The dangers of apologetics

Apologetics, the defense of the faith, is an important activity but in my experience it is one that has many hidden dangers lurking in the nearby bushes. Indeed, apologetics can become a barrier to mission.

First, there is a danger of deciding the questions we feel people ought to be asking rather than looking at those they are asking. For instance, one student mission I was involved with was based around a set of evangelistic meetings that focused on issues such as, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” and “Are the Gospels reliable?” Now these are important questions that require sensible answers but they were not burning issues for most of the students.

The opposite side of this coin is avoiding the questions that people actually are asking about the faith (e.g., why do you treat gay people badly? Why has Christianity inspired so much violence in its history?), perhaps because they are harder to answer in such a way that Christians come out looking good.

Second, at least in the mainstream, there is a tendency to give crass and simplistic solutions to genuine and complex issues. For instance, I have been in seminars in which we have been told ‘the answer’ to give if we’re asked why God allows suffering. The ‘answer’ we were provided was trivial nonsense. The impact of such ‘solutions’ on intelligent and sensitive people (Christian and non-Christian) is to reinforce the suspicion that Christian faith is stupid and callous.

Third, there is the danger of a ‘battle’ mindset descending upon Christian apologists, especially those who do know what they are talking about and can ‘wipe the floor’ with their opponents. I have seen very gracious atheists brutally demolished and mocked in debates. Such apologetics is utterly counter-productive. As Kierkegaard says, this intellectualist approach, which thinks ‘Christianity is an objective doctrine and it makes no difference how it is served, . . . has abolished Christianity.’

Fourth, the pressure created by apologetic contexts is that we feel that we have to go in to discussions with non-believers with the answers all pinned down, closed to the possibility that we might learn something new. (Even Alpha with its healthy encouragement of open conversation has over-prescribed end-points for the discussions.)

Fifth, there is a tendency in some circles to think that the route to faith is an intellectual one. The problem with a faith that lives on brain alone is that it is ever vulnerable to the latest fads in the academy. One man I knew became a Christian because of apologetic arguments but his faith thereafter was one crisis after another depending on which book he had just read.

Do not misunderstand me; I am committed to a reflective and informed faith and to attempting to offer intelligent and helpful answers to genuine questions. And I believe apologetics can play a role in the journey to faith. One of my students, a very bright atheist, spent a lot of time carefully considering the arguments for and against Christianity. In the end, he had an unexpected existential encounter with Christ during his revision but the credibility of the arguments for Christianity played a ground-clearing role in making faith a live possibility. But, when apologetics goes bad (by giving the wrong answers or the right answers in the wrong way or to the wrong people or at the wrong time) it does more harm than good.

The key apologetic for Christianity — far more important than knowing the right answers to hard questions — is love. Communities of faith that embody the kindness of God in cruciform ‘works of love’ are deeply attractive and are themselves evidence (not proof) of the truth of the gospel.

‘[T]he life of the church is its witness. The witness of the church is its life. The question of authentic witness is the question of authentic community’ (Norman Kraus).

I myself became attracted to Christianity because of the quality of relationships I witnessed among members of a Christian youth group. Without that I would never have been open to consider any attempts to show the intellectual integrity of the faith.

Intellectual apologetics embedded in the context of lives committed to God’s love for the other is a beautiful and fitting adornment. But apologetics divorced from lives of love is like a gold ring in the nose of a pig. Apologetics is never just about being right; first and foremost it is about living right.


Mike Crowl said…
Wholeheartedly agree with your post, Robin. If the answers in apologetics books don't satisfy Christians, how will they satisfy others?
Micah said…
Well-said, Robin. Reminds me of George MacDonald in his Unspoken Sermons, 'Justice':

"But I would do my utmost to disable such as think correct opinion essential to salvation from laying any other burden on the shoulders of true men and women than the yoke of their Master; and such burden, if already oppressing any, I would gladly lift. Let the Lord himself teach them, I say. A man who has not the mind of Christ—and no man has the mind of Christ except him who makes it his business to obey him—cannot have correct opinions concerning him; neither, if he could, would they be of any value to him: he would be nothing the better, he would be the worse for having them. Our business is not to think correctly, but to live truly; then first will there be a possibility of our thinking correctly. One chief cause of the amount of unbelief in the world is, that those who have seen something of the glory of Christ, set themselves to theorize concerning him rather than to obey him. In teaching men, they have not taught them Christ, but taught them about Christ. More eager after credible theory than after doing the truth, they have speculated in a condition of heart in which it was impossible they should understand; they have presumed to explain a Christ whom years and years of obedience could alone have made them able to comprehend."
Ken said…
I think that apologetics are better used in the context of protecting believers who already believe. Nit very many people are evangelized by apologetics initially.... But MANY people leave the faith due to not having answers to a secular worlds challenges. I have also found apologetics useful in calling believers BACK into the fold after they had their faith shaken.... Number one reason to study apologetics is so that one doesn't fall into a heretical position like universalism or some such.... With out apologetics how can we protect orthodoxy? :)
Tom Nicholson said…
Good point, Ken, it's like faith seeking understanding -- after we believe, we seek to understand as well.

But beware of the word "orthodoxy" which each man (or faction) claims for itself.

Don't read the Bible only through the eyes of Augustine, or whoever. Read and re-read the Bible itself!

And, who knows? You may just find that universal reconciliation is Biblical after all!
Tom Nicholson said…
What I really meant to say was "thank you" for putting into words some of the vague thoughts I've had from time to time.

re your sentence: "Communities of faith that embody the kindness of God in cruciform ‘works of love’ are deeply attractive ..."

It's a wonderful coincidence that a perfect "cross-shape" can be formed by writing GOD across the way, and LOVE down the way. And even more amazing that AMAZING down the way, and GRACE across the way, also forms a perfect cross.

The Biblical word for God's kindness is of course "grace".

CROSS (across) and WORD (down) does the same

Just had to share!
James Goetz said…
Hey Robin,

I appreciate your points on this.

Also, consider the follow tactics that are typical among evangelical apologists:

T1. Defending the justice of God irrevocably damning billions of lost souls who suffer forever.
T2. Defending the justice of God commanding his old covenant saints to devotionally slaughter pagan women, children, and infants.
T3. Defending that Christians must reject the evidence of evolutionary science for a so-called natural reading of Genesis 1-11.

I suppose there are other tactics, but perhaps evangelical apologists could try these alternative tactics:

A1. Explaining the God never gives up on a single lost soul despite death and hell.
A2. Explaining that old covenant herem passages might not be entirely literal and archeological evidence suggesting the the conquests in Joshua are not entirely literal might be helpful to Christianity instead of hurtful.
A3. Explaining how the Bible and evolutionary science can be compatible.

I suppose that I already spoke too much. In any case, as you say, all of this needs to be wrapped in Christian love.


Myron Penner said…
i could not have said it better myself, my friend, altho i tried:

Robin Parry said…

Thanks v. much.

I do plan to read your book. It looks fabulous.

Unknown said…

Interested in reviewing "The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context?"

shoot me an email
Unknown said…

Interested in reviewing "The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context?"

shoot me an email

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