NOTE: Although this post was first written last June, I have updated some of my reasons as to “Why Does Opposition to Apologetics Come From Mostly Within the Church?”
Apologetics is a branch of Christian theology that helps give reasons for the truthfulness of the Christian faith/worldview. The word “apologia” means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15). The apostles approach to spreading the message of the Gospel is characterized by such terms as “apologeomai/apologia” which means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15).
Over the years, I have the privilege of collaborating with many others who are involved in the apologetic endeavor. One thing is for sure: Most of the opposition to apologetics comes from within the Church itself. But why is this? After all, though Jesus didn’t run around calling Himself an apologist, he did offer reasons and evidence for His Messiahship. As I just said, Paul and the apostles did apologetics on several occasions. I have written about more about here. Recently, I sent an email out to several ministry leaders about the need for apologetics in the local congregation. Keep in mind, the list had about 100 people on it. I did get one response which led to a radio interview. Robin Schumacher discusses a story about his friend who sent a similar letter to ministry leaders in his article called The Tragedy of the Dumb Church.
So having said all this, let me offer some reasons as to why there is so much opposition in the Church itself:
- Ignorance about apologetics in the Bible: I have taught on many occasions where we see apologetics in the Bible. In many cases, Christians have never read the Bible apologetically. In other words, they have never paid attention to what I just said above (see my posts) about the way our faith was proclaimed in the first century by Jesus and the apostles.
- Seminaries: Sure, pastors and ministry leaders are taught to exegete the text. That’s important. But in the end, they probably go to a seminary that doesn’t even offer a class on apologetics. This makes no sense. So they end up doing a lot to equip the people to know and study the Bible correctly. But is it not true that most if not all of our churches start with a set of presuppositions that a fairly large part of our culture rejects?
- The Impact of Postmodernism: Space precludes me from going deeper on this topic. Paul Copan has two concise articles on the topic here and here. But I run across many false dichotomies in the Church such as the following:
- The Orthodoxy/Orthopraxy divide: This plays out in the following sayings: “We spend too much time on orthodoxy (right belief). Hence, what really matters is our orthopraxy (right practice).” This is a false dichotomy. After all, it is true that a Christian needs to be loving, caring, and feed the poor and show good works. But can’t a Mormon, a Jewish person, or a Buddhist display good works as well? Sorry but the truth question can’t be left behind.
- Propositional Truth vs Personal Truth: The saying goes like this: “Truth is in a person (i.e., Jesus), and is not based on a set of propositions.” Once again, there doesn’t need to be a dichotomy here. Personal and propositional revelation work together! Hence, this gets really old.
- Faith vs Reason: The majority of the culture thinks the word ‘faith’ is something that is just a private and subjective belief that is not grounded in any kind of knowledge. The problem is that this is the way many Christians define faith as well. My question is the following: How many pastors and ministry leaders teach on what the Bible teaches about faith? We could use a lot more sermons/teachings on this topic. When I ask my fellow Christians why they think Christianity is true, the average response I get is “It’s true because I have faith.” So if this is the case, what would you say if a Muslim or Mormon said they know Islam or Mormonism is true because they have faith? I guess that makes Islam or Mormonism true! Case closed! To read more on this, see our post called Why So Many People Misunderstand the Word “Faith” Some of the other issues are the following:
- Christians Being Spoon Fed By Their Pastors: Many Christians won’t take the initiative to learn anything unless their pastor tells them to. This is tragic and shows the problem with the clergy/laity divide. See the article Laypeople and the Mission of God, part 1 — Killing the Clergy-Laity Caste System. I was recently asked by a Christian how to get an apologetics program started in their congregation. They were shocked to learn how many resources are out there.
- Christians are not sharing their faith: I think this is one of the largest obstacles to apologetics in the Church. When I recently taught a class on religious pluralism I asked people to raise their hand as to how many times they have been asked “How can you say Jesus is the only way to God?” Out of 40 people, two people raised their hand. I was baffled by this one. I assumed everyone had heard this objection. Hence, if people aren’t sharing the Gospel, they aren’t getting challenged!
- The continual confusion between evangelism and apologetics: I have been reading Mark Dever’s book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism. I appreciate these comments about the relationship between evangelism and apologetics. There can be a tendency to confuse them. Dever says:
“People mistake apologetics for evangelism. Like the activities we’ve considered above, apologetics itself is a good thing. We are instructed by Peter to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet. 3:15). And apologetics is doing exactly that. Apologetics is answering questions and objections people may have about God or Christ, or about the Bible or the message of the gospel. Apologists for Christianity argue for its truth. They maintain that Christianity better explains that sense of longing that all people seem to have. Christianity better explains human rationality. It fits better with order. They may argue (as C. S. Lewis does in Mere Christianity) that it better fits with the moral sense that people innately have. It copes better with problems of alienation and anxiety. Christians may – and should – argue that Christianity’s frankness about death and mortality commends it. These can be good arguments to have. Answering questions and defending parts of the good news may often be a part of conversations Christians have with non-Christians, and while that may have been a part of our own reading or thinking or talking as we came to Christ, such activity is not evangelism. Apologetics can present wonderful opportunities for evangelism. Being willing to engage in conversations about where we came from or what’s wrong with this world can be a significant way to introduce honest discussions about the gospel. For that matter, Christians can raise questions with their non-Christian friends about the purpose of life, what will happen after death, or the identity of Jesus Christ. Any of these topics will take work and careful thought, but they can easily lead into evangelism. It should also be said that apologetics has its own set of dangers. You might unwittingly confirm someone in their unbelief by your inability to answer questions that are impossible to answer anyway.
You can easily leave the impression that if you don’t know how to answer your friends’ questions, then you don’t really know enough to believe that the Christian gospel is true either. But just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. All knowledge in this world is limited. We proceed from what we know, and we work that out. Everyone, from the youngest child to the most celebrated research scientist, does this. Apologetics can be very important work, but it should be undertaken with care. By far the greatest danger in apologetics is being distracted from the main message. Evangelism is not defending the virgin birth or defending the historicity of the resurrection. Apologetics is defending the faith, answering the questions others have about Christianity. It is responding to the agenda that others set. Evangelism, however, is following Christ’s agenda, the news about him. Evangelism is the positive act of telling the good news about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through him.”
One of the most common and dangerous mistakes in evangelism is to misinterpret the results of evangelism – the conversion of unbelievers – for evangelism itself, which is the simple telling of the. gospel message. This may be the most subtle misunderstanding, yet it is a misunderstanding still. Evangelism must not be confused with its fruit. Now, if you combine this misunderstanding with a misunderstanding of the gospel itself, and of what the Bible teaches about conversion, then it is very possible to end up thinking not only that evangelism is seeing others converted, but thinking that it is within our power to do it! According to the Bible, converting people is not in our power. And evangelism may not be defined in terms of results but only in terms of faithfulness to the message preached. John Stott has said, “To ‘evangelize’ . . . does not mean to win converts . . . but simply to announce the good news, irrespective of the results.” To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.”— Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, (pgs. 76-79).
10. The impact of pragmatism: Our culture is built on pragmatism. If something doesn’t work, you try something else that gets results. If you go to college you have to get a degree that ‘works’ and makes you money. Nancy Pearcey notes on her article called “How Darwinism Dumbs Us Down: Evolution and Postmodernism,” William James was raised in a household with an intense interest in religion. In the Second Great Awakening his father converted to Christianity, then later converted to Swedenborgianism. As a result, James applied his philosophy of pragmatism to religion: We decide whether or not God exists depending whether that belief has positive consequences in our experience. “An idea is ‘true’ so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives,” James wrote in What Pragmatism Means. Thus “if theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true.”
People want to know if beliefs can be tried and tested out in the reality of life. This does have some merit. After all, if the Christian faith is the one true path, it should make a radical difference in the reality of life. The challenge of this argument is that in some cases, it seems Christianity doesn’t work. Christians have challenges in their families, work related issues and relationships. However, just because Christians don’t always reflect the character of Jesus and don’t always show the difference it makes, this doesn’t mean Christianity is false. So the pragmatic argument can be a tricky one. If I was to stick with the pragmatic view of truth, sadly, when it seems Christianity doesn’t work, people tend to leave the faith and pick another spirituality. Trust me, it happens all the time. And in the Church, pragmatism dumbs us down. It doesn’t force us to think critically about our beliefs and leads to lazy thinking.
Let me close by saying this: We are here to help. I am not saying apologetics is all that matters. It is ONE BRICK in our foundation. I hope ministry leaders will see the need for this brick in the local congregation.