The Problem with Apologetics

My wife and I just had an argument. She hung up the phone, mad. I tried to call her back to reason with her, but it had already gotten to that point. You know: where she gives me the silent treatment that no degree of intellectual persuasion on my part can penetrate. It all started when my dad’s back went out. He is in his sixties and this is the first time this has happened. Those of you who know me know that I can sympathize with his condition a great deal. I called today and asked how he was. “I am lying on the couch. It is the only way I can get relief.” The problems with his back are a big deal, since he is my mother’s primary caretaker. My mother (61) had a stroke and ruptured brain aneurysm in 2006. She has been confined, both mentally and physically, since then. Though she requires full-time care for everything (and I mean everything), my dad has kept her at home. She has gained quite a bit of weight, and picking her up is no easy thing. Now that my dad is down, things are not good. Therefore, today, after speaking with my dad, I decided to leave Credo and spend the rest of the day and evening taking care of her (I am here now). Since I already have her on Fridays, I thought I would just stay the night. On the way over, I called my wife to tell her my plans. Kristie immediately responded, “But Katelynn has her recital tonight. You can’t miss that.” I told her I felt me staying with my mom and dad was the right thing to do. She countered it, saying she believed going to my daughter’s recital was the righter thing to do. I immediately got defensive: “But my dad can’t move! I have to go over there. What do you expect him to do? Right now, this is more important than Katelynn’s recital.” “But can’t you just leave and then go back?” she said. Of course I could, but I was already emotionally committed to something different. “No. My dad needs me. I am sorry.” As I hung up the phone, knowing I was in trouble, I continued to rehearse in my mind all the reasons why it was more important for me to go over to my mom’s than to change my position and “give in” to Kristie’s “argument.”

In defensive situations, pride steps in without even knowing it. “Reasons” become “arguments.” “Changing our mind” becomes “giving in.” Listening to the wisdom of another becomes admitting we were “wrong.” Arguments with people often solidify us in positions that we were not so stable in before. Arguments pour quick-drying cement on our feet. Tell me I am wrong about something and, no matter what that something is, my sinfulness will kick in and begin to make counter-arguments that I am right. Once I step up to that pulpit and preach my views, it is very hard for me to change. In fact, it would take an act of God.

Apologetics is, most simply put, defending the faith. And we are all to be apologists. We are all to defend the faith to those who see our perseverance in suffering and say, “Hey, how do you still have hope?” (1Pet 3:15). We have to answer them. But apologetics also extends to ourselves. In fact, this should be the genesis of all apologetics, as we wrestle with our own doubts and insecurities about our faith. Apologetics is both good and necessary. However, it does have problems.

We need to be careful in our apologetics. We need to be tactful. We are not trying to win an argument. We are not simply trying to show we are right. We are not trying to get someone to change their position for the sake of our perceived integrity. And we are not trying to get someone to realize that they are wrong, just for the sake of the realization. We are trying to get people to bow before Christ. Often, our apologetic defense of the faith can be counter-productive. People’s sinfulness will cause them to solidify in positions that they did not really hold before. Why? Because that is what arguments often do.

The Reformation can serve as an illustration of this. Martin Luther made the argument that the institutionalized church of the day was wrong about the instrumental cause of our salvation. Salvation was by faith alone through grace alone. It was not by grace administered through the church by means of works performed (going to Mass, confession, baptism, etc.). The institutionalized church responded defensively (and stepped into cement). The Protestant Reformation strengthened its position against the institution. In turn, the institution strengthened its position. Whether or not this was the Rome’s position before, the cement was poured. All references to the church fathers’ emphasis on grace was ignored as Rome thumbed through the pages of Scripture and history to defend their newly-forming position. The cement dried between 1546 and 1565 at a place called Trent. Rome stood at the pulpit, preached its position, and the Council of Trent was brought to a close.

I am by no means saying that the Reformers did things wrong. In fact, I think the Catholic cement was probably close to being dry anyway. What I am saying is that when we are out looking to demonstrate how people are wrong, we can have counter-productive effects. We are all too prideful and sinful to expect things to easily work out in such a way. Again, demonstrating that someone is wrong is not our goal. Changing their heart is. Making arguments is easy. But tactfully helping a person “save face” and changing their heart should be our goals when defending the faith to sinful people (which includes everyone). What we need to do is prepare people to listen. Outright arguments normally don’t do this.

Kristie did not deal with me tactfully. I am too sinful. Once my argument (I need to go help my dad) was made, any counter-argument (seeing your daughter’s recital is more important) was just going to ignite my pride and pour cement. Oh, and one thing I did not tell you: My dad’s back went out last Saturday. I had not been over to help since then. Today was my first day to make such a move. If I had not helped for the last five days, why was it so important that I do so right now? It wasn’t. Well, not until my integrity was called into question by what I heard in Kristie’s argument (i.e., “you are not being a good dad”). Had Kristie catered to my sinfulness, she might have said, “I am so glad that you are going to help your dad. You really should have done that a long time ago. Katelynn’s recital is tonight. I hate that you have to miss it.” Had she done that, I probably would have responded in a very different way. It would have been a tactful way to stroke my ego (sinfulness) and bring about the right action.

The problem with apologetics is simple: Often we can lack tact, thus solidifying our “opponents” in positions that they did not really hold to before.

And, just to let you know, I am going to Katelynn’s recital. I am going to take my mother with me. I figured I had to do that if I was going to write this blog post!

56 Responses to “The Problem with Apologetics”

  1. That last paragraph speaks volumes to your character. “None doeth good” but you, my friend are clearly growing in the right direction.

  2. In reality we all change, at least some and refine our theology and doctrine, especially some of us “theolog’s”. This is always a human affair also, and sometimes we even have a radical change. And yet indeed however this is often a hard go, but not always, sometimes we just find ourselves in that place of change, and sometimes it is like a “prevenient” grace!

  3. I cannot see that it’s a choice between real need (your father’s) and a one time event regarding a children’s recital (not a real need).

    Not speaking against Kristie’s concern that you be there for your children, which is very important to every mother, but just looking the priorities here. Valid health concerns take far more precident, IMO.

  4. Your honesty is refreshing.

    Also, as one who has had back problems, your dad will be OK for a few hours. Taking your mother with you is a good answer. Your child does not understand these issues and the absent father is a deep wound in children that is very difficult for them to get healed once it sets in.

    Well done, son!

  5. Lisa Robinson May 3, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Loved this line,

    “I figured I had to do this if I was going to write this blog post!”


    I’m noticing that there is a keen focus on what Michael should have done. But I think to focus there kind of misses the point. The point is that we become so defensive in what we think is right that any opposition can push us further into that defense that results in losing anyway. Sometimes we have to concede to another’s sinful disposition to really defend the faith rather than being right.

    Or at least that is what I believe Michael is saying.

  6. “But hearing Him is so hard sometimes… thank God for His grace.”

    Saw that. Still thinking about it. I’ve done that before. Not sure about the results yet in my latest attempt. Think it depends upon each circumstance. And I’m not sure that it’s about ‘defending the faith’, but more about thinking about the best interest of the other person.

    Whenever there are the helpless, the immature, youth and the young Christian involved, I tend to want to put their needs first.

    Again, Michael’s honesty is refreshing. Sometimes, people do the right thing with interesting but not perfect reasoning. :)

  7. I meant to quote the following…..
    “Sometimes we have to concede to another’s sinful disposition to really defend the faith rather than being right.”

    curious what discussion the other one came from….. and stayed hanging in copy mode. LOL

  8. Christian Apologetics is really its own presuppositions, coming from the doctrinal and theological reality of the Holy Scripture itself! And this is also somewhat bound to the historical church, but not with any perfection, since the Church is itself a Pilgrim reality on earth, thus the Reformation and the Reformed nature also of the Church. But the Church is always Catholic too.

  9. Btw: just got the MRI results on his back. It is featured, not just out. :-(

  10. Oh my. Sorry to hear that. So will he need surgery or will he be bedridden for a while.

  11. I’m going to throw a wrench in here and say that sometimes I am OK with forcing someone into a position that they maybe didn’t originally hold if 1) there is really no way of convincing the person to your viewpoint, 2) the views that they do hold logically entail the view your forcing them into, and 3) the viewpoint your forcing them into is so absurd as to be ridiculous.

    Let me give an example. I was recently watching a debate between William Lane Craig and a Atheist (can’t remember which one). In the sit-down portion Craig and the atheist were discussing morality and whether objective morality can exist absent God. The atheist made the assertion that what Hitler did was morally wrong. Craig responded by backing the atheist into a corner. He got him to admit that morality is only a result of evolutionary and social constructs and by implication what Hitler did was not obectively morally wrong, but merely wrong according to the morals of Western Democracies at the time

  12. Michael,

    I agree with what you have said. What Craig did was right. Don’t you think that he may have been drawing out the implications of what this dude already believed?

  13. Truth unites... And divides May 4, 2012 at 3:21 am

    Did Jesus help Pharisees to save face and change their hearts when He argued with them?

  14. George Jenkins May 4, 2012 at 6:52 am

    Your basic thesis seems to be summed up in your statement, “The problem with apologetics is simple: Often we can lack tact and solidify “opponents” in positions that they did not really hold to before.”

    I disagree with the premise that apologetics is the problem here. On the contrary, the problem is within us and manifests itself in our lives in many areas of our lives. I believe the cause and the solution to the problem are summed up in these verses from Proverbs:

    “The Lord detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.
    Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil.

    When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him. ”

    The things the Lord desires from us are a “broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart”. When we deal with people from that position, it is easier to be at peace with them. When I was discouraged in university because I…

  15. Repentance and forgiveness…the shape of our lives.

    I’ll pray for you and your family, Michael.

  16. Michael,

    I am sorry to hear about your Dad’s back and all of the problems that is bringing to your family. May His grace abound to all of you.

    But since you brought this up, I’m wondering if you can give us some Scirptural examples, instructions, etc about the need to “cater to” anothers sinfulness to get the right results?

    I have been thinking about this idea and I haven’t come up with any. Of course we have to live with the understanding that we are all sinful and in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. And ours too. But somehow that doesn’t seem to me to be the same thing as having to “stroke” someone’s sinfulness in order to get a desired result. Somehow that seems a whole lot like encouraging and perpetuating that sinfulness, whatever it is.

  17. Lisa Robinson May 4, 2012 at 9:33 am

    Cheryl, 1 Corinthians 6 comes to mind and the idea that we should be wronged rather than carry on a defense to prove we are right, especially publicly.

  18. Don’t know Lisa, that doesn’t seem to me to be quite the same thing. Accepting a wrong done to ourselves instead of seeking that be made right, specially in light of the statement that “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord”, just doesn’t seem to me to be the same as “stroking sin” to get a right or better result.

    Maybe I am missing something here.

  19. I wonder what St. Paul was thinking at the Areopagus or Mars Hill? It seems he thought I am going to tell them about the Unknown God, the resurrection of Christ, and the judgment ordained in Him! (Acts 17: 22-31) All historical, biblical, and presuppositional revelations from the “Unknown God”!

  20. Lisa Robinson May 4, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Cheryl, I don’t think the point is that we stroke sin but allow grace where sin is present…”where sin abounds, grace abounds even more”. This is what ultimately wins.

  21. Lisa,

    Maybe I took what Michael said in a different way then he meant it. But it certainly seemed he was saying that he would of probably acted more correctly if Kristi had “catered to” or “stroked” his sin.

    Dunno, I wish he would clarify. But obviously he has his hands full at the moment.

  22. Grace and truth should not come at the expense of each other, but be so bound together, as they are in Christ, that truth can come in to both to save and to correct sin through grace. Christ was an example of using this. He forgave, and then told people to go and sin no more.

    To me this is or should be a guiding force in apologetics. If I don’t use grace during a correction, which so many of the bloggers nowadays don’t and are overly prone to harshness in that regard, or I overuse grace at the expense of truth in order to be considered politically correct, or get along, what am I really accomplishing by speaking up in the first place?

    I think there is a balance we are missing.

  23. cherylu, I took Michael, when he used the term catered to my sinfulness, to mean that she could have used his sinfulness against him by being tactful in her approach. Or simply put , entice me through my pride to achieve a better result. Sort of how God allows sin to accomplish something good……iMHO

  24. The best example is the parable of the shrewd steward. It is an amazingly odd example of how unbelievers can be more tactful than us.

  25. Yes, I mean to take into account people’s sinfulness and act shrewdly (i.e. with wisdom and tact). We don’t push people to get defensive unnecessarily. It is like when we give a testimony of our own sinfulness to others. This disarms them. We don’t act self righteously.

  26. I’ve found there are two general areas where apologetics exerts a “cement-drying effect” on nonbelievers exposed to it, one by design and to the hearer’s detriment, and one by accident and to the hearer’s credit.

    The former is the deployment of “Worldviewism”: the tactic in which the apologist handwaves away specific objections and arguments because the skeptic does not have a grand systematic metaphysics explaining (literally!) life, the universe, morality, etc. I think a lot less people would be calling themselves metaphysical naturalists if not for this reaction formation, which is unfortunate because MN is so untenable.

    The latter is when an apologist makes an argument on a topic the nonbeliever previously had no interest in – say, the hominid fossil record – and then, when checking the sources, discover the apologist is perpetuating an obviously verifiable falsehood. So something you couldn’t’ve cared less about yesterday is today a set in stone distrust of the…

  27. George Jenkins May 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    When I was discouraged in university because I could not convince some of the validity of the Bible, a wise elder said, “It is not your responsibility to convince people. That is the job of the Holy Spirit. Your job is to witness.” After that my discussions became less controlled by my spirit and more by the Spirit and my witnessing became much more open. I did not look for results. They were all in God’s hands. The words of Ruth Senter have been a great encouragement to me. She wrote,” Faithfulness has its rewards. And sometimes, for my encouragement, the Lord lets me know the result.”

    I believe that if we stop “defending the faith” and, yes, even stop “trying to get people to bow before Christ” and simply present the hope that is within us the Holy Spirit will be pleased.

    Oh, and incidentally, I think the fact that Kristie did not deal with you “tactfully” is not the problem.

  28. Perhaps the biggest problem with Apologetics is that today we have a lot of people clinging to a teaching/tradition versus getting their knowledge/wisdom/revelation from the Lord Jesus Himself. A great example is hearing a new teaching on a Christian TV program, and it very well may be a great word from the Evangelist. But the next person who shares this teaching ran with it, and exploited it, and he/she did not get it from God. Others join in and promote the same teaching, but also expand on it. Years later people are still teaching it and believing it.

    In contrast==a lot of other groups tell their followers to abandon their church for every cause that does seem wrong. But where is the sacrifice and love? (How do you know that God did not put 1 there?) The same with Apologetics–where is the love when 1 demolishes someone’s faith and did not bother to restore them to sound doctrine? Does that not demonstrate that ones own Apologetics might lack love? Or even sound…

  29. Sorry Michael, but now I am really lost. I really don’t see how that parable applies here. Is someone telling others to lie and cheat to get into their good graces really acting with tact? And do you think Jesus was telling us that lying and cheating are great in His eyes to accomplish what we believe is a good end?

    Like I said, now I am really lost and confused!

  30. Michael,

    Can we just please get over the assumptions we are obviously all having? This is not like you. You are usually so clear so I’m not truly understanding this either.

    Thanks for any clarification. And I mean that with all grace toward you and others here. If I’m dense, please forgive me.

  31. Now I am really lost. Assumptions?

    I am not sure that tactfulness in apologetics is too revolutionary.

  32. Look at how Paul handled King Agippa. A perfect example.

  33. Not at all, if you read my previous comment above about balance. Just need to know why so many here are apparently misunderstanding your original OP. Couldn’t agree more about the tact part.

    But where exactly should that end? And how far should we go with it before it gets into appeasing? Not saying you are preaching,that, God forbid, because you should know me better than that by now, or hopefully anyway.

  34. I don’t know how long. Not sure that I could answer that in a universal way. But from my experience the conversation develops or stops when the Gospel is clearly the subject.

  35. I agree that should be the uppermost focus always but sometimes i think it gets so personal that the gospel becomes secondary to what we think is right or wrong in any given situation. Again, not saying you are going there, but it is a thorny question regarding all our human decisions,especially when folks disagree on the practical application of it.

  36. Michael,

    Maybe we aren’t talking about the same parable? I am assuming you mean the one in Luke 16?

    If we are talking about the same one, we must have a very different understanding of it’s meaning. I have always believed that the steward made friend’s with these debtor’s of his master’s by directing them to rewirte the amount of the bill they owed him. (From 100 to 50 and from 100 to 80). Various commentaries I just checked uphold that view although one favored a different view.

  37. Cheryl, the parable was given because of Christs response about shrewdness. But a more clear example is Paul and Agrippa. Look at how Paul “handled” him. We can have all the right info but not handle people correctly and get them unneccessarily defensive. This makes them harden in positions.

  38. It is the hardening i worry about on Christian blogs that I see in general, i.e. if we don’t agree with what is posted we are somehow going against the grain. Throwing the gospel out there, without really answering the specific questions involved is not answering the questions as to it’s practical applications, in real life. One of the biggest objections i actually hear from non-believers as to why we are Christians are so self satisfied and smug in our faith instead of being honest and humble about what we do when we have problems, that they can’t relate to us.

  39. Amen. But we also, I think, need to find a way to be tactful inside. I need to lean to do so with those people out there with good intentions that sometimes seem to do more harm than good in their attempts to correct and appraise. I can get angry and untactful. I am just glad that it ultimately does not depend on us and our less than perfect ways.

  40. Tactfulness is good and I agree that’s where we should all come from first, as with any healthly human relationship but then when it becomes a mindset of of its own, then we should call ourselves up, and ask ourselves what we are valuing first.

  41. Michael,

    I just reread the Paul/Agrippa story. It is certainly true that Paul spoke to him with great kindsness, respect and tact. I have no arguments with that at all.

    Do you see him as catering to the King’s sinfulness?I’m not at all sure that is the case there. If you see it, would you tell me where and how please? Because I am still not seeeing how you are understanding that idea from Scripture.

  42. (I sure wish the edit function wasn’t defunct here. I still REALLY need it!)

  43. Cheryl. U got it right. That is all I mean. Tact assumes as much.

  44. Michael,

    I think this is maybe getting to be a comedy of errors. Since I was questioning specific statements of yours in the OP, I thought you were using King Agrippa as an example of that too. But now I am thinking that was not the case, that you were simply using that story as an example of tact. Correct? Yes? No?

  45. Personally, I see St. Paul simply and soundly making his “Jewish” defense before King Agrippa and the Jews in Acts 26, and we are left with nothing else but historical exegesis, Paul describes his conversion (9-18), and summarizes his preaching (19-23), and appeals to Agrippa II, (24-29). But Paul presents the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the defining Jewish and Christian belief, (Acts 26:23).

  46. Cheryl. Exactly. That I have been posting all day from my iPhone while on the road has not helped. :-)

  47. Well, glad we got that cleared up! :) :)

  48. Michael,
    Have you ever heard an apologist 9or anyone else) described this way, “He would rather win the argument than find out what is right”? I think this gets at a little of what you are saying. There is a basic question involved — is how we argue — discuss, prove, converse, communicate — more important than what kind of person we are while doing so?


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