Apologies and apologetics: Introduction

November 19, 2018

Apologies and apologetics: Introduction

Image: Ramon Williams of Worldwide Photos

Adjunct Prof. Bill Peirson & Dr Dani Scarratt

The title of our host centre contains the word ‘apologetics’. Since in popular parlance being apologetic means being sorry, some may assume that our purpose is for Christians to say sorry for wrong things they have done. But the meaning of ‘apologetics’ in the Centre for Christian Apologetics, Scholarship and Education harks back to an earlier use of the term, closer to its Greek root apologia, meaning a formal defence in a court trial. ‘Christian apologetics’ is the defence of Christianity.

‘Being apologetic’, then, is ambiguous between being sorry and being defensive. These two meanings—both from the same root, and both responses to particular charges or accusations—have developed in very different directions:

  • an apology acknowledges the truth of an accusation, and responds to the accuser with sorrow, repentance, and where possible, reparation.
  • an apologetic denies the truth of the accusation, and seeks to defend the integrity of the accused by demonstrating that the accusation is ill-founded.

So the key to working out when an apology is in order, and when an apologetic, is whether the accusation holds water. Accusations against Christians and Christianity can be significant stumbling blocks to Christians and non-Christians alike in how they respond to God. It is the responsibility of Christians who are in positions to evaluate the truth of these accusations to do so, so that all Christians can respond appropriately—be that response to say sorry, or offer a defence.

Why apologise?

In some cases, accusations against Christians and Christianity hit home. Apology is the first step towards restoring relationship, repairing harm, and preventing recurrence. Jesus gives absolutely no option on being sorry:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:21-24)

Repentance and reconciliation are prerequisites of our intentions of goodness. Even those wishing to offer some gift of dedication to God are called by Jesus to self-examination and reconciliation with any potentially injured party before proceeding.

Jesus is explicit about the evil that infects the human condition and that evildoers will misrepresent Him for profoundly evil purposes.[i] This calls for vigilance. If we relax our watch it becomes all too easy for opportunities for abuse to arise. William Peirson recalls being appointed as a Youth Group leader in the late 1970s:

It was a time when young people did not talk explicitly about sexual matters or feelings, and I still remember an oblique conversation with the woman I led with as we each expressed our unease about the practice of mixed sleeping arrangements on camps that had developed before we were appointed. We banned the practice.

In retrospect, it’s easy to be horrified that such things were taking place: the opportunity for abuse is obvious now. But such practices had evolved as a reaction against the conservatism of the war generation and the desire for freedom and self-expression that characterised the 1960s and 1970s across society. There are no excuses, but it does highlight how societal shifts can lead to complacency.

At this present time in Australia, as over much of the past two millennia, Christians have significant cause for self-examination and sorrow.

It’s a tragedy when churches need to apologise. It means wrong has been done by representatives of a righteous God. But once an offence is recognised, Christians should be quick to acknowledge it, repent, and ask for forgiveness—even when doing so is costly. An apology is not an apologetic—it does not defend Christianity or make it more appealing—but it does prevent compounding obstacles to belief. Attempts to rationalise or cover up a wrong add hypocrisy and misrepresenting God to the original wrong. A ready apology neutralises the possibility of hypocrisy (frequently cited as a barrier to accepting Christianity), and prevents communicating a wrong view of God’s character by acknowledging the rightness of the standard against which the behaviour fell short.

For many Australians, ‘The Apology’ is Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. Many Christian churches and institutions were complicit in government policies involving taking and keeping Aboriginal children from their families. In this issue, John Harris brings to our attention lesser known apologies offered to Aboriginal people by Australian churches well before Rudd’s.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has exposed major and widespread failings in churches and other religious organisations which have enabled perpetrators to harm young people over many years. It also revealed situations in which allegations of abuse have been overlooked or even concealed by leaders charged with pastoral oversight. The profound damage caused to many people by this cannot be expressed in simple black and white text. There is no place for defence here. Thankfully, the action of the churches since the findings have come to light has—in the majority of cases—been apology, reparation, and changing policies and structures to better protect children. This edition of CQ includes a summary of how the major Christian denominations have responded to the Commission’s findings to date.

Domestic violence is another area that has seen the church in the spotlight recently for inadequate protection of the vulnerable. Drawing on her professional experience with victims and perpetrators of family abuse, Rosemary Isaacs helpfully maps out common patterns of domestic violence, and considers the specific dangers and opportunities faced by Christians and the church when it comes to caring for people impacted by it.

But what of the future? What opportunities are presently emerging for the perpetration of abuse? In CQ #48, Jacob Sarkodee exposed emerging forms of abuse that are facilitated by modern technology. In the next edition, Denis Alexander will anticipate future developments in biotechnology which carry significant prospects for harm as well as good. These matters are not pleasant to peer into, but vigilance demands that we not relax on this front.

Why apologetics?

When accusations levelled against Christianity stick, apologies are in order, but when accusations are false or misconceived, an answer that corrects the mistake is called for. The tragedy of someone rejecting Christianity on the basis of a misapprehension is what defence apologetics seeks to avoid.

There is much that Christianity has to defend. Some would say that Christians are outrageously audacious in the claims they make: personal knowledge of the unseen God of the Universe; Jesus Christ as the unique Son of the Sovereign God; that Jesus died two thousand years ago but now lives; that people should avoid apparently natural patterns of behaviour; and that God will one day bring everyone to account.

These are vast claims in a world whose dominant paradigms appear material; where a clamour of voices assert different opinions; where the dead never reappear; where people are bidden to seek self-fulfilment; and the evil seem to prevail. Surely Christian views are contrary to reason.

Remarkably, biblical figures also wrestle with such objections. Job is confounded as he questions what he thought he knew about God; John the Baptist, questions Jesus’s identity;[ii] Thomas doubts that anyone could rise from the dead.[iii] Many in the Bible struggle with the judgements of God.

In CQ#20, William Lane Craig helpfully identified three benefits of apologetics. Most broadly, it safeguards the legitimacy of a Christian voice:

Apologetics is useful and may well be necessary in order for the Gospel to be effectively heard in Western society today. … A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the Gospel which a person who is secularised will not… [T]he value of apologetics extends far beyond one’s immediate evangelistic contact. It is the broader task of Christian apologetics to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option. (p21)

More directly, apologetics strengthens the church. When Christians are confident that there are good answers to objections to belief, they are shielded against their own faith being undermined, and emboldened to share their faith as their fear of being unable to meet objections is lessened. And thirdly, apologetics has obvious value for evangelism itself. Just as the apostles argued for the truth of the gospel and sought to remove barriers to belief,[iv] so does today’s church, inheriting this great commission, continue that task today. While it is the work of God through Christ and his Spirit that saves people, and not mere human endeavour, God chooses to use Christians, with their gifts and weaknesses, in carrying out his work.[v]

It is the God-given duty of us all to care for others as we would care for ourselves. A natural expression of this is to share with others the good gifts of God: first and foremost, his gift of new life through Jesus, but beyond that is a consequent duty to reassure those who might doubt the love and gift of God.

The scope of apologetics

While defending Christianity is a core part of our activity, CASE has a broader scope than this. The widening of apologetics to encompass more than defence has come to be widely accepted in recent decades. John G. Stackhouse Jr., for example, writes that ‘anything that helps people take Christianity more seriously than they did before, anything that helps defend and commend it, properly counts as apologetics’.[vi]

The core of Christianity is given by revelation. While our natural capacities may be able to get us some way towards a knowledge of God—the existence of a powerful and brilliant creator—for the most part we are dependent on what God has revealed: his character and intentions for humanity, plan of salvation, hope of new creation.

But Christianity is not mere private personal commitment to core doctrines and teachings. These, and their outworkings, can and do bump up against the beliefs and behaviours of the societies we inhabit. These interactions—challenges, congruencies, and confirmations—can occur in a range of areas: historical, philosophical, scientific, social, moral, political. No individual can be expert in them all, but Christ’s church includes people with expertise and experience across these realms, who are willing and able to share their insight with others to help clear away doubts and objections that can prevent people putting—or persisting in—their trust in God.

CASE aims to provide thoughtful analyses of these points of intersection, drawing on the expertise of faithful Christians, and in so doing, serve Christians and non-Christians alike by removing potential obstacles to faith and pointing out grounds for belief; and serve the wider community by explaining Christian thinking in areas of common interest.

The classic arena of Christian apologetics is defence. Sometimes ideas or discoveries are—or seem to be—inconsistent with Christianity, and so challenge its claim to be true: the problem of evil that doubts that a wise, powerful and good God could allow the suffering and evil we see in our world; biblical criticism of the past 250 years that scrutinises historical claims of Christianity and reliability of the Bible texts; the last century’s growing scientific consensus over evolutionary biology and its apparent inconsistency with the Genesis creation account; the sexual morality of the Bible which is now often considered to be immoral and harmful.

The task of apologetics in the face of such challenges is to give an account for the Christian position, explaining why the challenge does not undermine it. This may be by pointing out flaws in the challenger’s position (The Da Vinci Code is a novel, not history). It may involve years of research (e.g. assessing the historicity of the Bible texts in the context of external evidence).[vii] It may be that Christians need to re-evaluate whether the Bible really says what they thought it said (many Christians now believe that Genesis contains a literary rather than literal creation account and so allow the possibility of theistic evolution). Or it may be to show that a conflict is illusory, due to misapprehensions about what Christianity actually teaches (second century apologist, Athenagoras, defended Christians against the charge of cannibalism that had arisen through a misunderstanding of the nature of the Lord’s Supper).[viii]

Some challenges can be put to bed easily, once for all; others, such as the problem of evil, are perennial problems, and there is ongoing disagreement about how to resolve them.[ix] The process of responding to new challenges may be long and drawn out, as Christians examine both their own beliefs and the opposing position. Scientific theories can come and go, as can ideologies, and a glance through history shows the importance of not jumping to conclusions one way or the other without careful thought. In such situations, simply pointing out that there are possible explanations may suffice.

Christians are not always on the receiving end of challenges that arise from conflicts between Christian thought and society—sometimes they deliver them. Christian understandings of human nature and community provide a basis for challenging and warning society when it heads in directions contrary to those God has laid down. The Christian voice against euthanasia and for better palliative care is one such example, with arguments from both the sacredness of human life made in God’s image, as well as experiences of legalising euthanasia in other countries.[x] These same principles have been—and continue to be—used to oppose the slave trade, overweening nationalism, and some reproductive technologies.

Not all interactions between Christian and secular thought are adversarial, though, and it is also the task of apologetics, broadly construed, to commend Christianity to people on the basis of areas of congruence and confirmation.

Instead of providing a challenge to Christianity, some interactions yield findings that are congruent with it. We might think here of the Big Bang Theory (which posits that the universe has a beginning, overturning the previous theory that the universe was eternal, which was more difficult to maintain with the idea of creation); and the health benefits of monogamy.[xi]

Beyond congruence, some interactions tend to confirm the truth of Christianity. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, contributed enormously to the widespread acknowledgement of the antiquity and reliability of the biblical texts. In 1993, the first extra-biblical evidence referring to the ‘House of David’ confirmed the historicity of the Old Testament’s King David.[xii] Less direct, but possibly even more powerful, are the impacts for good that Christianity has had on society. It has been persuasively argued, for instance, that human rights,[xiii] modern science,[xiv] feminism[xv] and medical care[xvi] all find their roots in Christian thought. That these outworkings of Christian principles have been vastly beneficial for human flourishing lends significant weight to the source of those principles. In the words of Jesus, ‘Wisdom is proved right by her children’ (Luke 7:35).

The future

Christian apologetics is needed at this time perhaps more than at any time in human history.

The twentieth century struggled with the ethical dilemmas created by nuclear physics. These dilemmas and the consequent outcome of the arms races hang over humanity and remain at standoff.

The cloud of industrialisation hangs over the world, with the full force of the threat of climate change yet to be realised.

Recent developments in medical technology have delivered great power to heal. But as anticipated by science fictionists, these developments also hold great threats to people and society, as our next edition of CQ will explore.

The history of the development of technology is littered with stories of unintended negative consequences for the most vulnerable and for the environment.[xvii] Many, if not all, of these negative impacts have been the outworking of human selfishness expressed through these new technological powers. Will greed outweigh generosity? Will evil outweigh good?

A key message of the Bible is that people are not to be trusted. Case Quarterly will continue to bring the wisdom of the Bible to bear on the challenges facing society in the midst of the significant changes of the coming years.

 Initium Sapientiae Timor Domini



[i] Mark 7:14-23, Matthew 7:5, 21-23; 18:5, 6

[ii] Luke 7:18-23

[iii] 1 Corinthians 15:12

[iv] Acts 14:15-17; 17; 19:8, 28:23-24

[v] Matthew 28:18-20

[vi] John G. Stackhouse Jr., Humble Apologetics (OUP, 2002) p115.

[vii] E.g. Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History? (Hodder and Stoughton, 1986).

[viii] Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians www.tertullian.org/fathers2/ANF-02/anf02-46.htm#P2158_595276 (Accessed October 2018).

[ix] Two influential responses are C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain (Centenary Press, 1940) and Alvin Plantinga’s free will defence in Freedom and Evil (Harper & Row, 1974).

[x] E.g. M. Best, ‘The ethical dilemmas of euthanasia’. Case Quarterly, Vol. 25, 2010 and ‘Assisted dying laws’. Case Quarterly, Vol.49, 2017.

[xi] K. Weerakoon, ‘Do we have a “right” to sexual fulfilment?’ Case Quarterly, Vol. 43, 2015.

[xii] K. Sowada, ‘Archaeology and the Bible.’ Case Quarterly, Vol. 42, 2015.

[xiii] C. Devine, C. R. Hansen & R. Wilde et. al., Human Rights: The Essential Reference. (Oryx Press: 1999) pp10ff.

[xiv] D. Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix. Science and Faith in the 21st Century (Zondervan, 2001) pp82ff.

[xv] M. Legates, In their time (Taylor and Francis, 2012) ch 2.

[xvi] G. B. Risse, Mending bodies, saving souls (OUP, 1999) ch 2.

[xvii] For an exploration of such ideas throughout the 20th Century, see P Watson, A Terrible Beauty (Phoenix, 2001).

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