Does Apologetics Convert People?
For some Christians, the word “apologetics” is just another piece of seminary jargon. It’s one of those words their pastor uses to prove his degree is from a legitimate theological institution. After all, it has the same word ending as “homiletics” and “hermeneutics.” Words ending in “tics” are clearly very important, but they are for the “religious specialists”, not “lay” persons.
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We all have to guard against large or obscure words becoming obstacles to our education. Every word means something (unless it is just gibberish). “Homiletics” is basically sermonizing (giving “homilies”). “Hermeneutics” is simply interpreting things (like ancient texts) to find their true meaning.
How a word sounds may evoke a particular feeling, but that’s irrelevant. The word “medieval” has a dark, ominous sound because we hear the word “evil” in it. But the word “evil” isn’t really in it. It only sounds like it is. “Medieval” only means “middle.”
Apologist sounds, at first, like a term of weakness.
Similarly, “apologist” sounds, at first, to the average English speaker, like a term of weakness, like someone who goes around saying, “I’m sorry” for his or her views. That’s because our common use of the word “apology” has a different meaning than it did when ancient Greeks used it.
What is Apologetics?
The classical definition of the word “apology” is simply “a verbal defense.” It certainly wasn’t used to describe those fake public apologies made by famous people today. It’s high time we redeem the word “apology.” We need fewer spineless apologies and more robust apologists. In other words, stop saying you’re sorry for holding your beliefs and instead defend them.
We need fewer spineless apologies and more robust apologists.
When, in the 4th Century B.C., Plato penned the famous Apology of Socrates, suffice to say, it did not feature his mentor saying “I’m terribly sorry for challenging the status quo with my pointed philosophical questions aimed at self-proclaimed intellectual leaders in Athens, so now can you find it in your hearts to forgive me for corrupting the youth by teaching them how to think critically?” No sir.
The Apology was Socrates’ characteristically brilliant defense of himself before the Athenian court that had sentenced him to death. Similarly today, an “apologist” for the big oil companies, defends those companies’ rights, privileges and practices.
“Christian Apologetics” is the practice of defending Christianity.
Thus, “Christian Apologetics” is the practice of defending Christianity, either by defending it against the specific accusations of critics or defending the truth of its central claims.
Does Apologetics Convert People?
If we ask the question, “How many people became Christians because they heard a good defense of something like the existence of God, the historicity of the Gospels, or the archeological verifications of biblical narratives?” the answer is probably “very few”.
But the question, “Does apologetics convert anyone?” is a poor question to begin with. This is why I imagine the ghosts of Puritans past cringing when they hear us ask it. They would remind us in stern, puritanical tones that the only theologically correct way to speak of this is that God alone converts people. However, we may inquire as to what means God uses.
We could plug any of these things into the question, “Does x convert people?”
So, is apologetics a means to the conversion of people? I think we can answer in the affirmative. Many things are means to that end: benevolence, care for the sick, music, living a good example, powerful storytelling, Christian drug counselors, etc. We could plug any of these things into the question, “Does x convert people?” The question sounds the same. It’s not the right way to ask it. Yet, they all play important roles.
The diversity of people’s spiritual histories is too wide and profound to make a negative judgment about apologetics or any of the other means by which people come to faith. Over the years, I’ve met people who tell all sorts of stories about the things that played important roles in their conversion:
- The kindness of a prison guard
- Supernatural experiences
- A scene in a movie
- A death in the family
- A dream they had
- One sentence they heard someone utter 10 years ago
- A Gospel tract
- A lyric on Christian radio
You can add to that list, those whose pathway to Christian belief was more intellectual in nature and for whom apologetics was, in fact, very important. I have met people like this. Some of the most influential Christian intellectuals and writers in history had conversion stories of this kind.
Let’s put it like this: if lifestyle, the arts, charity ministries, and counseling are important means by which people enter the Kingdom, so is apologetics.
Everyone Practices Apologetics
Everyone practices apologetics. If you hold a belief about anything and seek to defend that belief, you are playing the role of the apologist. Is there anyone who does not hold beliefs that he or she considers important? Is there anyone who, hearing those beliefs discounted, maligned, or ridiculed, will not speak up on their behalf? You would find it very difficult if you tried to never to be an apologist for anything. I doubt you could do it.
Thus, every religion, every cause, every political group, and every shared point of view will have advocates and defenders. There are apologists for Islam, a limited government model, atheism, marijuana legalization, the Roman Catholic Church, and abortion rights.
Every religion, every cause, every political group, and every shared point of view has defenders.
The question is not, “Are you an apologist?” but rather, “For what are you an apologist?” What do you take the trouble to defend, and do you do it effectively?
What Exactly Does Apologetics Accomplish?
What exactly does apologetics accomplish? For starters, it removes unnecessary obstacles; it brings down barriers to belief. It clears away the rubble. This is why some people call it “pre-evangelism.”
My favorite quote on this is by Austin Farrer, the Oxford scholar and Anglican priest who was part of the famous “Inklings” group that featured C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. He explained the importance of apologetics thus:
It is commonly said that if rational argument is so seldom the cause of conviction, philosophical apologists must largely be wasting their shot. The premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. So the apologist who does nothing but defend may play a useful, though preparatory, part.
Apologetics also benefits the already converted. Some apologists will tell you that their efforts probably do more for the faithful than the faithless. Sure, a few non-believers are given something to think about when there is a strong argument advanced on behalf of a Christian belief. Maybe some of them are moved in the right direction by it. But almost every Christian who hears that same argument is strengthened and bolstered by it.
The Importance of Apologetics to Believers
As theologian John Stackhouse points out, there is an internal apologetics that actively accompanies external apologetics. Where this is a regular part of the training of Christians, that internal teacher does indispensable work. Stackhouse writes:
As Christians consider the questions raised in the culture at large or within our own communion, we can reconsider just what the best response really should be. As we do so we may find that we should refine our understanding of this Bible passage or that doctrine, or this approach to evangelism or that approach to political activity. … Under the probing of good questions, even fiercely antagonistic ones, Christians can thus find their conception and practice of their religion become more nuanced, more careful, and more mature.
And I might add that in a time of parental hand-wringing over the attrition rate of young people raised in church, it is highly likely that the overlooked missing ingredient is a solid intellectual foundation for the faith these young people so casually cast aside. Were it not such a lightly held and shallow faith, were it instead a deeply rooted and fully orbed worldview, I doubt this regrettable phenomenon would be what it is.
Apologetics is Biblical
Not to be flippant, and not that it is a newsflash to most people, but let’s make sure we remember something: defending the faith is plainly biblical. It is both practiced and taught; it is exemplified and mandated.
The word “apologetics” is used literally, and rather famously, in 1 Peter 3:15; this is probably the go-to apologetics verse:
1 Peter 3:15 – but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, [ESV]
The apostle admonishes the believers always to be ready to give an “apologia” (which is the key term), usually translated “answer” or “defense.” He wasn’t telling them to do anything that wasn’t demonstrated repeatedly in the lives of the apostles themselves.
Just picture Paul in a major foreign city defending the messiahship of Jesus before a hostile crowd in the local synagogue, and later, after being run off, borrowing a lecture hall and “reasoning daily” in discussions and debates with all-comers.
The early church leaders of the next era followed suit. One such was Justin Martyr, who wrote two defenses of the Christians.
In the generation coming just after the apostles, the growing Christian movement faced accusations within the suspicious culture of the Roman Empire. It was believed that they ritually drank human blood and ate human flesh like primitive cannibals, and held scandalous secret meetings that included men and women (a rarity among Roman religions). They were believed to be atheists insofar as they denied all of the Roman (and other) gods. They were dangerously seditious because they gave allegiance to another king and would not worship the Emperor.
And so, Justin, who would earn the name ‘Martyr’ for the exact reason you might suspect, took up his pen to make a careful and reasoned defense of the worshippers of Jesus against all of these false accusations or mischaracterizations. He addressed his letter to the Roman emperor Antonius Pius, along with his royal household and the Roman Senate. It began,
“I, Justin, the son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius, natives of Flavia Neapolis in Palestine, present this address and petition in behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them.”
The practice of defending the faith has been characteristic of Christians ever since that time. It is commanded, it is important, and it is frankly not very difficult compared with the much more daunting tasking of living up to the moral standard of a Christian disciple. You’ll end up doing it anyway, so it is imperative that you learn to do it well.