It 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)