When it comes to apologetics, I need all the help I can get. Here are four wise principles I’ve been taught in recent years that I strive to remember as I commend and contend for the Christian faith.
None of them are new, but I’ve found them immensely helpful.
1. Apologetics is a we thing, not a me thing.
If we’re to do apologetics well, we need each other. None of us can be a one-stop shop for all apologetic matters. I’m a philosopher, so my bread and butter is wrangling big, abstract concepts and hunting around for hidden assumptions. But ask me to get practical and talk policy, and I soon leave my comfort zone.
I need Christians with expertise in politics and economics, for example, to work out the practical consequences of grand theological and philosophical ideas—and to push back on those ideas from time to time. Only together can we develop a fully rounded case for the Christian faith.
We all need people who are different from us to stand alongside us in the apologetic enterprise. We need bulldogs (like Christ with the Pharisees) and gentle collies (like Christ with the woman at the well). We need young and old; rich and poor; black and white; African, Eastern, and Western Christians; each to present the unchanging and glorious gospel in ways that complement fellow apologists’ sensitivities and blind spots.
2. Apologetics is how as well as what.
What you say is only one aspect of apologetics. The same argument can be memorable or mediocre, striking or soporific, depending on how it’s expressed. A finely crafted sentence is the shaft driving home the spearhead of truth. I’ve learned this from C. S. Lewis, from Jackie Hill Perry, and from Francis Spufford, among others. They take time to shape sentences that let the truth sing, and it makes all the difference to the impression they leave.
If we’re to do apologetics well, we need each other. Only together can we develop a fully rounded case for the Christian faith.
No one, perhaps, has done this quite as well in the past hundred years as G. K. Chesterton. In The Everlasting Man, he remarks, “Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt.” If people think they know what you’re going to say, they’ll pay you scant attention. He muses that most people in the West are so inoculated against what they think Christianity is that we’d do well to retell the whole gospel in a Far Eastern setting for it to be “admired as a heathen story, in the very quarters where it is condemned as a Christian story.”
This is the brilliance of many of Jesus’s parables. Some behavior in them isn’t quite right; some attitudes make us do a double take. Tell the old, old story; preach the one true gospel. But tell it with a shift in perspective; preach it with an unsettling freshness. Don’t let people go away thinking they’ve heard it all before.
3. Apologetics is also who.
There’s a further crucial aspect to being Christ’s ambassador: who you are, your character. I remember taking a hardened and intellectually brilliant atheist friend to hear a debate between William Lane Craig and an atheist from the philosophy department at Cambridge. The philosophy guy was clinical, throwing out a series of well-targeted and immaculately presented arguments, but he was also cruel, making fun of Craig’s credentials.
Walking home from the debate, I asked my hardened, skeptical friend what he made of it. To my surprise, his overriding reaction was that he liked Craig more as a person because he didn’t strike back when he was attacked with low blows. On that day, Craig’s character spoke louder than his arguments (1 Pet. 3:15).
Character also counts when we’re away from the apologetic arena. We’ve witnessed in recent years the spectacular demise of more than one prominent Christian apologist who made powerful arguments and spoke in glittering prose. Sadly, these apologists were missing a third crucial, nonnegotiable quality: godliness.
The most powerful arguments expressed in the most memorable way fall like a house of cards if they issue from the mouth of a person in ongoing, unrepentant, and grievous sin. We all sin, but we know the difference between a normal Christian life of repentance and struggle and a life indulging and even hiding deplorable wrongs. Lord, have mercy on us all.
4. Apologetics today means being an insider-outsider.
In recent years, I’ve tried to adopt the stance of what Pierce Taylor Hibbs in a forthcoming book describes as an “insider-outsider.”
The most powerful arguments expressed in the most memorable way fall like a house of cards if they issue from the mouth of a person in ongoing, unrepentant, and grievous sin.
One great model for this is Augustine’s City of God. Augustine was an insider to the Roman culture he put under the microscope. He genuinely appreciated why Cicero is such a good writer and so admired in Roman society. He didn’t merely read a cheat sheet on how to take Rome down; Augustine wrote about Rome in a way that showed the Romans he understood them.
But he was also thoroughly an outsider. Looking at Roman culture with the eyes of someone whose thoughts and emotions move to a biblical rhythm, he saw the quirks and idiosyncrasies that were invisible to the Romans themselves.
Some of us are more naturally insiders (Contextualize! Be relevant!), and others are more naturally outsiders (Proclaim! Be faithful!). Which aspect of being an insider-outsider do you need to work on as you practice apologetics?
These are four principles I’m trying to learn in my own apologetic practice. Do pray for me. And I’ll be praying for the readers of this article, too, that God would give you the grace to embody and live out these principles in your own apologetic encounters.