All the polls in the past few years show a rapid increase in those who have left their religion, and a rapid decrease in church attendance. Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research showing “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago)” (American Grace). This is gleaned from a November 2010 Christianity Today article entitled “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church” wherein Drew Dyck talks about the results of his interviews with those who leave the church. He writes:
“Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” …
My dad got his questions answered at seminary and my mom got her questions answered by my dad when they were dating, but he could not answer my questions. I eventually became an atheist until God broke through to me starting September 22, 2005. This breaking through caused me to realize that there had to be answers to my questions that would strengthen the faith of those with doubts, and thus began my interest in apologetics. That isn’t to say that I became interested in studying great ways to apologize.
What is apologetics, anyway?
Apologetics is simply the rational defense of the Christian faith, or as William Lane Craig puts it, “that branch of Christian theology which seeks to provide a rational justification for the truth claims of the Christian faith,” (Reasonable Faith, p. 15). It involves making the case for Christianity, like providing historical evidence for the resurrection, and answering objections to Christianity, like the problem of evil. It comes from the Greek word apologia, which means defense, as in a court of law.
Is it biblical?
R.C. Sproul writes that “the apologist echoes the work of the apostles who did not ask people to respond to Christ in blind faith. The apostolic testimony to Christ was buttressed both by rational argument and empirical evidence.” Ratio Christi’s website points out that “Paul is seen reasoning with those he encountered concerning the gospel: ‘So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God fearing Gentiles and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be present.’ (Acts 17:17) …Paul had done this with such consistency that it became his custom: ‘And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence.’ (Acts 17:2-3)” On page 15 of “On Guard” William Lane Craig notes that Paul “says all men can know that God exists (Rom. 1:20). Paul also appealed to eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection to show further that Christianity is true (1 Cor. 15:3-8).”
Rather than shutting someone down who asks a question or expresses a doubt about Christianity, Scripture would have us do apologetics. Glenn Miller notes that, “1 Peter 3:15 tells us to always be ready to give every man an answer (apologia), a reason for the hope that is within us. 2 Timothy 2:25 [talks about] correcting those who are in opposition. Jude 3 [says to] earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Colossians 4:6 [says] you will know how you should answer each one. Phil. 1:16 [says] I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. Titus 1:9 [says] a leader is to be able ‘to exhort and convict those who contradict.’” William Lane Craig signed my copy of “On Guard” with 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Did Jesus ever do apologetics?
Christ himself used apologetics, as pointed out on Ratio Christi’s website, when “Jesus silenced the Sadducees in their attempts to discredit the resurrection by laying out a reasonable argument from the scriptures [Matthew 22:30-32]…reasoned with [the Pharisees] to the only possible conclusion; Jesus is both fully God and fully man [Matthew 22:41-46]…gave evidence of His divine nature to the doubting Pharisees and scribes by supporting the power of His words to forgive a paralytic by healing him with His words, ‘so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ (Luke 5:18-26).” Tim Keller points out in “The Reason for God” that Jesus responded to Thomas’ request for more evidence by supplying it (John 20:25-28), and to another doubting man he responds by blessing him and healing his son (Mark 9:24). Eric Chabot, in his article Do Christians Get Brownie Points For Being Ignorant? Is Anti-Intellectualism Biblical?, notes that when John the Baptist asked Jesus from prison, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matt. 11:3; Luke 7:20)—Jesus did not reply, “You must have faith; suppress your doubts.” He replied “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matt. 11:4-6; Luke 7:22). “Jesus’ works of healing and teaching are meant to serve as positive evidence of His messianic identity, because they fulfill the messianic predictions of the Hebrew Scriptures,” (Chabot).
Why don’t we do apologetics?
People are leaving the church because we are disobeying Scripture when we shut people down who have questions. Some of us even misuse Scripture to do this. In The Problem of Anti-Intellectualism in the Church-Problems and Possible Solutions, Eric Chabot writes about some passages that can be misunderstood as speaking against loving God with all our mind. Acts 4:13 is an observation, not a prescription, and refers only to the fact that they had not received rabbinical training. Colossians 2:8 was dealing with proto-Gnostic philosophy, not philosophy in general, and the way to “see to it that no one takes you captive” is through apologetics. I Corinthians 1:19-21 is condemning prideful misuse of reason, not reason itself. Matthew 18:3-5 is talking about moral innocence, not intellectual ignorance (keep in mind Matthew 10:16, where Jesus talks about being as shrewd as serpents, though as innocent as doves).
Shouldn’t we just have faith?
Those who are worried about the relationship between faith and reason need only note that intellectual knowledge that God exists does not equal putting faith in God. James 2:19 states that even the demons believe intellectually. But before we can put real faith in God, we must have reasoned evidence that he exists. So it is inappropriate to answer someone’s questions with, “Just have faith.” A better answer is “I don’t know, but let’s study this.” The Valley Girl Apologist, Sarah Ankenman, alludes in a recent article to the fact that we say things like, “Don’t focus on the why, focus on the Who.” In reality, we can and should focus on both, because if we don’t know why we are focusing on the Who, any old Who will do, which is idolatry. So focusing on the why helps serve the ultimate purpose of being in relationship with the true God. The effect on the brain of Calvin’s sensus divinitatus and witness of the Holy Spirit is scientifically indistinguishable from the effect on the brain of the experience of other religions (see Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s “Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality”). And so in order to provide a rational justification for Christianity to anyone other than ourselves, and to “doubt our doubts” as Tim Keller puts it in The Reason for God, we must provide reasons outside our own subjective experience.
Going back, to go forward…
In the same article mentioned above, Sarah Ankenman quotes from Nancy Pearcey’s “Saving Leonardo” which reads, “…if [we] aspire to the dynamic impact of the early church, [we] must do as it did, learning to address, critique, adapt, and overcome the dominant ideologies of our day….” (p. 14). Not only must we go back to the roots of the early church, we must focus on our children when they are still growing roots. In another article, this time on the website for the International Society of Women in Apologetics, Sarah writes, “When your kids have questions, they are going to come to you for answers. If you don’t have them, Satan is plenty willing to fill in the gaps. He will do it through public schools, pop culture…he will use whatever means necessary to lead your kids away from Christ. …you shouldn’t even wait for them to ask, you should be instilling the answers in them from when they are very young.” And how will we do that, if we do not have the answers instilled in ourselves?
J.M. Njoroge writes, “In his book Real Christianity, William Wilberforce exhorted parents to incorporate apologetics in the upbringing and training of their children. He wrote, ‘In an age in which infidelity abounds, do we observe [parents] carefully instructing their children in the principles of faith which they profess? Or do they furnish their children with arguments for the defense of that faith? … When religion is handed down among us by heredity succession, it is not surprising to find youth of sense and spirit beginning to question the truth of the system in which they were brought up. And it is not surprising to see them abandon a position which they are unable to defend.’”
Here are three reasons apologetics is so important, adapted from Eric Chabot’s anti-intellectualism article mentioned above, J.M. Njoroge’s article just mentioned, and William Lane Craig’s On Guard and Reasonable Faith:
1. Pre-evangelism. Apologetics shapes worldviews and cultivates culture to be more receptive to the Gospel message, rather than dismissing it off-hand or attacking it as the New Atheists do. It is part of carrying out the Great Commission (Matt 28:19). “[Apologetics] is necessary for the witness of the church since it helps clear away the obstacles that can keep the non-believer from taking an honest look at his or her true spiritual condition” (J.M. Njoroge) or from considering the gospel “an intellectually viable option” (Craig, On Guard, 18). Apologetics doesn’t save people, just like evangelists don’t save people—but the Holy Spirit can and does use both. “Like a missionary called to reach some obscure people group, the Christian apologist is burdened to reach that minority of persons who will respond to rational argument and evidence,” (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 22).
2. Strengthening believers. Apologetics coaxes the body of Christ out of intellectual idolatry and closer to the true God. If you don’t know why you believe the Who, any old Who will do. It is the responsibility of church leadership to whet the intellectual appetites of those who are idling. Apologetics is used by the Holy Spirit to mold each member of the body of Christ into the image of God, who is a rational being. “…apologetics is necessary for the health of the church because it helps the believer to overcome intellectual obstacles in the course of the believer’s spiritual growth,” (J.M. Njoroge). William Lane Craig points out that knowing why and what you believe, “will make you more confident in sharing your faith with others [and] help you to keep the faith in times of doubt and struggle,” (On Guard, 19).
3. Worship. As mentioned above, focusing on the why helps serve the ultimate purpose of being in relationship with the true God. Apologetics enables us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:28-30).