Is apologetics a four-letter word?

August 19, 2015

When did I become such a “fundamentalist”? 😉

I was hanging out on a relatively conservative, evangelical-friendly Facebook page for United Methodists. Someone asked us what additional classes should seminaries offer that they’re not currently offering—or at least requiring. I said that we should be required to take a course in apologetics. To which a fellow clergy said the following:

Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed discourse, that too easily reduces the faith to the lowest common denominator under the guise of defending it. The faith doesn’t need defending, it needs proclamation.

Another pastor agreed, saying that intellectual objections are merely a smokescreen for an inward, “heart”-related problem. Presumably, once we deal with the underlying spiritual or emotional problem, the intellectual problems take care of themselves. Besides, he said, no one comes to faith through logic or reason.

While I agree that no one comes to faith through logic or reason alone—apart from the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit—Christianity is a rational religion. How could reason and logic not play an important role in evangelism? Otherwise, why bother with language at all? We may as well speak in tongues to unbelievers. (Actually, the apostle Paul has something to say about that very problem in 1 Corinthians 14!)

Besides, the concern is not merely with unbelievers, as I said in this comment thread: What about the intellectual doubts of the already converted? After all, nearly every day we pastors have to be able to reconcile our world of suffering and pain with our proclamation that God is good—that God really does love us. If we pastors haven’t worked that question out, intellectually, we’re doomed! And having read testimonies from pastors who lose their faith, I know that theodicy is Reason No. 1.

It won’t do to say, as mainline Protestant seminary often teaches us to say, “It’s all a mystery.”

I continued:

Or what about the intellectual doubts of young Christians going off to college and being exposed for the first time to ideas that directly contradict what they’ve learned in church? That happens all the time. Are we not supposed to equip young Christians to handle these questions?

Because they constantly hear things such as: Jesus never existed; the resurrection motif was borrowed from other myths and legends; the resurrection was a legendary development that happened over decades; Paul “invented” Christianity by distorting or ignoring the teachings of the historical Jesus; Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things attributed to him in the gospels; we have no contemporaneous accounts of the historical Jesus; science is irreconcilable with Christian faith; evolution disproves Christianity; Stephen Hawking has shown how “quantum gravity” accounts for creation out of nothing; the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.

I could go on, obviously.

Are we not supposed to furnish answers to these questions—or just let these intellectual doubts fester? The moment we attempt to answer them, however, we are doing apologetics. So we may as well learn to do it properly.

My concern, therefore, is not merely evangelism. It’s also bolstering the faith of Christians, all of whom experience intellectual doubts from time to time. In other words, it’s not only a “heart” problem.

I could point to Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 as an example of apologetics. But also: his words at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15 are incomprehensible if he’s not appealing to evidence for the resurrection: the resurrection is a real historical event, Paul says, and here’s how we can know. In our own way, we ought to be equipped to do the same. Not to prove it scientifically, but to show the reasonableness of it.

Fortunately, in our own day, we are blessed with serious scholars who are doing this good work: Alvin Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, et al.

Obviously, thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton did the same in their day.

No less a late-modern theologian than Wolfhart Pannenberg believed that the work of theology was inseparable from apologetics.

Have I made case? Why would fellow clergy have a problem with apologetics? What am I missing?

13 Responses to “Is apologetics a four-letter word?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Certainly you have made a case. When I went off to college, I became misled and stopped believing because of something I read in my, get this, introduction to the Christian Faith class at a putatively Baptist college! There were certainly other things at play in the “background,” but that is the immediate point and moment of stumbling in the “foreground.” The devil can use “weakness of mind” as he can “weakness of morals.” He is not picky, so long as he can get someone to “deny their faith.” So, we have to be diligent on all fronts. “Be ready always to give an answer….” STUDY to show yourself approved….” And other such passages.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes, I cited 1 Peter 3:15 earlier in that comment thread… I had similar challenges at a scientifically oriented university (Georgia Tech)—but mostly in philosophy class!

      And I would add, it’s not just losing faith that’s the concern; it’s the weakening of faith. The doubts we carry affect our witness!

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I’m with you 100%!

    If Paul’s Letter to Romans wasn’t shot through with reason and logic, then nothing ever has been.

    Tom also nailed it with, “Be ready always to give an answer”.

    I was shocked when you told me how little is taught in today’s Seminaries about the work of the Holy Spirit, and the fundamentals of Faith and Grace.

    • brentwhite Says:

      It’s sad. I believe our seminaries are, in general, causing great harm to these students. It’s hard to blame so many UMC elders and deacons for being confused about so many core doctrines—not least of which the authority of scripture.

  3. Good luck.

    Four letter word is about right. You probably recall the incident in which N. T. Wright, in a brief interview posted on Youtube answered a question about same-sex marriage that caused the homosexualists to go apoplectic,

    A “scholar” at a college who had or was about to award Wright an Honorary Degree expressed his outrage at honoring Wright, an obvious homophobic bigot, by throwing the epithet at Wright that he was “a book a year apologist.”

    There you have it: There is nothing lower than a Christian who might be so ignorant as to imagine his faith to be true.


    Jim Lung, Greensboro, NC

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes! I read all about that controversy involving Wright. One Wright defender wrote, sarcastically: “A book a year? More like three books a year!” It’s hard not to suspect professional jealousy on that professor’s part. If it’s uncharitable for me to say that, it isn’t nearly as uncharitable as what this professor said about Wright!

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    I would say that the professor might be “hetero-phobic”.

    I believe what they DO is wrong, and a sin. They believe what I BELIEVE is wrong, and a sin.

    I have given up expecting to change many minds.

    I am more encouraged on the abortion front. That conversation has been re-opened, big time.

    God will sort it all out. Sheep and goats.

  5. betsypc Says:

    A view from a UMC pew: What is missing in the UMC is a clearly spoken teaching of who God is and who we are. I spent a lifetime seeking and resisting God, feeling frustrated that I could not “get it”. Turns out, what I needed was clearly spoken teaching that I could wrap my head around about who God is and who I, as an individual am. I started my quest with John Wesley and am now back with him, but in between I wandered over into the Calvinist camp with the Heidelberg Catechism and three very modern books about it. It was this unlikely group of Calvinists from the communion of saints past and present that introduced me to a God worth worshiping. I was taken aback at the amount of info the rank and file C; it felt like I had been staring at something in very poor lighting and all of a sudden somebody flipped on a set of high intensity lights; all the random pieces of the puzzle of Christianity I had been collecting suddenly had a place. I was stunned at the amount of info the rank and file Christian of the 1600’s was given compared to the dribs and drabbles I had received. I was left with the very distinct feeling that this knowledge should have been instilled in me a very long time ago. Ken Collins, a Wesleyan scholar at Asbury Seminary, nailed it when he said redemption begins with knowledge! Knowledge was certainly the beginning of my true redemption. I now have a favorite young Calvinist, Kevin DeYoung (the author of “The Good News We Almost Forgot”), because of his ability to take the very old Heidelberg and talk about the Christian faith in a very fresh, modern way without diminishing any of the “Wow”! There was absolutely nothing comparable from within the UMC or Wesley himself; Wesley’s teachings–as good as they are–are too far flung in all his myriad of writings to provide the succinct overview I so desperately needed!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Wesley never put his thoughts into any systematic order, unfortunately. There is a four-volume series from theologian and Wesleyan Thomas Oden that attempts to “systematize” Wesley’s thinking. I have the first volume but I haven’t read it yet.

      But you’ve put your finger on a real problem: Too many Methodists (or at least Methodist clergy) are allergic to thinking through their faith. It’s as if they believe that thinking diminishes it in some way. Christianity is supposed to be a “religion of the heart,” therefore let’s neglect the mind.

      Even the response of some Methodist clergy to my favorable words about apologetics reflects this. Honestly, it’s a dirty word among many Methodists. Why?

      I think the recent appeal of the “young, restless and Reformed” movement among young Christians is that Calvinism is an intellectually satisfying tradition in a way that the Wesleyan tradition isn’t.

      But check out Oden. He wrote those books for the sake of people like you!

    • brentwhite Says:

      I like Kevin DeYoung, too. I read his recent book on homosexuality. And I follow him over on the Gospel Coalition website.

    • Grant Essex Says:

      Betsy, you just nailed the experience I had in my journey of spiritual inquiry. The expository preaching of modern calvinist preachers like John Piper, R.C Sproul, Steve Lawson and Tim Keller; along with the classics, made things so much easier to digest. Along the way, I have gotten a healthy dose of TULIP, but my views in those five areas are still shaded by Wesley’s arguments to the contrary.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I haven’t heard Lawson, but I’m with you on the other three. They’re outstanding.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    He was head pastor for many years at a Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. He is now the heir apparent to R.C. Sproul at Ligonier.
    Here’s a taste of the man:

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