Trinity Baptist Church: Sunday School, Feb. 15, 2009
Week 1 - What is apologetics? What is the Biblical basis for apologetics? (1 Pet. 3:15-16, Acts 17:16-34)
Apologetics is “the field of Christian theology that aims to present a rational basis for the Christian faith, defend the faith against objections, and expose the perceived flaws in other worldviews” (Wikipedia). Before we begin studying apologetics, it is important –as in all things- to ask what Scripture teaches about it. So what does Scripture say about apologetics?
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer (= Greek apologia, defense, reasoned statement or argument) to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16)
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'
"Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. (Acts 17:16-34)
Principles from 1 Peter
1. “In your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord” – this is the most fundamental basis of apologetics. Our primarily allegiance must be to Christ. John Frame says: “don’t be an apologist unless your first loyalty is to God – not to intellectual respectability, not to truth in the abstract, not to the unbeliever as such, not to some philosophic tradition” (Apologetics to the Glory of God). Or as Paul writes, “If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight” (1 Cor. 3:18-19). Remember that as Christ’s disciples, as those he became a curse for and died to save, we owe him everything. We must value our relationship with him above all else.
2. As Christians, we should be prepared to give a “reason for the hope that we have”. This doesn’t mean that if you don’t happen to have a doctorate in history, theology, or physics or even a sixth grade education that you can’t do apologetics. God uses “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; …the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). God will use our earnest efforts for his glory and the salvation of many lives. However, that isn’t an excuse for laziness. It is good for us to prepare and be ready to give an answer.
3. We should do so “with gentleness and respect”, not harshly or abrasively. Do we understand that those with whom we are debating are human beings made in God’s image, destined for either eternal life or eternal death? C.S. Lewis wrote
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. (The Weight of Glory)
If that isn’t enough, shouldn’t we remember Jesus’ command: “love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those that mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). If the atheist is right, then when I die, I rot. But if I am right, then the atheist (apart from repentance and faith) will be eternally condemned. What is more, I too was once lost and would be lost still, had not Jesus come and found me. Shouldn’t my heart be filled with compassion and love rather than harshness?
4. “keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander”. My deeds need to agree with my words. When we enter into a discussion about Christianity, it is not only our words that will count. We need to make sure that if people “speak maliciously against us”, it really is false slander rather than the honest truth about our behavior. Peter later says that non-Christians can be won over “without words…when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Pet. 3:1-2).
Paul’s apologetic in Athens as a model
1. Despite being “deeply distressed” (17:16) at the idolatry he saw in Athens, he does not simply condemn them. Nor does he simply pass it over. Indeed it becomes the focal point of his speech.
2. He was preaching the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (17:18). It’s important to remember that apologetics is not exactly the same as evangelism. The message of the gospel is a proclamation: “God made him sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). I believe that apologetics focuses more on answering questions, which may or not be directly related to the gospel. However, the two can also be related as we see in Acts 17.
3. Paul’s preaching of the gospel led to a discussion because the Athenian philosophers were curious about what he was preaching (17:18-20).
4. Paul builds a bridge from the Athenian pagan religion to the gospel without compromising the gospel but also without alienating the Athenians. Notice that how gentle he is with his criticism, despite his frustration with idolatry. “I see you are very religious… I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” (17:22-23, ironic humor?). He then connects the Athenians’ religious experiences and ideas, though unclear and warped by sin, to the God that he comes to proclaim (17:23). He says, in effect, I am bringing to you what you were truly seeking in all of your mistaken worship (I should be careful here, since Scripture clearly states that “no one who seeks God; All have turned away” (Rom. 3:11-12). Yet since some of the hearers accepted Paul’s message (17:34), it is clear that the Holy Spirit was indeed at work in their hearts drawing them to Christ, because they recognized that the God they were truly seeking was the God that Paul proclaimed).
5. He quotes two pagan poets (17:28, Epimedes and Aratus) who affirm Biblical truths, again connecting what truth they do recognize with the truth of Scripture.
6. Yet he also challenges their beliefs, pointing out how irrational is the worship of man-made objects rather than the worship of the God who made all things (17:29).
7. Finally, he ends with the gospel (17:29-31) or tries to, before he is interrupted. Our apologetics should never be empty philosophical debate, but always an attempt to convey the gospel to our hearers.
General Thoughts on Apologetics
1. Be careful. Take up faith as a shield. You will certainly encounter challenging arguments to your beliefs. On the one hand, this is good because it will help you clarify and strengthen your beliefs. Because the gospel is true, we don’t need to fear honest examination of our beliefs. On the other hand, this is dangerous if you let go of the primacy of faith in Christ. It’s important to recognize that it’s possible to make very persuasive arguments even against beliefs that are true. Furthermore, we need to have humility when it comes to our own ability to reason. God never, ever asks us to believe anything that isn’t true – precisely the opposite. He requires us to have faith in him because we are so easily led into believing lies.
2. Love your neighbor. We must be motivated first by a desire to serve God, and second by a love for those with whom we are reasoning. Our goal must never, ever be to win the argument, to look clever, or to score points; our goal is that our hearers, whom we love, should be saved by Christ. We should also remember that our behavior reflects on Christ. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes many letters that he’s received from professed Christians who spew profanity at him, curse him, and threaten him with violence. Brothers, such things should not be. It makes me ashamed of the dishonor that we bring to Jesus.
3. Be humble. It is ok to admit the apparent strength of your opponents’ arguments, or even to admit that you don’t have an answer. Again, if we are personally trusting in Christ and believe in the truth (the real, historical, objective truth) of the gospel, then a good counterargument should not terrify us. I trust my wife. We’ve been married for almost seven years, and I have faith in her. Let’s say that a stranger approaches me and tells me that he has evidence that she is actually a Russian spy sent to assassinate me. I would laugh at him. He might even produce a convincing-looking passport, or glossy photos of Christina sipping martinis with Putin, but I would still tell him “Look, I know my wife and I trust her. I don’t know where you got those photos, but there must be something wrong with them.” Am I being naďve? No! I’m being utterly rational. On their own, perhaps the photos might even be fairly convincing. But what are they when weighed against the vast amount of evidence I have?
I have come across many, many initially compelling arguments against the Christian faith. But after researching them further, I have always found flaws in them. Again, this process has actually been very faith-building. I no longer become terrified when I hear a plausible argument that conflicts with the Bible. Conversely, the evidence for the truth of the gospel is overwhelming. Nonetheless, I think that a presuppositional faith in Christ that supersedes all else is vital. Why? First, because anything less dishonors God. What kind of husband would I be if I believed the evidence that my wife is a Russian spy, no matter how apparently convincing, over the reality of my marriage? Second, because we all have faith-based presuppositions, even skeptics. What should I chose as a presupposition in place of the omnipotent creator of the Universe?
4. Be willing to examine your own interpretation of Scripture. As Protestants, we should always be willing to reexamine our interpretation of Scripture. While we trust in the inerrancy of Scripture, we in no way trust in our inerrancy in reading or understanding Scripture. If your hearers question the divinity of Christ or the nature of the Trinity, I would absolutely not respond with some pithy statement of doctrine. In fact, I would welcome the opportunity to look at Scripture together. After all, we may decide that we are actually wrong about what the Bible says, and in that case we should realign our view (hopefully, before we change our view on the divinity of Christ or the nature of the Trinity, we’ll have a chat with a theologically knowledgeable friend or pastor).
5. Never use sophistry. Since we serve the God of all truth, we need to care about truth more than about persuasiveness. Even practically speaking, in the long run poor arguments are far worse than no argument at all. If we believe that the gospel is objectively true, then we should have no need to win an argument or resort to rhetorical smoke and mirrors to prove that we are right. If you realize that your argument is unsound, admit it. Again, our behavior and demeanor itself is a powerful witness.
6. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. For all of our good arguments and our sound reasoning, we can no more save others than we can save ourselves. Only the gospel of radical and free grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can save sinners like us. It’s amazing how the gospel itself really is not at all well-known or well-understood by most people, even in the United States. What good is it to convince people that God exists if we don’t tell them the good news that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we can be reconciled to the God who exists? All of our most clever, sound, intelligent, well-reasoned, articulate arguments are completely and wholly futile compared to the power of God’s word and the work of the Holy Spirit.
7. Love the brothers. As I’ve looked into the lives of the greatest proponents of atheism or some of the committed atheists friends that I have, one consistent pattern is that they all had very negative experiences with Christianity in their past. I suspect that most devout atheists don’t come out of free thinking backgrounds, but out of the church. Again, this is an admonition to truly practice love for one another, so that we don’t become the cause for someone to reject Christianity as a religion of falsehood and hypocrisy.