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Apologetics is Not About Winning Arguments

sampbf6ff2f22f4f1807It should go without saying that apologetics includes arguments for the truth of Christian claims. That much seems obvious. But that’s not what apologetics is about. When framed in the proper biblical context, apologetics really falls under the umbrella of evangelism. The goal is to bring the person to whom we speak to Jesus, to recognize his Lordship, to savor the benefits of the God’s love in Christ, and to get them excited about what God is doing in the world through his people.

Again, don’t get me wrong. Arguments are important. We construct arguments in order to show the logic behind Christian truth claims, and to demonstrate their coherence with other things we believe to be true. We construe arguments to persuade that obedience to Christ’s lordship actually benefits humanity. But any view that asserts that apologetics is primarily about winning arguments runs the danger of engaging in a philosophical parlor game, which usually winds up taking the form of endless philosophical distinctions, qualifications, and rebuttals. There’s also the proverbial danger of winning the abstract argument and losing the person. As John Frame has said (echoing Nicholas Wolterstorff), persuasion is person variable. He writes,

We are not seeking merely to validate statements but persuade people. Justification is a person-oriented activity. In trying to justify our beliefs, we often seek to persuade others and sometimes ourselves, but there is always some persuasion being attempted… If we ignore the element of persuasion or “convincingness,”…we may find ourselves constructing perfectly valid and sound “proofs” that are of no help to anyone. (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 151, 152)

Likewise, as nearly any work on interpersonal communication will inform you, often times a person’s words are not the main thing on which to set our focus. Of course in written communication (online dialogue etc.) the clarity and cogency of arguments are crucial. I don’t want to downplay that. But in interpersonal communication, reading the person is even more important than addressing the propositions. I suspect that is why Jesus not-too-infrequently seems to respond to questions and objections in way that both get to the heart of the matter, and seemingly avoid the actual words of his objector.

This is where intuition is vital. Do the person words strike you as angry? Fearful? Disappointed? For this reason, we should “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). If you don’t listen to the issue underneath the issue, we miss an opportunity to address the underlying roadblock. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13).

All this means, yes, we must learn the facts. Yes, we should familiarize ourselves with the arguments. But when we bring them out, how we present them, and to what degree our apologetic should take the offense is left to the wisdom that comes with listening. Get curious. Ask questions. The more they speak, the better equipped you become (if you’re truly giving them the self-denying gift of listening) to hear their heart. The better equipped you are to speak the truth in love in a way that doesn’t treat the person like an abstract philosophical position. In listening you will grow ability, and desire to see the person with whom you are commenting Christianity as a real person with hopes, fears, misunderstandings, and yes, idols.

“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (Prov. 16:23)

5 Roadblocks to Apologetics

Let’s briefly address helpful pointers in apologetics. By this I don’t mean “helpful” in terms of arguments. I’m focusing on strategy, on making a persuasive case for Christ. So often apologists focus on getting our facts straight when in reality the issue is something else, and many times it’s something much more basic.

So here are my 5 things to look out for when commending Christianity to non-Christians.

Roadblock 1: Most non-Christians do not know the story of Scripture.

Before we can “defend” our position on Christianity, we need to make sure the person to whom we speak understands what we’re talking about. The sad thing is most America evangelicals don’t understand the Bible themselves (and various studies have demonstrated this- see here, and here). Now, this is not to say they don’t “get” Jesus. They do, but often not well enough to deal with tough objections to the faith. After all, Jesus isn’t the only person teaching us in Scripture. There’s Paul, John, Peter, James, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, and on and on…

So, be prepared to do some explaining. The non-Christian may be hostile to something that’s not taught in Scripture. Help them out. This should lead to a strong sense of responsibility to the person you’re speaking to (God has, after all, placed them along your path). This also means we must cultivate the spiritual fruit of patience, since we there was a time when we didn’t “get” it either.

Roadblock 2: Unbelievers [normally] do not distinguish between Creation and the Fall.

As many thinkers have already noticed, the biblical plotline follows the themes of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation. Some of the things we experience this side of the fall where not a part of the original created order God declared “good.” The obvious example of this is moral rebellion (sin) against God (i.e. sin). Al Wolters writes of this distinction in terms of structure and direction.

What’s worth noting is often what is considered natural by the non-Christian (ex: sexual lust), we may (and probably do) attribute to the Fall. We should bring to the attention of our non-Christian friends that not everything we find today is the way it ought to be. The Bible distinguishes between two senses in which something could be considered “natural.”

First, something may be “natural” if it was part of God’s original creation blueprint. In this sense, marriage, heterosexual monogamy, and loving obedience and submission to God and His word are all natural. The second usage of the term “natural” has the opposite meaning. According to this usage “natural” is contrasted with spiritual (or [Holy] Spirit-lead, cf. 1 Cor. 2:14, James 3:15). So, sexual deviation is perfectly “natural” in this sense, it “gels” well with our fallen condition. In some Bible versions, the term natural is more pointedly translated “carnal.” I think that gets my point across.

With these distinctions in mind we should be aware that unbelievers often blur or do not properly distinguish between Creation and Fall. So, when if they say, “what’s wrong with ____? After all, it’s natural.” We need to patiently point out that ____ (given it’s a sinful goal, motive, and/or standard) is not natural in the first sense (which is what Christian ethics is geared toward developing), but instead is natural in the second.

Roadblock 3: Arguing against Christianity based on what seems to be fitting for God, not on what Scripture actually says.

I’ve read a respectable amount of non-Christians literature against Christianity, both scholarly and at the popular level. A common problem I’ve noticed is many anti-theistic arguments fail to take into consideration the actual accounts of God’s nature and attributes in the Bible (see point 1), i.e. they argue against a no-frills type of God. Examples like this abound, “Can God created a rock so large he can’t lift?” From a biblical perspective, that’s a nonsense question that shouldn’t be tolerated as a serious problem for the Christian doctrine of God. It’s like asking if God can make a squared circle. God doesn’t “do” logical absurdities.

Here’s another example that ties together points 1 and 2: In most versions of the supposed problem of evil, unbelievers tend to

  • Ignore —or are ignorant of— the biblical narrative and God’s purposes in using evil for his glory and our good, and
  • Base their arguments on various assumptions on what a good God would never allow (babies to go hungry, etc.)

The point here? We need to fight the temptation to defend a conception of God not taught in Scripture. In my earlier series titled Prologue to Apologetics, I made the point that we defend no other God than the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, we should join hands to topple rival conceptions of God. So, if the “god” that our unbelieving friend is arguing against isn’t what we recognize as the biblical God (and don’t let their usage of the word “God” fool you), kindly respond that you’re not commending that god to them, and get back on track. Of course, this may make things harder to speak about (after all, Yahweh has allowed children to suffer, etc.), but our goal should be to winsomely recommend the truth, not merely what the non-Christian will accept.

Roadblock 4: Not distinguishing between the biblical message and the history of the Church.

This is an extremely common occurrence and a very important point. I can’t recall how many times when speaking to non-Christians the first objection I heard was, “But what about the crusades?” or some related question. We need to draw a distinction here. When we’re commending Jesus to someone, we’re not commending all the mistakes and blunders of the church as well. Please don’t confuse Christians with Jesus himself; he’s much better than us!

guy3Now, are they connected questions? Very much so! The church is the community that claims to be people transformed by Jesus Himself who spiritually inhabits us through the Holy Spirit. We’re His “body” (cf. 1 Cor. 12). But none of this should detract from the plain fact that we’re claiming that the Bible records historical, space-time events. So, the wrongs inflicted by self-proclaimed Christians in the 1600’s (for instance) doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t live in Israel roughly from 3 BC to 30 AD any more than to say that because we discover that one of our elementary schools teachers was a pedophile, the mathematics that you learned from him or her is invalidated. That’s sloppy thinking.

Another important strength to making this distinction between “Bible-history” and Church history is that when we do we’re able to build moral bridges with non-Christians. We shouldn’t feel constrained to defend everything the church has done. The church is made up of broken, fallen people who need a Savior. Our sinful bend toward rebellion, and the need for spiritual transformation and renewal is the very reason the church exists! So, we don’t need to defend all aspects of the Crusades, the passivity of the German church during WWII, the abuse scandals in which the Roman Catholic priesthood finds itself, etc. Those are wrong, and should be acknowledged, by both saint and sinner, as wrong. Believe it or not, seeing that Christians aren’t “blind” to these moral blemishes within its own ranks may actually get you a hearing.

Roadblock 5: Assuming that biological/sociological explanations for an event or action makes theological explanations unnecessary.

Unbelieving scientists, both in the supposedly “hard,” as well as the “social” sciences, have often claimed that the supernatural worldview of Christianity is simply impossible. Many have claimed people of the ancient Near East were more prone to believe in supernatural beings and occurrences because they didn’t know any better. But, so it is thought, we can’t be too harsh on those overly superstitious people, they didn’t have the wealth of scientific knowledge on how the world runs as we modern folk do. Contemporary, especially western, Christians have no excuse though. We should know better and not place our hope in such fairytales.

These people may say that we have no need to believe that God causes the plants to grow, because now we know about the laws of photosynthesis. Or, you may have heard, “We no longer believe that morality comes from God, because now we are aware of just how much society and family shapes our beliefs about right and wrong, etc.”

But this misses the point, and it misses it big. It also vividly demonstrates how roadblock 1 (ignorance of the Bible’s storyline) applies to many of us Christians. Does God control and direct all things? Yes (Eph. 1:11). But does God normally do this apart from “normal” or “natural” means? No. This sheds light on the case of morality above. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from our culture? Yes, we do. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from our parents? Without a doubt. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from our peers, friends, and all those with whom we associate? Again, yes. But does conceding these points undermine the existence of a universal standard of ethical behavior? Not at all!

If the Bible is true, then it would seem God planned the normal, everyday means through which humans would learn standards of morality is through relationships in general and the family in particular. Now, of course, the word of God ultimately is given (among other reasons) to correct the faulty beliefs we have about ethics. But, the notion of right and wrong action, desires and motives, are dependent upon relationships. When I do something that I shouldn’t, something I ought not to do, I am breaking fellowship with someone, whether it’s my mother, father, the government, my “fellow man,” etc. If the universe is ultimately impersonal, I don’t owe it good behavior. Since it’s impersonal it can make no demands at all! We don’t owe allegiance to impersonal forces like gravitation, or to impersonal objects like rocks and sand. So,  just as moral obligations depend on relationships with a person, in the same way ultimate ethical obligations are depend on a relationship with an ultimate Person. The horizontal (i.e. how we come to learn things) doesn’t cancel the vertical.

One more example, and I’ll wrap this up. Over the last two decades or so, there has been much discussion over the possible existence of a gay gene. Are people with a homosexual orientation genetically “wired” this way? Well, at this point the jury is still out (though the evidence isn’t exactly powerful). But, what if conclusive evidence could be shown that all homosexuals share this gene, genetically predisposing them to same-sex attraction? What would we do? Should we say the Bible is wrong because it clearly states that homosexuality violates God’s original desire for human sexuality? In a nutshell, we don’t have to change a bit. Al Mohler clarifies this point with skill,

Christians must be very careful not to claim that science can never prove a biological basis for sexual orientation. We can and must insist that no scientific finding can change the basic sinfulness of all homosexual behavior. The general trend of the research points to at least some biological factors behind sexual attraction, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This does not alter God’s moral verdict on homosexual sin (or heterosexual sin, for that matter), but it does hold some promise that a deeper knowledge of homosexuality and its cause will allow for more effective ministries to those who struggle with this particular pattern of temptation. If such knowledge should ever be discovered, we should embrace it and use it for the greater good of humanity and for the greater glory of God.

We would be called to a stronger recognition that these people who have this gene struggle with a particular temptation to sin that we do not all share. But this doesn’t make it any less a deviation from God’s design. Christians believe in the Fall and original sin (remember roadblock 2 above). We also believe that there is no part of who we are that hasn’t be touched by sin. To admit (if we had to) that a gay gene exists would simply be to acknowledge that the effects of the fall run deeper than we were initially aware. The horizontal doesn’t cancel the vertical!

So, if you’re talking with someone and this issue arises, stay alert and spot it. It can be tricky for sure, but without a working knowledge of these roadblocks an otherwise robust apologetic conversation can go sideways as you both speak past one another.

The Dangers of Being “Too Good” An Apologist

Apologetics is about giving a credible witness to the wisdom of God. To do this best, the apologist studies three things,

  • God’s word
  • The questions and objections of non-Christians
  • How to communicate the truth persuasively and in love.

The danger that the title refers to is the danger that in the process of explaining and defending the faith, we give the impression that if the non-Christian just thought a little more, was only a little more moral and/or philosophically consistent they would walk right into the kingdom. This, of course, is not the case.

And in fact, if we give this impression, we undermine our kingdom testimony.

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe… (1 Cor. 1:21)

Christianity may have maximal explanatory power, but part of those things it explains is the obstinate, recalcitrant, and indifferent attitude of non-Christians toward the truth. This heart-rebellion is the very reason that one’s full intellectual acceptance of Christianity is nothing less than a miraculous work of God’s Spirit. Full intellectual acceptance of Christianity means more than the acceptance of propositions (though, certainly not less).  It means accepting God’s word for what it is, the word of God, and not the word of men (1 Thes. 2:13).

Only the God of the miraculous, the One in the beginning who said “Let there be light” shine “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)