prefaces this comment with the statement that, because we know the fear of the Lord, “we persuade others” (v 11).

With that in mind, let me turn to chapter 6. Paul speaks about putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry. By this, I take him to mean that if fault is to be found, it ought to be with the foolishness of the cross, and not with the actions or attitude of the person preaching it. Along with endurance, he lists in verse 6 some other elements of successful evangelism: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love. He then seems to expand on two elements in verse 7: knowledge and the Holy Spirit; saying that we evangelize “by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left”. The reason I say that this expands on the element of knowledge is that Paul elsewhere describes “weapons of righteousness” in more detail. Later on, he expands the concept, saying, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). In Ephesians 6, describing the “armor of God”, he speaks of “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v 17), and of the “shield of faith” (v 16). (I include the shield because in most armed martial arts it is more than just a static defense, and it seems to me our faith is indeed a spiritual weapon.) And in Acts, we see Paul putting these weapons to use, by “persuading people to worship God” (18:13) through “reasoning” (18:19; 19:8), wherein he “confounded the Jews […] by proving that Jesus was the Christ” (9:22), speaking “in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (14:1). We know that he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead”, and that this was indeed his custom (17:2,3). And we know that Apollos is commended similarly, “for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (18:28).

Obviously, proving and reasoning from Scripture is something that was specifically effective with the Jews, because they already accepted its authority. However, since the word of God is our “sword”—and not just ours, but in fact the sword of the Spirit—and since it is the very basis for the gospel itself and for the entire Christian religion through which, and only through which, all reality is properly understood, it is certain that we must rely on it even when facing those who do not accept its authority. There is no other authority to which we can appeal. However, in a highly pluralistic society, or a highly skeptical society, or in a society which is very relativistic, the authority of Scripture is automatically precluded in the minds of those whom we seek to save. I can think of only one way to demonstrate the power of Christianity intellectually—that is, as opposed to doing so through signs and wonders—in that sort of situation. It is the situation in which we generally find ourselves when evangelizing to the average New Zealander, and it is the situation in which Paul founds himself in Athens. Look at the method he employs to show the power of Christianity in Acts 17:

  1. He appeals to the inherent religious knowledge of man (vv 22,23a; cf Rom 1);
  2. then immediately contrasts it to his listeners’ lack of epistemic assurance in religious matters (v 23);
  3. then proclaims the basic elements of spiritual truth;
  4. and uses this as a basis for an internal critique of their own beliefs to show their absurdity (vv 23b-27);
  5. but then comes back to point (1) to show that these beliefs do still reflect the truth he is proclaiming (v 28);
  6. then uses this common element of truth as an argument for God’s authority (v 29);
  7. on which basis he proclaims the gospel of repentance, in light of the coming judgment (vv 30-32).

Aside from the fact that this is obviously a rational defense of Christianity, there are a couple of particularly interesting things in this presentation Paul gives. Firstly, he is mocked only when he appeals to the resurrection of Christ. The implication is that the rest of his argument is at least considered reasonable. But of course, the resurrection is at the heart of the cross, which is folly to unbelievers (1 Cor 1:18), and so we ought to expect it to be mocked. However, secondly, Paul does not declare here the central tenet of the gospel that Christ died for our sins. Rather, he simply declares God’s command that all people repent, and appeals to the resurrection as proof of the coming judgment. This is interesting, because in Acts 2, Peter does the exact same thing. In preaching to the Jews, he makes a long argument in which declares the power and authority of God in raising Jesus from the dead; yet he does not explain the atonement. Like Paul, he presents his argument, then declares a message of repentance—but does not focus on the details of the mechanism of that repentance: Christ himself. When the people are “cut to the heart” (v 37) and ask what they must do, he simply says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (v 38). Similarly, Paul in Acts 13:16-41 names Christ as the means of salvation through repentance, but does not explicate further regarding the atonement itself.

There are some conclusions that I think can be drawn from this. Firstly, the preaching of the cross does not require a full description of soteriology. Rather, it requires an appeal to the power of God over death, through Christ, so as to establish both his authority and pending judgment, and his ability to save. This is actually quite startling to me, because it is not an appeal to the saving work of Christ per se, but rather is simply a presentation of a dichotomy: “Whose side do you want to be on when the judgment comes?” It implies or assumes the saving work of Christ without necessarily explicating it. Repentance, and not an understanding of the mechanism which makes it possible, is the focus. The implication of this is that the theology of the atonement is not so much “spiritual milk”, but more “solid food” (cf Heb 5:12-14; 6:1-2), and that it is not necessarily preached in evangelism, but rather is taught afterward to those already confirmed in the faith. This is not to say that it cannot be preached in evangelism; merely that the pattern in Scripture is to preach repentance, making an appeal to the listener to join himself to Christ in order to have peace with God. Christ is therefore still absolutely central, and so is the cross—but the full meaning of the cross is not necessarily explained right away.

Secondly, the preaching of the cross and of salvation through Christ, in the examples we have, always concludes a lengthy prior argument which relies on only the simplest scriptural propositions, along with much extra-scriptural commentary. In other words, the vast majority of the evangelism we see in Scripture is argumentative discourse which seeks to prove the conclusion that repentance is necessary through Christ Jesus.

This must be kept in mind when we read passages such as 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. When Paul says in chapter 1 verse 17 that he was sent to preach the gospel “not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power”, and that he decided to know nothing except Christ crucified (2:2), he cannot mean that the only thing he preached was the cross. It is certainly true that the hope within us is centered on the saving work of Christ, and that this is foolishness to unbelievers—but we see in Acts, and in 2 Corinthians, that to “give an answer” (Gk apologia) for our hope, as Peter puts it, does not simply entail reiterating that hope, but in “destroying arguments”, in “reasoning” about and “refuting” the beliefs and philosophies which are “raised against the knowledge of God”, and “explaining”, “proving”, and “defending” the truth which is revealed in God’s word, “persuading” our listeners about it. So Paul’s statement that he did not preach with words of eloquent wisdom ought not to be interpreted as being an indictment of wisdom, per se, but rather, as the NASB puts it, of “cleverness of speech”. It is not wisdom which empties the cross of its power, because the cross in fact is wisdom—it is “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). For “among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (1 Cor 2:6). So wisdom is not under attack, but rather a specific kind—that is, the wisdom demanded by the Greeks. It is “clever words” (HCSB) which empty the cross of Christ; not genuine wisdom, which begins with the fear of the Lord (Pr 9:10). It cannot be that Paul is reminding the Corinthians that he never used rational argumentation to persuade them. We know that it was in fact his “custom” to do so. It cannot be that he never preached anything except the cross. Rather, anything he preached must have concluded in the cross. His argumentation rested upon the wisdom and power of God, rather than the sophistry of the Greeks.

What is assumed by Paul’s rejection of Greek wisdom, and his exultation of God’s wisdom is that his evangelism always rested on the revelation of Christ. Similarly, what is evidenced in the examples of apologetic encounters which we find in Scripture is that no reasoned defense of the faith is possible without presupposing God’s word as the foundation for our arguments. So, again, when Paul speaks against the wisdom demanded by Greeks, he is not speaking against rational argumentation itself, but rather against argumentation made from the foundation of human autonomy—argumentation, that is, which rests ultimately upon man’s authority, rather than God’s. This is why I reject classical apologetics, or apologetics which rely solely on an historical approach which assumes that man can discover and arbitrate truth. It is also why I strongly defend the presuppositional approach, which starts from Scripture and ends with Scripture.

That said, it is clear from 1 Corinthians 2 that argumentation was not the only, or ultimate weapon which Paul employed in his preaching. For he declared the gospel “not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”, for the purpose of their faith resting not in wisdom of men but the power of God (vv 4,5). Evidently, some kind of miracles accompanied his message. This is not to say that he did not preach any message whatsoever, since miracles cannot in and of themselves prove anything. They must be interpreted or explained. Rather, his message and argumentation were proved not by persuasive reasoning, but by actual demonstrations of the power of the Spirit, as we see many times in Acts as well. Miracles are, indeed, the standard accompaniment to the gospel when it first goes out—which is why I am critical of the Reformed penchant for sneering at the very concept of spiritual gifts, and of being skeptical of any reports of miracles in the mission work of evangelists to countries which do not yet have the gospel.

Ultimately, it is the power of God which must be the fundamental assumption behind our apologetics—not simply in terms of taking God’s word as our ultimate authority, but also in presupposing that God’s Spirit is active when his word is preached (cf 1 Thess 1:5). Although our arguments are indeed rational and true, the futile, darkened mind of the unbeliever, set against God in hostility, will not accept or believe them in its natural state (Rom 8:7), as you so rightly say. Indeed, since the truth we preach is spiritually discerned, a spiritually dead person cannot understand it (1 Cor 2:14). In order to believe the truth of the gospel, one must first have the Spirit of Christ, so that one may know the mind of Christ (cf 1 Cor 2:10ff). That is to say that our attempts to persuade and reason and prove and argue are utterly impotent in and of themselves. They attempt to prove a conclusion which must be revealed by God through the Spirit (1 Cor 2:10). We cannot reveal them to the unbeliever through any means of our own. Only the Spirit can do this.

Therefore, if we engage in apologetics with the supposition that, simply by presenting a good enough argument we can win over our opponent, we are wasting our time. It is futile. Thus, apologetics simply for its own sake is pointless; and also surely indicative of a poor spiritual condition on the part of the apologist. Christians do not seek out arguments just for the sake of arguing, as if our mission in the world is to prove that we’re right. Neither do we think that our mission is to defend the truth of God, as if God needs us to this for him any more than the sun needs the moon to light the earth. This, I think, is at the heart of your concern regarding the place of apologetics. Rather, apologetics is the means by which we understand God may sovereignly convert the heart of the unbeliever to accept the truth of Christianity. Apologetics is a reasoned explanation of the truth which we are charged to relay to all people (Matt 28:19). Apologetics is a tool in the great commission. It is not simply about argument, but about obeying God’s command to save souls. It is an effort by which we “work together with Christ”, appealing to the world not to receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1). It is not simply an intellectual battle. It is not a cold, philosophical discipline. It is, quite literally, the preaching of the word, lovingly, patiently, kindly with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 6:6), in the hope that he will work with us to save the lost.

But it is precisely for this reason that we must be prepared to defend our beliefs. When we preach the word it is usually rejected at first. It is not enough simply to declare the truth of Scripture if those to whom we are witnessing have numerous objections to that truth—objections which they believe insurmountable. We must be prepared to show that they are baseless. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to be familiar with all the latest apologetics arguments. It doesn’t mean that we must be great philosophers or theologians. As I have said in The Wisdom Of God, apologetics is so easy that there is no need to study it further once you have learned the basics (provided you continue to systematically conform your thinking to God’s word). There’s no need to harbor doubt as to your abilities, or to prepare yourself in advance, or to brush up on your skills every now and then; because you will always be ready. As long as you are thinking biblically, you will find that utterly confuting unbiblical thinking happens naturally. Invincible argumentation flows easily and inevitably out of a knowledge of God, so that destroying the arguments of any unbeliever is so simple that it is boring. If you have even a meager understanding of God’s word, and of the basic, necessary truths regarding the ultimate questions of reality, you are already so much more intellectually competent than any unbeliever that failing to take decisive victory in any apologetic encounter is impossible. Now, we must be careful to recognize that it is not we ourselves who are intellectually superior to the unbeliever. On the contrary, it is the mind of Christ within us. Nor is it to say that our victory will necessarily be recognized; or that apologetic encounters are to be hostile. Quite the opposite on both counts: very often, the Holy Spirit will not work, and our victory will be unrecognized; and similarly, as a rule we ought to show the love of God within us, and the deep, genuine concern we have for the spiritual state of the unbeliever. It is only in unusual cases that our great love for God and his truth should cause us to show hostility (cf Acts 13:8-10).

So I would say, Darryl, that it would be wrong to think that apologetics is not necessary at all. It would be wrong to think that we must only preach the word, without also defending it in the various ways necessary. The difficulty is not whether to defend the word, but how to do it, and how much. We can see from Scripture that because apologetics is actually just a natural element of evangelism, it must always begin with and end with the gospel itself. We don’t do it for its own sake, but for the sake of evangelism. And, in this regard, it is of great importance. It is not a game. It is unequivocally not a sophistic exercise using clever words and cunning arguments by which we test our intellectual mettle. Unfortunately, that is often how it is treated; and it is easy to treat it thus, because it is the natural inclination we have as sinners. It is also often easy to perceive it this way, even when it is being done correctly (I think, for example, of how James White is sometimes seen by other Christians). Apologetics is a presentation of the truth for the urgent purpose of saving souls. And that is certainly something which every Christian is called to do, and so inasmuch as this is the case, every Christian ought to learn how to conduct apologetics. As I say, this doesn’t necessarily require continual study, or a grasp of intricate arguments. But it does require some basic understanding of philosophy and argumentation. We cannot simply assert the gospel and think that that is the extent of our duty as Christians.


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